Office of the Historian
United States Relations with China: From Trade to the Open Door (1784-1900)
1784: First Representatives of the United States Went to China
A ship called the Empress of China became the first vessel to sail from the United States to China, arriving in Guangzhou (Canton) in August. The vessel's supercargo, Samuel Shaw, had been appointed as an unofficial consul by the U.S. Congress, but he did not make contact with Chinese officials or gain diplomatic recognition for the United States. Since the 1760s all trade with Western nations had been conducted at Guangzhou through a set group of Chinese merchants with official licenses to trade. Some residents of the American colonies had engaged in the China trade before this time, but this journey marked the new nation's entrance into the lucrative China trade in tea, porcelain, and silk.
1785: First Chinese Arrived in the United States
Three Chinese sailors arrived in Baltimore, where they were stranded on shore by the trading ship that brought them there from Guangzhou. There is no record of what happened to them after that.
1796: Macartney Mission to Beijing
The British Minister Plenipotentiary, Lord George Macartney, became the first Western diplomat to journey to Beijing in an effort to establish direct diplomatic relations with the Chinese imperial court. He received a rare audience with the Emperor, but in the end the effort was unsuccessful.
1810s: The Opium Trade Began
British merchants, seeking a commodity to trade for Chinese goods, began to smuggle Indian opium into China. Seeing that this raised the profit margins of the British, most American firms followed suit, although most obtained their opium from Persia, rather than India.
1821: The Terranova Affair
A Chinese woman selling items to an American ship was killed when a sailor on the American vessel threw a pitcher overboard that struck her, knocking her out of her small boat into the water, where she drowned. Local authorities demanded that the guilty party be surrendered for trial and punishment, but at first the ship's captain and other merchants refused to comply. However, when it became clear that their resistance was damaging trade, the Americans relented and offered up an Italian crewman named Terranova. Soon thereafter, Terranova was executed, and trade resumed.
1830: First American Protestant Missionaries Arrived in China
The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, one of the earliest missionary organizations of the United States, sent the first two American missionaries to China, the Reverends Elijah Bridgman and David Abeel. They reached Guangzhou in February of 1830. Bridgman was one of the first Americans to undertake the study of China's history and culture, and also wrote a Chinese language history of the United States.
1834: British East India Company Disbanded
For some time this company had held a near monopoly on the China trade and had served as the main contact point between all foreigners and Chinese officials. When it lost its charter and dissolved in 1834, the trade at Guangzhou opened up to more private traders. This destabilized trade relations over the next few years, but American merchants benefited from the company's demise.
1835: First American Clinic Established
In 1834, Dr. Peter Parker arrived at Guangzhou as America's pioneer medical missionary. After spending some time in Singapore studying language, he returned to Guangzhou and on November 4, 1835, established a small dispensary in the foreign quarter. He began treating so many Chinese patients, the majority of them for eye ailments, that he expanded the dispensary into an Ophthalmic Hospital, which later expanded again to become the Guangzhou Hospital.
1839: First Major Chinese Exhibition Opens in United States
After spending 12 years in the China trade, Philadelphia merchant Nathan Dunn returned from China with an enormous collection of art, artifacts, botanical samples, and other items. In 1839 he put them on display in his native city in a "Chinese Museum" that was designed to present the items in as natural a manner as possible, so as to give visitors a picture of life in China. Over 100,000 people visited the exhibit before he moved it to London in 1841.
1839: Outbreak of the First Opium War
In 1838 the Chinese Emperor sent Commissioner Lin Zexu to Guangzhou, with a goal to stamp out the opium trade. Lin demanded that the British merchants surrender their supplies of opium for destruction, and after an initial refusal they agreed to do so, after which they left Guangzhou for Macao. The following year, the dispute over these actions exploded into war. While the British traders were temporarily absent from Guangzhou, Americans did exceptionally good business, some of it on contract for the British.
1842: Signing of the Treaty of Nanjing (Nanking)
After several years of conflict, British forces emerged victorious and negotiated with the Qing Government to sign the Treaty of Nanjing. This treaty ended the existing system of trade through officially licensed merchants, opened four new treaty ports to trade (including Shanghai), granted most favored nation status to Britain, and provided the basis for the expansion of trade. It served as the model for subsequent treaties between China and other Western nations.
