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Learning area: History
Year level: Year 9
Country: China
General capability: Intercultural understanding

This module assists teachers of students in Year 9 History to implement the Australian Curriculum: History cross-curriculum priority, Asia and Australia's engagement with Asia. This is done through a developed approach to the depth study, Asia and the world. This approach can be adapted for use in Year 10 History.

Teachers explore historical thinking in relation to history classrooms with a focus on understanding key aspects of the interaction between China and the West 1750 to 1918.

Key inquiry questions

  • Why was the Macartney mission of 1793 a landmark event in the history of China's relationship with the West?
  • Why might the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 be seen as a turning point in China's relations with the West?
  • How significant was the Boxer Rebellion for Western/Chinese relations?

Triumphant meadal, First Opium WarTriumphant medal (First Opium War), 1842


Image: Triumphant medal (First Opium War), 1842, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Visualizing cultures – Topic 2

Related resources

Activity 1: The Macartney Mission to Peking 1793

Task 1: Investigating a visual source

Open image to the right, showing it to the students without any details of what it is meant to represent and who painted it. In small groups ask students to:

  • describe what they think is going on
  • suggest some questions they'd like answered about the image.

The answers can be shared as a whole class, with the teacher offering comments where appropriate about the validity of the student descriptions and the quality of the proposed questions. The teacher-led whole class discussion should highlight the need for further information to allow a more complete interpretation of the image.

Links to the Australian Curriculum

This task introduces 'evidence' – a historical concept from the Historical Knowledge and Understanding strand of the Australian Curriculum: History. Evidence is described as 'the information obtained from sources that is valuable for a particular inquiry'. A useful reminder here is to check the comments offered by Seixas on what historians look for in a source. It is not just information about the past in the basic sense also clues about the social, economic and political aspects of that period. Students are asked to interpret the image, drawing on the historical skill of analysis and use of sources, and to propose further questions, reflecting the historical skill of historical questions and research. The topic is prefaced by a key question which guides the focus of the inquiry. The task highlights the way historical sources don’t 'speak for themselves', the way they need to be 'interrogated' to produce knowledge, and how limited that knowledge can be when the historical context is unfamiliar.

Task 2: Establishing contextual background

Provide contextual background on the Macartney mission, including the British desire for trade with China; the strength of Chinese society and culture; and the official Chinese attitudes to trade. Use the text provided below and the attached questions. A PDF of the full text can be seen here.

Contextual background: 18th century China
A global view of history in the 18th century during the reign of the Qing would place China as one of the largest and most prosperous regions in the world. It was a nation with advanced technology, expansive trade contacts and rich resources. It was a country which wanted for nothing …

… Macartney also carried a letter from King George III to the Qianlong Emperor. The British entourage was very large and tons of gifts were brought along as a demonstration of the advantages of trade with Britain. The arrival of the British mission coincided with the Qianlong Emperor's 82nd birthday.

  1. What does this text indicate about China in 1793, and about the Chinese sense of the significance of their civilisation?
  2. What was a key difference between the official Chinese and British attitudes to trade and merchants?
  3. What was the aim of the Macartney mission?
  4. How likely to succeed do you think the Macartney mission would have been?
Links to the Australian Curriculum

This task explores the historical skill of 'explaining the contextual significance of a source'. The previous activity highlighted how limited is the knowledge one gains from a source with no understanding of its 'setting'. Placing a source in time and space is essential for meaningful use of the source. The conditions which existed at the time of an 'event' or the attitudes of those involved, that is the context, will affect the way this event is understood. Placing an event or a source in context also introduces the historical concept of significance, as the significance of an event is relevant to its context. Historical visual sources are an important part of developing historical understandings for students but they need to be used effectively and their limitations acknowledged. Sources cannot be investigated in a vacuum, and identifying their 'origin and purpose' provides important signposts for further investigation. It also addresses historical knowledge and understanding about China: 'the effects of contact (intended and unintended) with European powers'.

Task 3: Linking contextual information and the pictorial source

Ask students:

  • whether the contextual information addresses any of the questions they posed
  • how the contextual information helps them understand the picture
  • what they would expect the outcome of the meeting to be
  • whether the picture seems to be a credible representation of the mission/meeting.

After reading the contextual information, students should be asked to examine the painting again. The following questions could be provided.

  1. What do you think is the most significant thing happening in the picture? Why?
  2. Does the picture convey a sense of the scale of the Macartney mission (as described in the historical context)? Explain.
  3. Does the picture suggest that this was a meeting of equals? Explain.
  4. Has the artist provided any ‘clues’ about what the Chinese and the British were thinking and feeling during the meeting? Explain.

Task 4: Background to the artist – William Alexander

The artist, William Alexander, was appointed by the British Government to record the activities of the Macartney mission. Alexander was a relatively inexperienced and young artist at the time and it seems Lord Macartney did not place a great deal of importance on his role. The meeting between the Emperor and Macartney took place in Rehe, north of Peking. On the occasion of the actual meeting between Macartney and the Qianlong Emperor, however, Alexander was not present. He remained in Peking finishing sketches of the gifts Macartney had brought. Macartney refused to allow him to accompany the British mission. Alexander relied on sketches of Macartney's journey made by an artillery officer, Parish, who was also a draughtsman. Alexander also may have used Macartney’s own description of the meeting recorded in his journal.

Ask students to consider to what extent Alexander could be expected to produce an accurate portrayal of the meeting.


Image: William Alexander, Macartney's First Meeting with Qianlong, watercolour on paper, 1793. Public domain

Activity 2: Investigating written sources

Task 1: Using a written source – Macartney's diary

I came to the entrance of the tent and, holding in both my hands a large gold box enriched with diamonds in which was enclosed the King’s letter, I walked deliberately up and, ascending the side steps of the throne, delivered it into the Emperor's own hands who, having received it, passed it on to the minister by whom it was placed on the cushion.
(Cranmer–Byng 1963, p 65)

The audience with the Qianlong Emperor was held in a tent in the grounds of the Summer Palace in Rehe, north of Peking. Macartney and his entourage waited outside the tent before being summoned. He presented a letter from King George III to the Emperor.

