Happy Chinese New Year for 2017!!

Wah liao!! Kung hey fatt choi!

Yes! Wah liao indeed! And much wealth, prosperity and good luck to all! It is the crowing year of the ROOSTER!! Not my year (damn, that sucks…!), but, it’s Chinese New Year nonetheless!

Now, others will call it ‘Lunar New Year’ and that’s their prerogative, but to me, being two different kinds of Chinese – it will always be CHINESE NEW YEAR!!

Two different kinds? Yeah – two. I’m Chinese-Chinese on my mother’s side, and Straits-Chinese on my father’s side. If you don’t know what ‘Straits Chinese’ is, then I’ll pop in a link to my article about the Straits Chinese here, so that you can read all about them, and their fascinating history!

Either way – It’s Chinese New Year, and that means dusting off all kinds of old, ancient, decrepit traditions and rolling them out of the shed for their once-a-year moment in the sun.

“What traditions!?”, I hear you wail, in your frustrated groan of ‘getonwithitedness’?

Chinese New Year actually has loads of traditions and customs, and it’s all those traditions, customs, superstitions and legends that we’ll be covering in this posting! So, let’s hop to it!…

Wearing Red!

This is the biggest and most well-known of all traditions during Chinese New Year. If you’re going to any major CNY celebration – make sure you wear red! A red tie, red shoes, red shirt, red dress, red jacket…something red!

Red is considered the luckiest colour in Chinese culture. That’s why all the doors, rooves, bricks and everything else in the famous ‘Forbidden City’ in Peking – is bright crimson red! To bring in all that good luck, baby! This is also why people hang red couplets outside their doors, and light red firecrackers outside their houses.

Red is the Chinese colour of good luck. This stems from an ancient fable where a brave warrior entered a village on New Year’s Eve. He noticed that everybody barred their doors and shuttered their windows, not daring to leave their houses after dark.

Perplexed, he questioned a village elder, asking for an explanation. The old man said that each year on New Year’s Eve, a vicious monster emerged from the forests nearby to devour anybody caught outside after dark.

While they were talking, a little girl in a red dress ran out into the streets. Before anybody had noticed, the monster had arrived. The girl screamed and the monster recoiled in horror, fleeing back into the jungles. Observing this, the warrior deduced that the monster was frightened of the colour red, and sudden, loud noises.

To protect themselves and bring good luck, he advised the villagers to festoon their houses in red fabric, and light firecrackers outside their doors at sundown. The bright colours and loud explosions would keep the beast at bay. When they tried this the next evening, New Year’s Day, the beast failed to materialise.

Ever since, it has been a tradition to wear red, and light firecrackers to scare away evil spirits and demons, and to herald forth good luck for the year ahead.

Offerings to Zao Jun

In households which follow Chinese customs and traditions, one of the most important annual rituals are the offerings of ‘nian gao‘, or new years’ cake, to the Kitchen God – Zao Jun.

As God of the Kitchen, the traditional heart of the home, Zao Jun’s shrine within this room would’ve been privy to all the family’s deepest, darkest secrets and misdeeds. At the end of the year, it was his duty to rise to heaven, and to give a report of the family’s misdeeds to the Jade Emperor. The emperor then granted blessings or retribution accordingly.

An old-fashioned Chinese kitchen. The shrine to Zao Jun is given pride-of-place above the wood-fired hearth stove.

In order to ensure good fortune for the year ahead, the household (usually in the form of the lady of the house) would give Zao Jun offerings (or bribes!) of sweet desserts (including, but not limited to new years’ cake), so that his jaw would be glued shut and so he would only tell the emperor about the good things which the family had done that year.

Legend says that Zao Jun was a man who broke up with his wife, experienced hard times, and returned to her for charity when his luck had run out. While she went to get him a drink, Zao Jun, overcome with shame, crawled into the clay, wood-fired stove in his wife’s kitchen, committing suicide. The Jade Emperor of Heaven took pity on him, and appointed him as the Kitchen God thereafter.

Chinese New Year Food

There are loads of foods which are traditionally eaten during Chinese New Year, either because they’re considered Chinese delicacies, or because they’re seasonal foods traditionally eaten during the New Year period. Some of the more common ones are…

Nian Gao

Nian Gao (literally ‘Year Cake’ or New Year’s Cake) is a big tradition in Chinese households. Given China’s vast size, it’s probably no surprise that nian gao varies significantly from coast to coast, north and south across the country, and that the ways in which nian gao is consumed is also extremely varied.

The type of nian gao that most people outside of China will be familiar with is a fat, round, dense, sticky little thing, which traditionally hailed from Canton Province (today Guandong Province), in southern China.

Canton-style Nian Gao.

If you’ve ever eaten nian gao, then you’ll know that what I say next will be more true than you want to admit – it’s extremely dense, sweet, filling, and in some instances, it can be bloody hard to eat! It’s so gooey and chewy it’s like trying to eat liquid tar! Good luck with that…

Despite this, however, nian gao is amazing. My favourite way of having it is with dessicated coconut sprinkled on top. It tastes just divine. A pity we can only have it (or at least, only buy it) once a year.

Nian Gao should not be confused with moon cakes. The size is about the same, but the texture and taste are completely different!

Yee Sang

Also called Lo Hei, among several other naming variations, Yee Sang is popular in southern China, and many Chinese-expat communities, such as those in Malaysia and Singapore. Yee Sang is a Chinese-style salad, served cold with sweet sauces, a wide variety of vegetables, nuts, and most uniquely of all – raw (or if not raw, then at least, cold) fish.

The tradition with yee sang is to mix it up by throwing it up in the air as high as possible, while using chopsticks. Trust me, this is not easy…it’s a lot of fun!…but it’s not easy! And if you do it wrong, it’s a hell of a mess!!

Longevity Noodles

Egg noodles, usually served with lobster or crayfish, is another extremely popular Chinese New Year dish. It’s also popular during anniversaries and birthdays. The length of the noodles symbolises longevity, continuity and a long life. As such, you should eat them and slurp them for good luck – but never snap, bite through, or break them, as that would symbolise one cutting short one’s life or run of good luck! Woops…

The Giving and Receiving of ‘Hong Bao’

Aaaah yes! Every little Chinese child in every gigantic Chinese family will have grown up with THIS amazing tradition – the yearly gifts of hong bao!

‘Hong Bao’ literally means ‘red bag’ or ‘red packet’ in Chinese (in Cantonese, it’s the slightly different ‘Ang Pow’, but it means exactly the same thing). They’re the little red envelopes stuffed with money, which parents and older, married relatives, give to children, and any unmarried relatives. When my brother announced that he was getting married at a family reunion – one of my aunts jokingly teased that he should reconsider his decision – it would mean no more red envelopes of cash from her!…or anybody else!…in the family once he tied the knot!

(Note to self: Never marry).

Various hong bao. These days, you can usually buy them from banks, or Chinese stores, which will typically stock them close to Chinese New Year time, although they are used during other major Chinese events (weddings, for example).

Like a lot of other Chinese traditions, the giving and receiving of hong bao goes back untold centuries. The earliest records of a hong bao-like tradition dates to the days when China still had large numbers of round coins with square holes in them, as part of their currency.

To wish their offspring good luck for the year ahead, parents and grandparents would tie coins together on red cord or string, and give them to children to symbolise good fortune in the months that were to come. This eventually morphed into the more convenient red paper envelopes or packets which are used today.

Traditionally, the amount of money inside the envelope is of significance. Ideally, it should always be an even number (so $10 instead of $5, for example). This is to ensure that good things always come in pairs (numbers divisible by two). In my long history of receiving hong bao, I’ve had amouts ranging from $5 all the way up to $100!

The traditional greeting expected at the receipt of a red packet is ‘Gung Hey Fatt Choy!’ (Cantonese), or ‘Gong xi fa cai’ (Chinese-Mandarin). In either dialect, the result is more or less the same: “Wishing you happiness and prosperity for the year ahead!”.

Family Reunions

Another big, big tradition for Chinese New Year is the annual family reunion. When you have large families spread out all over the world, this can be a bit hard to pull off, but in China, at least – the annual family reunion is still a BIG event. Millions of people book flights, train-tickets and bus-tickets to travel hundreds of miles across China to be with their relatives on Chinese New Year’s Eve.

In some instances, it’s not just the living who join the reunion, either! In some parts of Asia, even the dead are invited! This usually takes the shape of visiting shrines or family temples, or graveyards to leave offerings to ancestors, to clean up gravesites, and to light incense, burn paper money and in some cases, light firecrackers to wake the spirits of the dead and invite them back to the family home.

Nothing like having the WHOLE family around during New Year’s Eve, huh?

Incidentally – this tradition is also why it’s considered VERY bad form in Chinese culture to stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice – You do the same with sticks of burning incense when offering prayers to the dead. So unless you want to commit a major social faux-pas – keep your chopsticks down!

The Lion Dance!

The lion dance – performed using a giant lion puppet, is yet another popular tradition. Although not an animal on the Chinese Zodiac, the lion dance has been a part of Chinese culture for hundreds of years.

Traditionally, the dancers come from local martial-arts schools, Chinese youth associations, or clan associations, and are typically young men (the exertion involved in the dancing is significantly higher than you might expect!).

The aim of lion dancing is to try and grab at offerings of vegetables, red envelopes (Hong Bao or Ang Pow), and to bring good luck to the local community. They’re usually accompanied by loud, raucous music, designed to drive away demons and evil spirits, and sometimes, even firecrackers.

The lion dance that most people are familiar with comes from the Canton or Guandong region of China, in the far south, near Hong Kong. Many people confuse the lion dance with the dragon dance – which are absolutely nothing alike. The lion dance involves a long, full-body lion with a working head, which the dancers move around inside of. The dragon is held up in the air on poles, with the operators working the poles from below.

The Twelve Zodiac Animals!

This is possibly the most famous part of Chinese New Year – The Chinese Zodiac! There are twelve animals in the Zodiac, they are, in order (yes, there is an order):

Rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.

Each animal has specific attributes and qualities, and being born in one year over another means that you’re supposed to have different strengths and weaknesses.

Myself? I’m a rabbit, or ‘tuzi‘, in Chinese. And what could be more awesome than being a a fuzzy, cute little sex maniac who delivers chocolate? According to the books, among other things, Rabbits are highly creative. That sounds like me! 😛

So where do these twelve animals come from? Well, for that answer, we need to go back to the Guy in the Sky – the Jade Emperor. Confused with time, because they had no way to distinguish passing years, the commoners prayed to the emperor for guidance. In his wisdom, the emperor devised a twelve-year cycle. In trying to figure out how to structure this, he came up with the idea that each year would be represented by an animal. To decide which twelve that would be, he arranged a race. The first twelve animals to finish the race, and most importantly – cross the river at the end and make it to the other bank – would be honoured for eternity by having a place in the Chinese Zodiac.

Now whether or not you really believe this – it makes for a heck of a fairytale.

Happy New Year!

This is just a brief rundown of the most common Chinese New Year traditions, customs and rituals. Although they can vary from region to region around China, as well as from place to place among expat Chinese communities around the world, most families and communities who follow Chinese traditions will adhere to at least some of these, which are the most common and well-known customs.

Happy Chinese New Year!!


Chop-Chop! The History of Asian Name-Seals

Ever been to Japan? Hong Kong? China? Singapore? Ever gone to the local Chinatowns or flea-markets or department-stores? Or those little kiosks that you find inside sprawling shopping-malls?

If you have, then you’ve probably seen those tables selling dozens and dozens of rectangular blocks of soapstone (and other stones), with intricately-carved handles and heads, which are used for the production of Asian name-seals. Also called name-stamps, or ‘chops’.

What are these things, and what are they used for? Why on earth would you buy one, own one, or use one?

It stamps, it seals, it chops!

For ease of understanding, the devices in this posting shall be referred to as name-seals, or chops. Invented in Ancient China, name-seals are common throughout Asia. You can find them in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. But only in the first four of these countries are they really used for their actual purpose.

Chops have existed in China since ancient times. They were first used during the Shang Dynasty, which ruled China starting in 1600B.C. By the Han Dynasty (206B.C. – 220A.D.), they were becoming commonplace and started spreading around Asia, most notably to Korea and Japan. Seals were originally used only by those high in society. Emperors. Lords. Samurai warriors. As the number of warlords and samurai grew during the 15th century, when Japan was experiencing civil war, the number of seals being cut and carved grew, slowly spreading down the social scale.

Seals were eventually used by almost all classes of people. Emperors had enormous, ceremonial seals for marking important government documents, like the Great Seals in Western society. Shopkeepers and merchants might have seals which would be stamped on receipts, bills and notices. Ordinary working people would have seals to sign letters, parcels or to mark important legal documents.

What are Chops Made Of?

Chops or seals are made of many different materials. The most common are soapstone, wood, ivory, gold, jade, and in more recent times, titanium and plastic.

Most of the ones that you buy at those little Chinese shops and stalls are made of soapstone. As far as rocks go, soapstone is soft, and easily carved. This makes it ideal for being used for seals, which must be intricately engraved by hand to create the Chinese, Korean and Japanese characters in reverse on the base of each seal. Soapstone is largely made up of the mineral talc, from which talcum-powder is produced. So you can see why it’s so soft and easily carved!

A traditional Chinese seal with its dish of red, inky paste.

Chop-carving or seal-carving is considered an art in Asia. All throughout China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong, as well as in large Asian expat-communities in the western world, there are master carvers who produce seals with intricate designs carved into their tops. This is a process considered just as fiddly and eye-bending as the carving of the Asian characters into the base of the seal, which must be done, not only in a tiny space the size of a postage-stamp, not only in reverse, but also either engraved or carved out. Engraving the characters into the base of the seal means that when it’s stamped onto the paper, the characters appear white. When doing the reverse, the characters will be inked, but the background will be white. Carving out the gullies deep enough either side of the character-strokes to produce this second effect takes great care and precision. It’s all done by hand with sharp carving-knives.

The Names of the Seal

They’re called name-seals, but they don’t ‘seal’ in the way that Western seals (made of brass or gold) do, when they’re pressed into hot wax. Asian seals are more like stamps, used to punch out an inked impression onto paper.

Asian seals are also commonly called ‘chops’. This comes from the Hindi and Malay words ‘Chapa‘, and ‘cap‘, meaning stamp or seal. These words eventually evolved into the word ‘Chop’ today.

In Chinese, seals are called ‘Yin’, and ‘In’ in Japanese.


In the western world, seals are used with sticks of sealing-wax. In Asia, seals are used with a thick, paste ink. In Asia, just like in Europe, red is the most common and popular colour. Mostly because it stands out clearly against white paper, and cannot be mistaken for something else.

Sealing ink is thick and pasty. If it’s too fluid, it won’t stick to the bottom of the seal. It’d just drip off like water. Or it wouldn’t coat the seal sufficiently enough to leave a clear mark on the paper.

Sealing ink, or sealing paste, is typically made of three ingredients: Castor-oil, crushed cinnabar, and either strands of silk, or the ground-up root of the Mugwort plant (called Moxa). If you have kids around, make sure they don’t eat this stuff!…Cinnabar is another name for raw mercury-ore!

Relax. It’s perfectly safe so long as you wash your hands and don’t put the stuff in your mouth…or do something silly like lick the base of your seal before washing it.

What are Seals Used For?

In the Western world, seals are largely ceremonial. They’re used on formal letters and invitations, important documents, or to adorn letters and parcels sent between friends who wish to add a bit of creative flair to their writing. But they’re not often used beyond this.

In Asia, things could not be more different.

While you might buy one as a souvenir, in China and Japan, seals are part of everyday life. It’s taken for granted that almost everyone has one, and that everyone will use it. To the Chinese and Japanese, seals are more important than your signature. Signatures can be forged. But a seal, which is hand-carved, is unique. It cannot be copied except when you either steal the seal, or cut an exact replica.

In Asia, seals are used for everything. Signing a letter? Seal. Marriage-records? Seal. Bank-documents? Seal. Legal documents? Seal. Signing in for work? Seal. Authorising something or giving permission in a form? Seal. Signing a cheque? Seal. Signing for a package or some other form of registered mail? Seal. Birth-certificates? Death certificates? Car-registration? Seal. Seal. Seal.

Seals are used for almost everything. But to prevent tampering, forgery and theft, seals must be registered. They’re not treated as toys in Asia – they’re treated as legally-binding devices. Every seal that you have cut must be registered at a local office which keeps tabs on seals. These offices will keep a record of the seal. Who it belongs to, who they are, details about their personal life, contact-information, as well as an imprint of the seal in their files. Registered seals are issued with seal-certificates. These documents are used to certify that a particular seal can be used to sign legally-binding documents such as contracts, registrations, records, banking-details and so-forth.

