Foreign concessions in China

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Territorial losses of the Qing dynasty up to 1911

Foreign concessions in China were a group of concessions that existed during the late Imperial China and the Republic of China, which were governed and occupied by foreign powers, and are frequently associated with colonialism and imperialism.

The concessions had extraterritoriality and were enclaves inside key cities that became treaty ports. All the concessions have been dissolved in the present day.


Imperial China period[edit]

Imperial China granted the concessions during the latter period of the Qing dynasty, as a result of the series of "unequal treaties". They began in 1842's Treaty of Nanjing with the United Kingdom. Under each treaty, China was usually obligated to open more treaty ports for trade and lease out more territory as part of the concession or surrender it completely. The one exception that preceded this period was Macau, which had been leased in 1557 to the Kingdom of Portugal, during the Ming dynasty; Portugal continued to pay rent to China up to 1863 to stay in Macau.[1]

There were a varying number of concessions in each city. For example, the foreign concessions in Tianjin reached a total of nine at the height of the era. The concessions were usually under the control of a single Western power or the Empire of Japan. However, in the Shanghai International Settlement, the United Kingdom and the United States merged their concessions, while the French retained their separate French Concession.


In these concessions, the citizens of each foreign power were given the right to freely inhabit, trade, perform missionary evangelization, and travel. They developed their own sub-cultures, isolated and distinct from the intrinsic Chinese culture, and colonial administrations attempted to give their concessions "homeland" qualities. Churches, public houses, and various other western commercial institutions sprang up in the concessions. In the case of Japan, its own traditions and language naturally flourished. Some of these concessions eventually had a more advanced architecture of each originating culture than most cities back in the countries of the origin of the foreign powers. Over time, and without formal permission, Britain, France, Japan and the United States established their own postal systems within their concession and trade areas.[2] Following Chinese complaints over the loss of postal revenue and the lack of customs inspections, all of them were abolished at the end of 1922.[3]

The Shanghai International Settlement became a major place of refuge for European immigrants, notably from Slavic and Baltic regions, and American travelers and displaced persons.[4]


Each concession also had its own police force and different legal jurisdictions with their own separate laws. Thus, an activity might be legal in one concession but illegal in another. Many of the concessions also maintained their own military garrison and a standing army. Military and police forces of the Chinese government were sometimes present. Some police forces allowed Chinese, others did not.


Several wars would lead to the creation of colonial concessions taken from Qing China. These included the First Opium War (1839–1842), Second Opium War (1856–1860), Sino-French War (1884–1885), First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), and Russian invasion of Manchuria (1900).[5] The Eight Nation Alliance's suppression of the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901) would lead to participants being rewarded with concessions taken from the Qing dynasty, in the years following the conflict. It also led the foreign powers to station barracks and troops in the existing concessions, especially Tianjin, and increased the immigration of entire families to the concessions.[6]: 98–100 

Wars that changed the ownership of existing concessions between the foreign powers included the Triple Intervention (1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905).

Republic of China period[edit]

The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, built in 1923 and The Customs House, built in 1927, Shanghai

The foreign concessions continued to exist during the mainland period of the Republic of China.

The Asia and Pacific theatre of the First World War would be another major incident changing the ownership of concessions in China with Japanese expansion. Concessions were partially curtailed in the Washington Naval Treaty and the Nine Power Treaty attempting to reaffirm the sovereignty of China.[7][8][9]

Many foreigners arrived in the cities aiming primarily to get rich. During the first phase of the Chinese Civil War in the 1920s, the concessions saw a sharp increase in immigration both from surrounding Chinese territory, and from the West and Japan. The population of Chinese residents eventually surpassed foreigners inside the concessions. With international travelers, culture took on an eclectic character of many influences—including both language and architecture. This effect was exemplified in the Shanghai International Settlement and the multi-concessions in Tianjin. Writings from the time period indicate that both the Prussians and Russians were seen as acting culturally British. The wealthy built opulent buildings with multiple European and Chinese inspirations. Some Chinese entrepreneurs became very wealthy and hired foreign designers and architects.[6]: 95–96 

