Chinese regular soldiers photographed during the Sino-French War.

Operations of the Sino-French war (1884–85)

Soon after Beijing succeeded in eliminating-for a time at least-Russia’s intervention into the Chinese colony of Xinjiang, the Qing faced a new Imperial challenge to its authority: French efforts to break away and dominate China’s southern tributary state in Annam (Vietnam). The Sino-French War in Annam (1884-85) was China’s second anti-imperialist confrontation after Ili, and was a war that China lost. While China now used some modern weapons for its infantry, the recently constructed but largely untested Chinese Navy proved to be no match for the French.

Annam was under Chinese influence as early as the reign of Han Wudi (140-87 bc) and remained a Chinese colony until after the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Thereafter, unlike Xinjiang’s later colonial status, Annam’s troops successfully defeated Qianlong’s armies and so Annam did not fall under direct Qing control, but was considered instead to be an autonomous tributary state. Beginning in the seventeenth century, western influence increased following the arrival of the Jesuits. By the mid-nineteenth century, France sought to use its self-declared position as protector of Catholicism to add Annam to its colonial empire.

France’s opportunity to absorb Annam appeared in 1859, when antimissionary riots provided the French with an excuse to send troops. This action quickly led to the French acquisition of Annam’s three southernmost provinces in 1862. Later, in 1874, the French government completed the task of turning Annam into a protectorate when it obtained the right to navigate the Red River in northern Annam. By 1880 it had troops stationed as far north as Hanoi. Faced with this western threat, the government of Annam sought Chinese assistance. Responding favorably to its tributary’s request, Beijing agreed to dispatch troops to Hanoi in 1883.

Increasing tensions between the Chinese and French troops stationed in Annam led to open conflict in 1884. Although China’s Navy was well on the way to becoming modern, it was still no match for the French. During the summer of 1884, the French fleet attacked Fuzhou, in southeast China, and quickly sank most of China’s southern fleet. They also destroyed the Fuzhou Navy Yard, which France had originally helped China to build. Eventually the French forced Beijing to negotiate peace, and in June 1885 China recognized the French treaties with Annam that turned it into a protectorate.

China’s loss in the Sino-French War forced her to concede the tributary status of Annam and to acknowledge that the region was a French colony. This defeat had immediate consequences throughout southeast Asia, as Britain soon challenged Burma’s tributary status. China conceded Burma without a fight in 1886. What is more important, France’s success undoubtedly prompted Japan to make similarly aggressive moves to the northeast of China in its Korean tributary.

Historians have claimed that Annam’s loss also “signaled the failure of [China’s] twenty-year-old self-strengthening movement.” However, this assertion largely overlooks China’s long string of military successes in suppressing the Taipings, the Nian, and the various Muslim rebellions to the south and west. It also completely ignores China’s diplomatic success in recovering Ili from Russia without resorting to war. Therefore, a more sympathetic appraisal of Chinese self-strengthening is that while China proved to be sufficient to oppose and defeat civil, ethnic, and religious unrest within the borders of the Empire, it was insufficient to halt foreign expansion into its traditional system of tributary states in southeast and northeast Asia.

In fact, it would take China an additional seventy years of military development and modernization before it was capable of reinserting itself once again into the affairs of these tributary states, as the People’s Republic of China was to do in the Korean War during the 1950s, and the Vietnam War during the 1960s. Before China was once again able to play a role in these tributary states, however, it lost control over enormous sections of its former Imperial territory, including Tibet, Xinjiang, Outer Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and Manchuria. The Sino-French War proved to be an important precedent, therefore, since it was the first Qing confrontation with a foreign power that resulted in the loss of a tributary state.

The origins of the Sino-French War, 1859-83

China influenced Annam as early as the third century bc, and conquered Annam during the Han Dynasty. Even the name Annam is Chinese, from the term meaning south-pacifying, or an-nan campaign, during the Tang Dynasty. Although Annam gained its independence from China in 938 after the Tang collapsed, it remained a Chinese tributary state. This tributary relationship proved to be especially important during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and according to one account, Annam sent approximately fifty tribute missions to Beijing during the period 1664 to 1881.