Seals in Asia are so important that while most people will only carry one, some people will have three or four of them, depending on their professions. A seal for general correspondence between friends and family. A seal for business transactions, a seal for banking, a seal for filling out forms. In artistic circles, there are even MORE seals. A painter is likely to have his own artistic seal, used to stamp his finished artworks (similar to how a Western painter would sign his name in the corner). Seals are also used by authors to sign books, and other pieces of writing. There are even seals cut by seal-carvers to indicate their craft and profession. Due to the skill needed to carve intricate characters in such a tiny space (about the size of a postage-stamp), seal-carving is a recognised art and profession in Asian countries.

Who here has read the famous memoir, “Mao’s Last Dancer” by Chinese author Li Cunxin? Grab a copy. Any copy. Open it. Turn to the last page. His signature…and his seal, overlapping.

The seal of Li Cunxin, overlapping his signature written in English. Taken from my own copy of ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’

Seals range from small, personal ones, to enormous seals used by governments. The Japanese Emperor has his own seal, which functions much as a Great Seal of State for the United States, or the United Kingdom, to sign and mark important documents of national importance. Called the Privy Seal of Japan, the Emperor’s seal was used to seal the Japanese Surrender in 1945.

Seals in Asian Culture

Seals in Asian culture are very important. In a number of Asian countries, they’re still used in-lieu of signatures, which are more easily-forged. Since seals are carved by hand and great care must be taken in their production, it’s much harder to produce a seal-forgery. On top of that, seals are easily carried around and are compact, strong and long-lasting. They enjoy a history going back thousands of years. In Japan, law actually requires you to own a seal with which to sign documents and other important items.

How to Use a Seal/Chop?

Due to their hard surfaces, Chinese seals are not like conventional rubber stamps. They must be inked and applied in a very specific manner to get the best impression on the paper.

Don’t just JAM the seal into the paste and wriggle it around and hope for the best. All this does is flood the seal with ink and you end up with garbage on the paper.

Instead, the seal is lightly dabbled onto the ink-pad, softly and evenly. This builds up a coating of paste on the surface of the seal-base. The seal is then pressed firmly into the paper. Rock it left to right and back and forth, to evenly distribute the ink, and then lift. Clean the seal afterwards to prevent ink-build-ups. Don’t slam it down on the paper. Again, all this does is flood the seal’s grooves with ink, destroying the impression and not leaving one that is clearly defined. It helps to have some sort of padding (paper, a book, the leather surface of a desk) to absorb the pressure of the seal as it’s pressed and rocked into the paper, to leave a sharp, clear impression.

Closing with a Personal Touch…

My personal seal, with my name in Chinese characters (Zhang Sha Han):

Carved from soapstone, with a traditional ceramic dish of cinnabar sealing-paste. Applied properly, the result is what you see on the left. Pretty, huh?

More Information?

“Begin Japanology” – Episode – ‘Name Seals’.


China – A Century of Revolutions

“…Let China sleep, for when she wakes, the World shall tremble…” – Napoleon Bonaparte

This quotation by the French emperor regarding the great bastion of the orient, is one of the most famous in history. It’s simply said, simply understood, and simply true. China has awoken in the 21st century, and the world trembles from the impact of what it has done, and what it continues to do.

In the 21st Century, China is one of the fastest-growing countries on earth. It has one of the largest populations, it has a skyrocketing middle-class, an educated youth, and a gigantic manufacturing industry, producing everything from radios to TVs, fridges, to those annoying little bobble-head things that people use to adorn their desks and the dashboards of their automobiles.

China’s growth and change has not only been large, but also fast. It’s the end-result of over a century of political and cultural turmoil, of wars, revolutions, more wars, more revolutions and still more wars and revolutions. This posting will look at how various events in Chinese history gave us the China we have today.

Taming the Dragon – The Opening of China

China. Zhong Guo. The ‘Central Kingdom‘. Land of wonder, mysteries, ancient traditions, fascinating culture, marvelous inventions…and fried rice.

For centuries, China was intensely isolationist. Its very name in Chinese, ‘Zhong Guo‘, means the ‘Central Kingdom’, or ‘Central Country’. In the eyes of the Chinese, the world revolved around China and China was the center of it. China not only had enormous land and wealth, but an enormous population, and at one time, the largest seagoing navy in the entire world.

The Chinese mastered such arts as the manufacturing of paper and gunpowder. They created the first seismographs, they invented wheelbarrows, the compass, porcelain, silk, astronomical clocks, and repeating crossbows, as quick to fire as any bolt-, or lever-action rifle, provided the magazine was full. Its claim to being the ‘Central Kingdom’ seemed well-founded.

Despite all these technologies, discoveries, advancements and skills, China remained closed to the world. The Qing Dynasty, the first dynasty which most Westerners were likely to have made contact with, and the last dynasty of Imperial China, upheld a strict policy of national isolationism. ‘Barbarian‘ Westerners are not allowed into China, and they are not allowed to trade with China. And China is not interested in anything outside of its own borders. And if it is interested, it is only to improve China’s lot, and not to improve that of any other nation.

One example of this extreme isolationism is the trade of silk.

Europeans loved silk. It’s soft, it’s smooth, it’s light, it breathes, and it comes in so many pretty colours!

But they had no idea what it was, how it was made, or where it came from! They could purchase it, they could trade for it, but they could not see how it was made. This was because the manufacture of silk was a state secret in Imperial China. Sharing this knowledge with outsiders, especially WHITE outsiders, was punishable by death! China relied on its silk-monopoly to keep the Westerners begging for more, and to keep foreign money coming into the Empire.

Westerners were desperate to trade with China, but China did not want to trade with the West. It saw no need to trade with the west. The West had wooden bowls and plates, or plates made of brass or copper or pewter or clay. The Chinese had pure white porcelain!

The Westerners had cotton and wool, weaving-looms and spinning-wheels. The Chinese had soft silks and satins, spun from the cocoons of silk-worms. They saw no need for Western fabrics!

Everything the West tried to ply the Chinese with, the Chinese turned up their noses at. But the West never gave up. And in the mid-1700s, the first cracks in old Imperial China began to appear.

The Canton System (1757-1844)

The persistence of the West to trade with China finally culminated in the creation of the ‘Canton System’, in the 1750s. Under the ‘Canton System’, Western ships (mostly British and American) could trade with the Chinese, in China.

But only at one port. And at one port only.

Canton, in southern China.

And in Canton, only out of certain buildings. And with certain merchants.

This stifling arrangement was China’s way of controlling Western activity in China, and of preventing the Westerners from bringing their filthy, barbarian ways into the serenity of the Central Kingdom. And the Westerners had better be damn grateful for it! The Chinese were letting them into their glorious Central Kingdom! Previously, this had not been allowed – During the 1600s, Western ships wishing to trade with the Chinese were confined to doing so on the island of Macau. But when this proved unsatisfactory to the British and other Western nations, the Canton System was developed.

A ship docking in Canton from a country in the West (such as the United States), could purchase wares from one of thirteen warehouses or ‘factories’. Certain merchants in Canton were given permission by the Chinese government to trade with the West. These merchants, called ‘Hongs’ (‘Profession‘ in Chinese), set themselves up near Canton Harbour, establishing warehouses, shops and places of business to do trade with the growing number of Western ships which visited Canton each year. Each factory or ‘Hong’ catered to a specific nationality. So the British would have one Hong, the Americans would have another, the French or Spanish might use another Hong, and so on. All thirteen hongs or traders operated under the ‘Cohong’. The Cohong was like the guild or trade-union, that supervised and regulated the trade conducted by the Thirteen Factories. And up until the First Opium War of the early 1840s, they held a monopoly on all trade in the Canton System.

The Port of Canton, in 1820. Flags, L-R: Denmark, Spain, U.S.A., Sweden, Great Britain, and Holland. The warehouses and buildings fronting onto the port held the goods which foreign sailors wished to purchase from the Chinese

The Canton System and trading with the merchants under the control of the Cohong was a stifling arrangement at best. But for the Western powers, it was an even more frustrating arrangement because of one thing.


The Chinese insisted on only trading in silver. Not gold. Silver. And only silver. The problem with this was that the Western powers didn’t have any silver! Or at least, not enough to sustain trade with China. Western powers held stores of wealth in gold! Silver was used for pocket-change, teapots, trays, candleholders and cutlery. Not for buying silk!

The Chinese insistence on silver was a huge strain for the Western powers, especially Britain, which loved Chinese tea and porcelain. Struggling to find an answer, they stopped trading using silver, and switched to something else – Opium. This was going to be a disaster.

The Opium Wars (1839-1842 & 1856-1860)

Starting in the late 1700s, the British started trading in Canton using opium. Small amounts at first, but gradually, they grew. Opium was easily accessible to the British – they shipped it in from India and Bengal, and a suitable alternative to paying for Chinese goods using silver (of which the British government was rapidly running out). The Chinese government was extremely critical of this corruption of their people, and made several diplomatic attempts to stop the opium-trade. Letters and laws were written and passed, inspectors and enforcers were appointed to arrest Chinese drug-dealers, to seize shipments of opium and to have them destroyed, and to try and prevent the spread of the drug which was rapidly poisoning the health of China.

The Opium Wars (especially the first one) was not just a war on drugs, however. And there were other factors involved. Most of them linked to trade and foreign relations.

It had been the desire of the British to establish diplomatic relations with China, as far back as the 1700s. Something that the Chinese refused to do. Partially because the British wanted to set up a British Embassy in Peking. Peking being the Imperial City, was of course, off-limits to foreign barbarians! The Chinese refused, and the British were forced to postpone their dreams for proper diplomatic relations with China for another day.

If there were no proper diplomatic relations, how did all these trade-agreements, such as the Canton System, come about?

The Chinese believed that their emperor was the Son of Heaven, appointed by God to rule on earth as his representative, under the Mandate of Heaven. A similar concept in Western society is the Divine Right of Kings. The only difference is that, as a king is divinely appointed, he cannot be questioned, and his actions cannot be questioned. The actions of an emperor could be questioned, however. If an emperor’s reign was marred by disasters and misfortune, this was seen as his having lost the Mandate of Heaven (the blessing of God, basically), and that he should step down and let someone else take the reins of power.

Being that the emperor was the Son of Heaven, all other national leaders were therefore seen as subjects or tributaries of the Chinese Emperor. This included all foreign heads of state.

You can imagine how well that went over at Windsor Castle, or the White House.

A foreign government paid China a tribute. In return, the Chinese government gave a reward for this tribute, and allowed foreign powers the privilege of trading with China, as a tributary state. Foreign powers put up with this because the riches they could get from China were considered to be worth the expense. But it was a stifling system at the best of times. And when issues sprang up regarding payment and trade using silver and opium, an already uncomfortable situation got even more tense.

Starting in the 1780s and 90s, the British started smuggling opium into China. This was technically illegal, but it didn’t stop them – they did not have enough silver to trade with the Chinese, and the trade was too good to stop, simply because they didn’t have the right kind of metal! They had to find something else which the Chinese would accept as payment for their precious commodities, and opium was it.

The Chinese government fought back with opium bans, and the situation deteriorated rapidly from there. By 1839, despite trying to placate British merchants, and Chinese officials and sailors boarding British ships and destroying their shipments of opium, and everything else that had happened, China and Britain went to war.

The first Opium War (1839-1842) was what finally cracked the nut of China open. Suffering humiliating losses and defeats at the hands of the British, in 1842, the Chinese government sued for peace. There’s more about the Opium Wars in another one of my posts.

The Treaty of Nanking

The First Opium War was a key event in Chinese history, and in producing the China that we have today. Without the opium war, China would never have opened its borders. And without that, it would never have been exposed to Western science, technologies and ways of thinking, which would produce effects on China that shaped it into the nation it is today.

But first, there is the Treaty of Nanking.

The Treaty of Nanking is what finished the First Opium War, in 1842. It was signed on the H.M.S. Cornwallis, anchored in the Yangtze River, off of the ancient city of Nanking, giving the treaty its name. It was the first of the “Unequal Treaties” which the Chinese were forced to sign. Called ‘Unequal’ because by the terms of the treaty, China was expected to allow the British to do certain things in China, but the British had no obligations to do anything in return for China. The Treaty mostly dealt with issues of trade, foreign relations and foreign movement within China. Specifically…

– The Canton System of the Hongs and the 13 Factories is Abolished. 

– The British will continue to trade at Canton. In addition, four other port-cities will be opened for trade. These were Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo, and the most famous one of all…Shanghai. 

– The British expected to be paid reparations for the war, as well as reparations for all the opium they had lost before the war. In total, a sum of $21,000,000! 

– Until all reparations are paid (over a period of three years), British troops will be stationed in China. As more reparations are paid, the number of troops will accordingly decrease. 

– All British P.O.Ws would be released at once. All Chinese collaborators with the British would be given a pardon by the Chinese government. 

– The island of Hong Kong will be given to the British, for the purposes of establishing a British Colony. 

The conditions of the Treaty of Nanking directly contributed to many changes in China which can still be felt and seen, even today, over 150 years later. Thanks to the Treaty, Shanghai is the largest city in China. Thanks to the treaty, Hong Kong became a British colony, and thanks to the Treaty, China was finally opened to outside influences and ideas.

The International Settlement of Shanghai (ca. 1842/3-1943/9)

These new ideas and influences, methods of government, styles of dress, western architecture, education and technology entered China through the Treaty Ports. The ports of Canton (Guangzhou today), Amoy (Xiamen today), Foochow (Fuzhou today), Ningpo (Ningbo today), and Shanghai were opened up to provide the British with avenues with which to trade with China. The most famous treaty port was Shanghai.

The original city of Shanghai was a small, walled settlement built on the bank of the Huangpu River, a tributary of the mighty Yangtze. The British established a foreign concession-zone to the north of the city, to the southern bank of Suzhou Creek. This was in 1843.

It was in this zone that the British conducted the business of trade. It was originally meant to be a purely business settlement, but as merchants and traders and businessmen arrived, so did their families. And their friends. And their friends’ families. And their friends and families met and mingled, and married, and created more families. And all these people wanted the comforts of Old Blighty. They wanted churches, houses, schools, shops, and everything else that a city like London or Paris might have. So the British Concession spread from being a purely business zone into being a town in its own right.

Soon after the British, the Americans showed up in 1844. They established a zone on the north bank of the Suzhou Creek. The French arrived in 1848, establishing a zone to the south of the British concession, and to the west of the original walled city. Over time, the British and American zones expanded and grew along the banks of the creek, and spread north and west and east along the bank of the Huangpu River.

Deciding that it was silly for each country to have its own zone, in 1863, three years after the end of the Second Opium War, the British and Americans unified their respective settlements in Shanghai, creating the famous International Settlement of Shanghai. The International Settlement of Shanghai (referred to simply as ‘The Settlement’ by most people) became an island of Westerners in the middle of China, and by far the largest and most famous of all Western expatriate zones in China. This was due to a number of reasons:

Shanghai was located close to the mouth of the Yangtze, the most important river in China.

As the ‘Gateway City’ to China’s interior, Shanghai received a lot of river-traffic. And this meant that more merchants stopped in Shanghai than almost any other city in China, apart perhaps, from Peking.

The residents of Shanghai (who creatively called themselves ‘Shanghailanders‘), enjoyed immunity from Chinese laws. As Western expats, they could not be prosecuted by the Chinese legal-system. This was another condition extracted from the Chinese by the British after another unequal treaty, after the second Opium War (another condition was the right to send Christian missionaries deep into the Chinese interior. This would have disastrous consequences, which I’ll mention later).

The Bund, International Settlement of Shanghai, China, 1928. Looking North. On the right is the Huangpu River. Across the road and to the west, beyond the line of buildings, the British Concession of the Settlement

The International Settlement was called the Whore of the Orient. The Paris of the East, and many other things besides, reflecting its growing reputation as a city of loose morals, drugs, gambling, prostitution, gangland violence, high-society living, jazz-bands, nightclubs, betting and racing, and of course, being a passage through which opium could continue to be shipped to China. The firm of Jardine, Matheson & Co, an import-export business (still around today), shipped all kinds of things into, and out of China. Most of its money was made through the opium-trade. They had their headquarters on the famous ‘Bund’, the waterfront promenade that ran along the shore of the Huangpu River. Also located on the Bund, and established there in 1865, was the Shanghai office of a small company called the Hong Kong-Shanghai Banking Corporation. At the same time in Hong Kong, another office of the same company was established. Today, it’s called H.S.B.C.

