Chinese regular soldiers photographed during the Sino-French War.
Ever Victorious Army field battery in Vincente’s day.
For the Chinese empire throughout its history, defence of its northern land borders was most important. The Ming rulers turned away from the sea after the first third of the fifteenth century precisely for that reason when they found their Mongol enemies once again at their gates. The Manchus, themselves overland conquerors of the Chinese heartland, were even more sensitive to what could happen if the northern frontiers were weak. They read Chinese history carefully and concluded that there were no enemies who could have conquered China from the sea. Even after Lord Macartney’s visit in 1793, with the ambassador’s open display of pride and confidence, Qing coastal officials still did not report accurately to Emperor Qianlong the intelligence already available about British naval prowess. Not until the British ships fought their way up the Pearl River to Canton (Guangzhou) in 1841 did the Qing court first realise China’s relative weakness.
Most nationalist historians in China during the twentieth century have castigated the Manchu court for its failure to prepare China for war against the British. Much of their historical writing has also concentrated on the corrupt and treacherous officials who either misled the emperor or underestimated the enemy. The only praise for the higher officials has been reserved for Commissioner Lin Zexu (1785–1850) for having defied the British and confiscated British opium. At lower levels of the Qing armed forces, there has been appreciation of some of the military officers who bravely defended the poorly designed coastal forts. But the warmest accolades have gone to the people of villages like Sanyuanli outside Guangzhou who had stood up to British troops. All this was hardly noticed then, and only came to be recognised afterwards, when nationalist historians went to work. At the time, early in the 1840s, the Qing court had little time to assess the damage along the coast when it was engaged in the desperate struggles with local rebellions in the interior. By 1851, these too were overshadowed by the greatest threat to the empire since the seventeenth century, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, whose armies swept through south and central China and made its capital in the empire’s second capital in Nanjing. This was followed by several other rebellions in the north, northwest and southwest, wars that engaged the imperial armies for the next thirty years.
In the eyes of the court, the empire managed, not surprisingly, to win all these land battles. The British in Shanghai did provide timely help to fight off the Taiping armies in the neighbouring counties of the Yangzi delta area at the time when these rebels were at their most dangerous. But the imperial forces that did the key fighting were built around the loyal Chinese militia units (called the “Hunan braves”) brought together by the scholar official, Zeng Guofan (1811–1872), and the local gentry leaders whom he had inspired. These armies fought against the Nian rebels in the north and the major Muslim rebellions in Yunnan (on the Burma border) and Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan), and eventually defeated them all. Thus, despite the fact that Qing officials could not prevent further debacles in Anglo-Chinese relations in the 1850s and their troops failed to prevent British and French naval forces from taking Beijing and sacking the Summer Palace, they could still interpret those disasters as merely partial setbacks, and remained hopeful that these would be temporary. The contrast between relative success on land and painful performance at sea did not seem to have been so obvious.
In post-1949 historiography, there have been numerous studies of the Opium War and the patriotism of Commissioner Lin Zexu. Lin Zexu’s many admiring biographies all touch on his mistakes but focus on his attempts to learn about the potential enemy before deciding to fight, and also on his courage and the dilemmas he faced. There have been efforts to find those literati who did realise the dangers that China faced but whose advice had fallen on deaf ears. There have also been writings that depicted the heroism of ordinary Chinese in Guangdong and outside Shanghai who fought the British in vain. But it has fallen to Mao Haijian of the Academy of Social Science in Beijing in his book, Tianchao de bengkui (The Collapse of the Heavenly Dynasty), published in 1995, to reach the more specific but unpopular conclusion that the Chinese mandarins of that generation, including Commissioner Lin himself, had not done enough homework, either about coastal defences and naval warfare, or about the firepower of the British forces. They had simply underestimated the British. Otherwise, they would have known that China was in no position to challenge Britain and would not have been so ready to provoke the Opium War before adequate preparations had been made. The real lesson was not about bravery, or patriotism, or even technology, but about a complete reappraisal of what it would have taken to create the necessary defence for the empire, the kind of rethinking that would have included new attitudes towards the navy. It is particularly noteworthy that Mao Haijian’s book has the most complete study of all the British warships operating in China waters in the 1840s, more so than any previous Chinese work on this period.
As for the land forces, the fundamental problem for China before 1937 was how to get its soldiers to fight effectively again, not only for the government forces against their local warlord enemies but also, when the time ultimately came to restore the country’s sovereignty, against the foreign armies on Chinese soil. Neither Sun Yat-sen and his Soviet advisers, nor Chiang Kaishek (1887–1975) and his German commanders, had any idea how to restore the Chinese to the military traditions they once had, notably the fearsome and dedicated fighting skills of the Manchu Bannermen before 1800. What they had to offer in institutions like the Huangpu Military Academy, and all the smaller academies and training schools that were established in various provinces, were new methods of conducting war and how to fight with the latest weaponry. These institutions served largely to train officers how to defeat the immediate enemy, the warlords during the Northern Expedition and the communist armies of the Jiangxi Soviets. There was never time nor resources enough to build up a new tradition of career service, of the necessary professional pride that would overcome the historical reluctance to allow bright young men to become soldiers.
But two developments laid the foundation for a new burst of fighting energy among the Chinese people. First was the mobilisation of the peasantry for both a patriotic war against the Japanese and, in the best traditional style, a rebellion against landlords and corrupt officials plus – using the new rhetoric of revolution – their treacherous bourgeois pro-imperialist allies. This was not a great military tradition but, following the Long March that the communist armies made to the northwest in 1935, the experience revived and modernised older ideas about how the militarily weak could fight orthodox armies with guerrilla tactics and, if necessary, with overwhelming numbers. Secondly, a new Pacific power was born from the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and this led to full-scale United States support for the modernisation of the Chinese armies of the Nationalist government in Chungking.