Why didn't China become a colony of anybody, unlike most other Asian countries?

  • 5
    It was, several times.
    – Michael
    Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 6:12
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    @MarkC.Wallace: True it shows no research - yet it is a more complex question that is not answerable by a simple Google search. I vote to keep open. Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 18:54
  • This question shows no research; it would be vastly improved by at least a simple effort to support the assertion that China was never a colony; several of the answers point out that this is unsupportable. I would prefer that H:SE emphasize questions based on research.
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 18:57
  • I think it would be help if you figure out what colonization does mean for you. One of the oldest archeological proof for a colony is actually in China...
    – Greg
    Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 14:31

7 Answers 7


I take it you mean why was there no "Scramble for China" in the 19th century. Excluding Hong Kong, ceded to Britain after the First Opium War.

The Second Sino-Japanese War makes an excellent case study of the problems of invading China. In 1937 China had a completely out of date military and an ineffective industrial base, and was fighting a civil war. Japan was clearly militarily far superior. After a series of defeats at the hands of the Japanese, Chinese forces adopted a Guerrilla strategy of attrition and through constant harassment denied the Japanese a decisive victory.

Bernard Montgomery, later compared such a war with an invasion of Russia:

Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of war, is: "Do not march on Moscow". Various people have tried it, Napoleon and Hitler, and it is no good. That is the first rule. I do not know whether your Lordships will know Rule 2 of war. It is: "Do not go fighting with your land armies in China". It is a vast country, with no clearly defined objectives.

The comparisons between the failure of Operation Barbarossa and attempts to conquer China are evident. This sort of war would have been highly undesirable for a European power in the 19th Century. Their military superiority over the outdated Qing armies wouldn't guarantee victory and any war would likely be a drawn out costly one. Undeniably, for organisations such as the British East India Company (who had been so keen on conquering India for profit) this would have made terrible business sense.

Much better to extract trade and diplomatic concessions as the British did during the Opium Wars

  • 18
    "You fell victim one of the classic blunders, the most famous of which is 'Never get involved in a land war in Asia'..." - Vizzini, Princess Bride.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 19, 2013 at 15:45
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    The Sui, Tang, Mongols, and Qing successfully conquered and ruled China. They did so with land armies. Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 15:11
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    Mao conquered it too Commented Jun 13, 2016 at 17:51
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    Also Germany did invade Russia in the winter in WWI and they won (Russia surrendered and gave up a bunch of land) I might change rule one to instead be "never expect a war for a large country to end quickly" in WWI the Germans were ready for a war of attrition and they beat Russia Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 23:31
  • I think this answer is missing the effect the boxer rebellion had on ending European imperial ambitions in China, todo
    – Nathan
    Commented Nov 11, 2018 at 23:24

If by "colonize", you mean ethnicly and culturally take over the territory, like was done in North America and Austrialia:

This is one of the questions touched on by Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. The basic thesis is that Eurasians had an advantage due to their large shared pool of (termperate-climate) domesticated crops/animal technology, and large pool of nasty diseases they had long exposure to that those outside of Eurasia did not have any natural defence against.

As part of Eurasia, the technology imbalance was never great enough in someone else's favor against China. Since China shared the same disease pool as the rest of Eurasia, there was never going to be a disease that Chinese had no exposure to but a Eurasian colonizer did, to help thin the numbers.

Now if by "colonize" you mean conquer, like England did with India, then that certianly did happen to China. Two of their last three ruling dynasties were not ethnically Han (Yuan and Qing), and there were times that large parts of China were effectively ruled by either various European powers, or by Japan.

  • Yes it is often forgotten that large parts of China were essentially colonized. Japan's 21 demands asked for control of Northeast China (Manchuria). Manchuko was a puppet kingdom of Japan.
    – grayQuant
    Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 18:53
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    @grayQuant - Appalling. Have these people not seen Bruce Lee's Fists of Fury? :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 21:52
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    To be exact: most of the people who are considered now Han are not ethnically Han...
    – Greg
    Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 14:33

If the question is, why wasn't China colonized by westerners like India, there were several reasons.

  1. China is much larger in land area (although comparable in population) to India, and therefore harder to swallow.

  2. By being larger, China has more "hiding places" in the desert (Yenan) or mountains, (Chongqing) for "governments in exile." World War II was the best example of that, as Nathan Cooper pointed out.

  3. Chinese think of themselves as "one people," more than most other Asian peoples. Most Chinese would rather be ruled by other Chinese, or at least other Asians such as the Mongols and Manchus, than by westerners. There were few opportunities for westerners to join with one group of Chinese against another, as was the case in India with e.g. Mir Jafar vs. Surajah Dowlah.

China was arguably "colonized" by the Mongols and Manchus per T.E.D's answer, but succeeded in assimilating those conquerors. The differences between China and Westerners stood in the way of a similar thing happening between China and the British, or even China and the Japanese (who were "westernized" Asians).