The Legation Quarter of Peking (1861-1959)

While the International Settlement of Shanghai was the most famous of the Western expat-zones in China, the Legation Quarter of Peking was also high on the list of importance.

At the end of the Second Opium War in 1860, the victorious foreign powers extracted yet another humiliating treaty from the Chinese. Called the Treaties of Tientsin (Tianjin today), they allowed the foreign powers to establish legations in Peking, they allowed for foreign ships to navigate the Yangtze River, the opening of even more treaty-ports, and the right for no restriction of travel through China, of all foreigners.

These conditions were all kicks to the crotch for the Chinese. Especially the establishment of foreign legations in Peking! As the Imperial City, Peking, the capital of China, was reserved for the Emperor, the Empress and the Imperial Court! It was the location of the famous Forbidden City! How DARE the Barbarians insist that they could establish a concession-zone there! But the Chinese could do nothing to fight back.

Legation Street, within the Peking Legation Quarter

The Legation Quarter was a collection of houses, shops, buildings and foreign legations, which housed foreign diplomats, their families, diplomatic staff, and western expats living in Peking. The Quarter only made up a small area of Peking, but it was small in the same way a needle in your ass is small. You’ll never forget that it’s there.

The Boxer Rebellion and the Siege of the Legations (1900)

The Boxer Rebellion, culminating in the famous Siege of the Legations in 1900, was another major event in Chinese history that led to its current position in the world. This is covered in greater detail in another one of my posts. 

Infuriated and insulted by European (mostly French, but also American) Christian missionaries invading Chinese villages and destroying their ancient belief-systems, an extremely anti-Western organisation which was dubbed ‘The Boxers’ by the Western press, started attacking, killing and laying waste to anything Western and Christian. This eventually led to the famous Siege of the Legation Quarter, an almost two-month long assault on the Legation Quarter in Peking.

Messages smuggled out of the Quarter, fortified against the Chinese, made it to Tientsin, the nearest major city, and port, to Peking. Relief-efforts were organised and the Eight Nation Alliance (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Japan, the United States, Austria-Hungary and Italy) sent troops to Peking to lift the siege.

The Siege of the Legations traumatised the West and the East. It showcased the weaknesses and inabilities of the Qing Government, it showed the military weakness of China, it infuriated the Western powers, and hastened the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, already on its last legs. It fanned the flames of Chinese republicanism, and made the foreigners in China feel extremely unsafe. But it did not have the desired effect of removing them from China’s shores. Instead, one of the responses was to build protective walls and gates around the entire Legation Quarter, to safeguard against potential future attacks, as well as to house soldiers within the compound!

China at the Turn of the 20th Century

By the year 1901, China is a country in turmoil. It has lost war after war, it has had to sign humiliating treaties that do nothing to improve its lot, the Qing Government is trampling all efforts to modernise and improve China, and on the 1st of July, 1898, one of the most famous events in Chinese and British history takes place – the British sign a 99-year lease with China, allowing them to take possession of the island of Hong Kong and the surrounding land of Kowloon, until the 1st of July, 1997 – the date of the famous Handover of Hong Kong.

As much as China struggled to resist change, it was being dragged, kicking, screaming and spewing obscenities, into the dawn of the 20th century.

The First Chinese Revolution (1911)

Nanking Road, International Settlement, Shanghai. Ca. December, 1911. “Five Races Unity” flags hang from the buildings of Shanghai, celebrating the success of the Shanghai Uprising

Humiliated and weakened by defeat after defeat, the Qing Government was on its last legs in the early 20th century. The First Opium War, the Taiping Rebellion, the Second Opium War, the Sino-French War, the First Sino-Japanese War and the Boxer Rebellion all served to showcase its weaknesses in protecting the people of China, and seriously challenging its assertion as the legitimate ruler of China.

The Sino-Japanese War of 1894 was especially humiliating – losing against a fellow Asian nation! Japan, a modern, Western-influenced Asian empire with an up-to-date army and navy, swept the Chinese out of the Korean Peninsula in a matter of six months and in the space of a year, Korea went from being a Chinese vassal state to being a colony of the Japanese Empire. A status it would hold until 1945, when the Second World War ended.

These continual defeats and the inability and corruption of the Qing dynasty caused many Chinese to lose all trust in their government. And in 1911, the ‘Xinhai Revolution’ took place, finally removing the Qing, a pseudo-Chinese Manchurian dynasty to begin with, from power.

The removal of the Qing from power was seen as the only way for China to improve its lot on the world stage. Chinese citizens, exposed to new ideas and modes of thought and governance, were furious that their own government was so completely impotent. The Qing government blocked reforms, attempts at modernisation, attempts at bringing Western technologies to China, upgrading the Chinese armed forces for the 20th century, and its continual failure to ward off foreign aggression or to do anything significant about the opium-trade.

These many grievances finally came to a head, and on the 10th of October, 1911, the revolution started with the Wuchang Uprising.

China, a vast country with many provinces and important cities, all located many miles from each other, was seen as the ideal place to build railroads by many of the Western powers. These railroads, linking the various cities and ports of China, were all privately owned and operated. To pay back the Western powers for the damage done during the Boxer Rebellion, the Qing Government wanted to put the railways under state-control. This infuriated many of the Chinese investors in these privately-run railroads. They’d lose millions! The Qing Government tried to pay compensation, but investors were unsatisfied. Riots and protests broke out, which culminated in the start of the Xinhai Revolution. This final misjudged move by the Qing court was the last straw.

The Revolution ended on the 12th of February, 1912 with the abdication of the last Qing Emperor, Puyi. The revolutionary government, the new Republic of China, was initially friendly towards Puyi. The emperor was very young (he ascended the throne in 1908, aged just three!), and was just six years old when he lost his throne! He had reigned for barely three years.

The Flag of China from 1912-1928. “Five Races – One Union“. Each race or ethnicity of China is represented by one colour on the flag

Initially, the government drew up the “Articles of Favourable Treatment” for the Emperor. Among these, included the conditions that…

…the Emperor could hold his title for life, but was not the ruler of China.

…He would be accorded all courtesies given to a FOREIGN head-of-state.

…For the foreseeable future, he could continue to live in the Forbidden City, but must agree to move to the Summer Palace once the new government had been fully established.

…He would receive a government subsidy of $4,000,000 Chinese dollars a year.

…The Emperor and his property will be protected by the State.

…and one which must’ve made men all around China very happy – the Court could not employ any more eunuchs!

The Emperor of China was devastated by the news of his dethronement. It became almost his lifelong ambition (at least, until the 1950s) to regain his throne, something which never happened. Or at least, not for very long.

Most people have probably heard of Lady Jane Grey, the “Nine Day Queen” of England, successor to Edward VI, who was son to Henry VIII. But how many people know of the 12-day Emperor? In 1917, Puyi was, for a very brief period, Emperor of China again, when one of the Chinese warlords restored him to power. However, this move was so extremely unpopular that before the end of two weeks, Puyi was once more forced to abdicate!

The Republic of China (1911-1949)

After the fall of the Manchu ‘Qing’ Dynasty, the Forbidden City was turned into the Palace Museum…which it still is, today. EVERYTHING inside the Museum was bookmarked and cataloged – even unfinished meals! And for the first time in hundreds of years, the Forbidden City and the Imperial Palace was opened to the general public.

The Republic of China, established by Dr. SUN Yat-Sen, would rule China from now on! Or so everyone hoped.

Dr. Sun was the first president of the Republic of China, and the founding father of the Republic. But much like the Weimar Republic in Germany around roughly the same time, the Nationalist Chinese Party, the Kuomintang (modern Chinese: ‘Guo-min-dang‘) and the Republic of China, were built on shaky foundations.

The KMT had an impossible task ahead of it. They wanted to modernise China, shake off the conservatism and restrictions of the Qing Dynasty and bring China into the 20th Century. They wanted medicine, electricity, railroads, telephones, radio and motor-cars. They wanted to be like the great democracies of the West, like the United States and Great Britain, where Dr. Sun had grown up, and had lived as a young man. There, he studied, lived and even became fluent in the English Language.

But they were fighting against centuries of entrenched traditions and superstitions. And getting people to change was very difficult. The ancient custom of binding womens’ feet had to be stopped, but enforcing the new foot-binding ban was difficult. Similarly was the change to get Chinese men to remove the humiliating, stereotypical long ponytails or ‘Cues’, which they had been forced to grow, and wear for centuries, under the rule of the Qing Dynasty. China’s intellectuals and politicians might’ve wanted a modern nation, but they would have to fight long and hard to get it.

The Warlord Period (1916-1928)

China is a HUGE bloody country. It’s bigger than the United States. And for centuries, one of the biggest challenges facing the rulers of China was…HOW do you rule, HOW do you govern, HOW do you control a population in a country that is THIS GIGANTIC!?

In an age before most of China had railroad, telephones, telegraph and radio, communications and the enforcement of law and the recognition of the new nationalist government was extremely difficult. As a result, the country fell under the grip of the Warlords.

The collapse of the Qing Dynasty caused a huge power-struggle within China, between the new Nationalist Government and the Warlords.

The Warlords were men who controlled the rural provinces of China (and there are several of them), using private armies. Between them, the Warlords and their respective armies controlled Sichuan, Shanxi, Guandong, Qinghai, Ningxia, Guangxi, Gansu, Yunnan, and Xinjiang provinces, encompassing much of the Chinese coast and the eastern and central parts of the country. By comparison, while the Nationalists theoretically governed all of China, their actual power was limited to the large population-centers, such as Canton, Shanghai, Nanking, Tientsin and Peking.

China in the Interwar Period (1919-1939)

China in the first half of the 20th century was rocked by conflict. In 1922, the Kuomintang and the newly-formed (1921) Communist Party of China joined forces in the “First United Front”, to tackle the issue of the Chinese Warlords. And while this was successful, the defeat of the warlords (in 1928) had only removed one problem from China, which was swiftly replaced by another – The Chinese Civil War.

In the foreign enclaves of China, such as the Legation Quarter, the International Settlement, and the other such quarters in Nanking, Tientsin and so-forth, Westerners took little notice of outside events. They still enjoyed extraterritoriality (damn, that’s a long word…) and were exempt from Chinese prosecution. The treaties signed with China in the 19th century were still in-effect, and within the foreign expat-zones, life went on as normal, even though, away from the bright lights of Nanking Road or the elegance of the Peking Legation Quarter, China was tearing itself apart.

The Nanking Decade (1927-1937)

In 1927, the decision was made to move the capital of China. From now on, Nanking would be the capital city, not Peking. But in actuality, Peking and Nanking had been chopping and changing as the capital city of China for centuries. In fact, their very names reflect this. “Beijing” just means “Northern Capital“. “Nanjing” just means “Southern Capital“. The official move was made in 1928, and Beijing was renamed Beiping, or “Peiping” (‘Northern Peace‘).

This move of the capital started what was called the “Nanking Decade”; the ten-year period when Nanking was the capital of China, and when, it seemed, for once, China was just…China. But the glitz of Shanghai and the calm of Peking, the bustling ports of Canton, Amoy and Tientsin were all a facade. Because in 1927, more than just the capital city was changed in China.

The Chinese Civil War (1927-1936, 1946-1949)

From the late 1920s until almost the 1950s, China was continuously at war. There was in-fighting in the Kuomintang, there was the Northern Expedition to eradicate the warlords, there was inter-party fighting between the KMT and the CCP, and there was even more fighting between the Chinese and the Japanese. Untold millions of Chinese died in what was nearly two dozen years of nonstop combat. And for half of that time, it was Chinese fighting other Chinese – the Chinese Civil War.

The origins of the Chinese Civil War go back to the Warlord Era. The Kuomintang and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) were supposed to put their differences aside, and work together, to destroy warlords in China. This was the “First United Front”. But it was hardly any sort of unity. The KMT and the CCP were uneasy allies at best. At worst, they spent more time fighting each other, than the warlords. Chiang Kai-Shek, the-then President of China, was fearful of the communists, distrustful of their motives, and worried about the stability of his own government constantly.

After the ousting of the warlords and the final victory in Shanghai, the two rival parties, the KMT and the CCP, turned on each other, full-time and hardcore. While the rest of China got on with their lives, the CCP and the KMT, and their followers and supporters, waged bloody warfare with each other.

In Roaring Twenties Shanghai, the affluent residents of the International Settlement celebrated the opening of the Canidrome greyhound racing-track, and the adjoining Canidrome Ballroom. The year was 1928. Outside the cities of China, Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong fought battle after battle.

Despite a numerical advantage that, for most of the war, far outnumbered the communists, Chiang’s forces were unable to win. This has been attributed to corruption, and an increasing lack of foreign interest and empathy. Military and tactical blunders weakened the Nationalists, and Chiang’s own intense, anti-communist stance made him many enemies.

By contrast, the communists won support (and manpower) by making promises to the millions of peasants, whose lives had hardly changed in thousands of years. The promises of a new, modern China, and that if they followed the Chinese Communist Party into battle, their lives and living conditions would improve.

While the Nationalist forces decreased in number, these inspirational speeches caused the ranks of the Communists to swell, reaching up to four million soldiers by the time the war ended. But apart from eventually winning the war of numbers, the Communists also had more fighting-experience. They were experts in guerrilla warfare – they’d been fighting the Japanese for years using such methods. The Nationalists by contrast, had been too busy fighting the Communists.

The Long March

One of the most famous events of the Chinese Civil War is the “Long March”. This was a march undertaken by the members of the Chinese Red Army (the predecessor to the modern Peoples’ Liberation Army), while trying to evade capture by Nationalist KMT forces during the early years of the War.

The Long March was not ONE march. If you’re imagining some great procession like Moses leading the Jews from Egypt…forget it.

The Long March was actually a series of marches, stretching from 1933-1935. It was during this period, when the KMT was actively seeking out the communists in the southern provinces of China, that the members of the Red Army evaded capture, and snaked their way north and west, further inland, and further north, away from the KMT. This was the period when the KMT stood the greatest chance of winning, and the CCP had the greatest chance of losing the Chinese Civil War.

So why didn’t they?

In a word, ‘Cohesion’, or the lack thereof.

The Communists survived due to their cohesion, their determination to stick together and to fight and grow and escape to bring forth what they hoped would be a better China. The Nationalists suffered from corruption, a lack of cohesion and cooperation, and an inability to “win the hearts and minds of the people”, as we might say today.

To understand how the war affected each party, you have to understand something about China – it is GIGANTIC. It has millions of people. And far from the bright lights and jazz of the coastal cities, these millions of people lived lives which had gone almost unchanged for thousands of years. They clung to belief-systems centuries old. They lived in villages and farmed and cooked and cleaned and traded and worked in ways which had not changed in living memory. These MILLIONS of peasants were the workforce of China.

Controlling these peasants were the aforementioned warlords with their private armies. The peasants saw these warlords as their leaders, or at least their rulers. They had no interest in the KMT or in Chiang Kai-Shek. Their interest was local. Local meant their village. And their interests were what their interests had always been – farming, feeding and staying alive – an incredibly hard thing to do, with China’s notoriously unpredictable weather. Chiang Kai-Shek coming to power did not change ANYTHING about how these people lived, and Chiang was not interested in changing them. He wanted to keep China as it was. So it’s unsurprising that the peasants just…ignored him.

By contrast, the communists vowed to destroy the landlords and give the land equally to the peasants of China. Suddenly, these powerless serfs would have land for farming, for raising cattle, for building homes and lives. This made them far more interested in the communists, who would surely improve their lot! If you were a poor Chinese peasant, interested in nothing more than your farm, your crops and your animals, who would you be more inclined to follow? A man who wanted to keep the status quo, so that the wealthy and powerful could enjoy everything, or a man who promised to give you land and livestock to improve your life?

Now you might think that appeasing the peasants might not be a big deal. But there you’d be wrong. In appeasing the peasants of China, you would be drawing millions of people to your side. Whereas appeasing to the wealthy, a small minority in China, would get you precious little in terms of manpower, essential for fighting a war.

The result was that the peasants were not interested in the KMT or Chiang Kai-Shek, and they certainly had little to no interest in joining an army that would not fight to improve their lives. This meant that the communists grew powerful and the nationalists weakened.

Back to the Long March.