France began to form relations with Annam when the Jesuits became some of the first westerners to enter Annam in 1615. French trade with Annam was initially opened by the French East India Company during the late seventeenth century, but was not a financial success. Fearful of China renewing its southern military campaign, Annam’s leaders sought outside allies. Although French officers thereafter helped Nguyen Phuc Anh found the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), once he became Emperor Gia-Long and realized that China was occupied with domestic and ethnic rebellions he quickly spurned his French benefactors. 180 In a classic case of Asian power politics, however, Annam’s new `friend’ turned out to be worse than its traditional “enemy,” since once the French were invited in they refused to leave.

French missionaries and Vietnamese converts had enjoyed a long and generally productive relationship in Annam, but under Tu Duc’s (1848-83) xenophobic rule, anti-Catholic riots became more common and widespread. This proved to be a perfect excuse for Napoleon III, who was also urged by his Catholic wife Eugenie to send troops to Annam. In 1858, Napoleon ordered the military to intercede. 181 By 1859, a French force seized Saigon in southern Annam and garrisoned it. Supported by twenty-seven French warships and some 3,500 troops, the French used their superior weaponry to break through a Vietnamese blockade. Soon, they controlled Saigon and the three surrounding provinces.

A temporary French peace was achieved with the Vietnamese Emperor, Tu Duc, in June 1862. The resulting French-Annam treaty granted a US$4 million indemnity, trade privileges, and religious freedom for Annam’s Catholic minority. This treaty went much further by also ceding France outright the three southern provinces of Gia-dinh, Dinh-tuong, and Bien-hoa-the French called them Cochin China-and prohibited the Vietnamese from sending any troops into these provinces. Although Tu Duc criticized the terms of this treaty and called the Vietnamese negotiators who signed it “criminals,” Mark McLeod has suggested that Tu Duc secretly gave his approval to these important concessions while publicly condemning his officials as scapegoats.

French domination of Annam expanded throughout the 1860s, and by 1874 a second French-Annam treaty was signed that made Annam a French protectorate. This agreement not only confirmed French possession of Cochin China and asserted French control over Annam’s foreign affairs, but it also added the important right of navigating the Red River in northern Annam. This provision made the French domination of northern Annam possible. By 1880, the French had erected forts along the Red River and had stationed troops as far north as Hanoi and Haiphong.

Annam now turned to China to halt French expansion. Despite French opposition, the Annamese government sent tributary missions to Beijing in 1877 and 1881. It also requested help from the Black Flag Army, a pirate army associated with the Heaven and Earth Society (an offshoot of the Taiping movement). The Black Flags were commanded by Liu Yongfa, a Hakka Chinese who was from Guangdong Province. Liu reportedly dreamed as a youth that he would become a famous “General of the Black Tiger” and so used a black flag as his banner.

The Black Flag troops began to arrive in Annam during 1882. For over a year before China declared war, albeit unofficially, they opposed French forces throughout the Tonkin area. The Black Flags were noted for using a variety of military strategies, ranging from defensive entrenchments to the cunning ambush of French troops. According to Spencer Tucker, their understanding of modern weapons was poor: “They had artillery but they seldom used it, and they were very poor marksmen, preferring not to fire their rifles from the shoulder in aimed fire.” Although outnumbered by the French, the Black Flag troops made effective use of guerrilla tactics. Many of these tactics would be seen once again almost eighty years later during the US-Vietnamese conflict.

From 13 to 16 December 1883, the French launched an offensive against the Black Flag base in Sontay and routed their forces. Four months later, the French occupation of Bacninh, just north of Hanoi, forced Liu Yongfa to order his troops to withdraw back to China. Even though many members of the Black Flag Army had formerly been followers of the Taipings, Beijing could not ignore the Black Flag’s plight. Beijing responded to Annam’s pleas by sending troops in 1883. Stationed close to the Sino-Annam border, at Lang Son, the Chinese troops were more numerous than their French counterparts. Tensions increased between the opposing French and Chinese troops and fighting soon broke out. Although the Chinese weapons were modern, the Chinese troops’ training would still prove to be largely inferior to that of the French.


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