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British Lion, Chinese Dragon: 200 Years of Conflict and Collaboration

Last updated: 28 April 2016

Recorded on 2 January 2014

Robert Fleming of the National Army Museum provides an overview of the history of conflict and collaboration between Britain and China.


Robert Fleming:

So, the subject for today is British Lion, Chinese Dragon: 200 Years of Conflict and Collaboration Between Britain and China. Most of you are probably aware that the lion and the dragon are very prominent in both Chinese and British symbology, which is an interesting cohesion.

Britain and China have an important and longstanding relationship. Both are within the world's six richest economies and both are within the world's five most powerful militaries. The relationship between Britain and China is vital for world affairs but it has not always been a smooth relationship.

Britain and China have both been imperial powers in the past and imperial ambition, political differences and economic aims have often led the two nations into conflict. But it should not be forgotten that Britain and China have also co-operated politically and militarily as well. It has been a 200-years-plus relationship of conflict and collaboration.

When China first really entered English consciousness, the Han Chinese Ming Dynasty was in its dying throes. Suffering from internal problems and beset by a Manchu invasion it was replaced by the Qing Dynasty in 1644.

The Qing Dynasty was initially a breath of fresh air for China. The ten great campaigns of the Qianlong Emperor extended Chinese control into Central Asia. Their rulers maintained Manchu culture and government using Confucian principles, allowing Han and Manchu to co-operate in a bureaucratic, efficient government. They established a tributary system for international relations, which initially made the Qing Dynasty quite wealthy.

They were successful at trade and developed into a multi-cultural, multi-religious empire with defining styles of architecture. They traded goods from across central, southern and eastern Asia and maintained an uneasy pact with the Portuguese, who were initially the sole European traders in East Asia. Using a system of river forts and naval junks, the Qing protected their own trade interests. They also had a strongly established sense of art and fashion.

But the rise of the Qing Dynasty coincided with the expanding European imperialism. The Treaty of Tordesillas, granted by Pope Alexander VI in 1494, gave Spain and Portugal a duopoly of trade with all territories outside of Europe. It divided the territories that each could establish trade with along a meridian 370 leagues west of Cape Verde. With an anti-meridian also ratified by the Treaty of Saragossa in 1529, nobody but those authorised by the Spanish and Portuguese royal houses were allowed to engage with the increasingly lucrative spice trade.

The first contact between England and China occurred against that backdrop. Captain John Wendell arrived in Macao on 27 June 1637 with four heavily armed merchant ships, intent on taking some of Portugal's trade and opening trade between England and China. After upsetting both the Portuguese and the Ming Chongzhen Emperor they were forced to leave on 27 December 1637 unsuccessful.

There was no real further interest in China on the part of the English until Michael Alphonsius Shen Fu-Tsung, a Qing mandarin, who had converted to Catholicism. He was brought on a tour of Europe by a Jesuit priest. He visited the Papal States, France, the Netherlands and England. Whilst in England he catalogued all of the previously untranslated Chinese books in the Bodleian Library and visited King Charles II, who was so delighted by his company that he commissioned this portrait by Godfrey Kneller.

It was also during the reign of Charles II that tea was first brought into England, although it did not become a more widespread popular drink until the mid-18th century. In the late 17th and early 18th century England, and after 1707 Britain, began expending its overseas colonial interests. At first these were focused on the eastern seaboard of North America, but increasingly commercial interests in Africa and India also beckoned.

In 1600 the Honourable East India Company [EIC] had been founded to pursue commerce interests in India. They primarily traded in cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpetre and later tea and opium. Saltpetre, of course, was particularly important for the production of gunpowder.

At first the EIC traded out of their coastal ports but increasingly they began to spread their power and influence internally within India as well. With the loss of the American colonies in 1783 following the unsuccessful American Revolutionary War, the Eastern trade grew in importance to Britain.

The Portuguese initially held a monopoly with the trade of the East Indies and, through their concession at Macao, with China. Tea and nutmeg were of particular importance and their control of the Spice Islands, in what is today Indonesia, would soon be challenged by the Dutch. The island of Run in the Banda Islands chain was particularly of importance, as it was the only place on earth where nutmeg grew naturally.