Surrounded by the nationalist armies and facing complete annihilation in the communist stronghold of Jiangxi Province in southern China, the communists beat a hasty retreat. The four communist armies, over the course of years, backed away, heading west, and eventually, north. Tens of thousands of men marched, on foot, through China, to escape their enemies. No roads, no railways, no motor-cars. Just a pair of shoes.

This show of determination must have impressed the peasants, who might’ve seen the communists as downtrodden nobodies, like themselves. Which might’ve inspired them to join up. The result was that the communists grew in strength as they marched. And they marched alright – 6,000 miles. That’s across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to London…and back!

So while the Long March was a retreat, it was not necessarily a failure. Because the communists were growing all the time, building strength as they stepped back.

Eventually, the four weak, but numerically-boosted communist armies arrived in Shaanxi Province, northwest of Jiangxi, and here, they could recuperate and strengthen for the struggles ahead.

The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)

A major contributing factor to why the Nationalists lost the war is a small event called the Second Sino-Japanese War. Japan, following in the footsteps of its ally, Germany, wanted what the Germans called “Liebensraum” – ‘Living room’, or ‘living-space’. Space to grow and expand.

To this end, they invaded China. Not once. Not twice. But three times.

First, in 1931. Here, they launched an attack from Korea into Manchuria, in northern China. This attack claimed Manchuria for Japan, and forced Chiang Kai-Shek to break up his army to have some troops on standby, should the Japanese decide to invade China-Proper. But the Japanese seemed satisfied, for now. They even put up a new emperor in Manchuria – the Last Emperor of China himself! Puyi, by now, a young man and former royal, eager to reclaim his throne. He’d thrown in his lot with the Japanese, hoping that they would lead him to victory.

The Shanghai Incident

The second attempt at invading China was what became known as the “First Shanghai Incident”, in 1932.

Wanting to try and claim more of China, the Japanese became increasingly interested in one city – Shanghai.

The International Settlement of Shanghai was the jewel in the crown of China. Here, Westerners poured in all their money, wealthy Chinese mingled with diplomats, businessmen, newspaper-reporters, jazz-musicians and gangsters. Absolutely anything you wanted could be got for you – at a price, of course. Drugs, sex, alcohol and gambling. All fueled by money brought in by rich Westerners eager for a slice of the Orient from the comfort of their own little corner of transplanted, reproduction Europe.

The Shanghai International Settlement in 1935. The area to the north of Huangpu River (with the curve in the northern bank) is the District of Hongkew, and the Japanese Concession. To its west are the German and American concessions (north of Suzhou Creek). South of the creek for the width of the Bund, is the British Concession. South of the British Concession is the French Concession, and the original walled city of Shanghai. Click on the map for an extremely high-resolution image!

The Japanese wanted all that.

To try and get it, they turned a series of riots, anti-Japanese attacks, and possible Chinese-Japanese racial attacks into a pretext for waging war on China. And sent in the troops. Literally.

But…how to get so many troops to Shanghai without raising suspicions? Especially after what the Japanese had done in Manchuria?


The soldiers, the tanks, the battleships in the Huangpu River were not there to attack CHINA! No…

They were there to protect the Japanese Concession of Shanghai! Yeah, that was it! Yeah…nothing else. Absolutely nothing else.

On the 28th of January, 1932, the situation hit boiling-point. The Japanese launched an all-out attack on Shanghai. And the Nationalists and the people of Shanghai were quick to respond.

Nobody wanted to lose Shanghai. Not the Chinese, not the Japanese, and certainly not the Western expats. And for little over a month, full-scale fighting erupted in the streets of the International Settlement.

The Japanese approached the Shanghai Municipal Council, the governing body of the Settlement, demanding that they demand that the Chinese Government take responsibility for the racial-attacks against the Japanese in the Settlement. After some umming and ah-ing, the Council agreed. And it was hoped that after this, the Chinese and Japanese Armies, massed on the borders of the Settlment, and Huangpu River respectively, would back off.

And so they might have, if a Japanese plane had not carried out the first bombing ever made on Shanghai.

The Japanese poured into the Settlement, entering through the Japanese Concession in Hongkew (Hongkou District, in modern Shanghai), in the easternmost sector of the Settlement. Their grievance being against the Chinese, the fighting was largely contained to this area, and thereafter spilt out into Chinese Shanghai. The Western concessions, controlled by the Germans, Americans, British and French, remained largely untouched. In fact, some expats would even go out onto the tops of tall buildings to watch the fighting.

On the Third of March, the Chinese drove the Japanese back, reclaiming Shanghai for China! Huzzah! But it was not to last.

The third and final invasion of China happened in 1937, when Japanese troops poured into China from their new Manchurian colony. The Nationalist Armies, still fighting the Communists, were not prepared, and in a matter of months, most of the great cities of China were taken – Peking, Tientsin, Nanking, and even Shanghai.

The Battle of Shanghai was one of the strangest events in the history of China. It was taken, but not taken. Invaded, but spared. Touched but untouched.

The Battle of Shanghai in 1937 was a three-month assault on the city which saw Chinese Shanghai fall to the Japanese after weeks of brutal, door-to-door fighting. Due to Shanghai’s importance as a trade and business-capital of China, resistance and defense was stubborn and determined. But while the Japanese ravaged Chinese Shanghai, they left the famous International Settlement alone.

Policed and governed by an international force of British, French, American, German and Japanese soldiers and diplomats, the Japanese were fearful of backlash from the Western powers, should they invade the Settlement. As such, they did their best to avoid aggravating its inhabitants. In fact, the Settlement’s governing body declared its neutrality during the Sino-Japanese War, and refused to take sides.

While China collapsed around them, life in the International Settlement went on almost as it had done for nearly a hundred years before.

The Second United Front

The First United Front of the 1920s was formed between the KMT and the CCP, to drive out the Chinese warlords which held sway over much of China during the years after the fall of the Qing Empire.

In the 1930s, the KMT and the CCP formed the second “United Front”, to drive out the Japanese! But, like the First United Front, the Second United Front was united in name-only. The armies of Chiang Kai-Shek spent more time harassing the communists than attacking the Japanese, and the communists attacked the Japanese using guerrilla tactics, which both the Nationalists and the Japanese were unfamiliar with. This supposed ‘unity’ was meant to protect China and its people. But as with everything else, it simply fell apart.

Cities along China’s coast and main rivers were swept up by the Japanese and demoralised and exhausted Chinese soldiers were decimated by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army. During the famous “Rape of Nanking” in late 1937, thousands of surrendered Chinese soldiers were bayoneted, shot, or beheaded, under the justification that the Japanese did not have anywhere to keep them prisoner, nor the resources to imprison them and feed them.

As before, the Second United Front collapsed due to Chiang’s paranoia regarding the communists. In fact, he never wanted a Second United Front. It only happened because he was KIDNAPPED by OTHER NATIONALISTS, who forced him to see sense, that the Japanese were a bigger threat than the communists. But even then, it still didn’t work, and the KMT spent more time attacking the communists than the Japanese. By 1941, the ‘United Front’ had completely collapsed, destroying any further chances for both the KMT and the CCP to work together to rid the country of the Japanese.

The Day of Infamy

December 7th, 1941.

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. They also attacked Guam, Malaya, Wake Island, the Philippines and Hong Kong. But one location not mentioned in President Roosevelt’s famous speech, is the Japanese assault on the Shanghai International Settlement.

Commenced just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the world-famous Settlement, for years already living on borrowed time, was finally invaded by the Japanese. Extraterritoriality be damned. The treaties that had protected Westerners in China were now useless, and overnight, the Settlement was dragged into the war that it had tried, for nearly five years, to avoid.

The residents of the Settlement panicked and fled for the Port of Shanghai. Here, those with money, passports, and other necessities for travel, managed to book or bribe passage on an evacuation-ship out of China. For any Chinese who had sought refuge under the cloak of the Settlement’s neutrality status, their last vestige of protection was blasted to pieces by Japanese artillery-fire. Facing overwhelming odds, the Chinese defenders were swept aside and the Japanese formally occupied ALL of Shanghai.

From 1941-1943, the Settlement existed in a sort of limbo-status. Not in Western control, not in Chinese control. In 1943, the British formally signed the land of the Settlement back to the Nationalists, ending 100 years of Western residence in Shanghai, and returning the city center to the people of China.

The result of this was that any Westerners in Shanghai who had not been lucky enough to escape on a ship during the invasion, was now a ‘stateless refugee’, to use the terminology of the time. They were Shanghailanders no-more. And as such, were rounded up and sent to prison-camps, where they would have to wait for the end of the war.

The Continuation of the Civil War

In 1945, the Second World War ended. The Chinese were driving the Japanese out of their homeland, and on all fronts, the Japanese were being beaten back to their home-islands. The United States Army Air-Force rained bombs on Shanghai to try and force the Japanese to evacuate the city. But while the World War was over, the Civil War was not.

In 1946, it started again in earnest. And this time, the Nationalists were on the losing side.

Weakened by seven years of war with the Japanese, the Nationalist force was a fraction of what it once was. The Communists, strengthened and more experienced after using guerrilla tactics against the Japanese, now outnumbered the Nationalists. Defeat after defeat saw the Nationalists fall back, eventually evacuating to the island of Formosa, formerly a Japanese colony, where the Republic of China was then established in what is known today as “Taiwan”.

On the 1st of October, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the creation of the People’s Republic of China, in Beijing. Chiang Kai-Shek and his nationalists evacuate the mainland and set themselves up in Taiwan. The war ends in May, 1950.

The Great Leap Forward

When you think of events that have shaped or influenced modern China, you can’t go past the Great Leap Forward. Probably better named as the Great Stumbling-Block.

After winning the Civil War, the communists had to legitimise their rule of China. To do this, they had to prove that they could do things that would improve the lives of ordinary Chinese people. And to do that, they started what they hoped would be a powerful and nation-changing industrialisation and agricultural revolution. They called it the Great Leap Forward.

Started in 1958, the Leap Forward ended in 1961 as an unmitigated disaster and is one of the worst chapters in modern Chinese history. Its catastrophic failure saw tens of millions of ordinary Chinese peasants, who had originally supported the Communists, die of starvation. But what was the Great Leap Forward and what happened to it?

Even in the 1950s, China was still a largely medieval society. Away from the bright lights and bustle of the major coast-or-river-hugging cities, life for millions of Chinese carried on as it had for centuries. The Communists hoped to improve the lives of people by mass farming, large-scale agriculture, high-volume steel-production and vast collectivisation. To this end, Chairman Mao started the Great Leap Forward.

Despite the good intentions and results that the Great Leap Forward had, and had hoped to achieve, everything was against it.

Experiments in agriculture, irrigation, crop-planting, plowing and harvesting were disastrous. Carried out on such a large scale across China, all it took was one hiccup to destroy everything. And everything was indeed, destroyed. Although propaganda films showed enormous crops and bumper harvests of rice and other grains, the truth was that these quotas and harvests were all bogus. And because private farming and land-ownership was now forbidden, the peasants, who now had to rely on the State, could not revert to their traditional ways of farming or land-management, which had been their safety-net in earlier times.

Collectivisation and communes, the methods with which Mao Zedong hoped to move China forward worked well in theory, but not always in practice. They relied on teamwork – Communes were communities made up of several dozen families. And they would work together, collectively, to feed, farm, clothe and support each other. This might have worked to some extent, but the failure of the government-enforced farming-practices doomed these efforts to failure.

Under the Great Leap Forward and the commune and collectivisation systems, the skills of the peasants, who had been living rural, farming lives for countless generations, were now ignored. Government officials in Beijing decided how the land would be farmed. They decided everything. And I do mean EVERYTHING. What crops would be planted. Where they would be planted. How they would be planted. What fertiliser was to be used, how they would be irrigated, and everything else. The skills of peasants who had been doing this kind of work for centuries was ignored. Instead, their work was dictated by politicians who had absolutely no practical experience of farming. The result was an absolute disaster, as crops failed and harvests dwindled into insignificance.

How it was supposed to work was simple: Every commune, through collective efforts, was supposed to produce food and reach a certain quota. Of this, a percentage was taken as tax, to feed people in the cities, and party members. The rest was distributed amongst the peasants in the commune. But the agricultural quotas set out by the Chinese Communist Party were outrageously high. And the amounts of grain ‘supposedly’ produced by each commune were all falsified, in an attempt to show just how effective the Great Leap Forward had been. This meant that when grain-taxes were collected, the peasants were left with absolutely nothing to eat! The Party’s already bungled farming-practices had robbed the peasants of their skills and their land. And now, giving up crops that they didn’t have to show how “bountiful” their land was, also robbed them of what little food they had been able to grow.

The result was the Great Chinese Famine, in which, depending on what you read, 15-55 MILLION PEOPLE died, from starvation. Due to large-scale crop-disasters.

This was partially due to the misguided farming practices, partially due to the weather, but also partially due to another goal of the Great Leap Forward, which was the large-scale production of steel. To this end, ordinary Chinese people had been encouraged to build blast-furnaces in their backyards. Or in their fields. And produce steel.


Yeah you. Reading this.

Go out. Right now. Into your back yard. Build a furnace.

Make steel.

What happened?

Just like you, the millions of Chinese forced to do this as part of the government’s official scheme, had not the faintest idea how the hell to make steel. Let alone steel of any decent quality, or great quantity. It was brittle, it cracked, it was useless for anything!

And worst of all, it meant that there were now even fewer people around to tend to what few crops had actually been grown and tended to successfully, which meant that they died due to neglect, which meant there was even less food than the already dismal amounts produced, which contributed greatly to the Great Chinese Famine of the period 1959-1961.

The Great Chinese Famine was a famine in the truest sense of the word. With absolutely nothing to eat, with all their grains taken by the government after the monumental screw-up of the farm-quotas, or sent to Russia to pay off China’s massive debt to the Soviet Government, the peasants of China, millions of them, had nothing to eat. They lived on literally whatever they could put into their mouths. Grass. Leaves. Tree-bark. Even soil or mud. Anything at all that they could persuade themselves to swallow was to be considered food, in the place of their actual food-staples, none of which now existed.

As much as they tried not to admit it, even the Chinese Communist Party had to accept that the Great Leap Forward, despite all its good intentions, had been a disaster of unprecedented and horrific scale. It was officially ended in 1961, and was followed by another of China’s great revolutions.

The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)

Or, as my old highschool Chinese teacher used to say: “The ‘So-Called‘ Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution”.

My Chinese teacher was not a fan of the Cultural Revolution. Probably because it involved his father being arrested as a political enemy and thrown in prison. A fact he shared with us, bright-eyed teenagers when we were studying history in school.

The Cultural Revolution was started by Mao Zedong in 1966 after losing face in the eyes of his fellow Communists, due to the catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward. It was designed to reinvigorate the nation, remind it of the great communist struggle to improve China, and to cleanse the country of the years of darkness and depression that had plagued it since the Civil War.

To try and reinvigorate the nation, Mao opened the floor of the country to anyone who wished to criticise. He wanted the youth of China to speak freely, vent their feelings, and attack anything that they felt was anti-communist or against the Party. Writers, journalists, artists, school-teachers, politicians and government officials were all denounced.

The youth of China were encouraged to become “Red Guards”, ideological protectors of communism and socialism, who lived their lives according to the quotations in contained in the famous ‘Xiao Hong Shu‘ – the Little Red Book. Or more properly: “The Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse Tung“.

The book, written by Mao himself, was a series of quotations of his own, from speeches and other writings, designed to inspire and give the youth of China something to follow and aspire to. The book received its nickname because of its pocket-sized format, and bright red cover, designed to be easily carried, stored, and immediately recognisable to anyone in China. Considering the population of China, it’s unsurprising that the Little Red Book is one of the most widely-printed books in the history of the world!

The Cultural Revolution was not just an attack on structure and politics, it was also an attack on the traditions and culture of China. Anything old, or to do with old China was attacked. These were considered detrimental and unhealthy, and did not improve the country. Ancient practices related to funerals, marriages, religion were systematically banned. Even the works of China’s most famous philosopher, Confucius, were placed under direct attack. The playing of mahjong, the most famous Chinese game in the world, was banned during the Revolution, due to it being an “old custom”.

For a period of ten years, the youth of China, boys and girls who were of an age attending highschool, or who were university students (broadly ranged from young teenagers to those in their mid-twenties), wreaked havoc on China. The desire to prove loyalty and to rid the country of “closet capitalists” and other people who might be ‘anti-revolutionary’, caused a complete breakdown in social order. By 1976, things were totally out of hand. It was only the death of Chairman Mow in that same year, and the change of government, that finally stopped the movement.

