In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Imperialism and China, c. 1800–1949

  • Introduction
  • Historians’ Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Translations of Chinese-Language Materials
  • Newspapers and Journals of the Era
  • Treaties and Legal Issues (Extraterritorialty)
  • Military Affairs

Chinese Studies Imperialism and China, c. 1800–1949
Ralph W. Huenemann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 July 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 June 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0100


Not surprisingly, to this day, the history of imperialism in China is a contentious, bitter history. If imperialism is understood in the broadest terms, consisting of one large group of human beings (a “tribe” or “state” or “nation”) asserting domination over another group by force, then the history of imperialism reaches far back into time—certainly to Hammurabi of Babylon or even earlier. The motivations of imperialism have varied considerably from one empire to another: partly a matter of hyper-patriotic rivalry (chauvinism); partly an appetite for expanded territory, especially thinly populated territory (the Lebensraum argument); partly a sense of cultural superiority (the crusade to bring “civilization” to “barbarians” or “benighted heathen”); and partly a quest for perceived economic benefits, either from trade (as imports of scarce resources or as exports of excess products) or from investment (a vent for excess capital). Thoughtful critics have raised doubts about the validity of all of these motivations, but such voices have been relatively ineffective in curtailing the appetite for empire. In modern times, China’s experience with imperialism has entailed two chronologically parallel stories during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—stories that are different in their geographic location, in their motivations, and in their outcomes. The facet of imperialism that has received the most attention is that of aggression against China by capitalist nation-states (primarily along the coastline) and China’s nationalistic response. This story evolved in a low-key way before the nineteenth century, but then entered a more aggressive phase with military action by the British in the First Opium War (1839–1842). Both economic issues and cultural issues have received attention in this story, as discussed at length under Economic Theories of Imperialism and Cultural Analyses of Imperialism, respectively. The simultaneous story of Qing Imperialism in Eurasia entailed a multilateral rivalry, with China, Great Britain, Russia, and Japan jockeying for position. Again, the origins lay well before the nineteenth century, and again significant military action was important—in this case, led by Zuo Zongtang on behalf of the Qing dynasty. An important aspect of this second story is that the territory in dispute was inhabited by non-Han peoples. For the most part, Chinese writings do not treat this episode as an example of imperialism, much as American history books do not generally treat the incorporation of the swath of Mexican territory from Texas to California into the United States as an act of imperialism.

Historians’ Overviews

Imperialism and the Chinese reaction to imperialism (nationalism) are central elements in the history of modern China, so each of the books in this section are—in effect—histories of imperialism, whether or not the titles refer to it. Huenemann 2016 is a four-volume compendium of valuable articles on this topic. Fairbank 1992, Liao 1984, and Spence 1990 are among the best of the textbooks on the subject, although they also cover the period after 1949. For greater detail, by some of the leading experts on various topics, the volumes of The Cambridge History of China (Twitchett and Fairbank 1978–2009) are essential sources. Cohen 2003 explicitly challenges much of the existing literature, including in particular the “impact-response” approach identified with Fairbank, but also the “tradition-modernity” and “imperialism” approaches. Cohen 1997 is an excellent history of an important specific episode (the Boxer Uprising) but is also invaluable for its discussion of historiography more broadly. Hu 1955 (first published in 1948) was an early history of imperialism, and is still worth reading. Ding, et al. 1973 provides greater detail than Hu but is little changed from the first edition published in 1958. Yan 2001, Wang 2000, Mao 2005, and Liu and Wu 2010, taken collectively to cover the period from 1840 to 1937, are more up-to-date in their perspective than Hu 1955 or Ding, et al. 1973—but they are available only in Chinese.

  • Cohen, Paul A. History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

    Excellent source, brilliantly written. Argues that “history” functions at three quite different levels: the historian’s task of explaining what happened in the past and why, the actual experience of participants at the time, and the later interpretation of history to give legitimation to present-day myths. Extensive footnotes and bibliography.

  • Cohen, Paul A. China Unbound: Evolving Perspectives on the Chinese Past. London and New York: Routledge/Curzon, 2003.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203403297

    Absolutely essential reading. A collection of selections from Cohen’s lifetime of careful scholarship. Argues (p. 16) that Eurocentric approaches to Chinese history all too easily lead to the failings of “stereotyping, caricaturing, essentialization, and mythologization.”

