Treaty ports (Chinese: 商埠; Japanese: 条約港) were the port cities in China and Japan that were opened to foreign trade mainly by the unequal treaties forced upon them by Western powers, as well as cities in Korea opened up similarly by the Qing dynasty of China (before the First Sino-Japanese War) and the Empire of Japan.[1][2]

Chinese treaty ports

Main article: List of Chinese treaty ports

Map showing Chinese treaty ports in the 19th and early 20th centuries

The British established their first treaty ports in China after the First Opium War by the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. As well as ceding the island of Hong Kong to Great Britain in perpetuity, the treaty also established five treaty ports at Shanghai, Guangzhou (Canton), Ningbo, Fuzhou, and Xiamen (Amoy). The following year the Chinese and British signed the Treaty of the Bogue, which added provisions for extraterritoriality and the most favored nation status for the latter country. Subsequent negotiations with the Americans (1844 Treaty of Wanghia) and the French (1844 Treaty of Whampoa) led to further concessions for these nations on the same terms as the British.

The second group of treaty ports was set up following the end of the Second Opium War (Arrow War) in 1860 and eventually, more than 80 treaty ports were established in China alone, involving many foreign powers.


Foreigners all lived in prestigious sections newly built for them on the edges of existing port cities. They enjoyed legal extraterritoriality, as stipulated in the unequal treaties. Some of these port areas were directly leased by foreign powers such as in the foreign concessions in China, effectively removing them from the control of local governments.[3]

Western images of the Chinese treaty ports focus on the distinctive geography of the "bund", a long narrow strip of land in a prime location on the waterfront where the businesses, offices, warehouses, and residences of all foreigners were located. The Shanghai Bund was the largest and most famous. The North Riverbank in Ningbo (nowadays known as the Old Bund), was the first in China, opening in 1844, 20 years before the Shanghai bund. A typical bund contained British, German, French, American, Japanese, and other nationals.

The bund was a self-governing operation with its own shops, restaurants, recreational facilities, parks, churches, courts, police, and local government. The facilities were generally off-limits to the natives. The British, who by far dominated foreign trade with China, normally were the largest presence. Businessmen and officials typically brought their own families with them and stayed for years but sent their older children back to England for education.

Chinese sovereignty was only nominal. Officially, the foreign powers were not allowed to station military units in the bund, but in practice, there often was a warship or two in the harbor.[4]

Chinese capitulation treaties

The treaty port system in China lasted approximately one hundred years. It began when the First Opium War ended in 1842. The major powers involved were the British, the French, and the Americans, although by the end of the 19th century all the major powers were involved.

The system effectively ended when Japan took control of most of the ports in the late 1930s, the Russians relinquished their treaty rights in the wake of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and the Germans were expelled in 1914. The three main treaty powers, the British, the Americans, and the French, continued to hold their concessions and extraterritorial jurisdictions until the Second World War. This ended when the Japanese stormed into their concessions in late 1941. They formally relinquished their treaty rights in a new "equal treaties" agreement with Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist government-in-exile in Chongqing in 1943. The international communities that were residues of the treaty port era ended in the late 1940s when the communists took over and nearly all foreigners left.

Impact on China

Although the great majority of Chinese lived in traditional rural areas, a handful of booming treaty port cities became vibrant centers that had an enormous long-term impact on the Chinese economy and society. Above all Shanghai became the dominant urban center. Tianjin and Shenyang followed; Hong Kong, although a British colony, not a treaty port was similar. Foreigners were welcomed and had stable safe bases, as did Christian missionaries. Outside the ports, the only foreigners were occasional Christian missionaries, and they often encountered serious difficulties. The other 89 cities that became treaty ports between 1842 and 1914 were of minor importance.[5][6]

The Shanghai International Settlement rapidly developed into one of the world's most modern cities, often compared to Paris, Berlin, and London.[7] It set the standard of modernity for China and all of East Asia. In Shanghai, the British and American settlements combined in 1863 into an international settlement, with the French settlement operated separately nearby. The foreigners took out long-term leases on the land and set up factories, offices, warehouses, sanitation, police, gardens, restaurants, hotels, banks, and private clubs. The Shanghai Municipal Council was created in 1854, with nine members who were elected by three dozen foreign landowners at first, and by about 2,000 electors in the 1920s. Chinese residents comprised 90% of the total population of Shanghai but complained about taxation without representation. Eventually, the Council admitted five Chinese representatives.[8]

