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China and France at War: Treaty of Tientsin (1885)

Today on the 9th of June we remember the signing of the Treaty of Tientsin of 1885 (not to be confused with the Treaty of Tientsin of 1858 that ended the first phase of the Second Opium War). This treaty marks the end of the Sino-French war, often referred to as the Tonkin War. It was a war fought over the dominion over Tonkin (Đông Kinh 東京), the north of present day Vietnam under control of the Qing Dynasty at the time.

Qing Forces in Tonkin during the Sino-French War

To the surprise of many, including the Qing court, which went into the war with a mind to appease France and to make compromises, the Chinese armies did markedly better against the French army than they did typically against other Western powers at the time. This can be owed in particular to Liu Yongfu’s command of the Black Flag Army and Tang Jingsong’s Yunnan Army. The combined Chinese and Tonkinese efforts succeeded in damaging the French armies and sapping their morale, it finally caused General de Négrier to suffer defeat in the first time of his illustrious career. Despite the occasional victories, the Chinese still suffered heavy losses. Toward the end of the war, due to a strategic blunder by Lieutenant-Colonel Herbinger, the Chinese armies gained a strategic victory in Tonkin and maintained control over the region. Despite their best efforts, however, the victory was to no avail as it was mitigated by French victories elsewhere which include the humiliating annihilation of the Fujian fleet and the destruction of the Foochow Navy Yard, the taking of the strategically important Pescadores (Peng Hu Xian 澎湖县/澎湖縣) off the coast of Taiwan and the subsequent naval blockades facilitated by France’s naval superiority. France also attempted to invade Formosa (Taiwan 台湾/臺灣), yet the well-equipped and experienced Huai Army under Liu Mingchuan stationed there was effective in halting the French, preventing them from advancing and bogging them down in a long and fruitless stalemate as the French invasion force had difficulty advancing beyond Keelung (鸡笼/雞籠, present day 基隆).

The French on the Pescadores posing with the townsfolk.

France’s naval supremacy off the Chinese coast can be owed to the factionalist splintering of Chinese power. The Beiyang fleet, which contained China’s most advanced ships, was held off from fighting. Furthermore, besides the rather systematic approach to the defense of China in a total commitment to the war as proposed by Zhang Zhidong, there seemed to be a reluctance coming from the Empress Dowager and her court. There is a lesson to be learnt here about full commitment and unity. If China had been less divided into factions and committed fully to the idea of defeating the French and thereby driving them out of the region once and for all, chances were that China would have succeeded in winning the Sino-French war. Alas, internal struggle manifest like an illness in the Qing empire and it was never cured, and the people suffered its consequences.

For fear of escalation the Qing commenced negotiations and acquiesced to most of France’s demands. The Qing acknowledged French suzerainty over Tonkin and agreed to retract all Chinese forces from the area. Liu, having lost much of the Black Flag Army’s strength in the war against the French, had no choice but to obey the terms and leave Tonkin. He only left with his elites, however, and disbanded the rest of his army without confiscating their weapons. These disbanded Black Flags remained in Tonkin and continued to resist French control in an arduous campaign of guerrilla warfare under the Cần Vương (勤王) Movement, whose aims were to expel the French colonisers from Vietnamese territory and to put Hàm Nghi (咸宜) on the throne. Their efforts to expel the invaders failed, though not for lack of effort. Hàm Nghi was betrayed, captured and exiled, only to die on foreign soil, where his body remains to this day.

Captured female freedom fighters against French Colonisation in 1886 (labelled as pirates by the French)

The results of the war rippled through China, France and Vietnam:

  • It gave pause to the Self-Strengthening Movement in China but simultaneously sparked a wave of nationalist sentiment in the South of China.
  • The difficulty of French campaign had an impact on the momentum and enthusiasm of French colonial expansionism, which in turn gave pause to their planned invasion of Madagascar as the war-mongering Prime Minister Jules Ferry was sacked.
  • The treaty effectively meant the Qing gave up its suzerain status in Vietnam by acknowledging its status as a French protectorate. It allowed for the complete colonisation of French Indochina.