In major cities like Shanghai and Tianjin, due to the existence of numerous jurisdictions, criminals could commit a crime in one jurisdiction and then easily escape to another. This became a major problem during the Republican period, with the rise of the post–Imperial Warlord era and the collapse of central authority in the 1920s and the 1930s. Crime often flourished, especially organized crime by different warlord groups.[10]

Some efforts were made by the foreign powers to have the different police forces cooperate and work together, but not with significant success. The image of gangsters and Triad societies connected with the major cities and concessions of the period is often due to extraterritoriality within the cities.[10] Underdeveloped economies under a foreign government led many laborers without opportunities to be recruited by triads, who developed a subculture inspired by other eras that China was under foreign domination. Secret societies controlled drug trade, gambling, and prostitution in Shanghai.[11] Western outlaws also created organized crime groups, in one instance creating an "orientalist mini crime empire" in 1930s Shanghai.[12][13]

From the 1919 Karakhan Manifesto to 1927, diplomats of the Soviet Union would promise to revoke concessions in China, but the Soviets secretly kept tsarist concessions such as the Chinese Eastern Railway, as well as consulates, barracks, and Orthodox churches. This led Chiang Kai-Shek—who pushed foreign powers such as Britain to return some of their concessions from 1925 to 1927—to turn against his former Soviet ally in 1927, seizing Soviet legations. The Soviets would later fight an armed conflict to keep control over the Chinese Eastern Railway in 1929.[14]

At the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), the standing army in the Japanese concessions would be used against the Chinese forces.[note 1][citation needed] However the inland concession of Chongqing was abandoned by the Japanese as they began the invasion.[15]

World War II would spell the end for the concessions in Tianjin,[16] as well as extraterritoriality as a whole.[17] While Japanese forces avoided attacking foreign concessions prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, afterwards they invaded and occupied the Shanghai International Settlement and Hong Kong.[4][18]

Shanghai's status as a safe haven ended, as Jews who sought refuge in the city from 1933 to 1941, were forced into the Shanghai Ghetto in 1943, most survived the war due to the deeply established community with Chinese residents before 1941.[19][4]

In 1943 Italy surrendered its treaty rights in cooperation with the Japanese controlled puppet Nanking government. Italy surrendered its special treaty rights, including its concession at Tientsin, and rights in the international settlements at Shanghai and Amoy (Xiamen) in its peace treaty with the Allies in 1945.[20]

List of concessions[edit]

