The period between the 1500s and the 1900s was signified by the intense relations between China and the Western.1 During this period, economic interests motivated both sides before and after the Opium Wars. As China warmed up to the West during the 1900s, economics remained the key point of interest between the two regions. This paper explores the impact of Western relations with China since the 1500s. Further, this paper investigates the cross-cultural flow to both regions, the changing opinions of both countries about the other, and the experiences of various groups, including missionaries and traders, based evidences from various sources.
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Influence of the Jesuits during the 16 and 17 century
The Jesuits were the first foreigners to land in China during the sixteenth century.2 Their significant influence during the Qing Dynasty allowed them to preach and convert Chinese to Christianity. This often aggravated imperial rulers that resulted in banning Christian activity in China. According to Bruce (37), the Jesuits had a more profound impact on the West and China during the sixteenth and seventeenth century.3 Towards the end of the sixteenth century, the Jesuits mediated western science throughout China. More significant than the Jesuit impact on China was how they affected European’s intellectual life during the Enlightenment. Chinese culture influenced philosophy as well as other fields, such as trade, arts, crafts, gardens, and architecture, with many viewing China as a representation of an ideal society.
Opium wars during the 1800s
As the West, especially the British, engaged more in foreign trade with the Chinese, they went past decorative items, such as gold, silver, jewellery, silk, porcelain, and engaged in the opium trade.4 The British increasingly imported the addictive narcotic, opium, into China, elevating its use among the privileged classes as well as across Chinese working class. The flourishing opium trade left many Chinese in a drug-induced stupor, resulting in bans and restrictions from the Qing government. However, the British largely ignored these bans, which led to the First Opium War from 1839 to 1842. The British humiliated the Chinese in a defeat that gave the British precedence over the other nations.5 Attempts to legalise opium led to the Second Opium War in 1856, where the British defeated the Chinese and opened its doors to trade after forcefully signing a one-sided treaty.
Spheres of influence
With China’s doors open, aggressive imperialist colonies negotiated with warring factions to establish themselves in the region. The colonies were permitted to build their own spheres of influence.6 These foreigners exerted stronger influence in such areas as commerce, completely destabilizing government operations. The spheres of influence grew into patched foreign enclaves that resembled virtual colonies. History details that most people anticipated the disintegration of China into several discrete colonies as the Qing became weak and outdated.7 At this moment, the Qing was unable to resist the disintegration due to the decentralisation of power. Later, disputes over Korea in 1894 resulted in the war between China and Japan. The Qing that was resisting modernisation was no match for Japan that had embraced western militarisation and production methods. At the close of the nineteenth century, divisions and exploitations by foreign interests riddled China, leaving them unable to resist the challenges.8 China lacked the political will or proper militarisation that could enable the country to fight back and that affected the region negatively.
Shifting attitudes of China towards the West
As the 19th century progressed, China and the West changed their attitudes towards each other.9 China became a puppet of the economic interests and power politics of the West, as diplomats and traders flooded the country. Military force during the Opium Wars exposed China to exploitation by the West, who secured specific areas to engage in free trade. Western powers propagated Christianity and created treaty port residences.10 Foreign jurisdiction controlled the treaty ports, further enslaving Western civilisation on the Chinese. This included architecture, fashion and lifestyles, leaving the rest spheres relatively untouched.
The Hundred Days Reforms
Embracing the West gave China’s highest officers an opportunity to adopt new learning methods and new civilization developments.11 Though short-lived and unsuccessful, the Hundred Days reforms failed to propel China to modernity. These reforms came after the Self-Strengthening Movement had failed and Emperor Guangxu had agreed to initiate an overhaul of the constitution, changing the bureaucracy and the provincial government.12 The Qing government later suppressed the reforms, describing this as a return to barbarism. This suggested unwillingness on the part of the Qing government to agree to reforms, to adapt, and to accept progress. The Guangxu emperor failed in the reforms, though they continued later as revolutionary ideas and activities.
