Switching gears from the ancient dynasties, this map represents China during the so-called “Spheres of Influence” period of China during the Qing Dynasty which is the last dynasty of China. The Qing Dynasty lasted from 1644-1912 although there was a small blip where it came back in 1917 but that didn’t last and will be discussed later.
So, you may be aware that this is a map that’s right around the First World War and you are correct because the First World War is a big part of this. But let’s back up a bit to the Opium Wars.
The Opium Wars were a series of wars - the first from 1839-1842 and the second 1856-1860 - which took place between China and Great Britain. While the U.S. was dealing with the issues of slavery in society and gearing up towards Civil War, Great Britain was taking part in an expansive imperialization process.
To be fair, it wasn’t just Great Britain; Portugal and France were also involved in heavy colonization of Asia. For instance, Portugal was all in India and South Pacific. For evidence of that, there’s the island of Formosa (meaning beautiful in Portuguese) which is present-day Taiwan. France was creating what is known as French Indochina which refers to South East Asia mostly and Britain and Portugal were also involved in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam. Russia moved in from Manchuria, a spot contested by Japan which caused some tension with Russia and this began to set the stage for war between Russia and Japan and then Russia pushing into Europe during the Iron Curtain era of the Cold War and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Great Britain was a bit more prolific though. There was Australia, India, Burma, Tibet (if you don’t count Tibet as China proper), Egypt among others. But don’t count the U.S. out - after the Civil War, the States becomes heavily involved in Hawaii and the Philippines and gains Puerto Rico after a war with Spain. The exception to the European colonization efforts was Japan who had propped up a puppet government in Korea and gotten it to declare independence and Japan held control of the islands and trade routes. Fans of old musicals will recognize that Siam (present day Thailand) had a strong connection to Britain.
But the Opium Wars… is basically a case of bullying with cannons. Russia and later Great Britain wanted to make a market out of China and China was not having any of it, having a (healthy) mistrust of the Western world. It quickly became Great Britain bullying China into being partners which escalated into war. China lost and Britain had China go through some very embarrassing treaties which cut their lands from them. And then it happened again in the Second Opium War, gaining even more money and land from them.
Long-lasting effects are best seen in the cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong, both seaports claimed by Great Britain, both heavily influenced by Chinese and British culture. Shanghai in particular has a part of the city known as the “British Concession” where buildings are done in the London-style and another part, ironically called Chinatown where Chinese culture remained during British imperialism.
The Qing Empire was very poor and politically weak during this period. The Empress Dowager Cixi gets more than her fair share of blame for all of this, and make no mistake, it IS because she was a woman in charge. But nevertheless, China was very weak and the other nations took notice of it.
Germany pressed in from Shandong province, Japan pushed in from Korea, Russia from Manchuria, Great Britain from Tibet, France from French-Indochina, Portugal from the seas and then the U.S. moved into the mix with the Philippines and pressed into the market. China saw itself divided into Spheres of Influence. Tensions were very high in China. The Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901) was quickly quashed. China found itself resisting Western ideals and philosophies, especially Christianity, as well as the way that the Western nations and Japan bullied the Chinese government.
And then the First World War came about and China participated on the side of the Allies against the forces of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The Allies won in 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919.
China was excited for the Treaty of Versailles. They thought that they’d be rewarded for their participation and helping the Allies by receiving Shandong Province back. Keep in mind that Germany had been one of the losers and had Shandong province under its control. China was floored when Shandong province was given to Japan instead.
And that was a huge sucker punch to China. First, it was seen as a blatant insult - they had helped the Allies and expected that to be recognized so they saw it as an insult that they weren’t as useful as Japan. Second, it was infuriating because China, who saw themselves as their own country, was being chopped up and divided by the Allies without their consent in the matter and given to Japan of all countries - Japan and China do not get along at this time and that will also be discussed a bit later - instead of being seen as their own autonomous entity. And finally, it was humiliating because China realized that they couldn’t do anything about it. They were too weak to really fight back effectively and they were too poor to really do anything if they wanted to fight back.
Students took to the streets of Beijing on May 4th, 1919 quickly becoming known as the May 4th Movement. The nationalist movement was started as Chinese students urged their government to get their act together. They cited the Treaty of Versailles and the Opium Wars and the so-called Shandong Problem as evidence that the West didn’t care about China and would use them until they were satisfied.
And here begins the split between the Nationalist Party and the Communist Party. Both work together somewhat with Sun Yat-Sen to try to improve China’s powers but ultimately split apart again.
Both the Nationalist Party (Kuomingtang called the KMT though modern pinyin write it as the Guomingtang which would be GMT, not to be confused with Greenwich Mean Time) and the Communist Party saw China’s “glorious history” from Confucianism to Daoism to Buddhism and all its art and philosophy as something that held them back. Their inability to mobilize and industrialize put them at a disadvantage to the Western cannons and guns. Western science and democracy had shown more capable than Chinese philosophy and autocracy. And this begins China’s modern era when the Qing Dynasty falls and two opposing parties take aim to bring prosperity to China… and later take aim at each other.