French Colonialism in Vietnam

Why was France in South-East Asia in the first place?
France justified its taking of French Indochina under the excuse of giving the savages civilisation. Regardless of how arrogant and supremacist this idea is on its own, it was also nothing but a badly hidden excuse for their real purpose in the area: the worship of the colonist’s one true god known as money. The colonisers’ motives are revealed through their treatment of the locals; the following segment shall seek to illustrate this point.

While the French Republic was active in the region of South-East Asia, taking Cambodia, Laos, Annam and Cochinchina before taking the area of Tonkin, the end of the Sino-French war marked the beginning of an era of French dominance over the entire region. Up until 1897 the French rule in Vietnam was marked by resistance and the slow consolidation of French power by pacifying the various pockets of Vietnamese resistance. From 1900 onward, the French colonisers began their serious attempts at submitting the Vietnamese in heart and mind as well as beginning to devise the most efficient methods of exploiting the local resources.

Realities of Colonial Rule

The people of Vietnam, famous for their extraordinary history of resisting and defeating foreign invaders, did not sit idly by while the France continued to sully Vietnamese pride. Indeed, anti-colonial sentiments grew into a more systematic organisation that manifested itself in movements like Phan Bội Châu’s Đông-Du. Naturally, the anti-colonial organisations did not emerge out of thin air. The lived experiences of the Vietnamese people under the realities of the French “reign of terror” proved time and again that change needed to come. The severity of their suffering fuelled the engines of resistance. I have taken the liberty of using Truong Buu Lâm’s and Rydstrom’s research on the Vietnamese Experiences of Colonialism to sketch a glimpse of Vietnam under French colonial rule.

Economic Exploitation
From 1880 to 1939 the land dedicated to rice production in Vietnam quadrupled in size, yet in the same period not only did the average peasant not get a share of the increased rice production, his rice consumption actually dropped. Not because he had now began to eat bread, there was no substitution of other food.

Another form of exploitation comes in the form of forced labour for public works only the French and collaborators benefitted from. These labourers were forced to work in mines and rubber plantations, the inhumane treatment of the workers, while severely underpaid, and a lack of medical care in abysmal working conditions is only one step removed from slavery; this parallel to slavery is only made more apparent as the punishment for running away was torture and death.

“Working at a rubber farm is easy: Go as a strong man, return a walking corpse.”

A rough translation of Vietnamese poem on French exploitation

The Government
Needless to be said, all high positions in the French colonial government were reserved for French officials. While the traditional monarchies of the protectorate states of Laos, Cambodia and Annam/Tonkin still existed underneath the French administration, the rulers and their courts were reduced to not much more than ceremonial figureheads and puppets on strings. Instead, true power in French Indochina rested in the hands of the Governor-General and the various councils that replaced each other over time as well as Paris itself. Any attempts at the inclusion or promise of “uplifting” the indigenous in the colonial administration, such as what was attempted by Sarraut and Varenne, was met with immediate backlash and resistance. Similar to the colonial administration, the police forces and the armed forces stationed in French Indochina were invariably lead by Frenchmen, though much of the rank-and-file was made up of indigenous soldiers or foreign soldiers from other French colonies.

Worsening Education Levels
By 1939 about 80% of the Vietnamese population was illiterate. Contrasted with pre-colonial times when the majority of people had some kind of literacy. Moreover, in a country with more than 20 million inhabitants, how is it possible that the only university in the country only has 700 students? Indeed, even the secondary schools, built for the ethnically French, only rarely accepted Vietnamese students. Simply said, French rule seems to have retarded the progress of Vietnam, and if you were to ask me, it almost seems to have been a deliberate obscurantist attempt to keep the people uneducated.

Police and Military Terror
It was generally ill-advised to speak ill of the French colonial government. There was a great fear among the Vietnamese to be overheard by security agents. The French would employ these “agent provocateurs” to evoke any lingering seditious sentiments in political debate, after which they would promptly be arrested and interrogated. In fact, to this day it is said that at quiet nights near the old Saigon police station on Catinat street one can still hear the cries of terror, the wailing, the moaning and the trembling voices of anguish of those tortured by the security force.

The French army would hunt down any voices, any party involved in the anti-occupational movement deemed a threat against French sovereignty and they would torture them and kill them to leave an imprint on their friends and family. They would do these acts of terror in order to scare the Vietnamese into submission, so that they would never attempt to resist France again.

