Mao Haijian and the Beginning of the End of Dynastic China

Mao Haijian (茅海建, 1954-) is a noted historian of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) based at East China Normal University in Shanghai. In March 2018, an English translation of The Collapse of the Heavenly Dynasty 天朝的崩潰, Mao’s celebrated account of the First Opium War (1839-1842), was published by Cambridge University Press.

The war was concluded when a treaty between the Qing Court and the British government was signed in Nanking on 29 August 1842. As part of our China Heritage Annual: Nanking, Joseph Lawson, one of the translators of Mao’s work and a historian at Newcastle University, kindly selected an excerpt from The Collapse of the Heavenly Dynasty and wrote the following introduction. Lawson’s collaborators on the project were Craig Smith (University of Melbourne) and Peter Lavelle (Temple University, Philadelphia).

The Editor
China Heritage
26 September 2018

Note: The formatting of the published translation of Mao Haijian’s book has been retained.

Resonances of History 

Collapse of the Heavenly Dynasty 天朝的崩潰, Mao Haijian’s 茅海建 history of the First Opium War, also known as the Anglo-Chinese War, first published in 1995, is one of the most significant and influential works of post-Mao era Chinese historical scholarship. As Julia Lovell suggests in her introduction to our translation — The Qing Empire and the Opium War: The Collapse of the Heavenly Dynasty — it is not an easy work to categorize in conventional Western academic terms; it ranges through a ‘reconstruction of court ceremony, legal analysis, military micro-history and the traces of “history from below” excavated from the archives.’

The first sentence of the book reminds readers that ‘Chinese history writing strongly emphasizes the appraisal of historical figures’. Mao Haijian is well within that tradition. Throughout his work, Mao weighs up the historical verdicts on high officials, including those pronounced at the time of the Opium War as well as during the long history of writing about the war since. Mao probes, inter alia, the charges of treason against Qishan (Kišan 琦善, 1786-1854), the meaning of Yuqian’s (Ioikiyan 裕謙, 1793-1841) suicide, and the reasons why Lin Zexu (林則徐, 1785-1850) misread British intentions and wrote confidently on the eve of the war that they would surely not attack.

Mao is a rigorously factual historian, but in such passages and in the narrative sections of the book, there are traces of China’s older heritage of literary narratives of historical wars. Works in that tradition, most famously the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三國演義, have long been an important part of China’s military culture and a source for the discussion of the strategic and moral problems of war. The Qing court, for example, recommended The Three Kingdoms to its army officers, and military leaders of the early and mid-twentieth century often cited it in their writing. Mao’s familiarity with that tradition of literary historiography, along with his scrupulous scholarship and insight into the Qing historical record, combine to make his work compelling reading for Chinese audiences. His later books, including a biography of the ill-fated Yizhu (I Ju , 1831-1861; Emperor Wenzong 文宗, known by his reign title Xianfeng 咸豐), who was on the throne at the time of the Second Opium War, and collected studies that focus on controversial issues central to the study of late-Qing history, have added to his stature as a major historian.

Yet Collapse is also a work of modern history aimed at one of the central problems that Chinese intellectuals grappled with throughout the twentieth century. Up until the Tang-Song era ending in the twelfth century, China had probably been the richest, most powerful and technologically advanced state in the world: why did it fall so far behind the West after that? And, why was it so much more difficult for China to embark on a ‘path to modernization’ than it had been for Japan?

Mao engages with these questions implicitly, and his interpretations are in keeping with the thinking of the liberal wing of the Chinese intellectual spectrum at the time he wrote this book. He began working on the First Opium War in the mid-1980s, though his research was not published until 1995. Its genesis straddles the relatively open 1980s and the more repressive years following the crushing of the 1989 pro-democracy protests.

In the West, undergraduate courses and textbooks often introduce students to China’s 1980s through a discussion of the television series River Elergy 河殤: a spectacular call for greater openness to the outside world that nonetheless addressed the Chinese public from the position that there were quintessential and abiding aspects of Chinese civilization. Without declaring his position explicitly, this is also the context of Mao Haijian’s work. A few passages offer criticisms of the scholarly culture of the Qing period, but overall the author steers clear of criticizing Chinese culture as a whole. Instead, the target of his analysis is the Qing political system, autocratic rule, the notion of the Heavenly Dynasty 天朝 (also translated as ‘Celestial Dynasty’) and, above all, the relative isolation of Qing officialdom from the rest of the world. The latter facet of Qing rule was seen to be a product of government policy that was broadly accepted by high officials as the status quo.

