Sino-French War and the Treaty of Tianjin (Tientsin)

Treaty of Tianjin (Tientsin)
Treaty of Tianjin (Tientsin)

This war and treaty between China and France concerned Annam (or Vietnam), an area that was ruled by China until circa 900 c.e., and a closely linked vassal state since. The government of Annam, modeled on China’s, controlled internal affairs; its kings received investiture by the Chinese emperor and on occasions received Chinese assistance to suppress local rebellions. Between 1644 and 1881 Annam sent 50 missions to Beijing (Peking) to render tribute to the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty.

France first became interested in Annam in the 17th century. However, French Jesuit missionaries converted few Annamese to Catholicism, nor was the French East India Company successful in establishing trade in the region. France renewed its interest in Annam in the 1860s under Napoleon III who was anxious to win glory abroad.

In the 1870s, Germany encouraged French imperialism in Annam and elsewhere as a distraction from its loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany. Beset by domestic rebellions and Russian advances in the northwest, the Qing government was unable to protect the government of Annam due to civil war.

Thus, the Treaty of Saigon in 1874 allowed French ships freely to navigate the Red River, to guide Annam’s foreign affairs, and granted France other rights that made Annam a de facto French protectorate. China refused to recognize the validity of the treaty because Annam was a vassal state but did not pursue the matter. In 1880 France expanded its power by stationing troops in Hanoi and Haiphong, the main city and port in northern Annam.

China and France held inconclusive talks over Annam between 1880 and 1884. Chinese negotiator Li Hongzhang (Li Hung-chang) and Prince Gong (K’ung) were anxious to temporize because they realized China’s military weakness, but were loudly opposed by a group of scholar-officials who were ignorant of reality and called for war with France.

The regent and dowager empress Cixi (Tz’u-hsi), vacillated between the two camps. In 1884 Li and French naval officer F. E. Fournier reached an agreement (Li-Fournier Agreement) that was vague on some crucial points and thus infuriated extremists in both nations; the French parliament rejected its terms and Chinese hardliners demanded Li’s impeachment. Prince Gong was dismissed.

War broke out in July 1884. The French navy destroyed most of China’s naval vessels at the Fuzhou Shipyard and then blockaded the Yangzi (Yangtze) River and key ports. Panic stricken, and after many reversals of positions, Cixi sued for peace, despite a Chinese land victory at the Battle of Langson.

Li was again ordered to negotiate with France. In the Treaty of Tianjin (Tientsin) in 1885 China lost Annam as a vassal state. France would later add Laos and Cambodia, also Chinese vassal states to Annam, to form French Indochina. Similarly, Great Britain would secure a treaty with China in 1886 that made another vassal state, Burma into a British possession.

The Sino-French War of 1884–85 signaled the inadequacy of the Self-Strengthening Movement and the disastrous consequences of the dowager empress Cixi’s rule. Her pathetic ignorance would lead China to further disasters.