The 1800s were a tumultuous period in European-Chinese relations. With the Qing Dynasty facing internal rebellion, China's national unity was precarious. Meanwhile, European powers were stronger than ever and were racing to conquer the world. This New Imperialism arrived on China's shores during the 1800s and resulted in events such as the Opium Wars, Britain's annexation of Hong Kong and the establishment of French Indochina.

Decline of the Canton Trade System

For the first few decades of the 19th century, China maintained its Canton system to trade with Europe. This system had existed since the 16th century and gave the Chinese imperial government the ability to severely limit trade. In particular, China limited trade ports to only three cities: Canton, Hong Kong and Macau. For China, who thought European goods were inferior, this system supported domestic industry. Europeans, however, were hungry for trade markets to import raw materials and export manufactured goods. Therefore, in the early 1800s, Europeans brought the Canton system to an end. By the 1830s, European steam ships were able to ignore and avoid Chinese administrators in Canton. Europeans could trade with China despite the Chinese government's objections, and this facilitated European interest in expanding influence and trade deeper into China.

First Opium War

Britain led the charge to expand trade in China, with the Opium Wars. By the early 1800s, Britain was illegally smuggling cheap opium from India into Chinese ports. Despite China's outlawing of the drug, Chinese purchased it from the British in exchange for goods like silver, porcelain and tea. While Britain liked this arrangement, China was furious at the rampant violations of its trade law. Conflict reached a height in 1840, when Chinese officials destroyed British opium. In response, Britain sent troops and warships to China, and successfully occupied the port at Canton. After this first Opium War, China and Britain signed the Treaty of Nanjing, which opened five ports to international trade and ceded Hong Kong to Great Britain.

Second Opium War

A decade after the First Opium War, Britain and other foreign powers were still unsatisfied with the amount of trade they could conduct with China. They wanted to renegotiate the Treaty of Nanjing, but the Chinese refused to communicate. Therefore, when Chinese authorities arrested Chinese subjects aboard a British ship in Hong Kong, the British declared war on China. Britain then asked the U.S., Russia and France for support, but only France joined them. After years of fighting, the war came to an end in 1858. The results ceded Kowloon, a region near Hong Kong, to the British, legalized the opium trade, allowed freedom of religion for all Chinese and forced China to pay both France and Britain for the partial costs of the war.

China's Humiliation

After the Treaty of Tientsin gave Britain and France enormous economic and cultural power in China, other European countries wanted similar privileges. The latter half of the 19th century involved a series of unfair treaties in which China was forced to cede privileges to European countries. These included Russia's 1868 invasion of Manchuria, in which Russia gained 600,000 square feet of land. Russia and the United States also secured identical trade rights as Britain and France had with Tientsin. The 1884 Sino-French War ended with France forcing China to recognize France's ownership of Indochina, a region formerly protected by China. Later, in 1897, Germany occupied parts of China around Qingdao, and secured the area by treaty a year later. By the end of the century, China was powerless after Europeans and Japanese had dismembered the country.