  • Ding Mingnan 丁名楠, et al. Diguozhuyi qinHua shi (帝国主义侵华史). 2 vols. 2d ed. Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe, 1973.

    Quotes widely from both Chinese and Western sources. Volume 1 covers the period from the First Opium War in 1839–1842 to the Sino-Japanese War in 1894–1895; Volume 2 covers the Scramble for Concessions after 1895 up to the outbreak of World War II.

  • Fairbank, John K. China: A New History. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1992.

    The classic Fairbank textbook on China. Devotes a major segment to China’s experience with imperialism and the anti-imperialism (nationalism) that emerged as a consequence.

  • Hu, Sheng. Imperialism and Chinese Politics. Beijing: Foreign Languages, 1955.

    Oft-cited Chinese account of imperialism in China. First published in Chinese in 1948. Detailed discussion of events between 1839 (First Opium War) and 1925 (death of Sun Yat-sen). Quotes many important documents, including those from official government archives of the Qing dynasty.

  • Huenemann, Ralph W., ed. Imperialism and China 1800–1945. 4 vols. Critical Concepts in Asian Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 2016.

    A useful starting point for scholars exploring this broad topic. Volume 1 is devoted to political/cultural issues; Volume 2 focuses on economic issues; Volume 3 discusses country-by-country details (for France, Germany, England, Japan, Russia, and the United States); Volume 4 documents China’s own imperialist expansion into its border regions.

  • Liao, Kuang-sheng. Antiforeignism and Modernization in China, 1860–1980: Linkage between Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1984.

    Traces the development of Chinese antiforeignism from its inception as anti-Christian violence in the nineteenth century to anti-imperialism in the Leninist sense. Characterizes (p. 2) the impact of imperialism on China as involving three distinct aspects: “military technology and ammunition, productive machines and merchandise, and culture and philosophy.” Copublished by St. Martin’s Press (New York).

  • Liu Kexiang 刘克祥, and Wu Taichang 吴太昌, eds. Zhongguo jindai jingjishi, 1927–1937 (中国近代经济史, 1927–1937). 3 vols. Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe, 2010.

    Structured around the theme of the “development and non-development of Chinese capitalism” during the Nanking Decade, under the influences of imperialism and feudalism.

  • Mao Haijian 矛海建. Tianchao de bengkui: Yapian zhanzheng zai yanjiu (天朝的崩溃: 鸦片战争再研究). Beijing: Sanlian Shudian, 2005.

    Informal translation of title: The Celestial dynasty’s collapse: A further study of the [first] Opium War. In a section titled “The Gist of This Book,” the author asks, “Was the loss of the Opium War due to China’s backwardness, or due to betrayal by Qishan 琦善 and others like him?” (p. 23).

  • Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1990.

    Elegantly written; encyclopedic in scope. Begins in the late Ming and ends in 1989. Sets trade and investment issues in the broader political and cultural history.

  • Twitchett, Denis, and John K. Fairbank, general eds. The Cambridge History of China. 15 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1978–2009.

    Essential reading. The magnum opus of Chinese history in English. For understanding imperialism and China, see the four volumes that deal with 1800 to 1949: Vol. 10 (Late Ch’ing 1800–1911, Part 1), 1978; Vol. 11 (Late Ch’ing 1800–1911, Part 2), 1980; Vol. 12 (Republican China 1912–1949, Part 1), 1983; and Vol. 13 (Republican China 1912–1949, Part 2), 1986.

  • Wang Jingyu 汪敬虞. Zhongguo jindai jingji shi, 1895–1927 (中国近代经济史, 1895–1927). 3 vols. Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe, 2000.

    Discusses the tension between the development and nondevelopment of Chinese capitalism under imperialism, but more a description of events than an analysis of causes or consequences. Extensive unannotated bibliography of Chinese sources; shorter listings of Japanese and Western sources.

  • Yan Zhongping 严中平. Zhongguo jindai jingji shi, 1840–1894 (中国近代经济史, 1840–1894). 2 vols. Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe, 2001.

    A detailed history of China’s economic relations with the imperial powers from the First Opium War to the eve of the Sino-Japanese War, based on extensive Western sources and even more exhaustive Chinese sources, including numerous difang zhi (地方志, “local gazeteers”).

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