The century of humiliation (simplified Chinese: 百年国耻; traditional Chinese: 百年國恥; pinyin: bǎinián guóchǐ; Wade–Giles: pai3 nien2 kuo2 chi3), also known by permutations such as the hundred years of national humiliation, refers to the period of intervention and imperialism by Western powers and Japan in China between 1839 and 1949.
The term arose in 1915, in the atmosphere of rising Chinese nationalism opposing the Twenty-One Demands made by the Japanese government and their acceptance by Yuan Shikai, with the Guomindang and Chinese Communist Party both subsequently popularizing the characterization.
The beginning of the Century of Humiliation is usually dated to the mid-19th century, on the eve of the First Opium War amidst widespread opium addiction and the political unraveling of Qing dynasty China that followed.
Other major events often cited as part of the Century of Humiliation are the unequal treaties of Whampoa and Aigun, the Taiping Rebellion, the Second Opium War and the sacking of the Old Summer Palace, Eight-Nation Alliance suppressing the Boxer uprising, the Sino-French War, the First Sino-Japanese War, the British invasion of Tibet, the Twenty-One Demands by Japan, and the Second Sino-Japanese War. In this period, China lost all except the last of the wars it fought, often forced to give major concessions to the great powers in the subsequent treaties.
The time for an end of the Century has been open to different interpretations. Both Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong declared the end of the Century of Humiliation in the aftermath of World War II, with Chiang promoting his wartime resistance to Japanese rule and China's place among the victorious Allies in 1945, while Mao declared it with the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. The idea of an end of the Century was similarly declared in the repulsion of UN forces in the Korean War, the 1997 reunification with Hong Kong, the 1999 reunification with Macau, and even the hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
The usage of the Century of Humiliation in the Chinese Communist Party's historiography and modern Chinese nationalism, with its focus on the "sovereignty and integrity of [Chinese] territory", has been invoked in incidents like the US bombing of the Chinese Belgrade embassy, the Hainan Island incident, and protests for Tibetan independence along the 2008 Beijing Olympics torch relay. Some analysts have pointed to its use in deflecting foreign criticism of human rights abuses in China and domestic attention from issues of corruption, while bolstering its territorial claims and general economic and political rise.
Jane E. Elliott criticized the allegation that China refused to modernize or was unable to defeat Western armies as simplistic, noting that China embarked on a massive military modernization in the late 1800s after several defeats, buying weapons from Western countries and manufacturing their own at arsenals, such as the Hanyang Arsenal during the Boxer Rebellion. In addition, Elliott questioned the claim that Chinese society was traumatized by the Western victories, as many Chinese peasants (90% of the population at that time) living outside the concessions continued about their daily lives, uninterrupted and without any feeling of "humiliation".
Historians have judged the Qing dynasty's vulnerability and weakness to foreign imperialism in the 19th century to be based mainly on its maritime naval weakness while it achieved military success against westerners on land, the historian Edward L. Dreyer said that "China’s nineteenth-century humiliations were strongly related to her weakness and failure at sea. At the start of the Opium War, China had no unified navy and no sense of how vulnerable she was to attack from the sea; British forces sailed and steamed wherever they wanted to go......In the Arrow War (1856-60), the Chinese had no way to prevent the Anglo-French expedition of 1860 from sailing into the Gulf of Zhili and landing as near as possible to Beijing. Meanwhile, new but not exactly modern Chinese armies suppressed the midcentury rebellions, bluffed Russia into a peaceful settlement of disputed frontiers in Central Asia, and defeated the French forces on land in the Sino-French War (1884-85). But the defeat of the fleet, and the resulting threat to steamship traffic to Taiwan, forced China to conclude peace on unfavorable terms."
The Qing dynasty forced Russia to hand over disputed territory in Ili in the Treaty of Saint Petersburg (1881), in what was widely seen by the west as a diplomatic victory for the Qing. Russia acknowledged that Qing China potentially posed a serious military threat. Mass media in the west during this era portrayed China as a rising military power due to its modernization programs and as a major threat to the western world, invoking fears that China would successfully conquer western colonies like Australia.
The British observer Demetrius Charles de Kavanagh Boulger suggested a British-Chinese alliance to check Russian expansion in Central Asia.
During the Ili crisis when Qing China threatened to go to war against Russia over the Russian occupation of Ili, the British officer Charles George Gordon was sent to China by Britain to advise China on military options against Russia should a potential war break out between China and Russia.
The Russians observed the Chinese building up their arsenal of modern weapons during the Ili crisis, the Chinese bought thousands of rifles from Germany. In 1880 massive amounts of military equipment and rifles were shipped via boats to China from Antwerp as China purchased torpedoes, artillery, and 260,260 modern rifles from Europe.
The Russian military observer D. V. Putiatia visited China in 1888 and found that in Northeastern China (Manchuria) along the Chinese-Russian border,the Chinese soldiers were potentially able to become adept at "European tactics" under certain circumstances, and the Chinese soldiers were armed with modern weapons like Krupp artillery, Winchester carbines, and Mauser rifles.
Compared to Russian controlled areas, more benefits were given to the Muslim Kirghiz on the Chinese controlled areas. Russian settlers fought against the Muslim nomadic Kirghiz, which led the Russians to believe that the Kirghiz would be a liability in any conflict against China. The Muslim Kirghiz were sure that in an upcoming war, that China would defeat Russia.
Russian sinologists, the Russian media, threat of internal rebellion, the pariah status inflicted by the Congress of Berlin, the negative state of the Russian economy all led Russia to concede and negotiate with China in St Petersburg, and return most of Ili to China.
The correspondent Douglas Story observed Chinese troops in 1907 and praised their abilities and military skill.