The declining influence of the west
The influence of the west on China decreased significantly, after the rise of the People’s Republic of China.13 The Chinese Cultural Revolution, between 1960s and 1970s slowly facilitated Chinese relations with the western world after the opening-up policy. This exchange existed for the secondary purpose of importing technology and expertise from Western countries, while Western countries conquered Chinese markets. This explains the cultural exchanges in science and technology between the two regions.
Various interests mediated the sporadic knowledge between the Chinese and the Westerners. The deepening contacts created a mutual cultural influence that later resulted in bitter relations between the two regions. History details several periods when the influence of Chinese culture was stronger in Europe and periods of a complete reversal. Although the main Chinese influence on the West, especially in their inventions, had occurred before the 1500s, the Western influence on China later grew steadily. During the late 19th century, China warmed up to the West, with economic interests remaining the key point of interest between the two sides.
Black, Jeremy. Great Powers and the Quest for Hegemony: The World Order Since 1500. London, UK: Routledge, 2007.
Chang, Chihyun. Government, Imperialism and Nationalism in China: The Maritime Customs Service and Its Chinese Staff. London, UK: Routledge, 2013.
Christiansen, Thomas, Emil Kirchner, and Philomena Murray. The Palgrave Handbook of EU-Asia Relations. UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Duiker, William, and Jackson Spielvogel. World History, Volume 2. Boston, Massachusetts: Cengage Learning, 2008.
Elleman, Bruce. Modern Chinese Warfare, 1795-1989. London, UK: Routledge. 2005.
Karl, Rebecca, and Peter Zarrow, Rethinking the 1898 Reform Period: Political and Cultural Change in Late Qing China. Asia: Harvard University Asia Center, 2002.
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Mak, Ricardo. ‘The West and China since 1500 (review).’ Chinese Review International, 11.2(2004): 355-358.
Osborne, Milton. Southeast Asia: An Introductory History. London, UK: Read How You Want, 2010.
Storch, Tanya. Religions and Missionaries Around the Pacific, 1500-1900. UK: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006.
Stursberg, Peter. No Foreign Bones in China: Memoirs of Imperialism and Its Ending. Edmonton, Canada: University of Alberta, 2002.
Tanner, Harold Miles. China: From the Great Qing Empire through the People’s Republic of China 1644-2009. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 2010.
Wang, Xiuyu. China’s Last Imperial Frontier: Late Qing Expansion in Sichuan’s Tibetan Borderlands. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2011.
- Milton Osborne, Southeast Asia: An Introductory History. (London, UK: Read How You Want, 2010), 112.
- Bruce Elleman, Modern Chinese Warfare, 1795-1989. (London, UK: Routledge, 2005) 37.
- Tanya Storch, Religions and Missionaries Around the Pacific, 1500-1900. (UK: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006), 31.
- Peter Stursberg, No Foreign Bones in China: Memoirs of Imperialism and Its Ending. (Edmonton, Canada: University of Alberta, 2002), 59.
- Chihyun Chang, Government, Imperialism and Nationalism in China: The Maritime Customs Service and Its Chinese Staff. (London, UK: Routledge, 2013), 46.
- Duiker, William, & Spielvogel, Jackson. World History, Volume 2. (Boston, Massachusetts: Cengage Learning, 2008), 74.
- Harold Tanner, China: From the Great Qing Empire through the People’s Republic of China 1644-2009. (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 2010), 52.
- Xiuyu Wang, China’s Last Imperial Frontier: Late Qing Expansion in Sichuan’s Tibetan Borderlands. (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books. 201), 28.
- Rebecca Karl, and Peter Zarrow, Rethinking the 1898 Reform Period: Political and Cultural Change in Late Qing China. (Asia: Harvard University Asia Center, 2002) 135.
- Thomas Christiansen, Emil Kirchner, and Philomena Murray, The Palgrave Handbook of EU-Asia Relations. (UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 17.
- Ricardo King Sang Mak. ‘The West and China since 1500 (review).’ Chinese Review International, 11.2(2004): 355-358. Print.
- Jeremy Black, Great Powers and the Quest for Hegemony: The World Order Since 1500. (London, UK: Routledge, 2007), 42.