History of Qingdao as a German Colony

please click on the link above to access the interactive timeline

please click on the link above to access the interactive timeline

The tactics which Germany utilized in its efforts to colonize China were by no means universal for European powers. However, there are a number of trends that are apparent throughout most if not all of the colonies in China. One of these trends deals with the relationship between nationalism and China. In the case of Qingdao, Chinese nationalism greatly increased during the time of colonial rule.

Germany came in late to the practice of colonization but they had their eyes set on China as early as the 1860’s (Steinmetz 433). It wouldn’t be until January 15th, 1898 that Germany was able to coerce China into leasing them 553 square kilometers of land in Northeast China for 99 years. This occurred after the killing of two missionaries gave the German military grounds to launch a military offensive in northeastern China. The most important city in this lease, at least for the Germans was the city of Qingdao (Steinmetz 435).

The colony was to become to the first European colony on mainland China, as Taiwan (Japan), Hong Kong (Britain) and Macau (Portugal) were all islands, though in the case of the latter two cities, the colonies would eventually come to expand onto the mainland. Qingdao thus has a historic significance, as in the next two years a number of European powers made similar moves on other parts of China (Steinmetz 436). These were not colonies for settlement like the Americas or Australia, but were set up to try and exploit China economically.

German Prison built in a European style, Qingdao, China

German Prison built in a European style, Qingdao, China

It is important to remember that throughout most of the colonial period China maintained a stable and relatively effective central government. Oftentimes colonial leaders worked closely with the local officials and at times it can be hard to tell who had greater control over certain colonial regions (Steinmetz 440). The Chinese colony is thus unlike any other colonies in the world. A letter from the German Govenor of Qingdao Oskar von Truppel to his leaders in Germany illustrates the tensions that sometimes existed in this relationship as a result of the nationalistic goals of both parties.

The letter was written after Zhou Fu, the Chinese Governor of Shadong met with the the German Governor. The exact date is unknown as the two met a number of times, but the letter dates from December 2, 1902. In this particular meeting Zhou Fu reportedly told the German Governor that “Although the territory of Qingdao is leased to Germany, it is still Shandong earth (Goodman 48).” Such bold statements alarmed Truppel, who realized that Chinese officials could still play a significant role in the political economy of the region, and that indeed the Chinese officials were determined to do so.

Although it was to be a rather short stay for the German occupiers (they would be defeated by Japanese forces after only fifteen years) they would within this short period of time leave a sizable footprint. They built a railroad, made improvements to the harbor and even opened a shipyard (Steinmetz 438). They would also continue to establish their Christian presence through the construction of churches, and were able to construct a brewery, whose first batch of beer was finished in 1904. The brewery has continued to produce beer ever since, and has brought the city national and international recognition (Li 16).

However these decisions came at a price. Many Chinese citizens were relocated from the city center of Qingdao as a result of German attempts to rid parts of the city of its Chinese roots. The railroad as well forced many locals to be relocated at times against their will. Chinese resistance to these policies were not always peaceful and a few instances broke out in which Chinese citizens were killed by German soldiers usually as a result of German fears of anti-western rebellions (Steinmetz 454). These conflicts would further unite the Chinese populace much as previous conquests by foreigners had centuries earlier.

A sign from the Tsingtao Beer Museum

Sign from the Tsingtao Beer Museum, Qingdao, China (courtesy of Lauren Rhodes)

The local population’s resistance to Germany’s influence would be apparent in a number of ways. One of these instance was a boycott of German goods which occurred in 1908. This boycott that forced the Governor of Qingdao to make compromises in his policy on tariffs, and caused the governor to comment that “the population still feels and thinks Chinese (Goodman 50).” This comment though arguably racist, is still informative as the boycott’s success illustrates how the Chinese people were more than capable of organizing movements against the German colonizers and were able to influence policies in this manner.

Indeed the colonization of Qingdao had awaken a greater sense of nationalism in the region in part because of the at times blatant racism that they were exposed to. One reporter from Qingdao, writing in 1909 for the Peking Daily News in Beijing, wrote of the treatment he had seen and commented that “Chinese people have the same talents as other races (Goodman 51).” As mentioned in a recent blog this kind of nationalism was not new to China (Trauzettel 206). Indeed, although not all scholars agree, it is nevertheless apparent that China has had a history of nationalism of some sort or another from as early as the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and the colonization in Qingdao and elsewhere reawakened and reinforced these feelings.

A Christian Church built in the German style, Qingdao, China

A Christian Church built in the German style, Qingdao, China (courtesy of Lauren Rhodes)

Also in 1909, Qingdao established a university, which had both a German and Chinese director, thus showing once again the compromises prevalent in Qingdao’s government. This university enrolled mainly Chinese students, and they too exhibited their sense of nationalism when they organized a number of demonstrations to voice their anger at short time Chinese President Sun Yat-Sen not being allowed to visit their campus. Again the Chinese populace was successful in swaying German policy and Sun Yat-Sen was allowed to visit in 1912 (Goodman 52).

The fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 led to a huge increase in immigration into Qingdao as even elite Chinese scholars looked to escape the chaos (Steinmetz 473). However that would be the beginning of the end for Germany’s colony, as WWI would bring an opportunity for another colonizing force to enter the picture. Japan was able to force the German’s out of China after a short but fierce few battles in October and November of 1914 (Myers 81).

The influence of colonialism on modern China is discussed elsewhere on this site, but it should be mentioned that Chinese scholars are still unsure how to view a colonial past under German rule. Some are unhappy at how the city has come to embrace its German colonial past as a way to promote tourism, but there seems no going back. Although these developments may make it seem that the German rulers were viewed kindly during their time in Qingdao, this wasn’t always the case as is illustrated by how the feelings of nationalism were strengthened during that time.