The Second Opium War and the Sacking of the Summer Palace

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE FALL AND RISE OF CHINA

By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

In the decade that followed the Nanking Treaty, Western pressures on China increased ceaselessly. Foreigners—including the French and Americans, now—began to seek even wider commercial and diplomatic privileges within China. The situation soon exploded into war, at the end of which imperial China’s power was broken.

A painting depicting the signing of the Treaty of Nanking.
The Treaty of Nanking emboldened Western powers to push the Manchu administration for more privileges. (Image: John Platt and John Burnet/Public domain)

The Beginning of the Second Opium War

After the Treaty of Nanking, the French and Americans joined the British in pushing for more privileges in China. Their demands included the opening of additional ports to foreign commerce; the establishment of permanent Western ministries in Beijing; and additional across-the-board reductions in import tariffs.

As the frequency and intensity of hostile encounters between Chinese and Westerners increased, the situation became more volatile. All that was required was a single spark.

That spark came in October 1856, when a detachment of Chinese soldiers seized a private British sailing vessel, the Arrow, which lay at anchor in Canton harbor. The Arrow’s captain was charged with engaging in piracy. British officials rejected the accusation and demanded a formal apology, along with full financial restitution. When their demands were rejected, the British commenced a naval bombardment of Canton’s coastal defenses. The residents of Canton retaliated, burning down several foreign factories. The Second Opium War had begun.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Capture of Canton

The Second Opium War involved joint Franco-British military action. In addition, both America and Russia declared solidarity with the Europeans, on the grounds that Western civilization had to be defended against the Chinese.

In December of 1857, a joint Anglo-French force seized Canton. They also captured the local imperial viceroy, carting him off to India in chains, the fourth Chinese ‘barbarian manager’ to suffer a cruel fate after failing to halt the advance of the foreigners.

Once they had secured control of Canton, the Europeans sent a note to Beijing, demanding revision of the existing treaties. When their note was returned with a dilatory request for a cooling off period, a joint Franco-British naval force sailed northward. In May of 1858, the Europeans laid deadly siege to the key Chinese forts at Dagu, guarding the entrance to the strategic northeast Chinese city of Tianjin. Belatedly, Beijing agreed to negotiate.

Learn more about the British opium trade in China.

The Franco-British Demands

The victorious French and British in the late spring of 1858, with the Americans and Russians as their silent partners, drafted a new treaty calling for the opening of 10 more Chinese ports to Western commerce, including the island of Taiwan as well as the major port cities of Nanjing and Hankow.

British soldiers attacking a Chinese fort.
The Western forces attacked and captured Chinese forts in efforts to force the Manchus to grant them greater privileges. (Image: New York Public Library/Public domain)

Additional provisions included permission for nationals of the four countries to reside permanently in Beijing, and the right of foreign warships to enter any port where Western nationals were conducting business.

Indemnities totaling 6 million taels of silver were to be paid to the British and French. Western missionaries were to be permitted to travel and proselytize freely anywhere in China. And in a final display of arrogance, the sale of opium was made legal in China.

Once again, however, the Manchu court balked at accepting such a humiliating document; and they categorically rejected Britain’s insistence on signing the treaty in Beijing’s Forbidden City, an act which would have set a precedent for foreigners to freely enter the Chinese imperial capital.

The Sack of the Imperial Summer Palace

The ensuing stalemate lasted 18 months, and was finally broken in the summer of 1860, when a joint British-French expeditionary force, consisting of 41 warships, 143 transport ships, and 18,000 troops, sailed northward from Canton.

Their first objective was to neutralize the Chinese forts at Dagu, which they accomplished with dispatch. Once Dagu’s guns were spiked, the expeditionary force sailed upriver to Tianjin unimpeded, where the troops disembarked and proceeded to fight their way to the imperial capital of Beijing, 90 miles to the northwest.

In a major show of force, the Franco-British army entered the capital city and proceeded to sack the Imperial Summer Palace at Yuanming Yuan, burning to the ground its magnificent constellation of 200 ornate palaces, pavilions, courtyards, and gardens.

The wanton destruction of the Summer Palace remains today as a major symbol of the viciousness of Western aggression against China. Although Yuanming Yuan remained undisturbed and in ruins for the next 120 years, most of it has been meticulously restored, except for one section of the Old Summer Palace. A group of European-style palaces in Yuanming Yuan remain in a state of ruin, as, “irrefutable evidence of imperialist powers destroying human civilizations”.

Learn more about the splendor that was China.

The Treaty of Beijing

Soon after the sacking of the Summer Palace, the Manchus signed the treaty they had rejected as excessively humiliating two years earlier. Enacted in Beijing, in October of 1860, its terms were essentially the same as before, with two significant additions.

First, the British and French now increased their demand for monetary compensation from 6 million taels of silver to 16 million. And second, Britain now wrested away from China the Kowloon Peninsula, incorporating it into the newly prosperous Crown Colony of Hong Kong.

With the conclusion of the Treaty of Beijing, some 1200 years of imperial Chinese supremacy effectively came to an end. China was now a humbled and bleeding giant. Although its rulers struggled in vain to maintain a semblance of their former pride and majesty, a weakened Chinese state provided a tempting target for foreign predators and domestic rebels alike.

Common Questions about the Second Opium War and the Sacking of the Summer Palace

Q: What was the immediate provocation for the beginning of the second Opium War?

In October 1856, Chinese soldiers seized a private British vessel, the Arrow, which lay at anchor in Canton harbor. The Arrow’s captain was charged with engaging in piracy. British officials rejected the accusation and demanded a formal apology, along with full financial restitution. When their demands were rejected, the British commenced a naval bombardment of Canton’s coastal defenses, beginning the Second Opium War.

Q: Which were the Western powers in the Second Opium War?

In the Second Opium War, both the French and the British were operating jointly. In addition, both America and Russia declared solidarity with the Europeans, on the grounds that Western civilization had to be defended against the Chinese.

Q: What was the sack of the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing?

A joint British-French expeditionary force, entered the capital city and proceeded to sack the Imperial Summer Palace at Yuanming Yuan, burning to the ground its magnificent constellation of 200 ornate palaces, pavilions, courtyards, and gardens.

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