[Picture story] The Sino-French War of 1884 and the collapse of Western colonialism

Historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao notes that the Sino-French War showed the weaknesses of Western colonial powers, particularly France. This ultimately led to the end of colonialism following World War II.
A colour illustration on 8 April 1884 shows the Battle of Fuzhou, with a shower of gunfire from French vessels and the Fujian Fleet either sinking or damaged.
A colour illustration on 8 April 1884 shows the Battle of Fuzhou, with a shower of gunfire from French vessels and the Fujian Fleet either sinking or damaged.

(All images courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao)

In the nine months from August 1884 to April 1885, a war on land and sea broke out between China and France. The battleground was on both sides of the Taiwan Strait — Fuzhou, Keelung, and Tamsui — while the largest land battle was fought in northern Vietnam.

China and France both suffered losses in this war, but the timid Qing court wanted to end the war quickly and gave in on its own, allowing France to expand its sphere of influence from southern Vietnam to include northern Vietnam. After Spain, the Netherlands, and Britain, France also established an Asian colony in Indochina, and continued the conflict in Asia following World War II.

After the Opium War of 1842 and the war against Britain and France in 1860, the attitude of the Western powers towards China went from admiration and respect to scorn. At the time, the power of capital due to the Industrial Revolution was growing rapidly, and imperialism and colonialism were at a peak. The powers had their eye on China as a vast, ancient Oriental land. British and French forces came by sea along China’s southeastern coast, while a rising Japan licked its chops. Russia stole large tracts of land from China on the pretext of claiming credit for mediation, and built the Chinese Eastern Railway, controlling the three northeast China provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning.

An image from French publication L'Illustration in December 1884, showing French vessels attacking the Fujian Fleet in Mawei harbour.
An image of French troops attacking Shanxi city during the Sino-French War, also known as the Tonkin War, 1884.

France: embattled at home, venturing abroad

In the late 19th century, the situation changed in Europe. Otto von Bismarck, President of Prussia, managed to unite Germany and build a strong empire with his policy of “Blut und Eisen” (blood and iron). In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, the French lost heavily at the Battle of Sedan. Emperor Napoleon III was captured and the Second Empire collapsed, and the Third Republic ceded land as reparations as it bowed down to Germany.

At this time, the only thing that could make up for paying reparations and the loss of dignity was for France to expand its overseas colonies, and engage in armed extortion of weaker, smaller countries. This showed that even as France was losing its status in Europe, it did not rein in its military movements overseas, but grew reckless instead. The French navy was bent on sending troops to Tonkin or northern Vietnam, and even proposed venturing into China, reflecting the military’s eagerness to regain some ground.

China: Seeing its own weakness, seeking progress

As for China, 14 years of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) had brought suffering to the people and shaken the foundation of Qing rule, while the rise of prominent generals like Zeng Guofan and Zuo Zongtang also drove reform. These generals steeped in the Confucian tradition were valiant fighters with modern perspectives. They saw clearly that China was lagging behind the rest of the world, not just in terms of weapons but also in knowledge, and if China was to recover, it would have to learn from others in order to beat them at their own game.

xu jingcheng
A portrait of Xu Jingcheng, the new Chinese ambassador to France, on the cover of the French publication L'Illustration, 1884. The Sino-French War lasted nine months, with casualties for China and even heavier losses for France as a major power. People were war-weary, and Xu worked to rebuild Sino-French relations, which made him very popular among French media.
A picture of Fuzhou in French publication L’Illustration, 1884, showing a peaceful, flowing scene reminiscent of Jiangnan’s waterways. The branches of the Min river wind around the old city of Fuzhou, and the rich water supply has made Fuzhou a land of fish and rice.

During the reign of the Tongzhi Emperor, there were signs of a renewal in China. On the suggestion of the aforementioned generals, China brought in modern schools and built a modern army and military factories, as well as telegraph and postal facilities. While these were not about the political and social reform that China needed the most in its modernisation, China did make obvious progress. In particular, the southeast coastal provinces had a long seafaring history and were familiar with maritime affairs, while returning overseas Chinese also brought back rich finances and fresh new ideas. When war broke out, the defences of these coastal provinces were far better than they were during the time of the Xianfeng Emperor.