  • Yes. I don't think the whole "defence in depth" advantages are possible without both size (and 'hiding places') and sense of nationhood. Otherwise a country may be taken piecemeal.
    – Nathan
    Commented Apr 19, 2013 at 16:08
  • The advent of "Chineseness" is a fairly new phenomena, along with other national movements. It wasn't until the 20th century that this idea took hold. I think the idea of "one people" would require a source for the 18th century though. Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 15:15
  • @axsvl77: You're right as regards "nationality." But China has been race conscious for much longer, which is why Manchu or Mongol rule was acceptable to them, and e.g. British, not.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 15:24
  • I doubt there were many Chinese who found Qing rule unacceptable at between say 1680 and 1800. But you're also right, there is said to be a long-standing disdain for non-agricultural people dating back to pre-history. Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 15:32
  • "westerners like India" might be less jarringly re-phrased "westerners,as India was". Commented May 15, 2018 at 9:19

Put simply, the British planted the seeds for colonial control in the early 1800s, needed about 50 more years to fully exploit the Chinese people. The advent of the Soviet Union, WWII, the UN, and the end of colonialism in the 1960s precluded formal colonial control of china.

It is noteworthy, however, that Tibet, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Manchuria, Mongolia, Nanjing, Xiamen, Guangzhou, Dalien, Shandong province, Qingdao, Harbin, Eastern Siberia, and parts of Beijing, and many more regions in China were formally under control by European, American, and Japanese interests. More time was required for these colonial interested to control all of China.

It is useful to pose question as by comparison, like "If India was colonized, why not China? South Asia had a comparable population and military strength to China in the 15th century, so why not?"

The method by which Britain came to control India was not one of military conquest; it was more of an expansion of economic interests. Here's how Britain came to control India:

  1. Gained a foot-hold in small cites, like Surat.
  2. Extract rent from locals to pay Moguls in return for local control.
  3. Extract more rent to ship to London. Induce local "balance of payments" deficit, ruining local economy.
  4. Economic issues spread to neighboring localities. When neighboring localities stop payments to moguls, offer to moguls to collect rent. Invade with military hired from impoverished locals who need to feed their families.
  5. Control new area, return to step 2

Using this sequence, between 1600 and 1900, the British slowly expand until they controlled India's core, and spread their control to Myanmar (Burma), most of the Middle East, most of Africa, and significant portions of Southeast Asia. (These areas also were impoverished by the British expansion process.)

So what about China?

Some additional background:

The British loved tea, and by the late 1790's, they were importing a ton of it. It led to an outflow of bullion to the Qing dynasty, causing economic problems in London. The British knew that to address this, they had to find something to sell to the Qing Chinese.

However, at that time, Qing China was both wealthier than Britain on a per-capita basis, and in many ways more technologically advanced - especially in manufactured goods. The British were more advanced, however, at war-making. However, as previous posters say, it is difficult to control China through military conquest. It wasn't the British method anyways; they chose instead to use economic means to conquer China.Source

So in the early 1800s, the British East India company had independent traders (i.e., colonial subject "businessmen"), with financial backing from London, to smuggle opium into China. Over a period of 30 years, more and more Chinese became addicted, and the British balance of payments improved. Over time, opium addiction caused widespread social problems and poverty, so the Qing tried to put a stop to it, and the Opium wars ensued.Source

British advanced war making technology, (warships, etc) made a mockery of the Qing military system, and required Qing grant "treaty ports" to the British in 1842. In this way, Hong Kong, Xiamen, Shanghai and more came under British control.

Between 1842 and the 1930's, China became weaker and weaker, and the British (and other colonial powers) came to inherit Chinese material wealth. It is doubtful that China could have escaped British colonialism if the global international power structure had not been radically altered by the rise of the Soviet Union, Fascist Germany, World War II, the rise of the UN, and the decline of colonialism in the 1960s.


Conquer China become Chinese. That's the fate of all conquerors of China.

Just ask the Mongols and the Manchus.

The culture is just too strong.

The British probably knew that and just decided to sell some dope instead.

  • Is there any evidence that the British ever considered conquering China? Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 16:38
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    No. Nor was there any evidence that they could do so realistically. An prolonged and extended English war in China, would simply invite other European powers to come in on the other side (as was the way of the European kings back then) Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 18:01
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    "Rule #1 on page one in the Manual of War: Don't march on Moscow. Rule #2: Don't fight with your land army in Asia." - Bernard Montgomery. Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 17:05

The guy above is correct.