The following passage is taken from ‘The “Battle” of Guangzhou’, Chapter Four of The Qing Empire and the Opium War. It illustrates the problem of what would now be dubbed as ‘fake news’, or disinformation. The Qing court and officialdom knew very little about the military capabilities of the British, and therefore they tended to interpret military defeats as being the result of the cowardice or ineptitude of commanders on the ground. Charges of negligence were punishable by death, and this confronted civilian and military officials with an inescapable incentive to lie. The result was to reinforce the Court’s ignorance about the military capabilities of the enemy.

We pick up the story just after the Manchu General-in-Chief of Repressing Rebellion 靖逆將軍 Yishan (I Šan 奕山, 1790-1878) has agreed to pay the British six million yuan to leave Guangzhou. He now has to report the defeat, and the hefty cost of the loss, to the emperor in Beijing.

Joseph Lawson

The ‘Battle’ of Guangzhou

Mao Haijian 茅海建

(An Excerpt)


From 1 June the British began to withdraw from Yuexiushan. Within a week, all British forces had left the city, returning all the fortified positions above Humen, and assembling in Hong Kong. Peace had returned.

The problem remaining was how to present the account to the Daoguang emperor.

Yuexiushan, Guangzhou 廣州越秀山

Yishan’s disobedience had been much worse than Yang Fang’s. Yang had only agreed to the resumption of trade; Yishan had paid the British six million yuan in “mission expenses”; in reality a ransom for the city. If the emperor of the majestic Heavenly Dynasty found out that this was how his General-in-Chief of Repressing Rebellion had “repressed the rebels” his rage would surely grind the general into powder.

Yishan’s way of dealing with the danger was the same as Yang Fang’s: to lie; but his stomach and skill level had to surpass Yang’s. On 26 May, with Guangzhou surrounded and the Qing forces flying the white flag, Yishan wrote a memorial listing all the Qing victories between 23 and 25 May, proclaiming that they had sunk a steamship and burned a triple-masted warship. The news excited the emperor and he wrote “very good,” “extremely good,” and “heartening” on the memorial. But at the very end of it Yishan had left a hint of bad news — cursing Han traitors who had assisted the enemy — thereby leaving a certain amount of room for maneuver in future memorials.[1]

On 4 June, nine days after the ceasefire and after the British army had left Guangzhou, Yishan wrote again, reporting that the British had attacked the city with all of their warships and with “Han traitors who swam ashore, seizing positions behind our troops,” which had allowed the British to occupy the batteries north of the city. At this point the “city’s residents made a succession of appeals for the protection of their lives.”

Here Yishan fabricated a beautiful and moving story:

According to reports from soldiers on the city wall, the yi [夷 ‘barbarians’ — Ed.] outside the walls waved at the city, as if they had something to say. The assistant regional commander on duty, Xiong Rui, climbed the wall to observe them and saw the yi chief gesture to the heavens and to his heart. Xiong did not understand his words and called for an interpreter. According to what he heard, they wanted to petition the general-in-chief with their grievances. The regional commander, Duan Yongfu, shouted at them that our general would never consent to see them, as his only orders were to fight. The yi chiefs immediately removed their hats and bowed. They ordered their attendants to disperse, threw their weapons to the ground, and bowed again to the city walls. Duan Yongfu requested your slave’s [i.e., Yishan’s] permission to investigate, and sent the interpreter down to them. They were asked why they resisted China, why they had been repeatedly unruly, and what grievance they had. They said that because the English yi have not been allowed to trade, their goods cannot move freely in and out of our city, and their capital is being exhausted, and their debts are unpaid. Because of the cannon fire outside the New City [south of Guangzhou proper], they were unable to relay their message there, so they came [to the north of the city] to request that the general-in-chief relay their pleas for the Great Emperor’s kindness, so that trade could resume and the [cohong] merchants could be made to repay their debts to them. If this were done they would immediately retreat to beyond Humen, return the forts, and would not dare to make any more trouble. Also according to a petition from the cohong merchants, the yi have entreated the cohong to mediate as well, asking only for the right to trade as before and for the debts of the past to be repaid, whereupon they would immediately and completely withdraw all their forces beyond Humen.