The Opening of New China

Just as China in the mid-1700s was being opened up to the West, so was China in the mid-1900s being re-opened to the West. After the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution had left the country weak, shaken and exhausted, reforms swept across China, in a desperate and concentrated effort to haul the country back from the brink, and to return some sort of sensibility and normality, stability and security to the lives of ordinary Chinese people.

Led by reformist politician, Deng Xiaoping, China was to become a more stable and open country. The Open Door Policy of 1978 encouraged trade and foreign investment in China. Barred from entry and scared away by decades of instability, foreigners, who had largely never set foot in China since the end of the Civil War, slowly returned. In 1950, on the 25th of April, the American Consulate in Shanghai closed its doors. Almost exactly 30 years later, on the 28th of April, 1980, the American Consulate in Shanghai was re-established, hoisting the American flag and opening its doors to business. The flag raised over the consulate in 1980 was the exact same flag which was lowered from the consulate roof when it was shut down in 1950, kept in storage for 30 years!

To restore the people’s confidence in the government, and to show the people that they actually knew what they were doing, reforms based on tried and tested methods were introduced. One of the most famous ones was a reaction against the Great Leap Forward. It was called the Household Responsibility System.

Under this system, rural Chinese living in communes were given large plots of land. This land was divided up among them, with each family or household owning one plot. The family was responsible for the upkeep and farming of this plot of land.

Unlike in the past, where families and farmers had to try and meet ridiculous quota-systems that left them with nothing to eat, under the new system, farmers could now work their own land as they saw fit, to get the highest yield. They kept whatever they could eat, and sold the surplus to the state, to feed the masses in the cities. They were responsible for the land’s upkeep, its use, and its cultivation and harvesting. The State took a back seat to agriculture, unlike in the 1960s. This new system, established in the 1980s, has allowed many farmers in China to improve their standards of living, by embracing the growing market economy of China.

Reforms in China during the 1970s and 80s have gradually opened the country up to the world once more. Although some would argue that China still has a long way to go, in the past thirty-odd years, it has made dramatic changes. In the 21st century, China is once more a world power, much as it was in times of ancient history.

More Information?

The Long March” (U.S.) 2-Part documentary-film

Nanking” (documentary film)

http://www.jianshixue.com/ – “A Short History of China” (1900-1949)

http://www.jianshixue.com/1939-1945-the-resistance-w/1936-1941-the-second-united-front.html – “The Second United Front”

Mao’s Great Famine” (documentary film)

“The Cultural Revolution”

Shanghailander.net – This is one of the biggest blogs on the internet about the Shanghai International Settlement, and pre-revolution China in general.

The Chinese Household Responsibility System


55 Days at Peking: The Siege of the Peking Legation Quarter

For purposes of continuity, the Chinese capital shall be referred to by its old name of ‘Peking‘ throughout this posting.

Anyone who’s seen the 1963 film “55 Days at Peking”, may think that they know all about the events depicted in this legendary epic, starring such names as David Niven and Charleton Heston. But in actuality, as with most historical films, the details and broader picture of the inspirational event have been swept aside, dulled or diluted in the name of dramatic license.

So what really happened during those fifty five days, and what is the wider picture?

The Events in the Film

55 Days At Peking” is a historical film about the infamous siege of the Foreign Legations in Peking, China, in the year 1900. It is a fictionalised version of a pivotal and groundshaking event in Chinese history.

What really happened? Why were the legations put under siege? What led up to this, and what happened after the siege was lifted? Let’s find out…

China at the Turn of the Century

Chinese history in the 19th century is filled with conflicts and struggles. Two opium wars, foreign invasions and occupations, drug-trafficking, Christian missionaries, Western interventions, humiliating trade and concession-treaties…the list goes on.

Between the legalisation of opium, the opening of the Treaty Ports, and the loss of Hong Kong, China was steadily being carved up by each of the great powers of the world – Great Britain, the United States, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, and the rising power of the Empire of Japan.

This famous French cartoon from the turn of the century depicts China as a great pie being carved up by the foreign powers. From L-R: Queen Victoria (Britain), Kaiser Wilhelm II (Germany), Tsar Nicholas II (Russia), Marianne (France), and the Emperor of Japan. Behind, a Chinese Mandarin looks on in horror as his country’s fate is decided and divided

By the 1890s, the foreign powers have set up enclaves and concession-zones in almost all major Chinese cities. Canton, Shanghai, Tientsin, Nanking, and the ancient imperial capital city of Peking. Each has its own foreign concession-zones held by the Western powers and by the Empire of Japan. In Shanghai, it is the infamous Shanghai International Settlement, which would become notorious for fast living, gambling, drugs, racing, prostitution, gangsters and expensive lifestyles. In Peking, it is the walled citadel of the Peking Legation Quarter, where foreigners live in isolated splendor, immune and untouchable from and by the Chinese who dwell from without their confines.

In previous generations, the idea of “Barbarian” legations, concessions and embassies within China was unthinkable, and certainly not in the ancient Imperial capital of Peking! But China, weakened and humiliated by defeat after defeat, was forced to allow the Western powers to set up their quarters just miles from the Forbidden City, the seat of Chinese imperial power for centuries.

Foreign presences in China were deeply resented. Christian missionaries desecrated Chinese temples and shattered Chinese belief-systems, insulting centuries old traditions and customs. Chinese ports were run by Western merchants, particularly in Shanghai and Canton. Soldiers, marines and guards from all nations were stationed in and around foreign settlements to protect the civilians and diplomats who worked in or near to their concession-zones.

The foreigners enjoyed diplomatic immunity in China – They could not be prosecuted under Chinese law, another injustice which the Chinese were infuriated about. And they imported opium into China, which had previously been illegal. Despite all the stereotypes about doped up Chinks lying on beds huffing away at their pipes, the Chinese themselves had long fought to REMOVE opium from China – it wasn’t even grown there! It came from British India in trade-ships sailing for the foreign-controlled treaty-ports.

The Peking Legation-Quarter

Established in the 1860s after the Second Opium War, the Peking Legation Quarter was originally a hodge-podge of European consulates, legations and embassies, established and built within an area east of Tienanmen Square, partially divided from the rest of Peking by enormous and ancient defensive walls. Over time, it grew and became the heart of foreign, mostly Western life, in the middle of Imperial Peking.

The Peking Legation Quarter, 1912. Click the image for a higher resolution to read the text beneath the map

The Quarter held the embassies and diplomatic missions of many of the most prominent Western powers, along with several smaller ones. Housed within the compound, or on the land immediately outside it, were embassies and legations belonging to…

– The United States.
– The Kingdom of Belgium.
– The French Republic.
– The German Empire.
– The Russian Empire.
– The Japanese Empire.
– The British Empire.
– The Kingdom of Spain.
– The Kingdom of Italy.
– The Austro-Hungarian Empire.
– The Dutch Empire.

Showing the extent of foreign interest in China, there was even a Mexican Legation within the Foreign Legation Quarter!

Also included within, or immediately without this partially-walled community was a power-station,  two hospitals, post-offices, shops, banks, a telegraphic office, the offices of the Peking-Hankou Railroad, the offices of the Peking-Mukden Railroad, two hotels, houses and villas, one church, and an English-style men’s club. Even the Peking branch of the Hong Kong-Shanghai Banking Corporation was located here. Sound familiar? Today it’s called HSBC.

The Legation Quarter, Peking

For thirty-nine years, Westerners and foreign Asians lived within the walled diplomatic compound, ignorant and uncaring of China. But at the turn of the last century, everything went pear-shaped.

The Boxer Uprising

Growing resentment of foreign influence, control and abuse in China was beginning to cut deep. China had been defeated in war, humiliated by treaties, and corrupted by the introduction of opium. Chinese were getting fed up of their ways of life, and their culture being attacked, fed up of their cities being overrun by Western barbarians, and were tired of having to trade with Western merchants on their terms.

In 1897, a society was formed. Officially, it was called the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists! To the Western press, it was simply called ‘The Boxers’.

The Boxers were a loose gathering of groups, which all shared the beliefs and goals that Western domination in China had to end, and that Westerners themselves had to be driven out of China, to preserve a way of life that had remained unchanged for thousands of years.

Foreign imperialism and colonisation, the settting up of concession-zones and other Western activities had ruined the lives of these people – they could no longer visit certain parts of their own cities and towns, which were under foreign control – they could no longer do business on their own terms.

They had their lives disrupted by Christian missionaries who were actively moving through the Chinese interior, setting up churches, monasteries, and destroying traditional Chinese belief-systems centuries old. Ancestor-worship, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism were out. Jesus, God and the Holy Cross were in. Imagine being raised to believe one thing for generations, only to have strangers from across the seas show up and tell you overnight that your entire way of life was backwards, heathen, immoral and above all…UN-CHRISTIAN!!

And you can’t do anything about it. You can’t complain to imperial officials or village elders or city politicians – these priests and missionaries all have diplomatic immunity – they can show up, destroy everything – and there’s absolutely NOTHING you can do about it.

These attacks infuriated the Boxers, and they resolved to put an end to them.

All these grievances finally exploded in the late 19th century, resulting in targeted raids on any and all Christian missionaries in China. No heed was paid to which country they came from, or which denomination they preached of, they were attacked and slaughtered without pause or mercy.

Word by letters and telegrams spread around China’s coastline, from Nanking to Shanghai, Canton to Peking. Western refugees flooded the population-centers of China. Telegrams were cabled across the Atlantic and Pacific to foreign governments in London, Washington, Paris, Moscow, and Tokyo, to name but a few. By the close of the 19th century, the situation is going increasingly desperate.

German, Russian and French governments were quick to act, sending detachments of troops from their South Pacific colonies to China. From Indochina came French soldiers, from Port Arthur came the Russians. In the United States, any sense of panic and fear is dampened, the government doesn’t think that there is any reason for undue alarm.

The Chinese Reaction

From the famous Forbidden City in Peking…nothing.

The Qing Government does not actively support the Boxers…but on the other hand, they don’t really want to STOP them, anyway. As Boxers go from town to town, local government officials do not bother to halt their advances, or to arrest their leaders. There are no prosecutions of the Boxers in courts of law.

Ruler of all China, the Empress Dowager, Cixi (“See-Chee“) begins to see that the Boxers may actually be of help to her. If she can harness their anger and rage towards the foreigners, she might be able to drive out the devils and restore China for the Chinese! She gives the order that the Imperial Army is to back up and actively assist the Boxers in driving out the Western powers!

Eventually, the Boxers reach and occupy many major cities, including Peking and the city of Tientsin. Here, they lay siege to the foreign communities within the city boundaries.

The Start of 55 Days

On the 19th of June, 1900, the Imperial Court issues a decree – All westerners and foreigners MUST leave Peking and its legation quarter within 24 hours. They are to pack their bags, trunks, furniture, whatever they can push, pull or carry, load it onto the nearest railroad train, and leave the capital for Tientsin by 4:00pm the next day. If, by that time they have not complied, the Boxers, with Army support, are given permission to open fire against the Legation Quarter and start an all-out assault against the foreigners.

Legation Street, Peking

The foreign powers decide not to leave by majority vote. To set foot outside the walls of the Legation Quarter is almost certain suicide, as proved by the murdering of the German foreign minister, Baron Von Ketteler, as faithfully depicted in the film, ‘55 Days at Peking‘. They do not wish to tempt fate.

At 4:00pm on the 20th of June, 1900, the deadline expires. From this point on, all foreign diplomats, their families, their friends, businessmen, religious missionaries, civilian expats, and Chinese Christians holed up inside the Legation Quarter can be attacked at any time from any side, by the Boxers and the Imperial armed forces of the Qing Empire.

The legations are woefully unprepared for surviving the trap they’ve caught themselves in – Of 3,700 people, there are only 409 soldiers. Of 409 soldiers, most do not have weapons. Those which have weapons have only the ammunition which is loaded into it. Only the United States Marines, recently arrived, have sufficient ammunition for any serious engagement.

Their heavy armaments include three machine-guns and two cannons. Just like in the film, there really was a cannon nicknamed “Betsy“, and just like in the film, it was quite literally made from bits and pieces found all over the compound, from older firearms. Because of this, it also had the nickname of “The International”, because its various components of barrel, ammunition, carriage and wheels were taken from all corners of the Legation Quarter!

The Siege of the Peking Legation Quarter

Initially, nobody knew what was going to happen – defenders had no clear idea on how they would defend themselves against an attack that might never come, and the Chinese had no clear plan on how to attack the legations and what sort of resistance they might encounter.

Within the Legation Quarter, certain strongholds developed. The British Legation, as the largest structure, became an unofficial headquarters of the siege. Some legations which were too isolated from the others were abandoned, and their civilians and diplomatic staff moved into legations which were closer to the others.

Of crucial importance was protecting the walls which surrounded the Legation Quarter, in particular the Tartar Wall, which formed the southern boundary of the bulk of the Legation Quarter. If Boxers or Qing army forces scaled the wall, they could fire straight down into the streets, having an unobstructed field of fire running the entire length of the compound. The wall is shown at the bottom of the Legation Quarter map, further up in this posting.

U.S. Marines stationed within the Legation Quarter, 1910. The huge structure behind them is the Tartar Wall. The tower to the right is the Chien Men, one of the gates into the Legation Quarter

The Situation with the Legations

The Quarter had sufficient food and water, but nowhere near enough medical supplies, ammunition, fighting men, or weapons. Anything and everything that could be pressed into service was used. Women filled sandbags, 15 bags an hour, 360 bags a day. Chinese Christians constructed barricades along the streets, bridges and crossroads within the Quarter in the event of a hostile breakthrough. Throughout the siege, constant Chinese attacks forced the defenders to retreat back from their eastern barricades several times.

The British Legation was heavily fortified and hospitals and sickrooms were improvised in basements of major buildings.

Roughly half the Legation Quarter had walled boundaries. To the South, the Tartar Wall, To the north, walls which made up the ancient Imperial City also served as a boundary. To the east and west, there were no such walls. In the event of an attack from these directions, buildings were fortified and barricaded, and roads had blockades built across them made of sandbags and furniture.

The Start of the Siege

In the beginning, nobody really knew what was going on. There were divisions within the Chinese government about what to do with the foreigners. Force them to evacuate? Storm the Quarter? Orchestrate a ceasefire? Sign a truce?

Everything was up in the air.

The real fighting did not start until three days later. Trying to smoke the foreigners out, the Boxers and the Qing set fire to many buildings within the Legation Quarter. One of them was the Hanlin Academy. Housed within were several priceless and irreplaceable books and other records. Their destruction infuriated both sides, and at the same time, neither side agreed to take responsibility for the library’s destruction.

From then on, fighting was almost nonstop for nearly a month. From the 23rd of June until the 17th of July, battles were almost daily occurrences, despite attempts on both sides to quell the violence.

Fighting was particularly brutal around the Chien Men  (modern Pinyin: “Qianmen“), or ‘Front Gate’ of the Imperial City, the walls of which made up some of the Legation Quarter’s boundaries, such as the Tartar Wall.

The ‘Qianmen’ today, in the background

Explosives and cannons were used to try and breech the massive gatehouse. The photograph below, taken shortly after the siege, shows the sheer level of destruction wrought upon it. The entire top third of the structure has been blasted away in the fighting. Compare it with the photograph above to see the full extent of the damage.

After the Siege. Destruction to the ‘Qianmen’ of Peking

Fighting around the gate and the nearby Tartar wall which it punctuated, was intense. It was defended by a mix of Americans and Germans trying to drive off a force of thousands of Chinese who used scaling-ladders to climb the walls and push the defenders off. The Boxers and Qing did temporarily occupy the wall, but before they could do any serious damage, they were driven off and never again managed to retake this position.

The International Response

For over a month, until late July, no word got in or out of the Legation Quarter. Telegraph lines to the coast and other cities had been cut by the Boxers, preventing electronic communications. On the 28th of July, the first message from the outside world entered the besieged Legation Quarter. The message: Help was on the way!…eventually.

The First Relief-Attempt

The first attempt to break the siege of the Legation Quarter came just days after it started – On the 26th of June, 1900, Vice Admiral Edward Hobart Seymour tried to break the siege using a combined international force numbering 2,000 men, from Britain, Germany, Russia, Italy, Japan, France, the United States and Austria-Hungary.

This was not the famous Eight-Nation Alliance, it was a small band, a mix of soldiers and sailors from various nations all with a common purpose, up against a force more than twice their number (5,000 Chinese strong).

