Rare Historic Photos of China in the 1860s that Reveal the Landscape, Architecture, and People of a Distant Time

The 1860s were a time of great change and transformation for China. During this decade, the Taiping Rebellion, a huge and destructive civil war, continued, and the country was also dealing with the effects of the Second Opium War. This period was marked by a lot of conflict inside the country and pressure from other countries, which had a big impact on the Qing Dynasty.

Qing Dynasty’s Struggle for Survival

The Qing Dynasty, predominantly Manchu-led, faced its greatest existential threat from the Taiping Rebellion. The imperial response was initially ineffective due to a lack of a strong, centralized army. However, the tide turned when the Qing court started relying on regional leaders. Key figures like Zeng Guofan, who organized the Xiang Army, and Li Hongzhang, who led the Huai Army, played pivotal roles. These armies were largely composed of Han Chinese and were more effectively managed than the traditional banner forces of the Qing military.

This period also saw the rise of the “Self-Strengthening Movement,” although in its infancy. Certain Qing officials recognized the need to adopt Western military technology and methods to strengthen China’s defenses, setting the stage for later reforms.

The Second Opium War and Its Aftermath

The Second Opium War (1856-1860), fought primarily between the Qing Dynasty and the British Empire, alongside the French, further weakened China’s international position. The war ended with the Treaty of Tianjin (1858) and the Convention of Peking (1860). These agreements imposed more “unequal treaties” on China, including the cession of the Kowloon Peninsula to Britain, the opening of several new ports to foreign trade, the legalization of the opium trade, and the establishment of foreign embassies in Beijing. The humiliation suffered by the Qing Dynasty at the hands of Western powers exacerbated internal dissatisfaction and unrest.

The Economic and Social Toll

The dual impact of the Taiping Rebellion and the aftermath of the Second Opium War had a catastrophic effect on China’s economy and society. The agricultural heartlands, especially in the Yangtze River Valley, faced extensive destruction, leading to famines and a significant decline in agricultural productivity. The social order was disrupted, with millions of lives lost and many more displaced.

Traditional social structures were also challenged. The Taiping Rebellion, with its radical ideas, briefly upended the Confucian social hierarchy and gender roles, though these changes were largely reversed after the rebellion’s suppression.

The 1860s in China were not just a period of military and political upheaval but also of intellectual ferment. The failure of the Qing government to defend the country and the evident technological superiority of the West led to introspection among Chinese scholars. While some clung to traditional Confucian values, others, influenced by the incipient Self-Strengthening Movement, began advocating for the adoption of Western technology and military reforms while maintaining Chinese cultural and political foundations.

#14 The Tea Horse Road (Cha Ma Dao), a historical trade network in Southwest China through Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet.

#15 Hong Kong Harbour in 1869, during the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit.

#16 Queen’s Road, Hong Kong, illuminated for the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit in 1869.

#17 A street in Hong Kong illuminated for the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit in 1869.

#18 Liu-Kuo-Tzu Bridge in Wan-Shou-Shan, near Beijing, 1869.

#19 Wanchai Steam Bakery near Hong Kong, established in 1863, photographed in 1869.

#20 The main entrance to the Imperial Palace or Forbidden City in Beijing, 1869.

#27 Great Pagoda at Foochow, the largest in China, 1869

#29 Culling Tea, 1869, a work attributed to Lai Fong.

#30 Group Portrait near Fangguangyan Monastery, Fujian, 1869

#33 Temple of Tai-wang at Wu ü near Sing Chang Tea Mart, 1869

#50 Qing officers at the Nanjing Jinling Arsenal, built in 1865

#51 Religious ceremony in the Chinese Pagoda of Cholen, Saïgon, 1866

#54 Chinese militia from up-country, armed with clubs and wicker shields, during the Second Chinese Opium War.

#56 Interior of a living room in Norris Green, 1860, featuring a chintz sofa and shelves of china.

#57 British officer Garnet Joseph Wolseley with Sir Hope Grant and staff in the Anglo-French expedition in China, 1860.

#59 Gun boats in the Chinese harbor of Tientsin, circa 1860.

#60 A sailing ship docked at a jetty in Hong Kong harbor, surrounded by other boats, circa 1860.

#61 View of Shanghai in the 1860s, taken from the American side of Soochow Creek.

#62 Another view of Shanghai in the 1860s, taken from the American side of Soochow Creek.

#63 Two Men by Monumental Elephant Statues, China, 1860s

#65 Bridge of Palichian Near Pekin, the scene of the fight with Imperial Chinese Troops, September 21, 1860

#66 Entrance to the Five Genii Temple, Canton, April 1860

#68 Entrance to the Winter Palace, Pekin, October 29, 1860

#69 Exterior of North Fort Showing the English Entrance, August 21, 1860

#70 Exterior of the Tomb Depot Near Pekin, October 1860

#71 Interior and Arches of the Temple of Heaven, Pekin, October 1860

#72 Thibetan Monument in the Lama Temple, Pekin, October 1860

#73 Tomb Near Palichian, the scene of the commencement of the attack on September 21, 1860

#74 View of the Summer Palace Yuen Min Yuen, Pekin, before the burning, October 1860

#75 Interior of Pehtang Fort Showing the Magazine and Wooden Gun, August 1, 1860

#76 Pagoda and ruins in Canton, Guangzhou, China, 1860s

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Written by Kevin Clark

Kevin Clark is a historian and writer who is passionate about sharing the stories and significance behind historical photos. He loves to explore hidden histories and cultural contexts behind the images, providing a unique insight into the past.

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