Such a rich imagination was worthy of a dramatist. Leaving aside the lines like the yi “gestured to the heavens and to his heart,” and “threw their weapons to the ground,” which could have been stage directions for a play, the transformation of the British attack on Yuexiushan into an attempt to deliver a message by avoiding the cannon fire in the south was a masterpiece of imagination. Yishan completely reversed the two sides’ historical roles, casting the British as the ones who pleaded for peace. And into the mouth of Duan Yongfu he put the self- vindication that the “general would never consent to see them, as his only orders were to fight.” A splendid piece of work!

Thus, Yishan wrote, considering that the line of defense at Humen had already been breached, and that there was nowhere in the river to mount a defense, it would be better to accede to their request, let them retreat beyond Humen, then strengthen the defenses between Humen and Guangzhou to make it easier to deal with them in the future.

The memorial also revealed that trade had been allowed to resume; the many tricks that Yang Fang had used to conceal this fact were now abandoned. As for the six million yuan ransom, Yishan transformed it into a “debt repayment”; the Guangzhou authorities had only temporarily covered a part of the sum owed by the hong merchants.[2]

The Xuanzong Emperor 宣宗, known by his reign title Daoguang 道光

The emperor received Yishan’s memorial on 18 June. Although he did not see though its lies, he nonetheless awoke from the original fantasy that a “large army” would “surround and crush” the enemy and “capture the yi chief.” As we have seen, earlier in the war the “obstinacy” of the British had caused the emperor to abandon attempts to reach a solution by “conciliation” and turn instead to attempts to “annihilate” them. Even when Yang Fang reported that all that was necessary for peace was the resumption of trade, the emperor had still been unwilling to allow them what they wanted or spare them.[3] Now, however, he seems to have decided to give in. His next order was: “These yi have the character of dogs and goats; it is not worth haggling with them. They have already been disciplined and our power has been demonstrated.” Now they “remove their hats and bow, and entreat [our officials] to write memorials on their behalf to beg for kindness,” “We understand the inevitable pains [the war] has caused.” He allowed the resumption of trade and the payment of hong merchants’ debts.[4]

Yishan’s lies had succeeded.


The Daoguang emperor did not inquire closely into Yishan’s memorial, and drew the conclusion that the war had finished. On 28 July he ordered the withdrawal of reinforcements to the coastal areas.[5] This frugal emperor was always unwilling to spend money and was highly conscious of how much the tens of thousands of extra soldiers and yong [勇 mercenaries] must be costing every day.

Yishan was much luckier than his predecessors. Lin Zexu had been honest about the most important things, but by this time had been sentenced to exile in Ili. Kišan was also mostly honest, and was in the capital awaiting trial (at the end of which he would be sentenced to death). By the standards of the time, Yishan’s crimes were the most egregious, but he received a meritorious record and many precious gifts. And not only that: after the defeat at Guangzhou, Yishan recommended 554 officers, soldiers and yong who had “shown effort” for promotions, jobs and meritorious records.[6] Guangzhou was not like other defeated cities, marked by a deathly gloom, but rather by an air of jubilation and mutual congratulation among various ranks in the city. And how could those connected to the 554 (who included most officials in Guangzhou) not become loyal partisans of Yishan, who would do their utmost to protect his lies? These fabrications turned right and wrong upside-down, and reversed reward and punishment.

In light of this, for the Qing dynasty not to have become a world of lies would have been the real absurdity.

— from The Qing Empire and the Opium War: 
The Collapse of the Heavenly Dynasty



[1] Yapian zhanzheng dang’an shiliao 鸦片战争档案史料, Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 1987, vol.3, pp.446-448.

[2] Ibid.: 461-464.

[3] Yang had misunderstood the terms of the ceasefire, see the first section of this chapter.

[4] Yapian zhanzheng dang’an shiliao, 3: 500.

[5] Yapian zhanzheng dang’an shiliao, 3: 579-581.

[6] Qi Sihe 齐思和, Lin Shuhui 林树惠 and Shou Jiyu 寿纪喻, eds, Yapian zhanzheng 鸦片战争, Shanghai: Shenzhou guoguang she, 1954, vol.4, pp.242-58; and, Yapian zhanzheng dang’an shiliao 3: 539-41; 4: 9-12.