If we look at the map of Ming dynasty, we see a much smaller China. Most of the northern and western part of today's China was conquered during Qing dynasty. In contrast, many European powers have lost most of their lands which they have conquered after 17th century.

This seems strange to me. Late modern China has lost almost every wars with European powers and has lost many lands in all those peace treaties. Also, late modern China had a long period of extreme chaos and fragmentation, which made it even more fragile. If I were in late 19th or early 20th century, I would have expected that China would be gradually eaten up by western powers (and maybe Japan also). But this did not happen.

So why could China keep most of the lands but the more technologically superior European powers could not, despite winning every wars with China?

  • 2
    N.B. - most of the Tibet and Xinjiang , for most of the time, was not under the direct control of Qing dynasty. It was a suzerainty sort of thing. Like, send an army and rough them up, he concedes, so now, you can draw them in your maps.
    – Rohit
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 15:46
  • OP, if you happen back through here, the answers below do a fine job of answering 'why did China keep these lands' but for the question 'why did China still exist at all' see my answer to this question. The short answer is (a) China was never as weak as it looked (the Treaty of Nanjing was mostly about keeping taxes flowing from the south through Nanjing, not the UK actually overrunning the country) until the collapse of the Qing and then (b) WWI, which goes unremarked on below but was decisive in ending the expansion of Europe in China.
    – lly
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 11:00

4 Answers 4


The Chinese situation was fundamentally different from the Western European colonial empires. In fact it's rather more like Russia, who also managed to keep her Eurasian empire, or the United States, who acquire vast territories West of the Mississippi. In the case of China, those lands you refer to are mostly Sinkiang and Tibet.

Most notably there is the inherent advantages of a land link. It was (and is) considerably easier for a Chinese regime to dispatch an army to Sinkiang to suppress a revolt, than it is to ship a similarly sized force across the Atlantic Ocean. Moreover, overseas territories tends to become distinct from the motherland by virtue of a giant ocean in between the two, allowing a people to develop distinct national identities.

Secondly, Chinese power is simply overwhelming relative to either Tibet or Sinkiang. That China itself was no match for the Europeans is irrelevant. After World War Two, the European overseas colonies successfully fought off the Great Powers; for instance the French by Vietnam. In contrast, once the ruling Chinese regime turned its attention towards it, Tibet was helpless to prevent a military takeover,

Part of this is because despite their geographic size, the native population was very small. With Tibet, the population is a mere three million even today. Sinkiang is a lot more populous currently, but not so for most of history. A paper[1] by Qi Qing-shun of the Xinjiang Social Studies Institute notes that region's population had hovered around one million for most of the time since the Han dynasty.

Moreover, Sinkiang's demographics was devastated by its forcible incorporation into China. The province was created out of the Dzungar Khanate's lands, after it fell to the Manchurian Empire. In addition to just the conquest, the Manchus enacted a brutal extermination campaign that effectively erased the Dzungar people from the their former homeland. Most survivors either fled into Russia, or were enslaved within China proper.

These conditions enable China to establish effective control via internal colonisation. Ethnic Han Chinese settlers now constitute roughly half the whole population in both. Coupled with a strong emphasis on national unity and general nationalism, China virtually ensured it will be able to maintain its rule over both regions.

[1]: Qi, Qing-Shun. "The Major Measures to Solve the Population Arable Land Problem in Xinjiang during the Period of the Mid-Qing Dynasty." Journal of Shihezi University 24.1 (2010).

  • 2
    great answer! Did culture play a part, the reaction against imperialism which China ignored but the European powers finally accepted?
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 12:04
  • 1
    @TheHonRose Thanks! Yeah, I think it did; traditional Confucian culture has a strong focus on hierarchy and obedience (三綱五常) which seems pretty conductive to maintaining empires. The ideal of national unification is pretty ingrained in Chinese political consciousness through history, too.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 12:40

The answer has to do with demographics based on agricultural productivity.

The sedentary 'Han' Chinese could spread into the lands of their conquerors and out-breed and out-produce them.

Thus, though the Mongols and Manchus and so on conquered 'Han' China, increasing proportions of their own homelands came to be ethnically Chinese.

In the Manchu case, there was already a process of elite assimilation even before the conquest and though the Manchu/Han distinction was instrumentalized for political purposes, the Japanese attempt to create a puppet 'Manchuko' was bound to fail because 90 percent of the population already identified as Han.