Britain saw the Dutch challenging Portuguese control in the eastern sphere and the EIC began to do likewise, establishing their own trade ports in the Moluccas. Because of the rising popularity of tea back home in Britain, Britain began to develop a trade deficit with Qing Dynasty China.

Qing China was not interested in imported British goods and demanded their payments in silver, which was diminishing the British silver reserves dramatically. The EIC wanted to instead trade tea for imported goods from their own Indian colonies and one of the cheapest goods that they had ready access to was opium.

So in 1773 the EIC began a British monopoly on the buying of opium in Bengal. Therefore they controlled the international market completely. They intended this, of course, to be sold on in China, as the importation of opium into Britain was illegal. In 1793 the Macartney Embassy was sent to China with the aim of convincing the Qing Emperor to open China up to further British trade, but he rebuffed McCartney saying that Britain had nothing that China wanted.

Hongli was the sixth emperor of the Manchu Qing Dynasty. His belief in China being the central kingdom to which all other nations were tributary, and Britain's aggressive push for liberalisation of trade, caused misunderstanding to grow between Britain and China. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the British Empire began re-establishing itself following its loss of the American colonies. The emphasis began on Eastern trade, meaning that Britain was particularly keen on growing its trade interests in India and China.

But access to the Chinese market was limited. China only allowed European traders access to the port of Canton, now Guangzhou. Thirteen western powers, including Denmark, Spain, USA, Sweden, Britain and the Netherlands were granted factories along the riverfront in Canton. Through these factories, or warehouses, they could import local goods only via local agents called 'hongs' who took commission. Despite this, both the European traders and the 'hongs' were growing very rich on this trade.

This meant that access to the Pearl River delta was of vital importance. The Portuguese already had their concession at Macao and opium traders were establishing themselves at Lintin Island in the estuary, but the EIC wanted a more permanent base from which to trade. Chinese agents and other European traders were growing rich on the Chinese trade, but the increasing import of opium into China was causing massive social problems and the balance of trade, which had been in Chinese favour, was shifting towards a deficit.

Despite the Chinese ban on opium import, the drug was increasingly smuggled into China from Bengal from traffickers and agency houses. Jardine, Matheson & Co, Dent & Co and even P&O of the P&O cruise company all became quite wealthy on this trade. By the early 1820s it was amounting to around 900 tonnes a year.

The proceeds of the drug smuggling, landing their cargoes at Lintin Island, were paid into company factories in Canton and by 1825 most of the money needed to buy tea in China was now being realised by the opium trade. In 1838 the Chinese Emperor had had enough. The amount of smuggled opium entering China was now approaching over 1,400 tonnes a year and the Chinese imposed a death penalty on anyone involved in the opium smuggling trade.

They sent a special imperial commissioner, Lin Zexu, to curb smuggling, but the imposition of preventative measures led to the outbreak of the First Opium War. As part of the First Opium War, the British managed to capture the Bogue forts at the entrance to the Pearl River, which meant that, with Royal Naval power, they were able to control access in and out of Canton.

The conclusion of the Opium War resulted in first the Convention of Chuenpee, which was intended to end the war and allow Britain to establish a permanent base on Hong Kong Island. This was ratified by the Treaty of Nanking, which saw the cession of Hong Kong Island to China [sic - Britain]. They then took control of Chin-kiang-fu at the entrance to the Yangtze River and, by the use of river blockades, were able to actually control all of the inland trade within China as well.

The Treaty of Nanking was verified in 1842 aboard HMS 'Cornwallis' and as well as access to Hong Kong Island it also opened up five additional ports which Europeans and particularly Britain was allowed to trade with. China was also obliged to pay £21 million of reparations to Britain.

In 1842 Britain began its long occupation of Hong Kong Island. The following year the Treaty of the Bogue was also agreed which would not only ratify the Treaty of Nanking, but also granted extraterritoriality to UK subjects, which meant that they were not subject to Chinese law even within China. It also granted most-favoured-nation status to Britain.

These are the additional ports that were opened up. This obviously meant that much more of China was accessible to European traders.

At the same time Britain, of course, was involved in the Crimean War and British troops that were sent to garrison Hong Kong initially were required back in the Crimea for the Crimean War. So for the first time a local volunteer force, incorporating initially only Europeans but then Chinese troops as well, the Hong Kong Volunteers, was soon raised. Sikh troops were also sent from India to help with maintaining local law and order.