Ask students to comment on the extent to which the description in the journal entry reflects the details of the painting by Alexander. Would Alexander have had access to this journal? Does this description by Macartney explain why Alexander painted the meeting as he did? Teachers might encourage students to think about what is missing from Macartney's journal. He makes no reference to going down on one knee as the painting shows.

Students could be asked to reconsider:

  • Would Alexander be expected to produce an accurate portrayal of the meeting?
  • Does he portray either side in a more favourable light?
Links to the Australian Curriculum

This task encourages students to apply the historical skill of analysis and interpretation to a written source and to investigate the importance of corroborating sources. Students are asked to compare the information and to make judgements about how much one does or does not corroborate the other. They are also given the opportunity to investigate possible motives behind what is presented in a source, by further scrutinising various aspects of the picture, such as the possible relationship between the individuals, and drawing on the contextual information to enhance understanding. It involves students in exploring the historical understanding of perspective. People in the past responded to events in different ways, depending on their circumstances, and historical inquiry involves students in identifying these circumstances. This section also explores the general capability of critical and creative thinking by posing questions which take students beyond the level of identifying the visual aspects of a source or simply the literal meaning of a source.

Task 2: Exploring the potential for intercultural misunderstanding

The Macartney mission was an encounter between two great but different powers. Over the past two centuries, historians have written much about the meeting between Lord Macartney and the Qianlong Emperor. In particular, they have focused on how Lord Macartney behaved and what the Emperor would have thought of that behaviour. At the centre of the issue was the practice of 'kowtow'. Students are provided with text about this practice, which can be found here.

In 1793, a person granted an audience with the Qianlong Emperor was expected to 'kowtow' – to approach the Emperor and bow so low that one's forehead touched the floor … which may suggest he didn't kowtow, but in a poem the Emperor wrote about the meeting he seems to express satisfaction at the actions of the British.

Provide the following questions to students:

  1. Study the picture of Macartney's meeting with the Emperor. What does the picture indicate about how Macartney acted? Does this prove that Macartney did not kowtow? Explain.
  2. Assuming that Macartney did not kowtow, what do you think his reason(s) would have been? Do you think his decision was a wise one? Explain.
  3. Does the fact that Macartney makes no reference to the kowtow in his journal entry above prove that he did not kowtow?
  4. Assuming Macartney did not kowtow, what might the Emperor have thought of his behaviour, and how might that have affected his response overall to the Macartney mission?

Other examples of intercultural misunderstanding can also be found in the issue about the gifts. There was great debate in England before the mission set out about what gifts to take to the Emperor and there has been much discussion about the gifts the Emperor gave Macartney. Macartney commented in his diary that he considered the jade sceptre he was given, for example, a gift of no great value. Yet, in his journal, Macartney seems to emphasise the value of the gifts he provides, in particular describing the magnificence of the jewelled box which contained the letter from King George III to the Emperor. Teachers could discuss with students the idea, perhaps, that Macartney is seeing the exchange as a mercantile exchange and not as a symbolic exchange. Jade held great significance for the Chinese and jade gifts were more than just an item with a particular monetary value.

Links to the Australian Curriculum

The general capability of Intercultural understanding can be explored here with the issue of how both sides perceived the other and how they acted. The Australian Curriculum: History encourages students to identify how 'national identities are shaped, and the variable and changing nature of culture'. This activity explores not just the outward forms of the ritual of interchange but the very heart of what separated Britain and China, and the impact of how each perceived its place in the world on their relationship. It also continues the general capability of critical and creative thinking as it asks students to delve deeper into the possible interpretations of the painting. This activity also continues the historical skill of explaining the contextual significance of a source as students rethink their initial interpretations in the light of information about the role and significance of certain rituals.

Task 3: Introducing another written source – a letter from the Qianlong Emperor to George III

The Qianlong Emperor sent a response to the request from Britain in the form of two edicts, often referred to as letters as they were meant to be a communication to King George III. The term 'edict' emphasises that these were not private letters but were meant to a declaration within Chinese officialdom. The two edicts are similar and one of them is provided for students in the resources section.

You, O King … Do you reverently receive them and take note of my tender goodwill towards you! A special mandate.

The full text of the letter can be found here.

Ask what this source suggests about China at the time, about the Chinese sense of self, and about the official Chinese attitude to contact with foreign countries.

As an alternative to reading this source in its entirety and answering all the questions, small groups of students could be allocated sections of the source to study, pursuing an overall set of questions:

  • What does this section say?
  • What does it suggest about China's sense of itself?
  • What does it suggest about their attitude to others?
  • How do you think King George would have reacted to the Emperor's letter?

More detailed questions could be asked if teachers feel there is time and they are appropriate for the class.

Detailed questions:
  1. What words and phrases does the Emperor use to describe the position and attitude of King George III and the British nation? How do those words and phrases position Britain in relation to China?
  2. What words and phrases does the Emperor use to describe himself: his position; his importance; his values; his attitudes?
  3. In what ways has the Emperor treated the Macartney mission in a special manner, according to his letter?
  4. What does the Emperor say that he thinks of the gifts given to him by Macartney?
  5. What reasons does he give for refusing the British request for trading and diplomatic concessions?
  6. What does the Emperor's description of the 'European officials in Peking' indicate about China's attitude to other nations and civilisations?
  7. How do you think King George III would have reacted when reading the Emperor's letter? Why?

Historical context
This letter was originally written in classical Chinese. It was translated into Latin by Jesuit scholars and then translated into English by British officials.

Students could be asked to consider whether the translation could have changed the meaning of the original letter in subtle ways. There is also a suggestion that the British officials simply prepared a summary of the letter. Students could be asked to consider what the importance of this might be.

  1. How might this background information change your views about the likely success of Macartney's mission?
  2. There is no evidence that the letter was ever delivered to King George III. If the king didn't ever receive the letter, does it still have any value as a historical source? Explain.
  3. What does this letter indicate about the challenges of intercultural contact and understanding?