1844: Signing of the Treaty of Wangxia (Wang-hsia/Wang-hiya)
In 1843, Secretary of State Daniel Webster sent Caleb Cushing to China as Minister Plenipotentiary to negotiate a treaty with the Qing. Cushing hoped to journey to Beijing to conduct these negotiations, but the Qing refused to grant an imperial audience, which delayed the negotiations. He thus spent several months waiting in Macao for permission to travel to Beijing before finally giving up on that hope. Once he did so, the Qing negotiator, Qiying, quickly agreed to all the American terms (which were mostly the same as the British) and the two countries signed a treaty. The terms included extraterritoriality for U.S. citizens in China, most favored nation status, and a guarantee for treaty revision in twelve years. This marked the beginning of official diplomatic relations between the United States and China.
1847: The Coolie Trade Began in the New World
The first ship carrying Chinese laborers, known as "coolies," arrived in Cuba with workers for the sugar plantations. Soon thereafter, coolie traders began to dock at U.S. ports, prompting the U.S. Congress to pass a law prohibiting U.S. citizens from engaging in the trade and guaranteeing the freedom of all Chinese laborers who came to the United States. After the California Gold Rush broke out in 1849, more and more Chinese laborers arrived to work in mines, on railroads, and in other mostly menial tasks. Over 100,000 Chinese came to the United States within the first 20 years.
1850-1864: Taiping Rebellion in China
A man named Hong Xiuquan, who had briefly studied with an American missionary in Guangzhou, launched a massive rebel movement in Southeastern China. Within a few years, the Taiping rebels marched north to Nanjing and almost completely separated Northern from Southern China for a decade, causing extreme destruction and loss of life. The Qing ultimately managed to suppress the rebellion, thanks in part to the assistance of American soldier-of-fortune Frederick Townsend Ward and other foreigners, but the dynasty never fully recovered.
1858: Treaties of Tianjin (Tientsin) Signed
Under the threat of an attack on Beijing from British and French forces, the Qing court agreed to sign new treaties with several foreign powers, including the United States. These new treaties opened more treaty ports to foreign trade and settlement, granted additional trading privileges to foreign merchants, legalized the opium trade, gave missionaries the right to proselytize throughout inland China, and allowed the establishment of permanent diplomatic legations in Beijing.
1860: Treaties of Tianjin Enforced
Frustrated with Qing delays in the implementation of the Treaties of Tianjin, British and French forces marched on Beijing and destroyed the Summer Palace on the city's outskirts. In this way, Britain and France forced the Qing to carry out its obligations under the recently signed treaties, and gained a few new privileges, which the United States acquired under the terms of most favored nation status.
1862: First U.S. Legation Established in China
For two decades the chief U.S. representative in China had resided in either Guangzhou or Shanghai (along with all of the other foreign ministers), but after the implementation of the Treaties of Tianjin foreign legations were finally set up in the capital. Anson Burlingame became the first U.S. minister to reside in Beijing, establishing his post in the legation quarter close to the Forbidden City.
1868: The First Chinese Mission Abroad
In 1867 the Qing decided to send China's first diplomatic mission to the Western nations in order to renegotiate its treaties, and asked U.S. envoy Anson Burlingame to head the mission. With permission from the U.S. Government, Burlingame resigned his post and led two Qing officials to the United States and Europe. Burlingame negotiated and signed a new treaty with U.S. Secretary of State William Seward that allowed for mostly unrestricted Chinese migration to the United States, among other stipulations. However, the agreements Burlingame reached were never fully implemented. He died in Russia before the mission ended, leaving the Qing officials to complete it on their own.
1872: First Official Delegation of Chinese Students Came to United States
Yung Wing (Rong Hong), a naturalized U.S. citizen who received a degree from Yale University in 1854, formed the Chinese Education Mission (CEM) in 1870 with approval and support from the Government of China. The program hoped to train Chinese to work as diplomats and technical advisors to the government. He brought a group of 30 students, all teenaged males, from China to the United States for a comprehensive American education and to live with American families. The Qing ended the program in 1881, due to rising anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States, fears that the students were becoming too Americanized, and frustration that they were not being granted the promised access to U.S. military academies. Before the program ended, about 120 students took part, and some chose not to return to China.