This relief-attempt came at the request of British Minister to China, Sir Claude Maxwell MacDonald (1852-1915), who sent a telegram for help, informing the outside world that the situation within Peking was deteriorating by the hour, and that soon, the whole situation could go up in flames.

The Seymour Expedition, as it was called, was a failure in every sense of the word. They were attacked every step of the way to Peking, and then attacked every yard they retreated. Railroads were sabotaged, bridges blown up, and the Expedition itself was running out of food – they hadn’t brought enough to last them there AND back! – They assumed that, once their mission was successful, they could restock their supplies and head home. The idea that they would have to make their supplies last twice as long as they needed to, or to bring extra supplies, never crossed their minds.

The Second Relief-Attempt

While the soldiers of the Legation Quarter had been fighting for their lives, the governments of the foreign powers represented within the Quarter had been organising military relief for the besieged. This came in the form of the Eight Nation Alliance.

In this alliance, between Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France, America, the United Kingdom, Japan and Italy, the collected countries pooled their colonial military resources and resolved to send a relief column to China to break the siege.

Coming from India, Hong Kong (British), Indochina (French), Port Arthur and Vladivostok, (Russian), the Philippines (American), Japan, Port Athur (again!, this time, Austria-Hungary), Tsingtao (German), and finally, Italy, the various military detachments converged on the northern Chinese coastline in July of 1900.

Among the people who came to answer the call of distress from the Legation Quarter was one Capt. Georg Ludwig Von Trapp, as an officer of the German Navy. Sound familiar? The life of his family was immortalised in the film ‘The Sound of Music‘.

If the Eight Nation Alliance thought that ploughing through China to Peking was going to be easy, they had another think coming. Landing on the Chinese coast in an assortment of naval vessels, the military detachments marched through China.

First, they had to blast through Teintsin. Here, the Boxers and Imperial Chinese forces held back the Eight Nations for an amazing…24 hours, from the 13th-14th of July.

Even after making their way through Teintsin, the Eight Nation Alliance would not reach Peking for another month. On the 13th of August, they were still five miles away, and fighting for every yard.

The End of the Siege

The Eight Nation Alliance finally reached Peking on the 14th of August. At the time, Peking was still an ancient, walled city. There was a wall around Outer Peking. Then another wall around Inner Peking. Then a wall around the Imperial City. And another wall around the Forbidden City. Peking was a gigantic Russian nesting-doll with the Empress Dowager as the tiny dinky toy in the very center.

To break the siege, the Eight Nations divided their forces and they each attacked a gate leading into the Outer City or Inner City. The Legation Quarter was between the two cities, so this strategy would ensure that the Qing and Boxers would be attacked from both sides.

The British got there first at 3:00pm.  The Americans arrived two hours later.

The French never did reach their objective – they got lost on the way.

With such a show international military might, the Chinese forces retreated. The siege was officially lifted and ended on the 14th of August, 1900.

It had lasted fifty-five days.

The Aftermath

Military casualties of the siege were appalling. The Foreign powers within the Legation Quarter had not collapsed to Chinese aggression, but they had just about exhausted their ammunition supplies, and had lost 45% of their total fighting-force. Their original lines had fallen back on the Eastern side, and there were thirty-seven civilian casualties and injuries.

To ensure no repeat performance of a similar kind, the Foreign Powers occupied Peking. Cixi, the Empress Dowager, fled from the Forbidden City with her entire court. She wouldn’t return until 1902!

What happened after the ending of the siege is not recorded in the famous 1963 film…probably because it isn’t very pleasant.

Prior to the lifting of the siege, false news-reports were somehow telegraphed to the Western world. How is uncertain, due to the fact that electronic communications had been severely interrupted by the siege. But the information claimed that the Chinese had forced the entrances of the Legation Quarter, stormed in and had shot, beheaded, bayonetted or otherwise killed every man, woman and child within the Legation Quarter.

By the time this news-report was discovered to be nothing more than a Chinese hoax to piss off the Western powers, it was too late.

Filled with hatred over the apparent atrocities, the assembled Western powers and the Japanese, raided, robbed, raped, burglarized and trashed Peking. They even forced their way into the Forbidden City, something unheard of in the history of China, and ransacked the palace buildings, stealing priceless antiques and artifacts centuries old, and shipping them back to Europe.

When the Chinese newspaper hoax was finally proven, the Europeans and Americans found themselves doing a lot of soul-searching. Famous American novelist, Mark Twain, was just one of thousands who forced the Western powers to consider their motives and actions in China, and the morality of forcing their cultures and religions upon a country which not once had raised a hand in war against them, except to protect their own way of life.

More Info?

In Search of History: The Boxer Rebellion

“55 Days at Peking”

Trove.nla.gov.au – Sydney Morning Herald – Thursday, 22nd Nov., 1900. 


Not for All The Tea in China: A History of the Opium Wars

If you’re like most people, the only thing you know about the Opium Wars is that they destroyed China, and that they were mentioned briefly in the film “Shanghai Knights”. These pivotal and world-changing conflicts are largely forgotten today, but they were crucial to shaping the China that we have in the 21st Century. This posting will explore what the Opium Wars were, and what their affect was on the Chinese country and its people.

China Before the Opium Wars

China before the Opium Wars was a land steeped in mystery, mythology, tradition, and a strict class-society, clinging to its traditions, its customs and its ideals which it had held for centuries before. China was for the Chinese. And no-one else.

In Chinese, the country of China is called ‘Zhongguo‘ (‘Zhong-g’awe’). Translated to English, it literally means “Central Country” or “Central Kingdom”. And herein lies the root of what led up to the Opium Wars. Here is the very reason why the opium wars got started in the first place.

To understand why the opium wars started, you need to understand Chinese foreign policy during the late Imperial period. In the 18th and 19th centuries, China was an INTENSELY isolationist country, which was inward-looking, arrogant, conceited and which believed firmly that the world almost literally revolved around it. It was, in every sense of the words, the Central Kingdom. Or so it believed.

British-Chinese Relations

Western contact with China was few and far between. Westerners were not allowed to visit China. They could try, if they wished, but they were rarely allowed in. Marco Polo was one of the few people from the Western World who ever managed to get so much as a shoe-in.

In the 1700s, the British tried to set up diplomatic relations with Imperial China. England was a proud and ancient nation with a growing empire…and so was China. It probably made sense to the British that these two great powers on opposite sides of the world should become friends.

To this end, the British sent forth a man named George Macartney. Macartney was an influential and famous man. How famous? Surely some of you may have heard the saying that the British “controlled an empire upon which the sun never sets”?

It was Macartney who coined that phrase.

Macartney and his chums arrived in the Chinese capital…then called Peking…in 1792. Here, they were admitted to the Forbidden City (a VERY rare privilege, even to the Chinese!) and granted an audience with the Emperor of China.

This historic meeting between East and West was ultimately unsuccessful. The British wanted to establish an embassy in China, so that the British and Chinese governments could be diplomatic partners. They also wanted China to open more of its ports to foreign trade. The emperor of China, the Qianlong Emperor (“Chee’yan-Long“) explained to Lord Macartney that such a relationship between China and England was not possible due to conflicting views and aims from both parties. The Emperor even wrote a letter to King George III to explain why such a relationship was impossible…although by now, George III was barking mad…so he probably never read it. But you can. Here is the letter.

It’s often believed that the emperor refused trade and diplomatic relations with England because Macartney had offended him by refusing to kowtow to him, instead stating that he would bow, or salute him as his own king, but would not execute actions which would suggest that the King of England was of lower status to that of the Emperor of China!

This is not true. But it sure makes for a hell of a story.

The Chinese Government firmly believed that it had no need for foreign goods, foreign inventions, foreign anything! It was Zhongguo! The Central Kingdom! And damn anyone else who thought otherwise! Foreigners were not even called ‘foreigners’! In most court, and government documents from the period, they are actually referred to as “barbarians”! And so, for another half-a-century, China kept itself largely locked away from the West.

For roughly 80 years, between the 1750s to the 1830s, the Chinese would only allow the British access to ONE port. This was known as the “Canton System”. So-called, because the one port that was open to foreign ships was the Port of Canton, in Canton Province. Where is Canton? It’s in southern China. You won’t find it on any map printed today, but you will find it if you search for Canton’s modern name…Guangzhou.

The Leadup to the Opium Wars

The British wanted things from China. And they were sure that the Chinese wanted things from England. The British were desperate for things like silk, spices, porcelain, and of course…its national beverage…TEA! And they could GET IT…if the Chinese agreed to trade with them, and would open up more ports to Western ships…but they refused! And they said that they wanted none of whatever the British had to offer! Western inventions and technology were of no use to the Chinese whatsoever!

This bickering between two proud and ancient countries had been going on for decades. Centuries, even. Then, the British discovered that the Chinese WERE interested in something that they could offer them!…Opium!

You have to understand that there was HIGH demand for Chinese goods in Europe. Europeans wanted porcelain, silk, spices and tea, but the Chinese didn’t want suits, top hats or flintlock muskets, watches, neckties or shoelaces, so the British had to find something else to trade with the Chinese. Something that the British could lay their hands on with ease, and which the Chinese attached some sort of value to.

The issue here was that the only thing that the Chinese would accept in return for all the goods that they were exporting to Europe was silver coinage. Or to be precise, silver tael. A tael is not a dollar or a pound, or any other type of currency. It is an Asian unit of measurement, the Chinese equivalent of the Troy Ounce. One tael of silver weighed just under 40 grams. The silver, measured by weight in tael, was paid in sycees. The ‘sycee’ (‘sigh-see’) is the traditional, boat-shaped Chinese ingot, the shape into which gold and silver were cast. These things:

A 10 tael (roughly 380g) Chinese silver sycee

Since Britain and the majority of Europe traded in GOLD, silver was hard to come by, and this caused even MORE problems. It was in trying to find a solution to this silver-drain, that the British hit on the answer…


Starting in the 1700s, the British began importing opium into China. Small quantities at first, but when the British gained more and more control of the Indian Subcontinent, the opium-trade boomed!

Opium was very popular in Europe. It was used for everything, from toothaches to fevers, back-aches to muscle-cramps. This drowsy, pain-killing drug was the aspirin of its day. Although effective as a painkiller, opium is also highly addictive. And it was this addictive quality that the British were counting on.

The Chinese jumped on the opium at once! Before very long, opium addiction was a huge problem in China. It was so bad that the Chinese emperor of the time ordered a nationwide ban on all but the smallest uses of opium, for medicinal purposes.

The British just ignored the Chinese government and continued sending in opium. And the Chinese commoners kept smoking it. At the turn of the 19th century, the emperor put ANOTHER ban on opium! In 1810, the Chinese Empire issued the following decree:

“Opium has a harm. Opium is a poison, undermining our good customs and morality. Its use is prohibited by law. Now the commoner, Yang, dares to bring it into the Forbidden City. Indeed, he flouts the law! However, recently the purchasers, eaters, and consumers of opium have become numerous. Deceitful merchants buy and sell it to gain profit. The customs house at the Ch’ung-wen Gate was originally set up to supervise the collection of imports. If we confine our search for opium to the seaports, we fear the search will not be sufficiently thorough. We should also order the general commandant of the police and police- censors at the five gates to prohibit opium and to search for it at all gates. If they capture any violators, they should immediately punish them and should destroy the opium at once. As to Kwangtung and Fukien, the provinces from which opium comes, we order their viceroys, governors, and superintendents of the maritime customs to conduct a thorough search for opium, and cut off its supply. They should in no ways consider this order a dead letter and allow opium to be smuggled out!”

Strong words! And you can bet that the world sat up and took notice!

…or not.

The opium trade went right on ahead, as if NOTHING had happened!

The First Opium War (1839-1842)

In the end, everything came to a head! By the 1830s, tensions had been simmering for a century, and now, they finally exploded! The British wanted Chinese trade, and the Chinese didn’t want British opium! The Chinese wanted the British to stop importing opium, and the Chinese wanted the British to leave them alone! In 1839, the First Opium War started.

The Chinese easily outnumbered the British forces during the First Opium War, but the British had the benefit of modern, Victorian-era technology. And they had military bases very close to China: They had colonies in India, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore! The British systematically slaughtered the Chinese with their weaker, and older army, poorly-equipped to fight a modern war.

The First Opium War ended in 1842 with the Treaty of Nanking.

The treaty took its name from the ancient Chinese city of Nanking. It was on a ship anchored in the river, the HMS Cornwallis, that the treaty was signed.

The treaty forced China to pay reparations to the British for the cost of the war, it forced the Chinese to cede the island of Hong Kong to Britain indefinitely. In 1898, the island was granted to Britain on a 99-year lease, which famously ended in 1997.

The most famous condition of the Treaty of Nanking, however, was the British forcing the Chinese to open five of its ports to British and other foreign ships! The ports were the cities of Canton, Amoy, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and most famously…Shanghai.

The British forced the Chinese to sign the Treaty of Nanking. One of the conditions to which the Chinese were forced to consent to, was that foreigners living in China were subject to the laws of their own countries, and not to the laws of the Chinese Government. This led to the establishment of the Shanghai International Settlement in 1942.

The ending of the Opium War was a huge boost to the British. The opium-trade continued, and trade flourished between China and the West. This caused British-controlled Shanghai, soon to be the International Settlement, to flourish, turning what was once a small, riverside town, into what is today, one of China’s largest and prosperous cities. British Christian missionaries pushed deep into China to spread the word of God and British influence in the Pacific increased significantly.

The end of the First Opium War brought modern technology to China, it brought prosperity, trade, new inventions and exposure to new people. But it also brought more opium, more troubles, and it greatly weakened the public perception of the Qing Dynasty. The Qing Dynasty was never very popular. It was rife with corruption and was not generally supported by the Chinese people. Its humiliating defeat at the hands of the British caused it to slip even further in the opinions of the Chinese people.

The Second Opium War (1856-1860)

The Second Opium War was a British (’56-’60) and French (’57-’60) conflict against China. The British wanted more access to China, and they wanted to continue the opium-trade…both conditions which the Chinese Government refused to grant.

Just as with the first Opium War, the British won, and just like the first one, the conflict was over in four years. The war ended with the Convention of Peking, in 1860. Signing of the convention would result in more Chinese port-cities being opened to foreign traders; most notably, the ports of Hankou, Danshui, and Nanking). On top of this, foreign countries (France, Britain, Russia and the United States) were able to send diplomats to live and work in the Chinese capital of Peking (previously a closed city, forbidden to foreigners). This led to the establishment of the Legation Quarter in Peking, which would play a key role in the Boxer Rebellion, forty years later.

On top of this, foreigners were now allowed to travel deeper and deeper into the Chinese interior (not something previously allowed) and foreign ships were able to sail freely up and down the length of the Yangtze River.

The Impact of the Opium Wars

The two Opium Wars were short, largely one-sided regional conflicts, but their impact on the history of China was great, both positive, and negative. On the negative side, it forever established the Chinese as a bunch of opium-huffing, slitty-eyed and ignorant Asian foreigners, a stereotype that lasted well into the 20th century. Over the next half a century, the other European powers would start carving up China, staking out concessions for themselves. As this famous cartoon from the late 1800s shows, China was fair game for foreign powers:

This cartoon appeared in a French magazine. Here, we have the country of China (the pie on the table) being divided up by the Foreign Powers, represented by ENGLAND (Queen Victoria, LEFT), GERMANY (the Kaiser, next to her), RUSSIA (Tsar Nicholas II), FRANCE (peering over the tsar’s shoulder) and JAPAN (represented by by the character on the right), while the Chinese Government (the pig-tailed Oriental in the background) watches on in horror as its nation is divided up.

For all the negative effects and results of the Opium Wars, they did have positive outcomes as well. Although it was dragged kicking and screaming into the modern age, China benefited from Western exposure, new technologies, better communications and trade, and entered the 20th Century increasingly casting off its old and dusty superstitions and traditions, its illogical and irrational isolationism and embraced modernity and more forward ways of government and handling its affairs. Without the Opium Wars, China would probably still be an Imperial country, with an emperor, a Forbidden City, and struggling to keep up with the rest of the world.

The changes wrought by the Western Powers on China caused the final collapse of the much-hated and increasingly weak, and corrupt Qing Dynasty, and the birth of a modern, republican China in the early 20th century, and all the things that would come with it, such as the Nationalist Era, the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Civil War, and the establishment of modern China.

Want to Know More?

