Second Opium War: Modern East Asia #3


The Second Opium War (1856-1860) was yet another conflict between China and the West. This time, China faced the forces of Britain, France, Russia and the United States to due a dispute with the treaties concluded at the end of the first war. The Qing dynasty was much more severely damaged in this war than they were in the first, as this time the war had both economic and territorial repercussions.

Treaty Disputes

Ye Mingchen, the viceroy of Liangguang who captured the Arrow, a Hong Kong-registered Chinese ship accused of piracy.

The Second Opium War is obviously a sequel to the First Opium War, which occurred from 1839 to 1842. This one happened about two decades later, from 1857 to 1860. If you don’t remember what happened during the first war, click on this link and refresh your memory.

So France and the U.S.’ treaties with China from the First Opium War allowed them to renegotiate the terms of their treaties in 12 years of time. While this was not directly guaranteed to the British, they enjoyed the most favored nation status, which entitled them to all privileges held by the other trading partners of China. So in 1856, the British arrived at China’s doorstep, saying that they too had the right to renegotiate the treaties.

The British were quite aggressive in their demands. First, they wanted China to open all of their ports to British trade, because at the time only five were available. The British also wanted to legalize opium trade and exempt British merchants from Chinese tariffs. The British also wished to install an embassy in China’s capital, Beijing, which was a closed city at the time. The Xianfeng Emperor refused to ratify these terms.

So the British were quite unhappy with the Chinese and were looking for an excuse to go to war when exactly that came up. Ye Mingchen, the Viceroy of Liangguang, ordered the capture of a ship called the Arrow on October 8, 1856. The Arrow was a ship owned and run by Chinese sailors, but it was registered at British Hong Kong. The crewmen of this ship were arrested on grounds of piracy. A furious Britain demanded that the captured sailors be released immediately. They also accused the Chinese officials of removing the British flag from the ship, which was considered a great insult, a claim never confirmed.

First Conflicts

This was enough to drive the British to war, and on October 23 the British troops stationed in Hong Kong sailed to Canton and began to attack nearby forts. By November the British began to seriously bombard the city. During the same month, Chinese and American forces also exchanged fire, and the United States ended up capturing several forts at the Pearl River. The two countries negotiated and the United States agreed to stay neutral in the following war.

Meanwhile, the British faced fierce resistance from Ye Mingchen’s forces. By January 5th of 1857, the British had retreated back to Hong Kong.

Soon, the British reached out to the United States, France, and Russia for support. While the U.S. wanted to stay neutral and Russia wasn’t very interested, France did want revenge on China for the execution of Auguste Chapdelaine, one of their missionaries to China. However, serious military action by the Anglo-French alliance did not commence until winter of 1857, because the British were dealing with a major rebellion in India.

The War Expands

On December 14, 1857, British forces sailed from Hong Kong and arrived at Canton, joined by the French. They issued an ultimatum to the Chinese, demanding that the captured crew of the Arrow be released. They also accused Ye Mingchen of ignoring the British and French right to enter Canton ensured in the treaties that ended the First Opium War. Ye reluctantly released the captured crew of the Arrow but still refused to let the Europeans enter the city. The British and the French then decided to place the city under siege.

The capture of Ye Mingchen.

The assault on the city officially began on December 28, and in just a day they began to break through the city walls. By January first the resistance had broken completely, and by the fifth Canton was occupied by British and French forces. The Xianfeng Emperor of China, who was already busy fighting against the Taipings, only received the news of this capture on the 27th that month.

Ye Mingchen was captured and humiliated by the British military. He was taken off to India where he starved himself to death a year later.

After capturing Canton in January 1858, the Anglo-French forces sailed up north in order to capture Beijing, the Chinese capital. In May, the alliance attacked the Taku Forts in the eastern coast of Tianjin, which protected the mouth of the Hai River. The Hai River, of course, provided a path straight towards Beijing.

Resistance and Brief Armistice

Sengge Rinchen, a Mongol Chinese general who took the last stand against the Anglo-French invaders.