Question 3 could be discussed by all students. They could be asked to examine the comments the Emperor makes about King George, about his views of the gifts the British have sent and why he has refused the British requests.

Comparing the letter and the painting

Look again at the William Alexander painting of the meeting. Do you detect any evidence that the artist was aware of the potential failure of the meeting? Explain.

Links to the Australian Curriculum

This task provides students with the opportunity to engage in the historical skills of processing and synthesising information from sources as evidence in a historical argument as well as identifying and analysing the perspective of people from the past. This task also engages students in the historical skill of understanding that the reliability and usefulness of a source depend on the questions asked of it. It provides students with the opportunity to address the general capability of literacy, both visual and written, and critical and creative thinking.

Activity 3: Historical interpretation of the Mission

Task 1: Introducing and interrogating a secondary visual source

Show students the Gillray drawing of the meeting between Macartney and the Emperor. Initially, ask them what they think the image depicts, whether it differs from the William Alexander painting, and how any differences might be explained.

Then introduce the idea of caricature – the exaggeration and distortion of some aspects to convey a particular message or meaning – and have students scrutinise the image for examples.

Initial interrogation of the source
  1. Do the features of the image suggest that it portrays the same meeting as in the Alexander painting? Explain.
  2. What are the major differences between this image and the Alexander painting?
  3. How might you explain those differences; that is, how or why would two artists portray the same event differently?
  4. Do you have any sense that one of the two images is more accurate than the other as a portrayal of the meeting? Explain.
Significance of caricature

The Alexander painting appears to be a 'realistic' portrayal. However, the Gillray image is a caricature; a portrayal that exaggerates, distorts or invents particular aspects to create a particular impression or to convey a particular, critical message. Students could be asked to use the following table to try to identify and explain some of the caricatured aspects of the Gillray image. An example is provided.

Aspect of image How it has been exaggerated, distorted or invented Possible reasons for the particular caricature
1. The facial expressions of some Englishmen The expressions appear extreme – whether keen, fearful or anxious. Perhaps Gillray is poking fun at the Englishmen, suggesting they are 'out of their depth' in the meeting with the Emperor.
The question of dating

Given your study of the Gillray image, when do you think it could have been drawn? Select one of the options below and justify your selection with reference to the image itself and/or to your knowledge of the Macartney mission.

  • The image was drawn during the actual meeting or immediately afterwards.
  • The image was drawn after the Emperor's rejection of the British requests.
  • The image was drawn before the meeting took place.

Be prepared to explain your selection to your classmates.

A puzzling answer

Gillray drew his caricature three days after Macartney left England for China, which was a year before the actual meeting between Macartney and the Emperor. And yet his caricature does bear some resemblance to what happened. Think about these questions:

  1. How could Gillray have had any idea of what the meeting between Macartney and the Emperor would have looked like?
  2. What evidence is there that Gillray was familiar with some aspects of Chinese society?
  3. What evidence is there that Gillray knew what form the meeting would take, for example that Macartney would present gifts to the Emperor?
  4. Does it seem that, a year before the Macartney Mission, Gillray was poking fun at the plan to send the mission to China? Explain.
An added dimension

Gillray was known as a critic of King George III. It has been suggested that his caricature of the meeting was actually poking fun at the King. How could English readers have interpreted the image in that way?

Evaluating the Gillray image as a historical source of evidence

Ask students to consider:

  • If the Gillray image was drawn a year before the meeting took place between Macartney and the Emperor, does it have any value as a source of evidence about what happened in that meeting? Explain.
  • If the Gillray image has no value as evidence of what happened in the meeting, does it have any value at all as a historical source of evidence? If so, as evidence of what?
Links to the Australian Curriculum

This task provides students with the opportunity to identify the historical skill of 'chronological sequencing' as it deals with the issue of the date a source was produced and the relationship of this to the event being portrayed. It also engages students in understanding the term, caricature, as it is used in relation to a historical source. Students also evaluate the reliability and usefulness of a source and identify and analyse different historical interpretations. Comparing two sources purporting to represent the same event helps students to understand the historical concept of perspective. The general capability of Critical and creative thinking is addressed as students investigate the understanding Gillray may have had about Chinese customs and culture.

Task 2: The historical debates about the Macartney mission

Historians do not always agree on the role of events from the past or on how sources should be interpreted. Some topics bring about a lot of public debate in the media and this is sometimes quite heated and even distorted. Students need to understand that informed debate is an integral part of history and that as long as this debate is grounded in appropriate evaluation of the sources, then it is natural for historians to have different perspectives. For further elaboration of this, teachers might check the National Centre for History Education's Historical Literacy under the heading Contention and contestability.

The Macartney mission has produced different views among historians. It failed in its key aims of achieving increased trade opportunities for the British in China and of having China accept British diplomatic representation in the capital.

Given what you have learned so far, what do you think explains why the mission failed?

Historians – who have the time, energy and expertise to study the available sources – have debated the reasons for the mission's failure. They have proposed four main interpretations:

  • The failure was caused by the Chinese sense of their superiority and their belief that they had no need for the things that the British wanted to trade.
  • The failure was caused by the British ignorance of Chinese beliefs and practices and their consequently inappropriate way of approaching the Chinese.
  • The Chinese failed to understand the changing nature of international diplomacy and in particular the importance of British power at the time.
  • The failure was the product of the interaction of two different systems of belief, values and practices, in which neither side seemed willing or able to adapt to the other's expectations.
Links to the Australian Curriculum

The historical debates about the mission introduce students to the historical understanding of contestability. Historians may very well use the same source to arrive at different interpretations about the past. Students need to recognise that debate is an integral component of history and that disagreements are part of the way historians engage with historical sources. Professional historians do not agree on everything about the past and this is a natural part of historical debate. While Macartney may have seen the mission as a failure and, in terms of its specific aims, this is a reasonable interpretation, historians today often take a broader view and see some elements of success in it. For example, Macartney was able to report on a whole range of things about China which the British had not been privy to previously. A key area of disagreement among historians is why it was a failure. Has the role of the kowtow been exaggerated? After all, there were intensive discussions between British and Chinese officials about this very thing and the Qianlong Emperor had agreed to accept the bended knee.