Not long after this, the Taiping Rebellion broke out. The Taiping Rebellion was actually one of the deadliest conflicts in history, but now because Britain and China had established a political basis which favoured Britain, Britain was actually quite keen on propping up the Qing Dynasty and ensuring that their regime, with which they had asserted themselves, was still in place.

The extent of the rebellion was quite vast. It occupied a large area, particularly in the south-east of China which was the main area in which Europeans were trading. The rebellions spread and, as we see here from this local painting of the Panthay rebellion, Muslim soldiers in particular caused a great deal of internal problems for the Qing Dynasty.

Charles Gordon was despatched to China to try and raise a local force of soldiers to help put down the rebellion. He raised what was known as the 'Ever Victorious Army' which was the first large force of Chinese soldiers under British command and they had a great deal of success in suppressing the rebellion.

One of those additional ports which I had mentioned had been opened up was Shanghai. Initially only a British concession it soon grew to become an international settlement and an area around the river bend here became known as the Shanghai International Settlement with the Nanking Road, pictured here later, which runs through the northern part of the settlement there, being the centre of the international area.

A group called the Shanghai Volunteers were raised there and, although a large number of British troops were involved, it was actually an international force with troops from China, Germany, the United States, France and various other nations involved. By the 1930s it had grown to incorporate soldiers from over 13 countries and provided protection for the commercial interests in Shanghai.

There was also an organisation raised by the British at the invitation of the Shanghai municipal council called the Shanghai Municipal Police. This was also a multi-cultural group - as we see here we've got Chinese soldiers on the left, Indian soldiers in the centre and a British officer on the right. And this was a local police force but it was a military or paramilitary force - they were basically soldiers trained for internal dispute resolution.

And it was from this group that Fairbairn, of Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife fame, was involved in local policing. And it was there that he learned all of his martial arts training. He learned judo and jujitsu, and that went on to inform British self-defence in the Second World War.

But the conflict over opium continued and of course in the late 1850s we see Chinese boarders raiding a British ship and throwing all of the opium overboard. So British troops were again sent in to quell the Chinese opposition to the opium trade.

The conflict was a long and bloody one and it resulted in British forces occupying the Forbidden City in Beijing and also the sacking of the Summer Palace. Now this was an incredibly destructive act, but it was done in revenge for the murder of unarmed European civilians. The remains of the Summer Palace have been kept by the Chinese, as pictured in the top there, as a reminder of European imperial ambition in China.

So in the late 19th century we see a continued expansion of European trade throughout Asia, South-east Asia and China. European traders have more or less a monopoly of the export of spices and valuable resources out of Asia into Europe and the West and are growing very wealthy off it.

This is just another Chinese map and a closer scale showing the large number of settlements that are now under European influence or control.

So, what we have in the 19th century is a long list of what the Chinese referred to as the 'unequal treaties'. Starting with the Treaty of Nanking, which was a cession of Hong Kong, we go through a fairly consistent list of different treaties, which are designed to impose limitations on Chinese ability to control their own commerce, to allow access for Europeans and commercial privilege for Europeans. In China this period from 1840 until 1950 is more or less referred to as China's Century of Humiliation and they do remember it as so.

So, by the beginning of the 20th century we have growing spheres of influence by European powers in South-east Asia. And the green areas there depict the primary areas of interest of Britain.

Another conflict erupted, this time it was actually a group of internal rebels who were very angry at China, the Qing Dynasty's co-operation with European powers. They believed that external influences particularly Christian missions were suppressing traditional Chinese culture and causing a loss of what was important to them.

An organisation called the 'Society of the Righteous Fist' or the 'Harmonious Fist' grew up and they basically launched a rebellion against the Qing rule and against foreign influence. And that became known as the Boxer Rebellion, because all of the members of the society were practitioners of traditional Chinese martial arts, or kung fu. There are quite a lot of prints and drawings in the Collection and at the time very popular for little ceramic figurines of Chinese martial artists.

This particular picture depicts British and Japanese troops, who were part of an eight-nation alliance that were involved in fighting against Qing Chinese troops, who joined the rebellion, and also members of the Society.

