Under the Ming dynasty, Chinese fleets had sailed south to Malacca and into the Indian Ocean, to Ceylon and East Africa. Chinese merchants began to trade in Malacca and in the East Indian islands of Java and Sumatra. During the sixteenth century, Portuguese ships visited south-eastern ports of China, and in 1557 set up a small trading colony on the Macao peninsula.
The Dutch established a base on the large island of Taiwan, but were ousted I 1683, when, for the first time, it became part of the Chinese empire. Luzon in the Philippines had been colonized by Spaniards and had already become an important trading base, to which many Chinese migrated. European merchants were keen to trade with China, and during the eighteenth century ships of many nations faced the hazards of Japanese pirates to visit ports in southern China, especially Guangzhou (Canton), on the banks of the Pearl River. In 1757 the emperor decreed that all trade with China must pass through the ‘factories’ at Guangzhou, which were compounds leased from local landlords.
The emperor and court were, in fact, against trade with the West, and informed foreign officials that China lacked nothing and had no need of outside manufactures. Chinese traders at Guangzhou had to obtain conditions for trade form Beijing, which took many weeks.
However, the British had begun to make great profits by trading in opium, grown in India and other parts of the British Empire. In 1800, the emperor banned the import of this drug, which was harming the people and draining silver bullion from the country. The British persisted, and in 1839 Chinese officials burnt merchants’ stocks at Guangzhou. Fighting broke out when attempts were made to blockade British ships engaged in the trade; and during the ‘Opium War’ of 1840-42 the British occupied Hong Kong and attacked ports along the coast. In 1842 China was forced to negotiate the Treaty of Nanking, whereby Britain gained Hong Kong and the right to trade in the ports – Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo and Shanghai. Soon, France, the USA, Italy and Germany acquired similar rights.
The influence of Western nations became on and on stronger. They could use the rivers and build railways. They divided parts of China into trading areas, where each nation had special privilege. Thousands of missionaries came from Europe and America, many hoping to promote welfare as well as Christianity; they made many conversions but were distrusted by most of the people.
China’s tributary state of Vietnam was lost to the French in 1885, and Upper Burma to the British in 1886. A dispute with Japan over Korea led to war in 1894, when China’s fleet, with warships bought from the West, was disabled. In 1895 the victorious Japanese took Taiwan and other islands, and Korea became independent.
During the second half of the century, millions of Chinese emigrated, particularly from the south, mainly to seek laboring jobs in south-east Asia, America and Australia. However, these latter countries soon restricted immigration.
The old dowager empress, Ci Xi, who was the realy power behind the Manchu throne after 1861, insisted on a compromised political proposition to the West. The foreign powers then took even firmer control, through the threat of force, running banks, shipping, insurance, railways, and mining companies. The dowager empress died in 1908, and the powerless emperor was killed by intrigue, so that her two year-old nephew, Pu Yi, became the last emperor, until the Manchu dynasty ended in 1912.