A separate point has to do with the difference between the Stalinist policy on Nationalities- whereby non Russian states were made bigger so as to include large Russian or other Russophile ethnic minorities- and the Chinese lip service to the same concept which masked massive, subsidized, re-settlement of Han Chinese and the categorization of vast classes of subject people as 'class enemies'.

I should point out that China is not ethnically homogeneous. It's just that 'Han' characteristics, no matter who adopts them, have superior demographic outcomes.

The annexations of Tibet & Sinkiang were by no means a foregone conclusion. Had the Soviets been suspicious of the regime in Peking, they could have kept Sinkiang as a buffer.

Similarly, suppose India had chosen to ally with the US, then it could have kept the Chinese out of Tibet by reason of superior air-power and the shelter provided by the U.S nuclear umbrella. India however supported China's claim to Tibet because it considered the U.S the greater threat.

  • There are a lot of good points here, but the last two paragraphs are somewhat insane. The Soviet Union was never going to start a war with China over Xinjiang. It quibbled about some valleys and that was all that was ever going to happen there. The US had a perfect opportunity to go nuclear over Korea and nixed it. Tibet never had anything to do with India, let alone could have inspired the US to start a nuclear war to protect it. India permitted the Chinese reconquest of Tibet because it didn't have a say or choice in the matter; it had actual problems with Pakistan to deal with.
    – lly
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 11:06
  • The USSR had the nuclear bomb before the Korean War started. It was allied to North Korea. Thus the US did not have a 'perfect opportunity' at all.
    – Vivek Iyer
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 13:13
  • If India signed a defence a pact with Truman it would have been under the US nuclear umbrella. The US would have continued to supply the KMT 'over the hump' from Indian air bases and would have continued the British policy in Tibet. As a matter of fact it did arm and train the Khampas.
    – Vivek Iyer
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 13:29
  • As for Xinjiang, suppose Stalin's client Shen Shicai had not firstly alienated the Uighurs during his great purge and secondly broken with the Soviets in 1942 to join the KMT, then- like Outer Mongolia- Stalin would have preserved its independence.
    – Vivek Iyer
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 13:29
  • By 'perfect opportunity', I mean that MacArthur was seriously considering it. Truman famously put the kibosh on it. Tibet isn't remotely Indian territory and a completely one-sided defense pact (besides its implausibility) wouldn't've covered Tibet. As for Xinjiang, you remain similarly wrong. The USSR actively held Manchuria for years; it still returned it to the PRC as sovereign Chinese territory. Xinjiang would've been more of the same; the Chinese've dominated the Tarim Basin off and on for 2000 years. No question.
    – lly
    Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 18:59

In order to attack China, "European" powers had to send armies "halfway" around the world. That is a difficult way to "project" power even today, let alone in the 19th or early 20th centuries. It's fairly easy to send a "punitive" expedition, but much harder to conquer and control a country under those circumstances even with a large technological advantage. Think of the U.S. vs. Vietnam, and imagine how much easier it would be for the U.S. to conquer nearby Canada, it's technological equal.

Another thing was the relative populations. The Qing population of perhaps 300 million was about ten times that of most European states. Even with a technological advantage, it may be easy to "beat" but hard to "hold" a more populous country. Britain did it with India, but just barely. China is larger, further away, and more organized.

On the other hand, the indigenous populations of China's "colonies" in Tibet and Sinkiang were in the millions, so the Chinese to indigenous population was on order of 100 to 1. Couple that with the fact that China is "just across the border" from them, and can move settlers in behind the troops to pacify them.

In short, one can see why it was easier for China to hold onto nearby sparsely populated colonies than "Europe" with densely populated distant colonies.

  • A big part of the British rule in India was based on local elites being the ruler (while having British support to be so.) Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 0:24

The Europeans got no land but concessions from China, mostly in trade apart from signing over Hong Kong to the British which was about it. The europeans could not conduct a a land invasion into China proper, the defeats were mainly in naval engagements and even then the Qing managed to defeat the Portuguese, French and Dutch on several occasion so the idea that the European powers could gradually eat up China is ridiculous. Finally by the end of the Chinese civil war, the Communist had amassed an army of over 7 million, which had extensive experience in battling the massive Japanese invasion and winning the civil war, subjecting Tibet and Xinkiang under their control was a matter of will, the European situation was rather different, instead of strengthening they were greatly weakened and new powers rises to take their place, chiefly the United States, Russia and China.

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