During this time also the British raised what was called the First Chinese Regiment. Now this is a regiment which is staffed with all-Chinese troops except for NCOs [non-commissioned officers] - a lot of the NCOs were actually Sikh soldiers from the Indian Army - and, of course, white British officers. But we see a large force raised which plays a fairly significant role in the conflict.

The ruler at this time was the Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi. She was actually one of the longest rulers in Imperial Chinese history, and here we see her palanquin being carried. And I've included this for two reasons - firstly to show the Empress who even though she was female and it was fairly unusual for a female to exert power in China in the imperial period she was an effective ruler and was well respected. But this picture also illustrates Chinese troops doing their traditional kowtowing but also adopting Western military drill - they are holding their rifles in a Western fashion.

So there is an interesting period towards the end of Empress Tzu-Hsi's reign where you get this crossover between traditional Chinese military culture and European military culture blending together.

In 1898 we also see another concession granted to Britain at Weihai. It's primarily a Royal Naval port and it is established because the Russians have established a concession at Port Arthur. A concession was granted for the duration of the Russian occupation of Port Arthur.

Port Arthur was captured by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War and in 1905 was handed over to Japanese control. So the concession at Weihai was changed to be for the duration of the Japanese occupation of Port Arthur.

In 1903 Britain further invades Tibet. In the 1880s they had already invaded Sikkim and now they are taking full control of most of Tibet, so eating away at what was the Qing Dynasty's western provinces. But the Qing Dynasty by this stage was beset by its own internal problems and, much like the Ming Dynasty before it, began to suffer from corruption and greed and internal power plays, and was actually overthrown in the first Chinese revolution replaced by the Chinese Republic.

The Chinese Republic wanted to join the Allies in the First World War, but both France and Britain were wary of large numbers of Chinese troops being brought to Europe, particularly after the long history of conflict with China that had preceded the First World War.

But what they did allow was the importation of workers. So, if they were unarmed they were acceptable to be brought onto the Western Front battlefield. And in total Britain employed 106,000 Chinese workers - 100,000 on the Western Front and 6,000 in Egypt - and France employed a further 40,000. So the best part of 150,000 Chinese workers were involved in the Western Front campaign. They carried out vital war work - movement of munitions, the clearing of roads, pioneering work and the movements of resources as well.

This is a really nice picture of them celebrating Chinese New Year at the beginning of 1918.

The post-First World War period was marked by increasing conflict between China and Japan. The First Sino-Japanese War saw Japanese expansion through the Korean peninsular, Manchuria and down into northern China. And, of course, the occupation of China was quite brutal and still this day leads to tensions between the two nations. This was followed by the Second Sino-Japanese War in the 1930s which merged into the Second World War.

Now, if you remember from before, Shanghai in northern China was occupied by the Shanghai International Settlement which had troops from many European nations based in Shanghai. As we see here from this map, we've got the Japanese movement first into northern China but then increasingly towards Nanking and Shanghai. And there was obviously a very famous massacre of Chinese in Nanking following the capture of Nanking by the Japanese, and Shanghai also fell.

During the Battle of Shanghai in 1937 there was a large number of British troops based in Shanghai and they were all caught up in the conflict. The city was bombed indiscriminately and naval vessels were sent into the river and as we see here there is actually a funeral of British soldiers, or in this case Irish soldiers, from the Ulster forces who were killed in the Japanese invasion and that pre-dates the declaration of war between Japan and the United Kingdom.

And perhaps more famously, of course, Britain's main interest in China at the time is Hong Kong. And eventually the Japanese invade and occupy Hong Kong as well. During the Battle for Hong Kong the British raise an ad hoc unit, in addition to the local volunteer regiment which is still in place, called the Hong Kong Chinese Regiment, not to be mistaken with the Royal Hong Kong Regiment. And, although they play an important part in the defence of Hong Kong, the Japanese do eventually occupy Hong Kong.

During the occupation there is a group who are working in South-east Asia and in Hong Kong called the British Army Aid Group and they are smuggling supplies and weapons into enemy-occupied territories and also trying to provide for the liberation of Hong Kong.

Of course, the next incident between Britain and China is the Korean War. And when the Korean War broke out, the Chinese came to the defence of North Korea against the United Nations [UN] force that was sent into Korea.