The Emergence of Modern China – The First Opium War

Victorianweb – The Opium Wars


The Story of the Rape of Nanking

“Nanking”. A beautiful name, isn’t it? In Chinese, it means ‘Southern Capital’, similiar to how ‘Peking’ means ‘Northern Capital’. In the 21st Century, the city of Nanjing (it’s modern spelling) is one of the biggest and most important cities in all of China, just as it was back in the 1930s, when soldiers from the Japanese Imperial Army overran the city and murdered, burned, raped and pillaged it to the ground in one of the most horrendous war-crimes in the history of the world. The infamous ‘Rape of Nanking’ is one of the most brutal and controversial war-crimes ever. But what actually happened?

For the purposes of continuity, the original Wade-Giles spelling of ‘Nanking‘ will be used throughout this posting.

What Was Nanking?

Nanking was and is one of the most important cities in China. Built along the famous Yangtze River in southern China, it has been a major center for culture, trade, commerce, politics and government for centuries. After the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the last of the great Imperial Chinese dynasties, which for countless centuries, had ruled over the lands of ‘Zhongguo‘…the Central Kingdom…the new Republic of China nationalist government, the Kuomintang, set up shop in Nanking. This ancient and proud city was to be the capital of the new, capitalist, democratic China. After much thumb-twiddling, um-ing, ah-ing and foot-shuffling, in 1927, Nanking became the new capital of the new China.

Nanking, like almost every other major city in China at the time, played host to a significant Western expatriate community. Just like in Peking and Shanghai, Western businessmen, religious leaders, reporters, journalists, artists, writers and families descended on Nanking, carving out their own portions of the city where they lived alongside the local and native Chinese population.

The Second Sino-Japanese War

In 1931, the Japanese began their assault on China. By degrees, they claimed larger and larger swathes of Chinese land for themselves, starting with Manchuria in 1931. In 1932, they unwisely attempted to invade the city of Shanghai, an important sea-port. The Chinese Nationalist Army fought them off and kept the city safe for another five years.

In August, 1937, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Chinese Shanghai. The city was then divided into two sectors – the Chinese sector on the outsides of town, and the famous Shanghai International Settlement, the vast expatriate zone, in the heart of the city. Not wanting to draw Western powers into the war (yet), Japanese troops only attacked Chinese Shanghai. After fierce fighting for three months, the city fell in October of 1937. Thousands of Shanghai Chinese fled into the Settlement, secure in the knowledge that the Japanese would not dare attack them within its boundaries, for fears of bringing British and American troops on their heads.

After the fall and occupation of Chinese Shanghai, and the road now clear into the interior, the Japanese headed westwards, seeking out the Nationalist capital, the ancient Chinese city of Nanking.

The Battle of Nanking

Nanking was the next great city that the Japanese attacked, after capturing Peking and Shanghai. The battle started on the 9th of December, 1937.

Back in September, the Japanese had carried out extensive air-raids on Nanking, softening it up for the impending invasion. Heavy raids were carried out for weeks on end. When Shanghai fell in October, the Nationalist Army abandoned the city and retreated to Nanking, to try and defend the capital.

It was soon realised that defending the capital against hardened Japanese troops was pointless. Although most Chinese officers had received the most modern military training (mostly in Russia), the majority of regular soldiers were uneducated peasants or working-class Chinese with only mediocre training, hardly fit to take on the strength of the Japanese.

Rather than risk his entire army being gobbled up by the Japanese, Chiang Kai-Shek ordered it to retreat even further into the Chinese interior, while leaving a small force behind to stall the Japanese.

By November, bombing-raids on Nanking had intensified and it was at this time that everyone who could leave, did leave. Wealthy Chinese of means, businessmen, Western expatriates and anyone who could find a car, boat, bicycle, horse and cart or had a decent pair of shoes fled the city to escape the Japanese.

The Japanese overran Nanking in a matter of weeks. The Chinese defense-strategies collapsed as inexperienced Chinese soldiers fled from the Japanese. Although there were pockets of resistance, the Japanese annihilated Nanking even easier than Shanghai. In early December, the city was placed under siege. The Chinese defenders were given an ultimatum of surrendering the city, or facing an all-out Japanese assault. When a surrender was not given, the Japanese began their invasion-proper, of the city of Nanking.

The city’s ancient defensive walls were blasted aside by the Japanese. Once they’d gained control of the city by mid-December, 1937, the most infamous Japanese war-crime in history began.

The Rape of Nanking

It’s called by many names. The ‘Nanking Incident’, the ‘Nanjing Massacre’…but most people will know it by its most famous name.

The Rape of Nanking.

Starting on the 13th of December, 1937, and lasting for six weeks until the end of January, Japanese soldiers raped, killed, pillaged, looted, burned and destroyed anything and everyone left within the confines of the city of Nanking. Men, women, children, the elderly, the babies, the walking-wounded, were all shot, clubbed, bayoneted, raped, burned alive, buried alive, decapitated or drowned in an orgy of destruction that went for a month and a half without end. Estimates of victims range from 40,000…to 200,000….to 320,000 Chinese civilians of all ages. That sounds even bigger when you consider the fact that in 1937, the population of Nanking about a million people.

It was the most horrific Japanese war-crime ever. And even today, seventy years later, it’s still not taught in Japanese schools. Japanese schoolchildren have never heard of it. Never read about it in their textbooks, and their teachers have never told them about it. They’ll learn about the battle and the siege and the invasion…but the rape is suspiciously absent.

During the war, the Japanese Imperial Army was notorious for ignoring the rules of war, more commonly known as the Geneva Conventions. Chinese prisoners of war were executed along with civilians, and no quarter was given to anyone.

The Chinese civilians still left within the confines of Nanking would search for anywhere to hide. Cellars, bunkers, bombed out buildings…but most famously, about 250,000 of them managed to find security…for a time at least…in the unofficial D.M.Z. in the middle of Nanking.

The Nanking Safety Zone

With the Japanese invasion imminent, Western expatriates still within the city (mostly religious leaders, diplomats and medical staff) took it upon themselves to try and set up a D.M.Z within the city…a demilitarised zone.

It was given the rather misleading title of the “Nanking Safety Zone”.

It might be a zone.

It might be in Nanking.

But it certainly didn’t guarantee safety.

The Japanese were not willing to attack Western institutions or persons, for fear of bringing Western powers into ‘their war’. To try and use this to their advantage, the Westerners attempted to set up a safety-zone in the middle of Nanking. The Japanese had said that they would not attack any part of Nanking where no threat existed (i.e: Where there weren’t any Chinese soldiers).

To that end, Chinese soldiers evacuated an area of the city about 8.5 square kilometers in size. Within that space were established about twenty to thirty individual refugee-camps, which took up about 3.8 square kilometers. For the sake of comparison, Central Park in Manhattan is 3.4 square kilometers in area.

Into this space was crammed roughly 250,000 Chinese refugees. Surveying the entire project were all the Western expatriates then left in the city, about 27-30 of them, all told.

One of the men who was central to the establishment and operation of the Nanking Safety Zone was a German. His name was John Rabe. He was a businessman, which some people might know…and he was a Nazi, which some people might not know.

Despite the name, the Nanking Safety Zone, the zone did not automatically provide ‘safety’.

The Japanese agreed not to attack any place which did not pose a threat to their interests. But at the same time, they did not recognise the fact that the Safety Zone existed at all. To them, it was just another part of the city for them to loot and pillage. So remaining within the Safety Zone did not mean that you were entirely secure. The Japanese were well-known for entering the Zone when it took their fancy, snatch up a few hundred men and women and either haul them off and execute them or rape them, or just shoot them dead where they stood. Unlike the International Settlement in Shanghai, the Japanese had no qualms about just going in and causing havoc.

At the end of January, 1938, the Japanese claimed to have ‘restored order’ to Nanking. The Nanking Safety-Zone was forcibly disbanded and everyone was made to return to their homes. Although not entirely effective, John Rabe, commonly known as the “Good Nazi of Nanking“, is credited with saving the lives of approximately 250,000 people.

Want to know more?

I suggest you read this website dedicated to the Battle of Nanking.


The House of the Dragon Throne: Imperial China and the Forbidden City

China has not had an easy history. In the last one hundred years, China has gone from a monarchy to a capitalist, democratic republic to a communist state. China has seen great changes and turmoils. It has seen wars, famine, revolution, disease, infighting and upheaval. But what do we think of when we think of Chinese history? We think of Emperors, Empresses, princes, princesses, big, fancy houses, fine furniture, paddyfields, baggy robes, pigtails, chopsticks, incense, Taoism and the millions of Chinese peasantry.

But what was China really like back when the Chinese Empire still existed?

China: A Land of Empire

China has had a long history of tens of thousands of years and over a dozen dynasties and smaller kingdoms ruling over it, all fighting for power and control. China is a massive country and controlling the entire nation is an ambitious undertaking. For centuries, kings, armies and emperors fought each other and at various points in Chinese history, the country was united, divided, united, divided, united and divided yet again, as kings, emperors and generals fought for control. To try and cover over four thousand years of Chinese history in one article is far too ambitious…so I won’t. Let’s take a more general view of Imperial China and look at the parts of China that have entered the public, global image of China.

The Chinese Emperor and the Mandate of Heaven

In older times, China was ruled by an emperor, as were most Asian countries, such as the current Emperor of Japan. In China, the Emperor was seen as a demigod, appointed by the Chinese gods to be their representative on earth. Think of it as the Chinese equivalent of the Western belief of the ‘Divine Right of Kings’.

The Emperor held absolute power over all of China (provided of course, it was all of China that he controlled at the time of his reign). His right to this power came from the ancient belief of the Mandate of Heaven, similar to the above concept of the Divine Right of Kings in Western monarchies. In its essence, the Mandate of Heaven, according to traditional Confucian teachings, stated that so long as an incumbent emperor was reasonable, kind, just and merciful towards the commoners, he would retain the right to rule. If his rule became objectionable in any way and remained so until it became intolerable, it was the right of the people to overthrow the emperor and his dynasty and establish a new one. If the emperor was successfully overthrown and defeated, the common people would take it as a sign that the emperor had displeased the gods and had therefore, lost their blessing and protection, which meant that the blessing of the gods would transfer to the next dynasty to be established.

And this was the essence of Chinese dynastic imperial rule for centuries.

According to research of ancient Chinese documents, the Mandate of Heaven has existed ever since it was put to paper by Zhou Gongdan, brother to the first emperor of the Zhou Dynasty (established 1045 B.C). The original documents as written by Duke Zhou Gongdan, outline the eight main points of the traditional Mandate of Heaven, as was followed by every ruler of China since then for the next two thousand years. In essence, they state that:

1. The Right to Rule China is Granted by Heaven.
2. There will only be ONE ruler of China at any one time.
3. The right of the Emperor to Rule is based on his good conduct and his being the earthly representative of Heaven.
4. While the Mandate of Heaven is maintained, dynastic rule (father-to-son) is allowed. Failure to maintain the Mandate will result in the loss of the right to dynastic rule.

With these four main rules of the Mandate of Heaven came the four corresponding implications or conditions:

5. The ruling family of China must be seen as legitimate by the People of China.
6. If China is ruled by more than one family or person, the family or person that puts forward a legitimate claim to the Mandate must be able to justify it to the people of China.
7. Rulers are responsible for their own behaviour and must make the welfare of the Chinese people their first priority.
8. Rulers of China should always be mindful of revolutions. A revolution would indicate the displeasure of the people and therefore, the loss of the Mandate of Heaven.

If you read the Terms and Conditions of the Mandate of Heaven, you may notice that it doesn’t mention anything about noble birth. Noble birth is not (and never was) a condition of rulership over China, in contrast to rulership of contemporary Western monarchies. In theory, any man could become ruler of China. Of course, the men with the best chance of ruling China were those who were already close to the emperor, men like advisors, ministers and prominent royal officials.

The Imperial Examination

You might not believe it, but becoming part of the governing class of Imperial China was not as difficult as it might seem.

In ancient times, the only way to get into the Chinese Government was to ‘know the right people’.People gained access to the administrative bureaucracy by being recommended for vacancies by current bureaucrats or by prominent Chinese noblemen. Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty established an examination system during his reign (141 B.C. – 87 B.C.) based on Confucian teachings. Any man could apply for these examinations if he could pay the fees and had the necessary education. Applicants or students who passed the examinations would be given posts in the Imperial Bureaucracy. From there, it was just a matter of getting promoted until you got high enough in the imperial ladder to hopefully one day, become emperor. The Imperial Examination was a part of Chinese life until the fall of Imperial China centuries later.

The Forbidden City

The most famous (and the largest) remnant and symbol of Imperial China and the Chinese Emperor: The Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

Despite what you might think, the Forbidden City was not the first palace to house the Emperor of China. In fact, the Forbidden City was not built until the second emperor of the Ming Dynasty came along. The emperor’s father, the first emperor (and founder) of the Ming Dynasty moved the Chinese capital from Peking to Nanking (what are Beijing and Nanjing today) during his reign. When his son, the Yongle Emperor came to the throne, he moved the Chinese capital back to Beijing and in 1406, ordered the start of construction of a grand new imperial residence that would eventually become known as the ‘Zijincheng‘, or the ‘Purple Forbidden City’ (In China, as was also the case in contemperous Western monarchies, purple was the colour of monarchy. Why? Because purple dye was notoriously difficult to make, and therefore extremely expensive, which meant that only kings and emperors could afford it). In time, the structure just became known as the ‘Forbidden City’.

The Forbidden City took fifteen years to build. It holds the Guiness Record as being the largest palace complex on earth. From the completion of its construction until the fall of Imperial China, it was the seat of power for the Chinese Emperor.

The Forbidden City gets its name quite simply because commoners were forbidden to enter its walls. The only people allowed inside were the Emperor’s family, government officials, servants, courtiers and of course…the Imperial eunuchs.

Eunuchs have a long history in China. They ranged from prisoners of war to men found guilty of the crime of rape (or any other crime for which castration was the punishment) and men who became slaves were also turned into eunuchs. But most famously, eunuchs were employed in their thousands by the Imperial household to act as servants to the emperor and his family. Since eunuchs were incapable of having sex, they were unable to establish their own families (and by extension, their own dynasties) which might threaten the power and position of the emperor, which was the main justification behind the employment of eunuchs by the Imperial court.

The Peculiarities of the Palace

The imperial palace, the great Forbidden City in Beijing, was (and remains) unlike almost any other palace complex in the world. To begin with, it is the largest palace complex in the world. It has hundreds of buildings and miles of walls, dozens of watchtowers, acres of courtyards, gardens and several enormous gates. The walls and gates divided the palace and servants, courtiers, officials and members of the imperial family were strictly segregated. Only certain people were allowed in the innermost areas of the palace grounds and buildings where the emperor lived with his family. In total, the palace has 9,999 rooms. This was considered good luck because the Chinese word for ‘nine’, ‘Jiu‘, is pronounced the same way as the Chinese word meaning ‘long-lasting’.

Because a number of the buildings in the palace were made of wood, there are several enormous cauldrons placed around the various palace courtyards. The cauldrons were used to collect rainwater which would then be used to put out fires in an emergency.

Despite the palace’s enormous size, because it was also designed as a fortress, there are only four gates into the main complex, and a fifth gate (the Gate of Supreme Harmony) that leads to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the structure used by the emperor on his wedding-day and on special occasions. Because of the hall’s general inaccessibility, it was impractical to use it on a regular basis when the emperor would hold court. So, although this was officially one of the hall’s intended purposes, it was rarely occupied for this use. The Hall of Supreme Harmony is also the location of the ‘Dragon Throne’ mentioned in the title of this article. The Dragon Throne was the official seat (literally) of the Emperor of China.

Colours play an important part in Chinese culture, and some colours held special significance in the Chinese Imperial Court.

Red was the colour of happiness.

Purple was officially the colour of the Emperor of China himself, although he might also wear robes that were dyed yellow instead.

Gold or Yellow was the colour of the Imperial Family. In imperial times, only members of the Imperial Family were allowed to wear yellow or own objects coloured in yellow.

An interesting fact is that the floor of the Hall of Supreme Harmony is laid with golden bricks to symbolise the Imperial Family and the emperor. Okay, that’s not quite right. Yes, the floor of the hall is made up of bricks. But no, they don’t actually contain any gold. They get their name ‘golden bricks’ because the bricks (fired in the imperial kiln), took an incredibly long time to make. Because they took so long and were so difficult to make, each brick was considered to be worth it’s weight in gold (and probably cost just as much!), hence the name ‘golden bricks’.

