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Hidden in European archives, China's winding journey towards national rejuvenation

Xinhua | Updated: 2019-10-09 15:01

LONDON/BERLIN/PARIS - In the rural western German city of Essen, Villa Huegel, a Prussian style mansion built by German industrialist Alfried Krupp between 1870-1873 as his main residence, holds some precious documents attesting to a difficult chapter in Chinese history.

The files, uncovered recently by Xinhua in historical archives in Villa Huegel and elsewhere in Europe, bear the witness to the journey of a nation rising from close-mindedness and humiliation, to opening up to the world and embarking on a path towards national rejuvenation.


Villa Huegel's "China Hall," opulently decorated with oriental carved beams and painted rafters, keeps a series of documents about sales by the Krupp family, once the largest arms manufacturer in Europe, to China over the past century. A folder with a grey cover lists the Krupp guns sold to the Qing government from 1847 to 1912.

"In its self-strengthening period, China was the biggest client outside Europe. And the Qing government could purchase the most advanced cannons, guns and other equipment," said Daniel Droste, a historian with the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation.

Rachel Gill, an archivist, introduces the plans of Zhiyuan, one of the most renowned and heroic military vessel in Chinese history, at the Tyne & Wear Archives in Newcastle, Britain, Nov. 2, 2018. [Photo/Xinhua]

Since the Opium War in 1840, the pride and complacency of the Qing government in being the "Middle Kingdom" was shattered. The government spared no efforts to purchase the most cutting-edge weaponry from Europe in hopes of rivaling the cannons and guns that helped Western imperialists thrash open the doors of China.

The guns and cannons purchased from Krupp, to no avail, were deployed in the strategic areas along the coast of China to fend off foreign invasions. Some of them were mounted to the cruisers of the Beiyang Fleet, a landmark modernized Chinese navy created by the Qing government vying for sea power.

At the Tyne & Wear Archives in the British city of Newcastle, plans of Zhiyuan (also known as Chih Yuen), one of the most renowned and heroic military vessel in Chinese history, were recently discovered by Xinhua.

Built by a manufacturer in Newcastle between 1885 and 1887 as a member of the Beiyang Fleet, Zhiyuan was sunken in 1894 during the First Sino-Japanese War commonly known in China as the Jiawu War.

Nevertheless, the cruisers, along with the cannons, were among the most advanced during that time. The Army and Navy Gazette, a London-based newspaper, said at that time that the vessels as "superior in certain novelties of construction to any of our own vessels ... In point of speed they cannot be touched by our swiftest cruisers."

Cord Eberspaecher, historian and sinologist at the Heinrich-Heine-University Duesseldorf, said that China's defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, marked as a national humiliation to the country, exposed the weaknesses of the whole political system of the Qing Dynasty.

But neither advanced weapons nor a simple copy of the Western system had succeeded in rescuing China from the upheavals. Due to complex historical and social reasons, a revolution in 1911 led by Sun Yat-sen overthrew the Qing Dynasty and briefly created a republic, but failed to lift China out of misery.

While the struggles to find a path to development continued in China, the seeds of hope were found in Europe.

Photo taken on Nov. 2, 2018 shows the exterior of the Tyne & Wear Archives in Newcastle, Britain. [Photo/Xinhua]
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