1) Only idiots would try to conquer the entire China. It was extremely hard to maintain. For example, the Mongols had to chase the last Song emperor all the way down to the Guangdong China by a massive naval fleet. The Qing dynasty had to constantly watch out for possible secessions in western China like Tibet and Xinjiang. Do you know why China never bothered conquering other countries and why naval exploration was banned in the Ming dynasty when China could've easily become a Spain, UK, etc.? Because governing China was already handful from the inside, they cannot be bothered with the outside (the outside that was culturally backwards This is why China looked down on foreign powers, because their actions were considered "inferior" according to Chinese philosophy (Confucianism & Taoism). What does that say of foreign powers who wanted to come in?

2) The foreign powers may have semi-colonized cities like Guangzhou Beijing Shanghai Tianjin but regardless of how many Chinese that were killed or put down, they always kept coming back, looking for trouble. In addition, the communist guerilla fighters gave the Japanese hell.

3) Han Chinese are culturally one people regardless of whether they are from the North/South wherever. Even Tocqueville in his Democracy in America mentioned the Chinese as ethnically "unconquerable" (this is paraphrased). Even though the Chinese have fallen behind in terms of technological advances by the end of the Song dynasty, their culture was what made them strong. The Qing dynasty, in order to survive, had to mold themselves to Han culture. For example, already into the 4th Qing emperor's reign (Yongzheng), barely any of the ethnic Manchu officials can speak Manchurian. This was the only way foreigners could control China, by ending up Chinese themselves. Ironic. In relation to number 1, the Han Chinese are very proud of their civilization. Why do you think China is called the middle kingdom? They do not care about Korea, Burma, Vietnam, Japan etc., let alone a bunch of faraway Europeans.

FYI, understanding number 3 is crucial to doing business with the Chinese. ;)

  • 2
    (1) The Mongols chased him down easily, and the Qing dynasty was the one to conquer Tibet/Xinjiang in the first place; those are not historically part of China Proper (2) No, the Chinese locals co-existed relatively peacefully with the foreign Concessions, and the Communists barely did anything against Japan. (3) This is purely nationalism talking.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 6:25
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    @Anonymous If the Han are one people and not dividable, why does Beijing insist on Putonghua in all education settings, including those in Fujan and Guangdong, where Hanyu is a second language? And why was China split into north/south divide in the time of the Song? The cohesiveness of China is anything but certain, even today, just like anywhere. Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 15:23
  • @axsvl77 If the Han are one people and not dividable, why does Beijing insist on Putonghua in all education settings, including those in Fujan and Guangdong, where Hanyu is a second language? -- This is a common misunderstanding about the Chinese dialects. Putonghua is only one dialect (official one) of the Chinese language, among many others. The dialects only differ in pronunciation. The characters and words are exactly the same. To say Hanyu is a second language is to say British or American English is a second language to one another.
    – tinlyx
    Commented May 15, 2020 at 17:59
  • @tinlyx You are correct. My English is unclear. I am saying that people in Fujian learn Hanyu as a second language, because they speak Fujianhua. What dialect of Hanyu do they learn? They generally learn Putonghua. I'm trying to emphasize that in many parts of China, any dialect of Hanyu is a completely different langauge. Commented May 16, 2020 at 1:27
  • @axsvl77 I think that's where the misunderstanding is. Fujianhua is the same language as the Putonghua. It's just the characters are pronounced very differently (for historical reasons). From what I heard, pronunciation in Fujianhua is closer to ancient Chinese pronunciation. e.g. Some poems from Tang dynasty "rhyme" better in certain Fujian dialects. Fujianhua, Guangdonghua and Putonghua all Hanyu. Some can understand the pronunciation of other provinces. If not, one can write it down. In the old times, when they took the test (KeJu), it's the same language. This is unlike Latin vs English.
    – tinlyx
    Commented May 16, 2020 at 4:48

A) china was enslaved for 2000 years.

1) chinese were the lowest class in mongol, manchu, xianbei, Khitan, Jurchen empires.

genghis khan's law, killing a chinese = killing a donkey, sorry to mention this.

2)jurchen took two chinese kings, and forced them walk naked on the streets. chinese kings had to call the kings of jurchen as uncle for about 100 years.

Men of chinese royal family were sold into slavery in exchange for horses with a ratio of ten men for one horse.

wiki Jingkang_Incident

3) chinese king had to call the Khan of Khitan as father, grandfather

wiki Later_Jin_Dynasty

4)other two chinese kings of chinese were also taken by foreigners as slaves.

wiki Emperor_Huai_of_Jin

5) manchus ruled china for 300 years till 1911. the population rate was 100,000,000 chinese VS1.000.000 manchus.

6)then japan invaded since 1937-1945( including the chinese captial), and killed over 30,000,000 chinese. some references say japanese killed over 12-20 millions chinese

Russia and USA saved china , Otherwise china should ruled by japan now.

  • 5
    Nothing you mentioned dates back further than the 10th century. Where did "enslaved for 2000 years" come from? Not to mention acknowledging Liao seniority was hardly enslavement, and China was ruled by a native government between 1368 and 1644.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 13:43