‘If you do not comply with French colonialism, a ghoulish theater of murder will be back, for new victims’

Quoted in Rydstrom

Gendered atrocities
While the brutality of the sexual violence that occurred in the American invasion of Vietnam decades later has often been highlighted, the equally as brutal and longer lasting French sexual violence designed to dehumanise, to strip-naked of its human identity, to submit and to “civilise” the Vietnamese people has escaped such attention.

“Once, our gatekeeper signalled that the French enemy was coming. So we went down to the tunnels [beneath the pagoda], but some did not [manage to come along]. Then the French burned, and killed, and also raped about 10 [pregnant] women.”

Old Quyen as quoted in Rydstrom

Rydstrom notes that Vietnamese women were conquered twice, once as Vietnamese and once as women. French soldiers would rape women and girls, to extract information, to punish, to warn the rest of the community. During these episodes, pregnant women would be singled out as targets of sexual violence. She would be subject to extreme suffering because of her symbolic status as someone producing more enemies for France to worry about in the future. As such, pregnant women and their foetuses would often be killed as a projection of ultimate dominance over the conquered. There are many accounts I could relegate, but I could not bear to dwell upon them for too long for the sake of my own sanity, and I do not want to subject the reader to the same. I refer to Rydstrom’s article if you want to know.

The rape of women is an especially powerful and dreadful weapon frequently used in wartime, but occasionally also in peacetime. The attack on the reproducer of a population is an attack on the reproducers of the collective. The men who belong to the group of the raped collective are therefore seen as incapable of defending their own (in Vietnamese culture being unable to protect your own is a great humiliation), and are feminised in the process. This ruthless violence against women was used as a means to punish these seditious elements.

“They raped women, sometimes until they died.”

Quoted in Rydstrom

These facts all serve to show us that life in Vietnam under colonial rule was plagued by misery and is aptly described by many as hell. It speaks volumes about this French “reign of terror” that during their reign Vietnamese nationalism soared to new heights. Even though any sedition or resistance to colonial rule was usually sniffed out and put an end to, the Vietnamese people never did give up. Here too is a lesson to be learned: no matter how high the stakes, no matter what the odds, the Vietnamese fought for what was right. If the true worth of a human is measured by their virtues, then the Vietnamese freedom fighters of this era could count themselves among the richest.

In conclusion, if the regional suzerain becomes weak, other nations will start to pick at the borders. Vietnam could have been spared the abject terror that was French colonialism if the Chinese state were to have been more capable of defending its protectorates. The Sino-French War serves as a grim reminder that no matter how virtuous or vengeful your state is, none of it matters against ravenous predators with absolute power. The only way to resist such savage and overwhelming strength is to match them bullet for bullet, to be united against our common enemies and to be willing to win, whatever the means, even especially when the odds are stacked against us. We remember not for any country, or for any government, but for those who suffered, so that this level of human tragedy may never happen again.

Keep your eye on this blog if you want to remember.


  • Buttinger, Joseph, and William J. Duiker. “Vietnam.” Encyclopædia Britannica. February 07, 2019. Accessed June 09, 2019.
  • Feng, Pan 冯攀. “Zhong Fa zhan zheng shi qi Zhang Zhi Dong de jun shi fang lue” 中法战争时期张之洞的军事方略 (ZHANG Zhidong’s Military Strategies during the Sino-French War). Yi bin xue yuan xue bao 宜宾学院学报 11, no. 7 (2011): 31-34
  • Ji, Yun Fei 季云飞. “Zhong Fa zhan zheng qi jian Qing zheng fu de kang fa bao tai ce lue” 中法战争期间清政府的抗法保台策略. Li shi yan jiu 历史研究, no. 6 (1995): 87-95
  • Rydstrom, Helle. “Politics of Colonial Violence: Gendered Atrocities in French Occupied Vietnam.” European Journal of Womens Studies22, no. 2 (2014): 191-207. doi:10.1177/1350506814538860.
  • Trương, Bửu Lâm. Colonialism Experienced: Vietnamese Writings on Colonialism, 1900-1931. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 2003.
Left a soldier of the Black Flag Army, right a French marine.

Published by Afakv

Keeping the memories of those who went before us.

3 thoughts on “China and France at War: Treaty of Tientsin (1885)

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