Task 3: Summing up the situation in 1793

Discuss the idea that, although the mission was a failure, the visit was a landmark event in the history of relations between China and Britain. Britain's dissatisfaction and frustration drove future developments, particularly the opium trade, which precipitated the beginning of the decline of the Qing dynasty.

After that, introduce the 'puzzle' of when the caricature was produced. Have students share, explain and justify their choices. Finally, have students assess whether the caricature has any value as a historical source of evidence.


Image: James Gillray, A caricature on Lord Macartney's Embassy to China, published 14 September 1792. Public domain

Activity 4: The Treaty of Nanking 1842

This topic continues on from the Macartney mission in 1793. After the British proposals were rejected, the British continued to expand their trade with China, but there was a significant trade deficit between Britain and China in China's favour. This section begins with a similar activity by introducing students to another visual image of a meeting between China and Britain.

Task 1: Investigating a visual source

Show students the image of the signing of the Treaty of Nanking 1842 between China and Great Britain without informing them of what the painting represents. Inform them that this is a painting of another meeting between Britain and China.

Ask students to compare this meeting with the Macartney meeting. Ask them to suggest what seems to be happening here and to think about whether it can be used as evidence to suggest a change in the relationship between Britain and China. Ask them to suggest some questions they might like answered about this meeting. The teacher-led whole class discussion should highlight the need for further information to allow a more complete interpretation of the image.

Task 2: Contextualising sources

Background information: the first Opium War
After the failure of the Macartney mission in 1793, the British continued to trade with China through the Canton system, a system which was causing the British increasing angst … A British naval force attacked Chinese war junks in Kowloon harbour in 1839 and hostilities continued until China was defeated in 1842. This was the First Opium War which ended with China and Britain signing the Treaty of Nanking in 1842.

This background information provides a link between the Macartney mission and the events of 1839–1842 with the British expansion of trade to China and the problem of a trade deficit. The full text can be found here.


  1. Why did Britain use opium in its trade with China?
  2. What action did the Chinese take to deal with the problem?
  3. Do you think Commissioner Lin saw his actions as illegal?
  4. Do these events suggest any changes in the nature of imperial control in China since the Macartney mission? Explain.
Links to the Australian Curriculum

The key concept of change and continuity forms part of this section of the investigation. This section highlights the changing relations between Britain and China from the Macartney mission in 1793 to the First Opium War in 1839. This activity revisits the key concept of evidence and the historical skill of analysis and use of sources. Students are again reminded that sources need to be interrogated and they do not necessarily provide us with the evidence we might be looking for. This also introduces the historical concept of imperialism. The Australian Curriculum: History defines imperialism as 'the process whereby rule or control is established and maintained over other peoples and nations'. While Chinese territory and its population were not appropriated (with the exception of Hong Kong and Macao) trade concessions were gained by force, a process that can be described as economic imperialism.

Task 3: Introducing a written source

Extract from a letter from Commissioner Lin to Queen Victoria

Every native of the Inner Land who sells opium, as also all who smoke it, are alike adjudged to death … Please let your reply be speedy. Do not on any account make excuses or procrastinate. A most important communication!

Students read extracts from a letter sent by Commissioner Lin to Queen Victoria. Commissioner Lin was appointed by the Emperor to stamp out the opium trade in Canton. A link to the full text of the letter can be found here. Students might think about the problem of relying on only excerpts. The letter is rather long for year 9 students and even the chosen excerpts have rather convoluted language which some students may find challenging. Teachers may wish to divide students into groups to handle sections of the letter and ask them to select evidence of Commissioner Lin's policies, his actions and his attitude to foreign traders.


  1. Do you think Commissioner Lin is being reasonable in his request to Queen Victoria? Explain.
  2. Why might Britain take exception to the tone of the letter?
  3. The letter never actually reached Queen Victoria but, if it had, what do you think her reaction might have been?
Links to the Australian Curriculum

The key concept of cause and effect, defined in the Australian Curriculum: History as something 'used by historians to identify chains of events and developments over time, short term and long term' is introduced in this section. Students are asked to consider the reasons for the conflict between Britain and China in the mid-19th century and to reflect on the role of human agency in the form of Commissioner Lin's actions as an immediate trigger for the conflict. The historical skill of identifying the origin, purpose and context of a primary source is revisited in identifying and analysing the perspectives of people from the past.


Image: John Platt (painter) and John Burnet (engraver), The signing and sealing of the Treaty of Nanking, 1846, public domain

Activity 5: Causes and context

Task 1: Exploring the causes of conflict

Why nations engage in violent conflict can appear to be straightforward at times, but the obvious causes can often hide a complex web of long-term issues and short-term reasons. There was much debate in the British Parliament about the war and whether Britain should engage in this war. Given the distance between China and Great Britain and the length of time it took for communications to reach Britain from China, events at times seemed to have pre-empted the discussions. The debate in parliament was heated at times.

Some of these arguments included:

  • If Britain pulled out of the opium trade then other nations would simply step in so it wouldn't solve the problem of opium addiction in China.
  • If Britain put an end to opium production in India it would cripple the Indian economy.
  • Commissioner Lin had violated British sovereignty by placing British merchants under house arrest in Canton.
  • The opium that Commissioner Lin had destroyed was the legal property of British merchants and they should be compensated for their losses.
  • Commissioner Lin's letters and edicts were seen as insults to Britain's prestige and treated Britain as if she were inferior to China.
  • The Chinese were free to reject opium if they chose, and they were not being forced to smoke it.
  • Opium traders were not criminals violating any laws but legitimate business men conducting legal businesses according to international law.

Teachers might discuss the issues outlined above on legal, economic, moral and political grounds.