The Chinese resistance was feeble, again due to the Taiping Rebellion, and the Anglo-French Alliance captured the forts on May 20th. As the alliance pressed on towards Beijing, the Russians threatened China of invasion in the north, which would create a two-front war. Russian soldiers flooded into outer Manchuria and demanded that the Chinese cede that territory. The Chinese government had no choice but to agree, and on May 28th the Treaty of Aigun gave lands north of the Amur River to the Russians. Meanwhile, the Xianfeng Emperor called for negotiations with the British and the French a day later.

The Treaty of Tianjin followed. The United Kingdom, France, Russia, and the United States were present. All four of these western powers demanded the right to install legations, or small embassies, in Beijing. They also wanted ten more ports to be open, including Nanjing. They wanted to be able to travel freely along the Yangtze River, and demanded the right for westerners to travel anywhere in China. The right for missionary activities were guaranteed, as well as the religious freedom of Christians. Finally, the Chinese were to pay the British and French two million taels of silver each, and give three million additional taels to Britain.

The Xianfeng Emperor agreed to ratify the treaty in June, but this treaty was met with fierce resistance from the rest of the Chinese government. The emperor himself reversed the decision and instead further armed the Taku Forts, which had just been returned by the British and French armies. Sengge Rinchen, a Chinese general of Mongolian descent, stayed prepared and guarded at the forts.

War Continues

Guns of the Taku Forts.

In late June of 1859, the British and the French sailed towards Tianjin with their newly appointed ambassadors for the new legations in Beijing. However, the Chinese troops at the Taku Forts would not let them sail up the Hai River. Sengge Rinchen told the British and the French to land somewhere else, and refused to escort the ambassadors to Beijing.

Enraged, the British and the French tried to break through the Taku Forts by force, but they were disastrously shelled by Chinese resistance. The Chinese bombardment was so effective that the British and the French had to flee with American help. The American general commented that “blood is thicker than water” when asked why he had violated American neutrality in the war.

Taken aback by this disastrous defeat, the British and the French began to rebuild massive forces with a vengeance. With the Indian rebellion completely put down, the British prepared for one last attack.

Last Days of the War

In July of 1860, the Anglo-French Alliance first captured cities on the Shandong and Liaodong Peninsulas in order to seal the Bohai Sea. After this, they captured Beitang north of the Taku Forts, and took the Taku Forts themselves after a fierce siege in mid-August.

The looting of the Summer Palace by British and French forces.

On August 23rd, the Anglo-French forces captured Tianjin and moved towards Beijing. The Xianfeng Emperor frantically called for negotiations. The process was interrupted when Harry Parkes, the British envoy, was accused of insulting the Chinese representatives. On September 18, Parkes along with his team were arrested. His men were severely tortured and slowly killed. Their bodies were unrecognizable.

Furious, the British broke through all remaining Chinese defenses and entered Beijing on October 6. The Xianfeng Emperor fled as the Anglo-French Alliance took over the Forbidden City, the Chinese Imperial Palace, on October 18th. Prince Gong, the Xianfeng Emperor’s half-brother, was left with the responsibility of peace talks.

The British and French looted the Summer Palaces and subsequently burned them as an insult to the Chinese. Later in October, the Convention of Peking between China and the four western powers was carried out in Beijing.

Treaty of Tianjin

First of all, the Chinese were forced to ratify and recognize the Treaty of Tianjin, opening up many more ports for foreign trade including Tianjin itself. Kowloon, an area in modern Hong Kong, was annexed by the British, expanding their colony in Hong Kong. The French demanded compensation for religious persecution. Finally, the Russians took yet more land from China, extending their border all the way to the Ussuri River.

Signing of the Treaty of Tianjin.

In the end, the Second Opium War ended in a much more disastrous of a result than the first one. China’s army was four times larger than the enemy’s, yet they still lost. They also had to suffer the humiliation of having their capital captured and the Summer Palaces being burned. They also lost Outer Manchuria, part of the homeland of the ruling Manchus. Such severe defeats marked the end of Chinese prestige and their own sense of superiority.

Consequences of the War

This defeat told the Chinese government that they could not keep up in the modern world without catching up to Western technology. This led them to initiate the Self-Strengthening Movement from the 1860s to the 1890s. We will talk about this in more detail later, but it ultimately was not very successful. In general, the late 19th century was an era of attempted renewal throughout East Asia. But none of these countries saw great success – with one exception: Japan. To learn about the successful modernization process of 19th-century Japan, click please go to this page. Thank you for reading.