Tsingtao Beer and the First Sino-Japanese War

China’s economy is slowing. Its annual growth rate has dropped to 6.9%, a 25-year low. That said, Chinese exports remain a source of resentment for millions of people, whose livelihoods have been taken away or put in jeopardy by the ultra-competitive prices offered by the ‘world’s factory’.

China remains the world's leading manufacturer but economic growth is slowing
China remains the world’s leading manufacturer but economic growth is slowing

One Chinese export that appears to be growing in global popularity – certainly it is in the UK – is Tsingtao, a rather find brand of lager with an interesting history of its own.

In 1894, the modernising Japanese began a bold bid to expand their influence away from their homeland by acquiring large swathes of territory across East Asia. Korea was their first target.

Korea was a Chinese vassal state at the end of the 19th century and, as such, had the right to ask China to send troops to its aid should Korean sovereignty come under threat. Whilst the Chinese were not particularly attached to their vassals during this period – and had been prepared to cede influence to Western powers in some instances – the fact that Korea had a border with Manchuria was significant. If Korea fell into enemy hands then the Chinese homeland would come under direct threat, Manchuria also holding a place of particular importance as the birthplace of the ruling Qing Dynasty.

Unlike the Japanese, China’s rulers were stuck in a cycle of inertia under their young Emperor Guangxu, having made significant progress during the previous three decades when the Empress Dowager Cixi effectively ran the country. Oblivious to international affairs and the potential power of the Japanese, Guangxu failed to spend sufficient funds on improving the Chinese Army and Navy.

Emperor Guangxu lacked the modernising tendencies of his Japanese rivals
Emperor Guangxu lacked the modernising tendencies of his Japanese rivals

Japanese and Chinese troops were already stationed in Korea in order to ‘protect’ their own nationals and interests. Buoyed by its own increasing military prowess and the seemingly enfeebled Chinese monarchy, Japan escalated tensions by seizing Seoul in July 1894, establishing a puppet government with the authority to expel Chinese troops. The Chinese belatedly responded by sending a naval force with troops to Korea, only for one of its ships to be sunk by the Japanese Navy in a preemptive strike.

In August 1894, China and Japan declared war on one another. It would begin a humiliating process for Beijing, whose forces were routed on land and at sea by the adventurous Japanese. The Chinese were soon forced out of Korea, with the Japanese crossing the border in October. In November 1894 the strategic harbour of Port Arthur fell and by February 1895 the Japanese had overrun Weihaiwei, home of China’s Northern Fleet.

Japanese troops with modern Western weapons during the First Sino-Japanese War
Japanese troops with modern Western weapons during the First Sino-Japanese War

With defeat inevitable and mainland China under real threat, Emperor Guangxu sued for peace. In April 1895, the Japanese revealed their extravagant demands for an end to the war:

  1. Cession of Taiwan.
  2. Cession of the Pescadores Islands.
  3. Cession of the Liaodong Peninsula.
  4. 200 million taels war indemnity (nearly ten times the total of the Japanese state revenue at the time).

With a promise that Japanese troops would march on Beijing should he try and negotiate, Emperor Guangxu ordered his diplomats to accept these disastrous terms and the Treaty of Shimonoseki was duly signed.

Treaty of Shimonoseki
Treaty of Shimonoseki

Incensed by China’s capitulation and Japan’s brazenness, and the potential strategic implications of the treaty, the Western powers – particularly Russia, Germany and France – put pressure on Tokyo to revoke its demand for the Liaodong Peninsula.

China therefore retained sovereignty over the Peninsula for the time being. However, it would soon become clear that the Europeans wanted to be rewarded for pressuring the Japanese to back off.

In 1897, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany demanded control of Jiaozhou Bay in Shandong Province, including the naval station of Qingdao (Tsingtao). With German warships patrolling the coast, Emperor Guangxu agreed to give the Germans a 99-year lease for the territory. This was soon followed by the Russian acquisition of Port Arthur, the British takeover of Weihaiwei and the concession to the French of Guangzhouwan, an enclave to serve as an outlier to French Indochina.

German Tsingtau in 1898 and 1910
German Tsingtau in 1898 and 1910

It was this series of events that led to the Germans creating an indigenous Chinese lager in 1903, albeit based on trusted ingredients from the fatherland. As with Anheuser and Busch in the USA, German immigrants successfully created a national product for China that has stood the test of time.

Perhaps this can be considered one of the consolations of a particularly dark moment in Chinese history.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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