The European community promoted technological and economic innovation, as well as knowledge industries, that proved especially attractive to Chinese entrepreneurs as models for their cities across the growing nation.[9] Port cities combined several leadership roles. First of all, they were the major port of entry for all imports and exports - except for opium, which was handled by smugglers in other cities.[10] Foreign entrepreneurs introduce the latest European manufacturing techniques, providing a model followed sooner or later by all of China. The first establishments focused on shipbuilding, ship repair, railway repair, and factories producing textiles, matches, porcelain, flour, and machinery. Tobacco, cigarettes, textiles, and food products were the specialty in Canton. Financing was handled by branch banks, as well as entirely new operations such as HSBC -the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, which remains a world-class establishment into the 21st century.[11] Across the modernizing world, railway construction was a major financial and industrial endeavor, usually led by the British. Investments now poured into building a railway-plus-telegraph system knitting China together, connecting the treaty ports, and other major cities, as well as mining districts and agricultural centers.[12] Chinese entrepreneurs learned their skills in the port cities, and soon applied for and received bank loans for their startups. Chinese merchants headquartered there set up branches across Southeast Asia, including British Singapore and Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina, and the American Philippines.[13]

The information industry flourished in the port cities, with printing shops, newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets in Chinese and European languages. Book publishers often featured Chinese translations of European classics in philosophy, politics, literature, and social issues.[14] According to historian Klaus Mühlhahn:

This vast network, with Shanghai as its center, spurred the transformation of the Chinese urban population. In their thoughts, tastes, and daily activities, the educated and affluent groups of the urban population began to abandon traditional ways of living and started to embrace what they saw as modern lifestyles.[15]

Christian missionaries saw all of the Chinese population as their target audience, but they were headquartered in the port cities. The missionaries had very modest success in the conversion of the Chinese population but discovered they became widely popular for setting up medical and educational facilities. For example, St John's University in Shanghai (1879–1952) first set up faculties of theology, Western learning, and Chinese languages, then expanded to cover literature, science, medicine, and intense coverage of Western languages eagerly sought by the ambitious Chinese intellectuals and entrepreneurs who had rejected the old Confucian exam system for the Western model of modernity. Engineering schools were established as well, and by 1914 a network of universities, colleges, teacher training schools, and specialized industrial schools was headquartered in the Port cities, and diffusing their alumni across urban China.[16]

Students poured into the port cities. Many adopted ideas and used the facilities newly opened to them to network with each other, set up organizations and publications, and plot a revolution against the Qing government. Aggressive Japanese moves to dominate China in World War I caused a strong backlash of nationalism in the May Fourth Movement, which focused its ire not just on Japan, but also on the entire port city system as emblematic of imperialism that should no longer be tolerated.[17] The national government had almost no police power in the port cities, allowing secret societies to flourish in the Chinese community, some of which turned into criminal gangs. Eventually, Shanghai had a strong underground illegal underworld that was ready to employ violence.[18]

In modern China, most of the country's special economic zones are located in former treaty ports and therefore have symbolic significance in demonstrating a "reversal of fortunes" in China's dealings with foreigners since the century of humiliation.[19]: 51  Researcher Zongyuan Zoe Liu writes that "[t]he success of these cities as 'red' treaty ports represented another step in China's overall reform and opening-up plan while legitimizing the leadership of the CPC over the Chinese state and people."[19]: 51 

Major treaty ports

For encyclopedic details on each treaty port, see Robert Nield's China's Foreign Places: The Foreign Presence in China in the Treaty Port Era, 1840-1943 (2015).

Current province
or municipality
City Date Foreign concession holders
Shanghai Shanghai 1842–1946 Greater Shanghai had three sections:
Jiangsu Nanjing 1858
Jiangxi Jiujiang 1861–1929  United Kingdom, British Concession in Jiujiang
Hubei Hankou
(now part of Wuhan)
1858–1945  United Kingdom; later  France,  Germany and  Empire of Japan, Russia Russia
Shashi  Japan
Hunan Changsha 1937–1945  Japan
Sichuan Chongqing
Zhejiang Ningbo 1841–1842  United Kingdom
Wenzhou  United Kingdom
Fujian Fuzhou 1842–1945  United Kingdom, then  Japan
Xiamen (Amoy) 1842–1912  United Kingdom
Guangdong Guangzhou (Canton) 1842–WWII  United Kingdom; then  Japan
Shantou 1858  United Kingdom
Haikou (Qiongshan) 1858
Guangxi Beihai 1876–1940s?  United Kingdom,  United States,  Germany,  Austria-Hungary,  France,  Italy,  Portugal,  Belgium
Yunnan Mengzi
Shandong Yantai
Hebei Tianjin 1860–1902  United Kingdom,  United States,  Russia,  Germany,  Austria-Hungary,  France,  Italy,  Portugal,  Belgium
Liaoning Niuzhuang 1858
Jilin Changchun
Heilongjiang Harbin 1898–1946  Russia,  United States,  Germany; later  Japan and the  Soviet Union
Aihun  Russia,  Soviet Union
Manzhouli  Russia,  Soviet Union
New Taipei City Tamsui 1862
Tainan Tainan 1858  France

Leased territories

In these territories the foreign powers obtained, under a lease treaty, not only the right to trade and exemptions for their subjects but a truly colonial control over each concession territory, de facto annexation:

