China in the early 20th century

From the 19th century onwards China’s power gradually eroded. The Western powers compelled the emperor to increasingly lease more land and strategic ports. The Chinese population was quite dissatisfied about the privilege enjoyed by foreigners. This resulted in unrest at the end of the 19th and in the early 20th centuries. This is known as "The Boxer Rebellion"; its supporters fought against anything that was western, modern and progressive. The foreign powers reacted to the violence with a military punitive expedition. They also imposed heavy financial reparations on China, further increasing Chinese subordination to Western countries.

Next to the European economic influence, religious interests also played a role. The missionaries exercised their influence via their establishment and governance of educational establishments.

In 1911 the unstable Chinese empire collapsed and in 1912 the charismatic Sun Yat-sen proclaimed a republic with himself as president. After a few months however, Sun Yat-sen was obliged to transfer his presidency to General Yuan Shikai. Under the latter’s violent regime army leaders and insurrectionists seized power in the Chinese provinces where they established dictatorial fiefdoms.

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  • Main street of the Belgian concession in Tianjin with, to the right, the building of the Belgian administration, 20 April 1907, photo, Diplomatic Archives, Brussels

    In the China of the early 20th century, daily life was hard and dull; there was enormous poverty and there were few prospects for young men.

  • Peking and Tientsin Times, 1 August 1914, newspaper, In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres

    This newspaper had many readers among the British who lived in China, many of whom would become active in the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC). This shows how many Westerners lived and worked in this country in the early 20th century.

  • Cover of a Catholic propaganda booklet, "Chinese anecdotes by Father Lebbe" written by Vincent Lebbe and published in Leuven, book, In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres

    Vincent Lebbe, who originated from Ypres, was an example of a missionary who became integrated with a Chinese municipality and consequently exercised considerable influence. He involved the local intelligentsia in resistance and was partly responsible for the growing protest by the Chinese against French influence.

main street of the Belgian concession in Tianjinnewspaper, Peking and Tientsin TimesCatholic propaganda booklet written by Vincent Lebbe