Country Concession Location (modern name) Year established Year dissolved Note
International Shanghai International Settlement Shanghai 1863 1945 Formed from the British and American concessions. It was initially ruled by: Austria-Hungary, Denmark, France, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway-Sweden, Portugal, Russia, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Beijing Legation Quarter Beijing 1861 1945 Covering some 3 acres and including 11 foreign embassies, the entire Legation Quarter was considered foreign sovereign ground and was off limits for Chinese citizens who were not allowed to take up residency within the legation grounds
Kulangsu International Settlement Xiamen 1903 1945 On January 10, 1902, the consuls of Great Britain, the United States, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden-Norway, Japan and other eight countries signed the "Gulangyu delimitation charter" in the Kulangyu Japanese Consulate. Subsequently, in January 1903, the Kulangsu International Settlement Municipal Council was established
Austria-Hungary Austro-Hungarian concession of Tianjin Tianjin 1902 1917
Belgium Belgian concession of Tianjin Tianjin 1902 1931 [21]
France Kwang-Chou-Wan[22] Zhanjiang 1898 1946 [22]
French concession of Shanghai Shanghai 1849 1946
French concession of Shamian, Guangzhou Guangzhou 1861 1946
French concession of Hankou Hankou 1896 1946
French concession of Tianjin Tianjin 1861 1946
French Railway, Kunming Kunming 1904 1940 After the French, WWII saw a significant influx of American troops.
Germany Kiautschou Bay leased territory Qingdao 1898 1914
German concession of Hankou Hankou 1895 1917
German concession of Tianjin Tianjin 1895 1917
Italy Italian concession of Tianjin Tianjin 1901 1947 [23]
Italian Concession of Shanghai Shanghai 1902 1943 [24]
Italian Concession of Amoy Xiamen 1902 1943 [25]
Japan Kwantung Leased Territory/South Manchuria Railway Zone Dalian 1905 1945 Obtained from Russia.
Kiautschou Bay leased territory in Shandong Peninsula Qingdao 1914 1922 Acquisition from Germany was acknowledged by China in 1915, concession was held until 1922,[26] ceded to China in Washington Naval Treaty.[7]
Japanese concession of Tianjin Tianjin 1898 1945 Kept by Japan until WWII capitulation.
Japanese concession of Hankou Hankou 1898 1945 Kept by Japan until WWII capitulation.
Japanese concession of Chongqing Chongqing 1897 1937 Abandoned at outbreak of Second Sino-Japanese War.[27]
Japanese concession of Suzhou Suzhou 1897 1943 [28]
Japanese concession of Hangzhou Hangzhou 1897 1943 [28]
Japanese concession of Shashi Shashi 1898 1943 [28]
Soviet Union
Russian Dalian Dalian 1898; 1945 1905; 1950 [29] Re-occupied by the Soviet Union in 1945–1950.[30]
Russian concession of Tianjin Tianjin 1900 1924
Russian concession of Hankou Hankou 1896 1924 [31]
Chinese Eastern Railway, Harbin Harbin 1896 1952 Re-occupied by the Soviet Union after the 1929 Sino-Soviet conflict.[32] Railway was returned in 1952.[33]
Port Arthur Lüshunkou District 1895 1905 Acquired from Japan in Triple Intervention, lost in Russo-Japanese War.
Russian concession of Liaodong Peninsula Liaodong 1898 1905 Included Port Arthur
United Kingdom New Territories,[citation needed] Hong Kong Hong Kong 1898 1997
Weihaiwei leased territory[citation needed] Weihai 1898 1930 Liugong Island remained under British control as a separate territory until 1940
Liugong Island Weihai 1930 1940 Formerly part of Weihaiwei leased territory since 1898[34]
British concession of Tianjin Tianjin 1860 1945
British concession of Hankou Hankou 1861 1927
British Concession of Jiujiang Jiujiang 1861 1929
British concession of Zhenjiang Zhenjiang 1861 1929
British concession of Shamian, Guangzhou Guangzhou 1861 1945
British concession of Amoy Xiamen 1852 1930
British concession of Dalian Dalian 1858 1860
British concession of Shanghai Shanghai 1846 1863 Merged to form Shanghai International Settlement
Trading warehouses at Tengchong (Tengyue) Yunnan Late 19th/early 20th century. Still standing, with bullet holes. British diplomat Augustus Margary was murdered here in 1875. Consulate built 1921.
United States American concession of Shanghai Shanghai 1848 1863 Merged to form Shanghai International Settlement
American concession of Tianjin Tianjin 1860 1902 Merged to form British concession in Tianjin

Additionally, there were more concessions were planned but never completed.[citation needed]

Country Planned concession Location (modern name)
United Kingdom British concession of Yingkou Yingkou
British concession of Jiangning Nanjing
British concession of Yichang Yichang
British concession of Wuhu Wuhu
British concession of Wenzhou Wenzhou
Japan Japanese concession of Fuzhou Fuzhou
Japanese concession of Xiamen Xiamen
Japanese concession of Yingkou Yingkou
France French concession of Yantai Yantai
French concession of Jiangning Nanjing
United States American concession of Wenzhou Wenzhou
Italy Italian concession in Sanmen islands[35] Sanmen County

