In The Late 19th Century, China Was Divided Like A Pie Between Imperialist Powers

(French Political Cartoon “China — the cake of kings and… of emperors,” c. 1898, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


The diplomatic relationship between China and the colonizing powers of Europe and the United States underwent a dramatic plummet from the start to the end of the 19th century. At the beginning of the century, the Chinese thought the Western powers were little more than brutish barbarians. Western merchants were quarantined to the port of Guangzhou and any messages that the foreigners wanted to send to the Chinese authorities had to be funneled through a long arduous system of bureaucracy.

The tense balance of power, however, began to shift once the West’s desire to expand trade fused with their growing impatience over not being respected in China. Soon, the Westerners came to the conclusion that the threat of military force could achieve much more in China than debate and diplomacy, leading to events like the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1857-1860). As a result of the Opium Wars, Britain took control of Hong Kong and opened up more Chinese ports for trade.

Yet, even though China was defeated in the Opium Wars and suffered from repeated revolts and rebellions, the Western powers continued to regard Chinese leadership, led by Empress Dowager Cixi, with an underlying tone of respect. All of that respect vanished, however, when the small island-nation of Japan (which only really began modernizing in the 1850s) walloped China in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). When the war ended with the Treaty of Shimonoseki, China relinquished its control of large swaths of land, including Taiwan, Korea, and parts of Manchuria. Russia, Germany and France worked together to force Japan to return Liaodong, Manchuria, back to China, but it would provide no relief for the Chinese, because after the First Sino-Japanese War, the imperialist powers disregarded all of their former inhibitions regarding expanding into China.

Below are lists, organized by country, detailing what the various imperialist countries took from China during the late 19th century:


  • (1895) In the Treaty of Shimonoseki, China gave Japan land, money and trade ports.
  • (1896) Japan was allowed to develop industry within designated Chinese trade ports. The Western powers were given the same capability.
  • Japan built up an economic sphere of influence in Fujian.


  • Russia, with French and German help, had Japan release control of Liaodong.
  • Russia obtained permission to construct the Tran-Siberian Railway through Chinese territory.
  • (1898) Russia leased Port Arthur and Liaodong from China for twenty-five years.
  • (1895) Russia lent the Chinese government around 400 million francs, or 15.8 million pounds, in a race against other powers to control China through debt.


  • (1896) Together with Britain, Germany lent China around 16 million pounds, followed by another 16 million in 1898.
  • (1897) After an incident of banditry, Germany seized the Jiaozhou Bay and the city of Qingdao. China later leased the land to Germany for ninety-nine years.


  • (1895) France was given rights to operate in the provinces of Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong.
  • (1896) France was allowed to construct a railroad from Vietnam to Guangxi, China.
  • (1898) France leased the Guangzhou Bay for ninety-nine years.


  • (1897) Britain was permitted to operate in the Yunnan province and expand the Burmese railroad into the region.
  • Britain had China officially recognize British economic interests in the Yangtze Valley region.
  • Britain leased the area of Kowloon, near Hong Kong, for ninety-nine years.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


  • China’s Path to Modernization: A Historical Review from 1800 to the Present (Third Edition), by Ranbir Vohra. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000.

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