Throughout history, China long proclaimed itself the “Supreme Celestial Empire”, and built up a tributary system under which neighbouring, adjoining, or island states paid tribute to it. Starting from the mid-19th century, however, the imperialist powers began to covet China’s tributary states in a bid to step up their capital export and territorial expansion. China became embroiled in various border conflicts. Britain began to exert control over Tibet while vying for Xinjiang (新疆) with Tsarist Russia; Japan, an emerging imperialist power, claimed the Ryukyu Kingdom as its own and renamed it Okinawa; and France strove for dominion over Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in Mainland Southeast Asia. Vietnam was forced to sign two Treaties of Saigon with France in 1862 and 1874, ceding its southern provinces to France and allowing French influence to gradually spread northwards towards China’s borderland. The Black Flag Army (黑旗軍), the remnants of the Taiping Rebellion (太平天國) that was active along the Sino-Vietnamese borderland, soon joined forces with the Vietnamese military and civilians under the leadership of Liu Yongfu (劉永福) in resisting the French. The joined forces succeeded in killing French military officers Francis Garnier and Henri Rivière in separate confrontations. In August 1883, France and Vietnam signed the first Treaty of Huế that forced Vietnam to become a French protectorate. Perceiving its vassal state under threat, China prepared for war. Tensions between the two countries ran high.
From the time when the Qing regime was at the height of its power up until the Opium War, the empire had, in addition to its own territory, a vast sphere of influence and many tributary states. However, the Opium War exposed the empire’s weaknesses, and the imperialist powers began to view China’s neighbouring tributary states as fair game for conquest. France started plotting to acquire Vietnam, a tributary state located in Mainland Southeast Asia, to extend its sphere of influence to the adjoining provinces of Yunnan (雲南) and Guangxi (廣西) in China.
From 1858 to 1862, France and Spain used the murders of two Spanish missionaries in Vietnam as a pretext for a joint assault on Vietnam, with the French serving as the primary invasion force. Vietnam was defeated. Pictured is the 1859 French conquest of Saigon (present-day Ho Chi Minh City), a key city in southern Vietnam.
In 1862, France pressured Vietnam into signing the first Treaty of Saigon, which resulted in the ceding of land, opening of ports and inland waterways, and granting of numerous concessions.
The signing of the Treaty of Saigon led to increased French activity in Vietnam. Pictured is a French floating battery moored off Saigon in 1864.
A statue of Liu Yongfu (left) and a depiction of the Black Flags on the frontline of the battle against France (right). Some 3,000 Black Flags were active in the China-Vietnam borderland at the time of the Sino-French War. They joined forces with the Vietnamese army and civilians in resisting the French invasion.
In 1873, a French force led by the officer Francis Garnier captured Hanoi (河內) and various other cities. Under Liu Yongfu’s command, 600 Black Flags worked with the Vietnamese military to lure Garnier into an ambush outside Hanoi and killed him. Pictured is the scene of Garnier’s death at the hands of the Black Flags.
The signing of the second Treaty of Saigon only exacerbated French incursions into Vietnam. In February 1883, a French force led by the officer Henri Rivière captured Nam Dinh, a key city in northern Vietnam, an act of aggression that stunned the Vietnamese government. On 19 May, Liu Yongfu led the Black Flag Army to kill Rivière in the Battle of Paper Bridge. The picture shows Rivière (behind the cannon) attempting to rescue a bogged cannon on the battlefield of Paper Bridge.
Rivière’s death prompted France to augment its army in Vietnam. In August 1883, numerous French troops landed in northern Vietnam.
On 25 August 1883, intimidated by the French military, the Vietnamese government signed the first Treaty of Huế, which forced the country to become a French protectorate.
Perceiving the French conquest of Vietnam as a dire threat to its tributary system and border security, China had to respond and prepare for war both on land and at sea. This picture taken in Shanghai (上海) in September 1883 shows Chinese gunships armed and ready for battle. The Sino-French War was on the verge of erupting.
Sources of most photos used in this feature piece: Visual China Group and misc. photo sources.