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Joseph Timothy Haydn (1885). Dictionary of dates, and universal reference. [With] (18 ed.). Oxford University. p. 522. MACAO (in Quang-tong, S. China) was given to the Portuguese as a commercial station in 1586 (in return for their assistance against pirates), subject to an annual tribute, which was remitted in 1863. Here Camoens composed part of the "Lusiad."
  2. ^ "U.S. Postal Agency in Shanghai". Archived from the original on 2017-06-29. Retrieved 2020-01-02.
  3. ^ Jianlang, Wang (22 May 2015). Unequal Treaties and China (Volume 1). Enrich Professional Publishing (S) Private, Limited. ISBN 978-1-62320-066-4.
  4. ^ a b c "Visa Investigation Records of the Shanghai Diaspora Communities, 1946–1951 – About the Series". National Archives. 2016-08-15. Retrieved 2022-05-02.
  5. ^ Zatsepine, Victor (2017-03-09). Beyond the Amur: Frontier Encounters between China and Russia, 1850–1930. UBC Press. ISBN 978-0-7748-3412-4.
  6. ^ a b Victoir, Laura; Zatsepine, Victor (2013-01-01). Harbin to Hanoi: The Colonial Built Environment in Asia, 1840 to 1940. Hong Kong University Press. pp. 95–96, 98–100. ISBN 978-988-8139-42-2.
  7. ^ a b Asada, Sadao (1961). "Japan's "Special Interests" and the Washington Conference". The American Historical Review. 67 (1): 62–70. doi:10.2307/1846262. ISSN 0002-8762. JSTOR 1846262.
  8. ^ Unoki, Ko (2016-04-08). International Relations and the Origins of the Pacific War. Springer. p. 108. ISBN 978-1-137-57202-8.
  9. ^ Jianlang, Wang (2015-11-27). Unequal Treaties and China (2-Volume Set). Enrich Professional Publishing Limited. p. 139. ISBN 978-1-62320-119-7.
  10. ^ a b Martin, Brian G. (1996-04-15). "The French Connection". The Shanghai Green Gang: Politics and Organized Crime, 1919–1937. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-91643-2.
  11. ^ Kelly, Robert J.; Chin, Ko-lin; Schatzberg, Rufus (1994). Handbook of Organized Crime in the United States. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 234. ISBN 978-0-313-28366-6.
  12. ^ French, Paul (2018-07-03). City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai. Picador. ISBN 978-1-250-17058-3.
  13. ^ "These Rogue Gangsters Ruled the Streets of 1930s Shanghai". 21 June 2018. Retrieved 2022-05-03.
  14. ^ Elleman, Bruce A. (1997). Diplomacy and Deception: The Secret History of Sino-Soviet Diplomatic Relations, 1917–1927. M.E. Sharpe. pp. 134, 165, 168, 174. ISBN 978-0-7656-0142-1.
  15. ^ Pletcher, Kenneth (2010). The Geography of China: Sacred and Historic Places. The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc. p. 247. ISBN 978-1-61530-134-8.
  16. ^ University, © Stanford; Stanford; California 94305. "[Plan of Tianjin, China with Foreign Concessions] Tianjin di tu / Map of Tientsin". Barry Lawrence Ruderman Map Collection – Spotlight at Stanford. Retrieved 2022-05-03.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  17. ^ Cassel, Par Kristoffer (2012-01-11). Grounds of Judgment: Extraterritoriality and Imperial Power in Nineteenth-Century China and Japan. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 179. ISBN 978-0-19-979205-4. The circumstances surrounding the eventual abolition of extraterritoriality in China are full of ironies. The Japanese, who had given the treaty port system a "new lease on life" in the wake of the First Sino-Japanese War, would render the practice inoperative in large parts of the country following their full-scale invasion of China in 1937. Later, as the Japanese government and the Allies were clamoring to win the support of the Chinese, extraterritoriality was officially abolished in both the Nationalist and Japanese-occupied areas with great fanfare in early 1943.