The Last Emperor

The Chinese Empire lasted for centuries. But it could not last forever. And it couldn’t last in the 20th century.

The Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion of the late 19th century caused great instability in China. The last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, was becoming increasingly unpopular with ordinary Chinese citizens…probably because it wasn’t Chinese.

That’s right. A Chinese dynasty that wasn’t Chinese. How is this possible?

The Qing Dynasty just sounds so…Chinese…doesn’t it?

Well, that was the whole point. To make it sound as Chinese as possible. That way, hopefully, people would forget the dynasty’s other name: The Manchu Dynasty.

The Manchu Dynasty got its name from  where its people originated from, a geographic region northeast of China, then called ‘Manchuria’. But how does this differ from the rest of China and how do its people differ from the rest of the Chinese population?

Well, up until the mid-1600s, China had always been ruled by a Han emperor. That is to say, it was ruled by an emperor who came from amongst the Han people, the Han being the main ethnic group in China (this is why the Chinese language is called ‘Hanyu‘ or the ‘Han Language’, and the Chinese people are called ‘Hanren‘ or the ‘Han People’ in their native tongue).

But in the early-1600s, all this changed and Manchu people from the north of what is now part of China, invaded Beijing. To the ordinary Chinese people, they saw the Manchus as being foreigners and not part of the China or the Chinese people which they knew. They were not Han people and were therefore considered outsiders. But the Han seized power in the 1640s and remained in power, founding the ‘Qing Dynasty’ to make themselves sound ‘more Chinese’.

The Chinese people, who had been growing more and more displeased with the Qing Dynasty, were itching for a chance to abolish the monarchy and found a new government: A western-stye democractic republic.

In 1908, the aged and extremely bad-tempered Empress Dowager, Cixi, died of old age. She had ruled China as it’s empress for nearly fifty years after the death of her husband. When she died at the age of 72, the last emperor of China inherited the throne.

He was not a powerful man. He was not an authoratative man.

He was not a man at all.

In fact he was a boy.

And his name was Puyi.

The diminutive Puyi, just three years old when he inherited the throne, was the great-nephew of the Empress Dowager Cixi (a fact that took me a while to figure out. Imperial Chinese succession can be hideously frustrating, confusing and convoluted). He ‘ruled’ from 1908-1912, although, because he was far too young at the time, his father ruled as his regent.

In 1912, the Republic of China was declared and Puyi abdicated in 1911. He was briefly restored to power for the grand total of eleven days in 1917, but was dethroned on the 12th of July, 1917 and lost power for the second time in less than ten years; this time for good.

Puyi lived in the Forbidden City with his family and his servants and courtiers until 1924. By now, Imperial Chinese Rule had disintergrated to such a level that it was little more than a show of power and a shadow of what it once was. The palace eunuchs had all been fired in 1923 and the enormous imperial complex was virtually empty. In 1924, Puyi was finally kicked out of the palace. To prevent his returning to the Forbidden City and possibly staging a coup to take back the throne, the entire palace complex was declared a museum and the Forbidden City was given its current name: the Palace Museum.

Puyi’s life was one of constant change. Even though he was an emperor of China, he never ever really ruled anything. Not China, not even the puppet-state of Manchukou which the Japanese made him the ruler of in 1932. He finally died on the 17th of October, 1967. He was 61 years old.

Before his death, Puyi was encouraged by the government of the People’s Republic of China to write his autobiography, perhaps recognising his significant and special place in Chinese history. His autobiography (translated from Chinese) is “The First Half of My Life“. When the text was translated into English, it was given the title “From Emperor to Citizen”.

The History of the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City (documentary)


Chinatown Reversed: The Shanghai International Settlement

Almost every city on earth has a Chinatown: London. Melbourne. Sydney. San Francisco. New York. Los Angeles. Chicago. Some place where people of Asian, but mostly Chinese background, go to get a taste of their own culture, food, customs and homeland.

But have you ever considered that halfway around the world, in the very heart of Asia, there was once a similar place for Westerners? Not a colony set up by a European power, but an area of land, a part of a city, that was once home to thousands of Europeans and Americans, who could live there in their own slice of home in the middle of the Far East?

From 1843 to 1943, such a place existed. And this is its story.

The End of the Opium War

From 1839 until 1842, China was embroiled in warfare. The First Opium War. Fought primarily between the British Empire and the last of the Chinese Imperial Dynasties, the Qing Dynasty, the Opium War got its name because of the British import of the opium drug into Imperial China. In the 1800s, opium was used in a number of medications (such as the painkiller, laudanum). But it was also highly addictive. The Qing Government had outlawed the use and presence of opium in China and the British importing this drug into China was in direct conflict with Chinese laws. On top of this, trade between the Chinese and British Empires was highly restricted, something that the British wanted to change.

With the ending of the Opium War in 1842, the British and the Chinese signed the Treaty of Nanking. One of the principal issues in the treaty was that of foreign relations, specifically, foreign trade. Under the terms of the Treaty, the Chinese had to open up various cities to Western trade. These ‘treaty ports’ as they were called, lined the Chinese coast. The most famous one was the ancient walled city of Shanghai.

Shanghai liteerally translates as “On the Waterfront” in English. And because of its access to the enormous Huangpu River, it was a city perfectly situated to do trade with the West. But for trade with the West to be successful, the British had to make sure that their business-interests were handled properly in China. To deal with this concern, the British struck a deal with the Chinese to concede land outside of the city walls, immediately north of Old Shanghai, to establish a trading-post.

The Birth of the Shanghai International Settlement

Established in 1843, the Shanghai International Settlement grew rapidly. It started with the British Concession in 1843, followed by the American Concession in 1844, then the French Concession in 1848. In 1863, the American and British Concessions officially joined together, creating the Shanghai International Settlement.

Within the boundaries of the Settlement and the French Concession (which expanded over the next one hundred years), could be found a slice of America and Europe, within the center of Asia. There was a mixture of Western and Eastern architectual styles. There was a British-style police-force (the Shanghai Municipal Police) established in 1854, there was even a separate governing-body for the Settlement, the Shanghai Municipal Council. Despite the Second Opium War of the 1850s, the fall of the Qing Dynasty in the 1910s and the rise of the Republic of China, the Shanghai International Settlement remained. Westerners flocked to Shanghai to get a taste of the Orient from the comfort of their own little slice of home.

The Nature of the Settlement

One thing that you have to understand about the Shanghai International Settlement is that it was not, in any way, at any time in its history, ever a colony. It was not land claimed in China in the name of, and for the use by a foreign power. The land on which the Settlement was situated, outside (and later on, within) the growing city of Shanghai, belonged to the Chinese Government. It was conceded to the foreign powers for use as a trading-post, and was not considered foreign soil, similar to the land on which foreign embassies and consulates are built. Regardless of this, the Shanghai International Settlement existed and operated as an entity that was almost completely separate from Chinese Shanghai. In fact, it was said that to drive through all of Shanghai, you actually required three drivers’ licenses! One for the French Concession, one for the International Settlement and one for Chinese Shanghai.

The Settlement Begins to Grow

As the map below clearly shows, the Shanghai International Settlement grew rapidly during its existence, taking up both sides of Suzhou Creek and the north bank of the Huangpu River in central Shanghai.

The map shows the growth of the Settlement from 1846 to 1943. The grey area is the French Concession. The circular white area next to it is Old Shanghai. Immediately north of the French Concession is the British Concession, which expanded westwards and northwards to the south bank of the Suzhou Creek (the wiggly line between the medium brown and yellow parts of the map). North of the creek (and expanding eastwards) is the American Concession. As time went by, other countries staked their claims in the larger American Concession which was subdivided into German, Italian, Russian and Japanese sectors.

Life in the Settlement

The Shanghai International Settlement was famous for many things. One of them was the standard of living. Especially in the French Concession, you could find lavish homes owned by wealthy socialites and businessmen. The Settlement was famous for its hotels (some of which still stand today), its nightclubs, it’s casinos and department stores. The Settlement even had its own racetrack, sporting-centers, several public parks and gardens and two shooting-ranges (one in the British Concession, and other in the French Concession). Tourism was big business in Shanghai. Getting around the Settlement could be done through automobile, buses, rickshaws or by using the local streetcar system (established in 1908).

Shopping in the International Settlement was big. Nanking Road and Bubbling Well Road (today, East and West Nanjing Roads, respectively) were lined with restaurants, department stores and hotels. They were also serviced by their own streetcar line, which made moving up and down what was (and still is) Shanghai’s main shopping boulevard, very easy.

The flag of the Shanghai International Settlement

Law-enforcement in the Settlement was provided, not by the Chinese Shanghai Police, but rather by the Settlement’s own force, the aforementioned Shanghai Municipal Police. Modelled after the Metropolitan Police Service (“Scotland Yard”) in London, the force was established in 1854. Chinese officers were admitted to the ranks of the SMP starting in 1864. Together with the police, the Settlement had its own military force, made up of soldiers from the various armies and military-organisations of the countries represented within the Settlement. The SMP had a total of fourteen stations scattered throughout the Settlement. It’s headquarters was located on Foochow Road (Fuzhou Road today).

The Shanghai Nightlife

In the Roaring Twenties and the 1930s, the International Settlement gained a reputation for its vibrant nightlife. Hotel ballrooms, dance-halls and other places of entertainment were packed on a regular basis. Nightclubs such as Ciro’s, the Paramount, Casanova’s and the Canidrome Ballroom were popular nightspots where people could go and listen to American, British and European jazz-bands.

Constructed between 1931-1933, the Paramount is one of Shanghai’s most famous nightspots. This three-storey art-deco nightclub was lucky to survive bombardment during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Second World War and the Chinese Civil War. It was abandonded during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, but was restored to its art deco charm in the 2000s and remains operational to this day.

Along with nightclubs and hotel ballrooms, Shanghai also had the Canidrome. It housed not only the famous Canidrome Ballroom, but also a greyhound racing-track (the name ‘canidrome’ comes from ‘canine’ – dog, and ‘drome’ – racetrack). There was also the Great World Entertainment Center located in the French Concession, a popular late-night hangout. Great World still stands today, but the Canidrome (constructed in 1928) was demolished in 2005.

The Bund

The Bund is the main waterfront road that runs along the east border of the former British Concession of the International Settlement. It’s famous for its row of iconic colonial-era buildings, which included banks, hotels, clubhouses and office-buildings. The Shanghai Club, the Cathay Hotel, the Palace Hotel, the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (“HSBC”) and the offices of the North-China Daily News (one of the Settlement’s several English-language newspapers) were all located here and the buildings still stand to this day.

Above is a photo of the Bund in 1929. The building on the extreme right (with the pyramidal roof) is the Cathay Hotel. Directly to its left is the Palace Hotel (between them runs Nanking Road; East Nanjing Road today). Two doors down is the North-China Daily News Building. A little further along is the Customs House (with the clocktower) and the HSBC Building (with the dome). The Bund and its buildings are one of modern Shanghai’s biggest tourist attractions.

The Second Sino-Japanese War

Shanghai played a very interesting role in the Second Sino-Japanese War. And it’s difficult to understand how this all works out if you don’t factor in the existence of the International Settlement.

In July of 1937, China and Japan went to war.

No they didn’t.

In actuality, China and Japan had been fighting on-and-off for years. It started in 1931 and it never really stopped since then. There was just no formal declaration of war. That didn’t happen until Japan formally declared war on China and launched an invasion in 1937. Chinese forces were pushed back and after defeat after defeat, the Japanese had the important port city of Shanghai surrounded.

The Japanese invaded Shanghai in August of 1937 in a battle that lasted three months. The city didn’t finally fall until November. But even then, only part of the city fell.

In a strange case of diplomatic immunity and Japanese squeamishness, the Japanese army only attacked Chinese Shanghai. They left the International Settlement in the middle of town…largely untouched. I say ‘largely’ because it was still hit by a stray bullet or two, but the Japanese never intended to invade the Settlement.


Because, while the rest of Shanghai was controlled by the Chinese, the Settlement was effectively under foreign control. And if the Japanese attacked the British, French or American concessions of the Settlement and killed foreigners living there, they were terrified that all the other countries in the world would come running after them. So they left the Settlement alone. Because of this, despite the conflict going on all around them, the people living in the International Settlement continued life…more or less as they had always done. Sure, now there were Japanese soldiers poking their noses into everything…but that needn’t disrupt the black tie soiree going on at the ballroom of the Majestic Hotel down the road.

Because the Settlement existed as a separate entity from the rest of Shanghai, at the commencement of hostilities, it actually declared its neutrality from the war. Because the Japanese wouldn’t bomb the Settlement, thousands of Shanghainese poured into the Settlement, seeking shelter from the enemy. Between 1937-1941, the Shanghai International Settlement continued as it had always done.

The Second Sino-Japanese War did something else to Shanghai. In a strange, round-about way, the invasion of Shanghai was actually beneficial to some people. Specifically: European Jews.

In the mid and late 1930s, with Nazism on the rise in Europe, Jews were desperate to escape rabid antisemitism. Unable to go to New York or London or Melbourne or San Francisco or any other major port city in any but the very smallest numbers due to international immigration quotas, between 20,000-30,000 Jews, mostly German, but also Polish Jews, fled to the Shanghai International Settlement between 1933-1941. The disruption caused by the Japanese occupation of Chinese Shanghai meant that travel-restrictions in China were virtually nonexistent. This made the International Settlement the perfect place for opportunistic and desperate Jews to hide out for the duration of the Second World War.

The Nationalist Chinese Government (the Koumintang or ‘KMT’) was desperate for foreign intervention and support in their war against the Japanese, but, badly shaken after the Great War of 1914, nobody wanted to involve themselves in another conflict. In a show of determination and strength, 423 soldiers and officers of the Chinese National Revolutionary Army barricaded and fortified a warehouse in Chinese Shanghai called Sihang Warehouse. From their position, they engaged in fierce battles with the Japanese Imperial Army, to keep them from attacking the main retreating force of the Chinese Army. But keeping the Japanese occupied was only part of the purpose of the Defense of Sihang Warehouse. The warehouse was chosen specifically as the spot from which the Chinese could engage the Japanese, for another reason…It’s right across the river between the International Settlement and Chinese Shanghai. Western foreigners couldn’t ignore and couldn’t have not seen a battle that was happening almost literally next door.

Even though the Chinese managed to kill over two hundred enemy soldiers, the defiant last act of a desperate and retreating army did nothing to move foreign governments and China was largely on its own for the majority of the war.

The End of the Settlement

The beginning of the end of the Shanghai International Settlement came in December, 1941. On the 7th of that month, the Japanese attacked the American naval base of Pearl Harbor. But it also attacked almost every other country in Asia. The East Indies, Malaya, Hong Kong, Wake Island…and of course…the International Settlement.

Terrified expatriates and foreign nationals fled the Settlement in droves, piling onto whatever ships were available to get them out of Shanghai. The vastly superior Japanese Army quickly overwhelmed any defences that the Settlement could muster and soon, all of Shanghai was under Japanese occupation.

The true end of the Settlement didn’t come until 1943, however. Anyone unlucky enough not to take advantage of the confusion and panic caused by the Japanese Invasion were arrested and rounded up. They were taken off to P.O.W. camps or were housed in the “Area for Stateless Refugees”, a ghetto in the Hongkew District of what was once the International Settlement. The Jews that fled to Shanghai in the years previous (see above), were also herded into this ghetto, although, because the Japanese had no policy towards Jews specifically, they were thankfully spared the horrors of the German ghetto-system.

Realising that they couldn’t hold onto the Settlement any longer, the British ceded the land of their Concession back to the Chinese in 1943, followed soon after by the American, French and other foreign governments. Because of the Settlement’s occupation, however, the handover wasn’t really official until 1945.

In 1949, the Communist China defeated Capitalist China and in the ensuing decades, with protests and revolutions, the Settlement was lost to history. The American Consulate in the International Settlement (which moved FOUR TIMES between 1933-1950), was shut down in 1950. There wasn’t another American Consulate in Shanghai until 1980, exactly 30 years (right down the to month, and nearly to the day) after the last one closed.

Today, the International Settlement is something you read about in history-books, that you see in movies like ‘Shanghai’, ‘The Painted Veil’ or ‘Empire of the Sun’. It was the Shanghai of a swinging nightlife, neon, bright lights, drugs, sex, big-band jazz, decadance and wealth. It was a Shanghai of corruption and crime and greed. The Shanghai of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It was something unique and special…and gone.