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Sunday, October 25, 2020

160 years ago, the road to Peking was opened up by force

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The Battle of Baliqiao between Anglo-French and Chinese forces on the morning of September 21st, 1860 was the culmination of the Second Opium War (October 8th, 1856-October 24th, 1860), successfully fought by the British and the French Empire against Imperial China.

The name refers to a historic bridge from the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) originally located east of Peking, which passes over the Tonghui River and nowadays connects the districts Tongzhou and Chaoyang in the vastly expanded Chinese capital.

While the Third Battle of the Taku Forts, which ended on August 21st, 1860 had opened up the river route to Peking, this victory secured the only road to the heart of the Middle Kingdom for all Western powers.

The aim of the combined expedition was to compel the Imperial Court to fulfill its obligations arising from the (unequal) Treaty of Tientsin in June 1858, which also involved Czarist Russia and the United States.

Having recently occupied the nearby harbor of Tientsin, about 4,000 Europeans engaged a Chinese army numbering some 30,000. The British were commanded by Lieutenant General James Hope Grant (1808-1875). General Charles Cousin-Montauban (1796–1878), whom Napoleon III (1808-1873) awarded the title Count of Baliqiao for his merit, was in charge of the French.

They faced experienced General Sengge Rinchen (1811-1865), an ethnic Mongolian who in 1857 had become Imperial Commissioner and whose power was just below that of the Emperor. After several doomed frontal charges led by him, his elite cavalry almost got completely annihilated by concentrated artillery fire.

It is estimated that the casualties on the Chinese side amounted to about 1,200. The French and British, in contrast, lost only five soldiers and reported 47 wounded.

Emperor Xianfeng (1831-1861) fled the capital, leaving his brother, Prince Kung (1833-1898), in charge of negotiations, who in 1861 would establish the Zongli Yamen, China’s first de facto Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which operated until 1901.

Shortly before midnight on October 11th, Peking suddenly surrendered and the Chinese finally agreed to all previous demands, including the payment of reparations and the acceptance of foreign legations in China. The vicious opium trade pushed by London, which gave the conflict its name, was effectively liberalized all over the country.

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