In the early stages of the war the British Commonwealth forces in Korea successfully defended Hill 282 from the Chinese and North Korean force which attacked at the Battle of Pakchon. The Chinese People's Volunteer Army defeated the British at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir and also in the Battle of the Imjin River.

But Chinese forces in 1951 attacked and outnumbered a British Commonwealth force at the Battle of Kapyong but were held back. And the British Commonwealth forces also successfully captured Hill 317 from the Chinese during the Battle of Maryang San. So, although the Korean War ended in a stalemate, there was significant direct battle between British and Chinese forces.

Britain's relationship with the People's Republic of China [PRC] has been an interesting one. At first they agreed the Sino-British Trade Committee agreement in the early 1950s to try and re-establish trade following the conflict of the Korean War, but initially most in Britain, the British government, didn't recognise the People's Republic, the Communist Party, as being the official authority of China.

However, towards the end of the 1950s Britain begins to realise that the nationalists are probably not going to re-establish control anytime soon, and are actually the first ones, in 1961, to put forward a vote in the UN General Assembly to have the PRC officially recognised as the representatives of China.

For most of the early '60s trade is re-established and relations between Britain and China are fairly normalised. But in 1967 Red Guards break into the British legation in Beijing and assaulted three British diplomats. The British officials in Shanghai were also attacked in another incident, and in 1967 Communist-backed riots broke out in Hong Kong.

The Chinese commander of the Guangzhou Military Region, Huang Yongsheng, actually also suggested to the Party that Britain would be unable to defend Hong Kong and now would be an appropriate time to invade, but the plan was vetoed by Zhou Enlai. During those riots the Chinese People's Liberation Army did actually fire across the border into British Hong Kong and killed five policemen.

Here we see an example of a Chinese propaganda poster trying to encourage local Chinese in Hong Kong to rise up against British rule, and an actual time bomb, which was one of several devices that were planted amongst Hong Kong facilities and installations during the riots by Communist sympathisers.

During the post-war period there have been two main elements of defence for British Hong Kong. The first was the Hong Kong Military Service Corps, which was made up of various different units - logistic, infantry, artillery, defence, etc - and of course the main infantry regiment, who were the Royal Hong Kong Regiment.

In 1984 the joint declaration on the future handover of Hong Kong was made between Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. In those first discussions in 1982, which were almost immediately following the end of the Falklands War, Deng basically said, 'We want Hong Kong now. What's to stop us just invading and taking it?' And Margaret Thatcher turned around and said to him, 'Nothing. And I don't have any way of stopping you, if you want to do that. But if you do do that, you will show the rest of the world exactly what you are and ruin everything that you've worked to achieve so far.' And he backed down. The declaration came into force in 1987 and of course ratified that the handover would occur in 1997.

The threat of invasion was not an idle one. The first plan for an invasion of Hong Kong by the Chinese was actually drawn up in the 1950s during the Korean War. In that period they realised that they would probably be unable to take and hold Hong Kong. But during the 1967 riots the invasion plan was already set in place and was probably capable of being carried out. In 2007 the Chinese released Cold War documents which showed that such plans did exist. And, of course, in 1997 the handover went ahead peacefully.

This is just an interesting illustration of a photo of Hong Kong - Victoria Harbour, the north of the island from Tsim Sha Tsui on the New Territories - looking across the harbour at more or less the same sort of angle you can see that distinct slope corresponds - and showing you some of the development and change that occurred in Hong Kong during the latter part of the British occupation of the island.

The most recent interaction between Hong Kong, or rather China and the UK has been the mutual pledge of closer co-operation, which is primarily a trade agreement but also actually has defence implications as well.

So that's everything. It's a real quick sweeping overview of the history of conflict and collaboration between Britain and China, but hopefully it's been informing. And if anyone is interested in knowing a little bit more about it, or the work we have been doing with the British-Chinese community, do feel free to get in touch.

Thank you very much.

1 comment

Patrick Duffy
19 February 2016, 2.44pm

Filled in a lot of gaps. I

Filled in a lot of gaps. I have always had an interest also in Fairbairn having served in the RM and having an original type 3 knife. Thank you.

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