Territory Modern Province Date Lease holder Notes
Kwantung Liaoning
1898–1905  Russia Russian Dalian (1898–1905); now Dalian
1905–1945  Japan
Weihaiwei Shandong 1898–1930  United Kingdom Now Weihai
Kiautschou Bay Shandong 1897–1922  Germany Now Qingdao
New Territories Hong Kong 1842; 1860; 1898–1997  United Kingdom These are the territories adjoining the original perpetual Hong Kong concession and its 1860 Kowloon extension
Guangzhouwan Guangdong 1911–1946  France Now Zhanjiang

Japanese treaty ports

Japan opened two ports to foreign trade, Shimoda and Hakodate, in 1854 (Convention of Kanagawa), to the United States.[20] In 1858, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce designated four more ports, Kanagawa, Hyogo, Nagasaki, and Niigata. The treaty with the United States was followed by similar ones with Britain, the Netherlands, Russia, and France. The ports permitted legal extraterritoriality for citizens of the treaty nations. The system of treaty ports ended in Japan in the year 1899 as a consequence of Japan's rapid transition to a modern nation. Japan had sought treaty revision earnestly, and in 1894, signed a new treaty with Britain which revised or abrogated the previous "unequal" treaty. Other countries signed similar treaties. The new treaties came into force in July 1899.[21]

Korean treaty ports

Following the Ganghwa Treaty of 1876, the Korean kingdom of Joseon agreed to the opening of three strategic ports and the extension of legal extraterritoriality to merchants from Meiji Japan. Chinese merchants also entered Korea in earnest after the Qing army was sent to suppress the Imo Incident in 1882.[22] The first port opened in this manner was Busan, while Incheon and Wonsan followed shortly thereafter. These cities became important centers of mercantile activity for traders from China and Japan until Korea's colonization by Japan in 1910.[23]

See also


  1. ^ Fuchs, Eckhardt (2017). A New Modern History of East Asia. p. 146.
  2. ^ William C. Johnstone, "International Relations: The Status of Foreign Concessions and Settlements in the Treaty Ports of China" American Political Science Review (1937) 31#5 pp. 942-948 online
  3. ^ Peter Hibbard, The Bund Shanghai: China Faces West (Odyssey Illustrated Guides, 2007)
  4. ^ Robert Nield, China’s Foreign Places: The Foreign Presence in China in the Treaty Ports (2015) Online.
  5. ^ Klaus Mühlhahn, Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping (2020) pp 107-119.
  6. ^ Arnold Wright, Twentieth century impressions of Hongkong, Shanghai, and other treaty ports of China: their history, people, commerce, industries, and resources (1908) online
  7. ^ Rhoads Murphey, Shanghai: key to modern China (Harvard UP, 2013).
  8. ^ Robert Bickers, "Shanghailanders: The formation and identity of the British settler community in Shanghai 1843–1937." Past & Present 159.1 (1998): 161–211 online.
  9. ^ Yen-p'ing Hao, The Commercial Revolution of Nineteenth-Century China: The Rise of Sino-Western Mercantile Competition (U of California Press, 1984).
  10. ^ Mühlhahn, Making China Modern 110–114.
  11. ^ Frank H.H. King, et al., The History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (Cambridge UP, 1991).
  12. ^ David McLean, "Chinese Railways and the Townley Agreement of 1903." Modern Asian Studies 7.2 (1973): 145-164 online
  13. ^ François Gipouloux, ed. The Asian Mediterranean: port cities and trading networks in China, Japan and South Asia, 13th-21st century (Elgar, 2011).
  14. ^ Natascha Vittinghoff, "Readers, publishers and officials in the contest for a public voice and the rise of a modern press in late Qing China (1860-1880)." T'oung Pao 87.4 (2001): 393-455 online.
  15. ^ Mühlhahn, Making China Modern, p. 115.
  16. ^ Philip L. Wickeri, ed. Christian encounters with Chinese culture: essays on Anglican and Episcopal history in China (Hong Kong University Press, 2015).
  17. ^ Chow Tse-Tsung, The May fourth movement: Intellectual revolution in modern China (Harvard UP. 1960) pp 228-238. online
  18. ^ John C. DeKorne, "Sun Yat-Sen and the Secret Societies." Pacific Affairs 7.4 (1934): 425-433 online.
  19. ^ a b Liu, Zongyuan Zoe (2023). Sovereign Funds: How the Communist Party of China Finances its Global Ambitions. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. doi:10.2307/jj.2915805. ISBN 9780674271913. JSTOR jj.2915805.
  20. ^ Nakabayashi, 2014
  21. ^ J.E. Hoare, Japan's treaty ports and foreign settlements: the uninvited guests 1858–1899 (Folkestone: Japan Library, 1994).
  22. ^ Fuchs, Eckhardt (2017). A New Modern History of East Asia. p. 145.
  23. ^ Hoisoo Min, "The Establishment of the Superintendent Office (Gamriseo) at the Treaty Ports in Korea, 1883~ 1886." Journal of Northeast Asian History 36 (2012): 139-186.

Further reading

Primary sources