The Last Emperor
China – Qing Dynasty – 1800 > 1919
At the start of the 19th century, the Chinese were in no way ready for what the next century had in store for them. Their profits from trade were greater than ever. They were farming more land than ever. They manufactured a third of the world’s goods. Their people were living longer and their population had quadrupled in less than 200 years. They weren’t just prospering. They were the kings of the world.
And the encroaching influence of the Western powers barely registered a hint of concern. Europeans were nothing more than inconsequential nuisances who from time to time sent emissaries to spread their Christianity or hawk some useless wares. But aside from the silver the Europeans brought in from the American mines, there still wasn’t anything of interest Westerners could produce. The Chinese also restricted these foreigners to conducting all of their business out of one port – Canton. In 1793, when the British tried to expand their influence, Emperor Qianlong didn’t mince words in outlining the Middle Kingdom’s perspective:
“The celestial empire abounds in all things and lacks nothing. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious and have no use for your country’s products…It behooves you, O King, to respect my sentiments and to display even greater devotion and loyalty in future, so that, by perpetual submission to our Throne, you may secure peace and prosperity for your country…Tremble and Obey!”
Not exactly the words of a man who saw the death of his domain on the horizon. To the Chinese, the fruits of the Industrial Revolution held no value whatsoever. But in the next few decades, Britain proved they weren’t willing to take “no” for an answer. The Brits had already established the largest empire in human history, stretching from Australia to Singapore to India to Africa to Canada. One arrogant, misguided little Emperor wasn’t going to stop their progress.
And Britain’s push to open up Chinacame at exactly the time the local Chinese were starting to get fed up with the ruling family. The Qing Dynasty had become victims of their success. Sure, their population had quadrupled, but there was no new land to feed these new generations. They had outgrown their resources. When the inevitable drought or flood or heat wave hit the fields, famine was always just a season away. For those fleeing the starvation of the countryside for the promises of city life, the reality of urban employment illustrated...