In August 1842, the British government of Queen Victoria forced the Chinese government of the Daoguang Emperor (道光帝) to sign the Treaty of Nanking to acknowledge China’s defeat in the Opium War, to require China to pay a large indemnity and to cede the port of Hong Kong to Britain.
That treaty and 172 ensuing pacts, agreements and statements recorded what Chinese of all political stripes have called the “Century of Shame.” During that time, Western European nations, Russia, the US and Japan all carved out “spheres of influence” that turned many Chinese cities and provinces into colonies of the foreign powers.
Today, that treasure trove of China’s tribulations, once stored away and ignored, has been resurrected and put on display by the government of the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan. It can be seen on the Internet in Chinese and English on two Web sites: www.npm.gov.tw/exh100/diplomatic/ and npmhost.npm.gov.tw/tts/npmkm2/10010.html.
In addition, a book, also in Chinese and English, carrying reproductions of all the documents has gone into its third printing. Earlier this month, an exhibition of the documents closed at the National Palace Museum, just north of Taipei, after being seen by 1.7 million people, including visitors from China.
This project reflects the essence of the 63-year dispute between the governments in Taipei and Beijing. It is intended “to show to the world the legitimacy of the Republic of China,” said Philip T.Y. Wang (王贊禹), director-general of the Department of Archives and Information Management in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In China, the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) asserts that Taiwan is a Chinese province that should come under Beijing’s rule. Wang said the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations, Japan’s instrument of surrender to the ROC in World II, and the peace treaty between the ROC and Japan refute the PRC’s claim.
Unspoken in the rivalry between Taiwan and China is the contrast between the destruction of historical archives and cultural sites during the Cultural Revolution generated by Communist leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東) from 1966 to 1976 and Taiwan’s efforts to preserve Chinese culture and history today.
A sidelight: At a time when treaties were often handwritten, the Chinese calligraphy in bold strokes and the flowing penmanship in English, French and occasionally other European languages are artistically appealing.
After the Treaty of Nanking, there followed for the next 60 years a flock of similar treaties, many of them signed in the port city of Tientsin, now known as Tianjin. Eventually, China made concessions to France, Britain, Japan, Russia, Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Belgium to turn that port into an international city.
In 1895, having lost a war with Japan, the Chinese signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki, a coastal city in Japan, in which Taiwan was ceded to Japan. In other agreements about that time, China ceded suzerainty, or dominion, over Vietnam to France, which incorporated the country into its Indochina colony.
In China’s revolution, World Wars and civil strife in the first half of the 20th Century, the documents were shuttled around China for safekeeping. In 1948, they were shipped with other government files in 60 crates to Taiwan when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) forces were driven out of China. The documents were stored and forgotten.