  1. Which of the above arguments seem to be on commercial grounds?
  2. Which of the arguments seem to be based on Britain’s ideas of her place in the world?
  3. Which of the arguments do you think is the least justified?

The British did launch an attack on China and British Member of Parliament, William Gladstone, condemned the British action.

He described the opium trade as, 'this infamous and atrocious traffic' and in reference to the First Opium War he stated 'a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know, and I have not read of'. (Barrow 1840, p 2460)

Teachers might discuss what other motives Gladstone might have had for making this statement besides expressing concern for the ethical behaviour of Britain. Students need to understand the issues surrounding statements in parliament and the possible political agenda members of parliament might have had, especially from someone who was in opposition.

Links to the Australian Curriculum

This section focuses on the general capability of Ethical understanding. The Australian Curriculum: History states, 'Students develop ethical understanding of ethical behaviour as they critically explore the character traits, actions and motivations of people in the past that may be the result of different standards and expectations and changing societal attitudes. Students recognise that examining the nature of evidence deepens their understanding of ethical issues and investigate the ways that diverse values and principles have influenced human affairs'. Peter Seixas also elaborates on this as one of the key historical thinking concepts and stresses how fundamental this is to an understanding of the past.

Teachers might like to pursue the opium trade further by having students view a video clip on the opium trade. As with any video, teachers should view it first and then decide if it is suitable for the class or if it adds anything to the understanding of the issue. The following videos may add some more background to students' understanding of the opium trade.

Teachers might like to refresh their own background on the opium trade by watching the Harvard lecture on this topic. This is unlikely to be suitable for Year 9 students, as it is in a tertiary lecture format.

Task 2: Relating the contextual information to the picture

Teachers may now like to return to the original painting as students will now be able to explore it in relation to its contextual information. An excellent online resource to explore the painting in more detail is through the Brown University Centre for Digital Scholarship.

Explain to students that this picture is titled, 'The signing and sealing of the Treaty of Nanking 1842'. A formal treaty to end the First Opium War was signed on board the British warship, HMS Cornwallis. Ask students how the contextual information helps them understand the picture. They could be asked to discuss the possible purpose of the painting in light of this information.

Background to the artist

Paintings pose certain problems for historians as evidence of events. Can they ever actually truly represent events as they happened? There are always issues about style, purpose and the artist's background. The painting was by Captain John Platt in 1846 and the various copies of it are from an engraving by John Burnet. The official title beneath the original painting is:

'The Signing and Sealing of the Treaty of Nanking in the State Cabin of H. M. S. Cornwallis, 29th August, 1842' (detail) Painted by Capt. John Platt

John Platt, the artist, was a Captain in the Bengal Volunteers. He had served in India and he fought in the First Opium War. He was awarded the China Medal for his role in this conflict.

  1. Are there any indications from the painting that Platt might have been present at this meeting?
  2. Can we assume that because he fought in the war he was probably present at the signing of the treaty?

From The British Museum we learn the identity of the key British and Chinese individuals who are depicted in this painting. The British Museum image has a line drawing of this artwork with the names of all the individuals shown in the painting.

Discuss with students whether the inclusion of all the names means that this painting is an actual representation of the signing of the treaty. If all these individuals were not present, then why might Platt have included them in the painting?

Task 3: Comparing sources

This image (upper right) shows a commemorative medal struck by the British government to celebrate the conclusion of the First Opium War. The words at the bottom of the medal read, 'THE TRIUMPH OF THE BRITISH ARMS 1842'. On the reverse side of the medal is the head of Queen Victoria.

  1. What differences can you observe between the painting and the scene on this medal?
  2. How might the differences between the two representations be accounted for?
  3. Does either of these images provide historians with evidence of what occurred at the actual signing of the treaty? Explain.
  4. The female figure in the middle represents 'peace' while the female figure blowing the trumpet represents 'triumph'. Why might the British have included these figures on this medal?
  5. Does the image of the commemorative medal suggest that Gladstone was correct in suggesting the war would bring permanent 'disgrace' to Britain?
  6. If neither of these images can be accepted as evidence of what occurred at the meeting then how might they be useful to historians?
Links to the Australian Curriculum

The key concepts of evidence and perspective are further explored and students also use the historical skill of explaining the contextual significance of a source. They investigate different sources about the same event and reflect on the perspective of people at the time.


Image: Triumphant medal (First Opium War), 1842, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Visualizing cultures

Activity 6: Historical interpretation of the Treaty

Task 1: The consequences of defeat

Within forty years of the Macartney mission, Britain had engaged in a war with China and had ended up with the very things she had wanted from the Macartney mission. The terms of the Treaty of Nanking which ended the First Opium War in 1842 are summarised below.

  • Britain forced China to open up five ports to British trade with the freedom of the British to trade with whomever they wished and with British consuls in each of the treaty ports.
  • Tariffs were to be fixed and Britain had to approve of the tariff.
  • China was to pay an indemnity of 21 million silver dollars to Britain as compensation for the destroyed opium and the cost of the war.
  • China was to cede the island of Hong Kong to Britain.
  • British citizens in the treaty ports were to be tried under British law (extraterritoriality).

Before long, other Western powers exacted similar concessions and China was forced to agree to most favoured nation clauses in treaties. (See the glossary for explanations of these terms)

  1. Why has the Treaty of Nanking been called the first of the 'unequal treaties'?
  2. Who gained the most from this treaty?
  3. Were any Chinese likely to benefit? Explain.
  4. Why might this treaty be seen as an economic and political disaster for the Qing dynasty?

Task 2: Summing up

Discuss the idea that the Treaty of Nanking marked a significant turning point in China's relations with the West. The concessions won by Great Britain were to be mirrored in the approaches of other Western powers. The tensions between China and Western nations finally resulted in further military conflict during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

This event could be added to the students' timeline.

Activity 7: From Opium War to Boxer Rebellion

Task 1: Examine a French political cartoon from 1898

Provide students with the cartoon on the right and ask them to describe what is happening and then suggest some questions they might pose about this source. (It is a French cartoon: Chine is the French word for China.) Class discussion should highlight the need for further information to allow a more complete interpretation of the image. The younger woman in the cartoon is the French Marianne, a traditional representation of France in art of the 19th century.