1875: First Restrictions Placed on Chinese Immigration
The U.S. Congress passed the Page Act, which barred entry for Chinese coolie laborers and women brought in for prostitution. This law contradicted the treaty of 1868, but it was merely the first in a series of increasingly restrictive acts on the part of the United States.
1878: First Chinese Legation Established in the United States
China finally established a diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C., with Chen Lanping appointed as the chief of mission. This marked the beginning of full bilateral ties between the United States and China. Chen had been appointed in 1875, but did not establish the post until 1878. During these three years, Yung Wing served as acting chief of mission while also running the Chinese Educational Mission.
1882: Chinese Exclusion Act Passed
After more than a decade of anti-Chinese lobbying, mostly from the West Coast, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, and it was signed by President Chester A. Arthur. The Act suspended Chinese immigration to the United States for ten years, which violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the 1868 treaty. In recent years several attempts had been made to pass a similar bill, but prior Presidents had vetoed them because they had contravened the existing agreements with China. This marked the beginning of some sixty years of exclusion.
1885: Anti-Chinese Violence Broke Out
A mob of white residents of Rock Springs, Wyoming, launched a vicious attack on Chinese miners in the area on September 2, 1885, killing 28 and destroying their property. This sparked a wave of similar assaults in other parts of the American West over the next several years.
1888: Additional Exclusionary Measures Instituted
Early in 1888, the United States and China signed the Bayard-Zhang Treaty, by which the Qing agreed to prohibit all new Chinese migration for 20 years and limited the classes of Chinese who could return to the United States after a trip home. The agreement did not violate the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 because the United States did not institute the prohibitions, but it drew opposition from the Chinese populace. However, before the treaty was ratified, Congress passed the Scott Act, which canceled the right of return for Chinese residents who left the United States for any reason. Chinese in the United States challenged the Act as being unconstitutional because it contravened prior treaties, but with no success. The California Circuit Court ruled that Congress could modify any treaty at any time, and the Supreme Court found that, although the Scott Act did contravene the treaties, control over immigration was a sovereign right and thus Congress had the authority to act as it saw fit regardless of any international agreements. This position stood in stark contrast to the U.S. insistence on extraterritorial rights and trading privileges in China that had been enshrined in prior treaties.
1892: Geary Act Passed
This Act extended the Chinese Exclusion Act's prohibition on Chinese immigration for another ten years (until 1902), and required all Chinese and Chinese descendents in the United States to carry residence permits or face deportation. It stripped Chinese in the United States of additional legal rights.
1894-95: First Sino-Japanese War
Japanese and Chinese forces clashed over influence in Korea, and Japan emerged with a stunning victory. As part of the settlement, Japan took control of Taiwan and established colonial rule over the island, and also gained several new privileges in China including the right to build factories. The United States gained this right as well, through the most favored nation principle, but at the same time it lost its rights in Taiwan and soon had greater competition from Japan in Southeast China.
1898: Hundred Days Reform Movement
A group of reform-minded Chinese literati became concerned that China was in danger of collapsing if it did not institute a range of modern reforms to the government and educational system. They joined with the Guangxu Emperor in an effort to bring about change, but conservatives within the imperial court, including the Empress Dowager Ci Xi, opposed these measures. They seized the Emperor and placed him under house arrest and arrested and executed several literati while others fled into exile. There was no immediate impact on U.S.-China relations, but the triumph of conservatives in China made treaty revision much less likely in the near future.
1899-1900: The Open Door Notes
In September 1899 and July 1900, Secretary of State John Hay issued the two Open Door Notes to all foreign powers with interests in China. The United States had become concerned over recent developments in China, where many foreign powers had claimed exclusive spheres of influence. Fearful that the long-standing free trade system in China would be compromised and that a weakening China might be carved up like Africa had been, Hay acted to defend U.S. interests in the area. The Notes aimed to preserve both the existing system of trade, with equal opportunity for all foreign powers, and to maintain China's territorial integrity so that no foreign power would have an advantage. This was the first clear and official statement of U.S. China policy.