  18. ^ Kao, Charles K. (2010-12-20). A Time and A Tide: Charles K. Kao ─ A Memoir. The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press. p. 21. ISBN 978-962-996-972-1.
  19. ^ O'Connell, Ronan. "How China saved more than 20,000 Jews during WW2". Retrieved 2022-05-03.
  20. ^ Treaty ports& extraterritoriality in China
  21. ^ Anne-Marie Brady; Douglas Brown (2013). Foreigners and Foreign Institutions in Republican China. Routledge. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-415-52865-8.
  22. ^ a b Geoffrey C. Gunn (1 November 2016). Wartime Macau: Under the Japanese Shadow. Hong Kong University Press. p. 28. ISBN 978-988-8390-51-9.
  23. ^ Marinelli, Maurizio (2010-09-01). "The genesis of the Italian concession in Tianjin: a combination of wishful thinking and realpolitik". Journal of Modern Italian Studies. 15 (4): 536–556. doi:10.1080/1354571X.2010.501975. ISSN 1354-571X. S2CID 144357230.
  24. ^ The concession was commercial (Italy’s Encounters with Modern China: Imperial Dreams, Strategic Ambitions
  25. ^ The concession was commercial (M. Marinelli. "Italy’s Encounters with Modern China: Imperial Dreams, Strategic Ambitions")
  26. ^ Boissoneault, Lorraine. "The Surprisingly Important Role China Played in WWI". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 2022-04-27.
  27. ^ "Chongqing – History | Britannica". Retrieved 2022-05-02.
  28. ^ a b c Rethinking the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-5. Vol. 2, The Nichinan papers. Chiharu Inaba, J. W. M. Chapman. Folkestone, UK: Global Oriental. 2007. p. 187. ISBN 978-90-04-21332-6. OCLC 755068887. After the [First] Sino-Japanese War, Japan had won jurisdiction over concessions in ports such as Tianjin, Mukden, Hankou, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Shashi, and Chongqing. [...] Those at Tianjin and Hankou were seen by the Japanese Government as 'developed' concessions, while those at Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Chongqing were called 'undeveloped'.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  29. ^ "CHINA'S GRANTS TO RUSSIA; Leases of Port Arthur and Talien-wan and the Railway Concession Signed at Pekin. CONTROL TO BE GIVEN TO-DAY China to Retain Sovereign Rights, but Russia to Take the Forts and Collect the Customs – A New Treaty Port". The New York Times. 1898-03-28. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-05-02.
  30. ^ Hess, Christian (2018-01-01). "Sino-Soviet City: Dalian between Socialist Worlds, 1945–1955". Journal of Urban History. 44 (1): 9–25. doi:10.1177/0096144217710234. ISSN 0096-1442. S2CID 149414746.
  31. ^ Crawford, Alan (2018). "Imagining the Russian Concession in Hankou". The Historical Journal. 61 (4): 969–989. doi:10.1017/S0018246X17000528. ISSN 0018-246X. S2CID 159946531.
  32. ^ Walker, Michael M. (2017). The 1929 Sino-Soviet war : the war nobody knew. Lawrence, Kansas. ISBN 978-0-7006-2375-4. OCLC 966274204.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  33. ^ Elleman, Bruce A. (1994). "The Soviet Union's Secret Diplomacy Concerning the Chinese Eastern Railway, 1924–1925". The Journal of Asian Studies. 53 (2): 459–486. doi:10.2307/2059842. ISSN 0021-9118. JSTOR 2059842. S2CID 162586404.
  34. ^ Fiona de Londras; Siobhán Mullally (4 December 2014). Irish Yearbook of International Law. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 24. ISBN 978-1-84946-975-3.
  35. ^ San Men bay and the start of Boxer rebellion


  • Nield, Robert (2010). The China Coast: Trade and the First Treaty Ports. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Company. ISBN 9789620429873.

Further reading[edit]

  • Panikkar, K. M. (1953) Asia and Western dominance, 1498–1945, London: G. Allen and Unwin.

External links[edit]