Anson Burlingame was a lawyer who served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1855 to 1861 and as minister to China from 1861 to 1867. In 1868 the Chinese government appointed him ambassador to negotiate treaties on China’s behalf with the United States and European nations. He died in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1870.
As a result of defeat by Great Britain and France in 1858 and again in 1860, China was forced to sign the Treaties of Tianjin (Tientsin) and Beijing (Peking), whereby Britain and France gained the right to establish legations in China’s capital. Because of the mostfavored-nation clause in the treaties, the United States also obtained that right.
Burlingame was the first U.S. minister to China, arriving in Beijing in 1862. He and British minister Sir Frederick Bruce championed a cooperative policy toward China based on four principles: cooperation among Western powers, cooperation with Chinese officials, recognition of legitimate Chinese interests, and enforcement of treaty rights. A decade of peace and goodwill prevailed in Sino-Western relations as a result.
China did not at first reciprocate in establishing diplomatic missions abroad despite urgings by Western nations. In 1862 a minor, Emperor Tongzhi (T’ung-chih), ascended the Chinese throne; his uncle Prince Gong (K’ung) acted as regent and took charge of foreign affairs.
Prince Gong needed to understand international law and Western diplomatic practices and obtained the help of an Englishman, Robert Hart, who commissioned W. A. P. Martin and his Chinese assistants to translate 24 essays on international diplomacy into Chinese from a book by Henry Wheaton titled Elements of International Law. Burlingame played a role in their publication and presented a copy to Prince Gong in 1864.
The Treaty of Beijing was up for revision in 1868. That prospect aroused fear among Chinese officials due to the persistent demands of Western merchants for a more aggressive policy toward China to force further concessions.
At this juncture Burlingame’s tour of duty in China ended. He volunteered to represent China in a roving diplomatic mission to the West. Prince Gong accepted and appointed him and two Chinese as coenvoys.
They arrived in the United States in 1868, were received by President Andrew Johnson, and signed a treaty (called the Burlingame Treaty) with Secretary of State Seward.
By its terms the United States agreed not to interfere in China’s development, allowed China to establish consulates in the United States, permitted Chinese laborers to enter the United States, and granted reciprocal rights of residence, travel, and access to schools in either country.
The embassy next traveled to Britain, Prussia, and Russia, where Burlingame died as a result of pneumonia. The other envoys then visited several other European countries before returning to China in 1870. All European nations agreed not to force China into new agreements.
This was China’s first diplomatic mission abroad since being opened by the West. It was a great success in achieving China’s immediate goals by securing Western powers’ commitment to a policy of restraint and noncoersion toward China.