Links to the Australian Curriculum

This task incorporates the two parts of the depth study explanation; the position of the Asian society in relation to other nations in the world around the turn of the twentieth century (ACDSEH142); and the significance of one key event that involved the Asian society and European powers, including different perspectives of the event at the time. (ACDSEH141) Students are also invited to address the historical skill of analysing and interpreting a source and to further their understanding of the historical concept of evidence, recognising that the evidence from a source depends on the context of that source.

Task 2: Establishing context

Provide students with some background on the period during which this cartoon was published. This could include the colonial rivalry among European countries at the turn of the century and the ambitions Western countries had in China. It might also include the apparent impotence of China by the turn of the century in the face of Western pressure. Have students read the following text.

Background information: Western imperial ambitions in China (View full text here)

The losses China suffered … There was little difference from the Chinese point of view between having certain parts of China under the influence of a particular European power compared to having all of them with equal access to China.

Teachers should provide students with the opportunity to complete more of their timeline by recording on it the events mentioned in the contextual information provided.

  1. What does this text indicate about China's ability to confront Western ambitions?
  2. Was the American approach to trade with China likely to be more or less beneficial to China than the approach of European powers?

Task 3: Relating contextual information and the pictorial source

Ask students whether this contextual information answers any of their questions, how it furthers their understanding of the cartoon, and whether the cartoon adequately represents the situation at the time. With this background, students can further elaborate on this source. Class discussion and questions should allow the key aspects of the source to emerge, such as the apparent relationships among the 'nations' at the table, the 'message' of the cartoonist, the way 'France' is depicted and why, and the point of view of the cartoonist.

Students could be asked to reflect on whether any of the nations depicted here is presented in a different light from the others. They might be helped in establishing this by examining the Foreign spheres of influence in China 1904 (PDF 64 KB) showing the spheres of influence of European powers at the turn of the century. They might notice that France is represented on the map with a particular sphere of influence in southern China, which might raise questions about the way France is depicted in the cartoon. She is not 'carving up' China as are Germany and Britain and yet France was a partner with Britain in the Second Opium War against China in 1860.

  1. How 'friendly' towards one another do these 'people' appear to be?
  2. Might there be any significance about the positioning of these people around the table?
  3. Does this cartoon contradict information suggested by the map? Explain.
  4. Why might this artist have created this image?
Background on the author

Teachers might remind students about what caricature as an art form is from earlier lessons. The artist for this caricature was Henri Meyer who worked for a Paris publication called Le petit journal. Caricature had a long and rocky history in European countries. It was a popular form of political commentary, especially in France in the 19th century, but it was also controversial. Countries like France, Germany, Russia, Spain and Italy regularly placed restrictions on caricatures, and caricaturists were imprisoned in these countries.

Artists who drew caricatures of rulers like the Tsar of Russia and the German Kaiser were particular targets of censorship. However, restrictions against caricatures were periodic and restrictions could be revoked and then reimposed. This left feelings of uncertainty about the position of the caricaturist. The instability of French politics in the 19th century increased the uncertainty, and censorship was imposed and then revoked on at least five occasions in France in the 19th century.

Political cartoons can be wonderful sources for the study of history but they are really quite complex texts and have layers of meaning which only an investigation of their construction can unfold. On the surface, this cartoon might appear to be a commentary on the state of China, but there are more complex layers here.

After providing students with this background on the construction of this cartoon, teachers might ask them to rethink the way France is portrayed and why it is portrayed like this. Can this cartoon be used as evidence and if so evidence for what?

Links to the Australian Curriculum

This task reintroduces students to the historical concept of evidence from the historical knowledge and understanding section of the curriculum. This exercise engages students in the historical concept of perspective and the historical skill of identifying and analysing the perspectives of people from the past and explaining the contextual significance of a source. It also reminds students of the historical concept of imperialism. The cartoon raises the issue of the imperial ambitions of the powers depicted and the rivalry among Western powers. It introduces students to the historical knowledge section (ACDSEH142), the position of (China) in relation to other nations in the world around the turn of the twentieth century. It also invites students to evaluate the reliability and usefulness of a source.

Task 4: Interrogating written sources

This downloadable Boxer Rebellion student activity sheet (DOC 139 KB) can be edited. You might like to change some of the sources to tailor it for your students before you have them complete the task. Discuss with them what the quotations might suggest about Western attitudes to China by the 20th century.

Task 5: A Chinese perspective

The 'official' reaction to Western interference in China came from an edict from the Empress Dowager, Cixi (also referred to as Tsu Hsi), to all the provinces of China.

After reading the edict from the source above, teachers could ask students to consider whether Cixi's response was provocative or whether it was reasonable given the circumstances.

Besides the 'official' response, there was also the response from Chinese citizens themselves. One group which aggressively pursued a policy of resistance to Westerners was a secret society called the Society of Righteous Harmonious Fists, or Boxers.

Students should be introduced to some basic background on the Boxers. China had a long history of secret societies and the Society of the Righteous Harmonious Fists was one of several which existed in the latter half of the 19th century. This society was given the name Boxers by Westerners because of their regular practice of martial arts.

Task 6: Establishing background

Background information: the Boxer Rebellion (View full text here)
The Boxers had begun as an anti-Christian/foreign movement in Shandong province … The Boxers attacked the legation and the Empress Dowager took the dangerous step of committing imperial troops to the attack.

The background provides students with an outline of who the Boxers were and what problems they posed for the Qing. Teachers could discuss with students the increasing influence of Westerners in China, particularly missionaries, and the tensions this caused. Students could be encouraged to think about the connections between organisations like the Boxers and depressed conditions for peasants. Peasant unrest is a constant theme in Chinese history and the latter part of the 19th century saw increasing problems for peasants with population expansion putting pressure on land, and natural disasters exacerbating the problems.

