E14: Change in China

China, already uncomfortable with the trade she had never sought in the first place, tried to stop the attack on her population through addiction to drugs. This resulted in naval action that was easily won by the British. The first Opium War began with an attack on the British in Hong Kong in 1839, which the Chinese lost. The war was concluded with the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, one of the most important provisions being the cessation of the island of Hong Kong to Britain. Besides Hong Kong (1842), a number of Chinese ports were opened up as a result: Canton, Amroy and Shanghai in 1843, Ning po and Foo chow in 1844, Tientsin (1860) and Chefoo (1862).

The problems were not solved. Continual difficulties between Britain and China resulted in a new outbreak of hostilities in 1857-8, an event called the Arrow War. Again, China lost, this time to an Anglo-French alliance, and was forced to sign further treaties that were excessively disadvantageous on her part. The 1858 Treaty of Beijing was signed and the Kowloon peninsula, on the mainland adjacent to Hong Kong, was ceded to Britain. Additionally, China was forced to open her borders widely. Permanent legations were established in Beijing and unhindered travel throughout China was demanded.

For centuries the Chinese rulers had forbidden the establishment of foreign influence anywhere other than the designated trading zone of Guangzhou, but one concession demanded by the treaties was the opening of ten new ports, including four on the Yangtze River. Most important of these was Shanghai, a port established amidst the rich silk-producing region of the north. Shanghai soon became much more able to accommodate foreigners than Guangzhou. The British, who set up their own residential and commercial communities, exploited this to the full. Very quickly, Shanghai surpassed Guangzhou in volume of trade and the British never looked back. The fortunes of Hong Kong and Shanghai rose and fell in the direct rivalry that followed, but both ports became major centres of British and World trade. As we shall see below, it was at around 1860 that the construction of lighthouses first began in China, under the leadership of the British engineer, David Henderson from his offices in Shanghai.

The great city of Shanghai is located in one of the most easterly parts of China, adjoining the East China Sea. It first developed during the period 1260-1378 as a minor centre for cotton spinning and weaving, but became a major trading port in the 17th and 18th centuries after the development of the silk production in the surrounding areas. The geographical position of Shanghai cannot be overstated, lying at the mouth of the great Yangtze River, and at a focal point for shipping leading to the Chinese capital of Beijing (Peking), Japan, Korea and Hong Kong to the south. After the Opium War in 1842, Shanghai was opened to foreign trade and grew very quickly as a major enclave for western commercial interests in China – a trend that continued until the communist revolution in 1949. Along with this massive growth in sea-borne trade, it was natural to develop the infrastructure of lighthouses, a strategy agreed to by the Chinese government, but largely executed by the British from offices in Shanghai known as the Imperial Maritime Customs.

The ruling Qing dynasty had needed to develop a new political strategy for dealing with the fundamental differences between Chinese and Western culture, but it remained very inward looking, and refused to acknowledge the need for commercial change. China had insisted on regarding foreigners as barbarians and intellectually inferior. To many, her attitudes were backward. Unable to adapt, it eventually fell victim to revolutionary change in 1911, and again in 1947.