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Russian invasion changed way Qing managed sea borders

By Zhang Gongzheng | 2016-02-01 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The painting depicts the signing of the Treaty of Aigun between the Qing court and czarist Russia in 1858. The treaty included lots of articles about ceding Chinese territory, but the Qing court did not accept it until the signing of the Convention of Peking with Russia in 1860.


In ancient times, there was a vast land frontier in northeastern China, and its coastlines extended to the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea and the Bohai Sea as well. In the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911), the sea frontier in northeastern China started from the northern Uda River, which was the subject of the China-Russia Treaty of Nerchinsk, to the coastal areas in western Liaoning Province in the south.

At the time, the northeastern water region covered the Heilongjiang River, the Ussuri River, the Tumen River, the Yalu River, border areas of Jilin Province, the Liaodong Peninsula, Sakhalin, Russky Island and the Zhangzidao Island as well as coasts of the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan and northern Yellow Sea.

When governing the northeastern sea border, the Qing court applied two separate sets of laws to the Manchu and Han peoples and differentiated the management of affairs concerning the two ethnic groups.


Naval garrison
After the Qing troops marched into the Shanhaiguan Pass and seized modern-day Beijing as the capital, the government established garrison and civil administration management systems as part of its efforts to govern the sea frontier in northeastern China. 

As a first line of defense against the Russians in the north, the central court formed a naval battalion to guard the Heilongjiang River in 1683 during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662-1723).

The battalion supervised such areas as Heilongjiang and Mergen, a historical city and strategic passage to the Chinese hinterland. The sailors were descendants of criminals banished to Jilin. They were offered provisions and funds and required to drill on time.

In 1700, the pirate Zheng Jinxin looted merchant ships off the coast of the Liaodong Peninsula, posing a grave threat to sea trade between areas west of the Shanhaiguan Pass and the northeastern regions.

In order to eliminate piracy on the sea, the Qing court rushed out 10 warships in 1704 and created the Lüshun Naval Battalion. The battalion was staffed with one assistant commandant from the Han troops, two Han secretaries at the company commandant level, four platoon commanders and eight imperial guards. They were responsible for patrolling an area that extended from southern Korea in the east to Zhejiang and Fujian provinces in the south and Tianjin in the west.

The Lüshun Naval Battalion was mainly responsible for ending piracy, inspecting trade ships traveling between areas west of the Shanhaiguan Pass and northeastern regions, and preventing inland Han people from smuggling or trespassing in forbidden parts of northeastern China, thus maintaining the base of Manchuria.


Civil Administration
In regard to civil administration, the government carried out a divided governance system over the Manchu and Han peoples in the southern part of the sea frontier in northeastern China. In Shengjing, modern-day Shenyang, Liaoning Province, a prefect was charged with civil administration in the province.

The Qing court implemented a special taxation policy for ethnic tribes in northern coastal areas, such as Nanai and Nivkh, that required them to contribute marten pelts, and they received textiles in return on a yearly basis. The policy seemed to facilitate exchange between the central court and the tribes, but it was in fact a government method of bringing the tribes under political control.

In addition, the Qing court also utilized marriage to win the tribes’ support and strengthen their sense of political belonging.


Russian invasion
In 1758, during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736-95), the king of the Matsumae clan in Japan sent envoys to Sakhalin for inspection. It was the first time the Japanese conducted a field investigation of Sakhalin. More than two decades later, Japanese were dispatched to Sakhalin a few more times.

In 1789, Russians began to build land administration bureaus, prisons and churches along the southern coast of Sakhalin and station garrison troops. Some Russian people even migrated to the island.

Japan was unwilling to fall behind. In the following year, it set up fishery bureaus in a few places on the island.

In September 1806, during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing (1796-1820), czarist Russia dispatched an official to a bay on Sakhalin, who left a copperplate as proof of Russia’s occupation of the island.

In 1853 when Emperor Xianfeng (reigned 1851-60) was in office, Russia smashed the boundary marker between China and Russia and seized Miyoo Gasan, a port city in Heilongjiang Province, encroaching upon Chinese territory.

In 1858, Russian commander Nikolai Muraviev led warships straight to Aigun, a county in Heilongjiang, on the pretext of “helping China to guard against Britain” and forced Heilongjiang general Yi Shan to sign the China-Russia Treaty of Aigun. The Qing government did not acknowledge the treaty until the signing of the Convention of Peking with Russia.

Subsequently, Russia continued to expand eastward. Its forces soon captured Haishenwai, a port in eastern Jilin, and renamed it Vladivostok.

In 1860, Russia pressured the Qing court to ink the Convention of Peking and forced it to accept all articles about territorial cession in the Treaty of Aigun. Furthermore, the area south of the Ussuri River to the coast, which was previously under joint jurisdiction of China and Russia, and the whole coastal region of Jilin were ceded to Russia.

By that time, Russia occupied a large section of Chinese territory that stretched from the port of the Tumen River in the south to border areas in Jilin, which were at mouth of the Heilongjiang River and included Sakhalin in the north.


In the early years of Emperor Tongzhi’s rule (1862-74), the Qing regime started to reform the garrison and governance models for the northeastern sea frontier after it suppressed the Taiping Rebellion.

First, Lüshun Port, which was formerly known as Port Arthur, on the Liaodong Peninsula was designated as the home port for the Beiyang Navy. In 1881, during the reign of Emperor Guangxu (1875-1908), Qing politician, general and diplomat Li Hongzhang went to Lüshun Port to conduct topographic investigations. He concluded that the port, bordering on the Liaohe River, was of great strategic importance.

Lüshun was known as the “First Fort in the Far East” and considered critical to the defense of the Qing capital as well as maintaining control of Korea and repelling Japan.

While the Lüshun military port was under construction, the Imo Incident and the subsequent Gapsin Coup took place in Korea. The Beiyang Navy responded swiftly  to quell the unrest, foiling Japan’s scheme to annex Korea and thwarting its attempt to expand its presence in Northeast Asia. 

Second, a naval battalion was established in Jingbian County, Jilin Province. In April 1889, Jilin General Gobulo Changshun organized 200 soldiers drawn from the Jingbian Artillery into the Jingbian Naval Battalion and assigned Sun Chengtong to handle organizational matters.

That September, he selected soldiers familiar with sea warfare from the Jingbian Calvary and promulgated the Regulations on the Jingbian Naval Battalion, marking the official establishment of the battalion.

After its creation, the battalion began patrolling the northeastern river basin, including the Songhua River and the Tumen River, every year when the river ice thawed, exterminating bandits effectively.

Third, the dual system that was formerly used to manage the Manchu and Han ethnic groups was changed while the management system for the northeastern sea frontier was gradually integrated into the administrative system of the hinterland.

To address the long-term inconsistency of government policy, the Qing court unified the separate rule of the Manchu and Han peoples in the northeast of China, replicating the viceroy and grand coordinator system practiced in the hinterland.

Moreover, it prohibited Manchu officials from intervening in Han affairs and eliminated the Manchu-Han discrimination.

In addition, it installed a series of towns in important seaports, mountain passes and border areas along the northeastern sea border, thereby making clear the northeastern sea boundary of the Qing Dynasty and maintaining security on the sea frontier in the region.

Zhang Gongzheng is a post-doctorate fellow from the Department of History at the College of Humanities at Xiamen University in Fujian Province.