Teachers could ask students to consider whether the views of the Boxers might be likely to find support among the majority of Chinese.

Links to the Australian Curriculum

Teachers might mention that the second half of the 19th century also saw a significant migration of Chinese to places like Australia, the United States and Canada. Many of them were poor peasants trying to escape the poverty and starvation in China, attracted first by the gold rushes and then by other opportunities in these countries. This period also saw legislation introduced in these countries aimed directly at preventing further Chinese immigration. This kind of legislation coupled with the opinions expressed in the sources provided might help students understand the problems China faced at the turn of the century.


Image: Henri Meyer, China – the cake of kings and … of emperors, illustration from Le Petit Journal, 1898, public domain

Activity 8: Historical interpretation of the Boxer rebellion

Task 1: Examining a written source – Fei Ch'i-hao: The Boxer Rebellion, 1900

Fei Ch'i-hao was a Chinese Christian from Shansi province in China. This is part of his account of the Boxer Rebellion.

The wicked Governor, Yü Hsien, scattered proclamations broadcast. These stated that the foreign religions overthrew morality and inflamed men to do evil, so now gods and men were stirred up against them, and Heaven's legions had been sent to exterminate the foreign devils. Moreover there were the Boxers, faithful to their sovereign, loyal to their country, determined to unite in wiping out the foreign religion. He also offered a reward to all who killed foreigners, either titles or office or money. When the highest official in the province took such a stand in favour of the Boxers, what could inferior officials do? People and officials bowed to his will, and all who enlisted as Boxers were in high favour. It was a time of license and anarchy, when not only Christians were killed, but hundreds of others against whom individual Boxers had a grudge.
From the Internet Modern history sourcebook, Fordham University
  1. According to this source, what positive points could be made about the Boxers?
  2. What indication is there in this source that the Boxers used violence?
  3. Who were the main targets of the Boxers?
  4. What does this writer's view of the Boxers appear to be?
  5. Does the fact that this author is a Chinese Christian help you understand his views?
  6. How might a historian use a source like this?
Links to the Australian Curriculum

This background information provides the basis for addressing the historical understanding in regard to the significance of one key event that involved (China) and European powers. (ACDSEH141) The Boxer Rebellion was a defining event in the relations between China and the West and the failure of the Boxers increased the vulnerability of the Qing Dynasty. The source study from Fei Ch'i-hao introduces students to one perspective on the Boxers and engages them in the historical skill of using historical terms and concepts and 'explaining the contextual significance of a source'. Students also identify and analyse historical interpretations. This activity addresses the general capability of intercultural understanding as students recognise the conflicts between Christian missionary practices and traditional Chinese culture.

Activity 8: Introducing a media source

Exploring the way history is represented through film is a valid exercise for students. Mass media plays a crucial role in the lives of students today and they have access to a huge range of media forms. Re-creation of historical periods and events has always been a favourite pastime of movie and television executives and the special effects available today give such re-creations even more impact.

Students, however, need to assess such re-creations critically. In particular, film re-creations of a historical event reflect the point of view of the creators of the film and often take into account a particular audience. Films do not necessarily set out to present the historical event objectively or authentically. Their main purpose is to entertain and that may well mean adjusting the narrative for dramatic purposes.

In the 1960s, historically based dramatic films were quite popular and often had big budgets and big name stars. One of these is the film based on the Boxer Rebellion, 55 days in Peking. (See Resources.)

While there may not be time to use the whole film, the first 13 minutes can be quite useful. In this first section, we are introduced to the multi-nation presence in Peking (Beijing) with the flag-raising ceremonies. We are also introduced to the Boxers in several scenes, notably in the court scene and in the scene with the missionary priest. The intrigue and conflict in the Chinese Court over the Boxers are introduced as is the tacit support for the Boxers by the Empress Dowager and Prince Tuan (a bit of Australian flavour with Sir Robert Helpmann taking the part of Prince Tuan). We also witness the murder of the missionary priest by the Boxers, which highlights their anti-Christian stance, and of course the measured and practical approach of the American 'hero' of the movie played by Charlton Heston.

Students could be asked to comment on their views of the way the Chinese, in particular the Boxers, are presented and on the way Americans are presented. They might pose a few questions they would like to ask the director. They might also reflect on the multi-nation presence in Peking and compare this to their understandings of the past century of Chinese/Western relations.

Activity 9: Investigating another visual source

The illustration above right is from the front cover of an American magazine from 1900. Show students the illustration and ask them to describe what they see. Then, show them the image of the statue of the Greek goddess Athena below and have them compare the way the women are presented in the illustration and the statue.

Explain to students that Athena was the patron deity of Athens and that ancient Greek civilisation was seen as the foundation of Western civilisation. Provide students with the caption beneath the illustration on the magazine cover and ask them to suggest what the illustration means:

Civilization (to China) That dragon must be killed before our troubles can be adjusted. If you don't do it I shall have to.

They might comment on the puny size of the Emperor and what this suggests and the way the Boxers are depicted as a kind of dragon with blood dripping from its mouth.

  1. Describe what is happening in the cartoon.
  2. What is meant by the caption, '… if you don't do it I shall have to'?
  3. Who is the intended audience for this illustration?
  4. Does this illustration help us to understand American views on the situation in China? Explain.
  5. What might the purpose of this illustration have been?


Images:  The first duty, front cover illustration of Puck magazine, 1900, public domain; Pallas (Athena). Photo-engraving from 1899 book, of the original marble statue in the Vatican, public domain

Activity 9: Conclusions

Task 1: Consequences of the Boxer Rebellion

The Boxer Rebellion failed to remove foreigners from China and, instead, saw military force again being used by the West to enforce Western policies. The United States did not wish to see an end to the Qing Dynasty in China because it preferred a stable government with which to negotiate and it feared the demise of the Qing would leave a power vacuum that European countries and Japan would be only too willing to fill to the detriment of American interests.

Have students read The Consequences of the Boxer Rebellion, which can be found here. Discuss with students how these events prolonged the Qing Dynasty yet increased its impotence.

