American Diplomats in China in the 1860s

American Diplomats in China in the 1860s

Diplomatic relations between the Qing Dynasty and the United States during the 1860s can be summarized in the two major treaties that were relevant at that time, and the main American Diplomat during that period. The first of these treaties is known as the Treaty of Tianjin, which was signed by China, the United States, and a number of other European powers in 1858. Known as one of the “Unequal Treaties,” the terms, “opened additional port cities to foreign trade and commerce, legalized the import of opium, allowed missionaries to travel freely to parts of China and paid indemnity to western powers” (Jue). This treaty added to terms already agreed upon in the Treaty of Wanghia (1844) that effectively gave the US extraterritorial privileges, Most Favored Nation status, fixed tariffs on trade, and allowed the opening of multiple ports in China. The combination of these two treaties put China into an extremely poor position both diplomatically and economically  as they were in effect until the late 1860’s when a new treaty, known as the Burlingame Treaty, was signed.

The Burlingame Treaty, signed in 1868, was negotiated between William Seward, who represented the United States, and Anson Burlingame, who represented the Qing government. This treaty was signed as a supplement to the Treaty of Tianjin. The provisions of the this treaty, “accorded equality, fairness, and reciprocity to China and gave China the “Most Favored Nation” (MFN) status similar to privileges enjoyed by other friendly nations” (Jue). There are a total of eight articles in the treaty itself, but the most important of these are the recognition of China’s eminent domain over its territory, found in Article I, and the idea that China would now “enjoy the same privileges, immunities or exemptions in respect to travel or residence as may there be enjoyed by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation” (Article VI, Burlingame Seward-Treaty of 1868).

Finally, it is important to make note of Anson Burlingame and the role that he played in the diplomatic relations between the two states. Burlingame was appointed the official envoy to China by President Lincoln in 1861 and spent the next few years in China studying the government and the people as he had no prior knowledge of either. What he found was, “that country was in a critical situation, with a weak central government, strong anti-foreign feeling, and alien business interests vying for trade privileges” (Anson Burlingame, Encyclopedia Britannica). Burlingame then spent the next several years encouraging better relations between China and the US, including spending almost two years giving speeches across the US in support of China. This work would eventually lead to Burlingame leaving his job as the US envoy in 1866. Shortly after he left, Burlingame was asked to be China’s envoy to the US and within two years, would negotiate the signing of the Burlingame-Seward Treaty of 1868. Ultimately, American and Chinese relations in the 1860s were dominated by the Treaty of Tianjin, the Burlingame Treaty and the extensive pro-China work by American diplomat Anson Burlingame.

- Chris Burnham 

Works Cited

"Anson Burlingame | Biography - American Diplomat." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 26 Nov. 2013. Web. 27 Apr. 2015. <>.

Jue, Stanton. "Anson Burlingame, an American Diplomat." Jue | Anson Burlingame, an American Diplomat. American Diplomacy Publishers, Sept. 2011. Web. 03 May 2015. <>.

Randall, Vernellia R. "Burlingame-Seward Treaty of 1868." Burlingame-Seward Treaty of 1868. N.p., 31 Jan. 1998. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <>.

Schrecker, John. ""For the Equality of Men – For the Equality of Nations": Anson Burlingame and China's First Embassy to the United States, 1868." Journal of American-East Asian Relations 17.1 (2010): 9-34. JSTOR. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.

"Unequal Treaty | Chinese History." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 16 Apr. 2015. Web. 27 Apr. 2015. <>.


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American Diplomats in China in the 1860s