Not a quick win as expected

In 1884, thinking that China would be an easy target, France declared war on China. However, apart from a victory in the Battle of Fuzhou through a sneak attack with superior arms, the French troops were repeatedly defeated on land, with losses in Keelung and Tamsui in Taiwan, as well as in the Battle of Bang Bo and in Lạng Sơn in north Vietnam. The fighting stretched on for nine months, during which French Admiral Amédée Courbet — commander of the Far East Squadron — fell ill and died in the Penghu (Pescadore) Islands.

battle of fuzhou
In 1884, French publication L'Illustration released a supplement with prominent full reports on the Battle of Fuzhou. The cover shows a French vessel bombarding a shipbuilding factory in Mawei, unleashing its full power of traditional cannons, automatic cannons and muskets.
A portrait of Admiral Amédée Courbet on the cover of French publication L'Illustration, 1885. This hawkish French fleet commander died of illness in the Penghu (Pescadores) islands.
In 1885, French publication L'Illustration ran an image of Admiral Amédée Courbet, commander of the French fleet, on his deathbed in Makung owing to illness. When the war broke out, Courbet destroyed the Fujian Fleet at the mouth of the Min River, and mistakenly thought France was in for an easy victory; they did not expect a deadlock over the next six months. Courbet led a fleet to patrol the Taiwan Strait — his strategic aims were fuzzy and he was helpless. Courbet fell ill in April 1885, but still had to direct the war. He was gradually exhausted and died on board a French vessel. The picture shows Courbet on his sickbed, surrounded by sombre French naval officers.
In 1885, French publication L’Illustration ran a picture on its cover, showing the grand scenes of Courbet’s funeral at Les Invalides in Paris.
A picture in French publication L’Illustration, 1885, showing Courbet’s hearse leaving the church at Les Invalides in Paris.

From any angle, the French lost this war, with particularly heavy losses in land combat. French Prime Minister Jules Ferry lost his office amid heavy criticism. However, the Qing court was focused on peace and did not leverage its victory to rebuild the country and turn the momentum into domestic reform; on the contrary, it compromised and recognised Vietnam as a French colony.

Also, among all the Western colonial powers that went to war with China, France was not as strong as Britain, Russia, Germany, and even Japan, which rose later. During World War II, France was quickly occupied by Nazi Germany, and when the fighting broke out in the Pacific theatre, Japan quickly captured the French colony of Indochina. Of the five permanent members of the United Nations (UN) established after WWII (comprising the US, Russia, China, Britain, and France), France was the only country to be occupied on all fronts by the Axis powers, and was only considered a “victor” of WWII mostly due to US support.

An illustration in the February issue of the Illustrated London News, 1890, showing the Han people and indigenous people celebrating together on Taiwan island.
An illustration in the March issue of the Illustrated London News, 1890, showing British travellers in Taiwan. In the picture, the Han people in Taiwan are friendly to the foreign travellers, offering them food and drink. In the background are a bamboo forest and banana trees.
An illustration in the March issue of the Illustrated London News, 1890, showing British travellers adventuring in Taiwan while locals help with carrying luggage as they move deep into the thick bamboo forest.

Asia responds

WWII defeated the fascist Axis powers, and put an ethical end to colonialism. With the end of WWII, Asian people immediately shifted their target to Western colonialist countries Britain, the US, the Netherlands, and France. The US allowed the Philippines to be independent, while Britain also pulled out of its colonies in India, Malaya, Singapore, and Myanmar, after making arrangements to preserve its colonial interests. The Netherlands also pulled out of Indonesia after losing out in armed conflict. France took the toughest stance and deployed a large army to maintain its colonial interests in Southeast Asia. However, by then, Vietnam was no longer weak as it was before the war, and after communist China was established in 1949, it supplied weapons and troops to the Viet Minh in its resistance against France.

A colour image of the Siege of Tuyên Quang in a French illustrated publication, 1885. On 12 October 1885, some 12,000 people from the Black Flag Army and other groups surrounded Tuyên Quang in northern Vietnam, where they fought with 4,000 French defending troops.
An image in French publication Le Monde illustré, 1884, showing local mercenary soldiers recruited by the French army, marching in line on the streets of Hanoi.
A picture in French publication L’Illustration, 1884, showing North Vietnamese mercenaries recruited by the French army. These mercenaries helped the French army to fight and were useful during the initial fighting with their knowledge of local terrain, which was one of the main reasons why the French army was able to quickly advance.
A picture in French publication L’Illustration, 1884, showing North Vietnamese civilians paying obeisance to advancing French troops. The French army threatened the Vietnamese emperor at Hue, who asked China for military assistance.

By this time, France was no longer dealing with poor, weak Asians as before the war, but highly organised Vietnamese armed forces that had been through WWII. Following fierce fighting and reinforcements on both sides, in May 1954 the French army lost badly in Dien Bien Phu and surrendered unconditionally, ending nearly 70 years of colonial rule in Asia. This victory was mainly due to the strong resolve of Asian people to do away with Western colonial rule — this general sentiment was seen by the West as an “invasion of the Communist Party”, while underestimating its historical background, resulting in the US making the same mistakes as France in Vietnam during the 1960s.

Related: The Opium Wars: When China’s ‘century of shame’ began | [Picture story] The Boxer Rebellion: A wound in China’s modern history | From ‘sick man’ to ‘sleeping lion’: Have the Chinese overreacted?