One issue historians have debated about the Boxer Rebellion is whether the Boxers were instruments of positive change in China or whether they were detrimental to the interests of China.

  • The revered nationalist leader, Sun Yat-Sen, condemned the Boxers for inciting the people and endangering the country. He saw the Boxers as detrimental to Chinese interests.
  • Some see the Boxers as being instrumental in preventing the further division of China among Western powers as the rebellion revealed that dismembering China just might be too costly. German records indicate the Kaiser was advised that pursuing the dismemberment of China would not work.
  • Some historians, especially Marxists, have seen the Boxers as heroic champions of Chinese anti-imperialism.
  • Many Chinese today see the Boxer movement as the first stage of the democratic revolution in China which finally resulted in the overthrow of the Qing and the establishment of a truly democratic government.
  • Some historians view the Boxer Rebellion as China's first nationalist movement.
  • Some suggest China was already a nation and the Boxers were not really nationalists but rebels who wanted to return China to the past, not bring about a new order
  • Even the terminology has significance. Modern Chinese historians often prefer to describe the event as an 'uprising' not a 'rebellion'. The term 'uprising' in Chinese has more positive overtones of being lifted up, whereas the Chinese symbol for 'rebellion' means chaos and disorder.
Links to the Australian Curriculum

The debates about the significance of the Boxers remind students of the historical understanding of contestability. Historians can approach history from different philosophical viewpoints and different social and political backgrounds. Their understanding of what 'themes' influence historical events will often affect the way they actually interpret these events. This does not make one historian's interpretation more reliable than another's, but students need to be aware that these differences in interpretation exist and are legitimate approaches to understanding the past.

Where the Boxers are concerned, there is likely to be some difference between Western historians and Chinese historians but this does not mean that neither side can agree, nor does it mean that all Western historians are going to be on 'one' side while Chinese historians will be on the 'other'. The Boxer Rebellion could also be used to address the overview statement, the emergence and nature of significant economic, social, and political ideas, including nationalism. The curriculum defines nationalism as the feeling of belonging to a people, a place and a common culture. Since the Chinese had for thousands of years seen themselves in these terms it is debatable whether the Boxer Rebellion could be called a nationalist uprising in terms of the Australian Curriculum: History definition.

For a discussion on the aspect of nationalism see the article A righteous fist on how the Boxers are remembered in China today.

Task 2: Concluding activity

Teachers might have students connect the Boxer Rebellion to their first investigation, the Macartney mission, by examining a comment Lord Macartney made in his diary. Students might discuss what Lord Macartney was suggesting and how prophetic this statement might appear to be.

Comment from Lord Macartney's diary, 1793
The empire of China is an old, crazy, first rate Man of War, which a succession of able and vigilant officers have contrived to keep afloat for these hundred and fifty years past, and to over awe their neighbours merely by her bulk and appearance. But, whenever an insufficient man happens to have the command on deck, adieu to the discipline and safety of the ship. She may, perhaps, not sink outright; she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed to pieces on the shores; but she can never be rebuilt on the bottom ...

Teachers could pose the following question to students:

Based on what you have learned so far about the Boxer Rebellion, what is your view on the significance of the Boxers?

Teacher preparation


As the Australian Curriculum: History is set out, there is a requirement to study an Asian society in years 7 and 8. However, in years 9 and 10, choices available make it possible to ignore Asian societies. For example, in Year 9, one can choose to complete the depth study, 'Making a nation' instead of investigating an Asian society. In Year 10, there is no specific Asian topic, although teachers could use Asian examples in other areas. It is useful to remind ourselves about how essential is the inclusion of Asia. The module Equipping yourself to teach about Asia provides background material on the Asia priority, as well as outlining the responsibility of education professionals like teachers to engage in professional learning.

This professional learning module is designed to assist teachers to develop:

  • an understanding of key aspects of the Australian Curriculum: History
  • an appreciation of the importance of developing Asian literacy in a history programme
  • an understanding of the nature and role of historical literacy
  • an understanding of what historical thinking is and what it might look like in the history classroom
  • an understanding of some key aspects of the history of China/Western interaction from 1750 to 1918

The Asian focus here is China. The Australian Curriculum: History for Year 9 provides an opportunity to investigate one Asian country between 1750 and 1918 and China has been chosen for this module. There are opportunities in years 7 and 8 to investigate China, with Year 7 focusing on ancient China and year 8 on the Mongols, which includes the Mongol control of China.

Professional learning for history teachers should include constant re-assessment of what is happening in their classrooms and how this can be improved so that students engage meaningfully in the process of historical thinking.

Task 1: History teaching and historical thinking

One of the leading writers and thinkers on teaching history so that it has real meaning for students today is the Canadian, Peter Seixas. Your first task is to view a 30-minute video clip where Peter Seixas outlines what he describes as historical thinking. This clip is divided into three 10-minute segments which can be viewed below or on YouTube.

Seixas outlines what he considers the essentials of historical thinking and then he provides examples of student responses to several tasks. As you view these clips try to respond to the following:

  • What does he understand by the term historical consciousness?
  • How does he define historical significance?
  • What does he mean by first order historical concepts?
  • How does he define second order historical concepts?
  • What are the six second order concepts he lists?

Seixas explores in more detail the idea of significance by explaining how he conducted a student activity where students were asked to list what they thought were the most significant events in history. He then explores the responses and the implications of these responses for history teaching.

Once you have completed this viewing, you will notice that five of Seixas' six second order concepts are reflected in the concepts in the Australian Curriculum: History. The curriculum provides a definition of these terms in the Glossary but this definition is limited and in some cases even problematic. The sixth concept, ethical dimensions, occurs in the General capabilities of the Australian Curriculum: History.

Task 2: Historical literacy and the general capabilities

Visit the Historical Thinking Project website where Seixas expands on these concepts and provides examples of tasks which reflect these. Record his definition of historical literacy (click on 'Concepts' to find this and follow links on the right where each of the concepts is explained). Read through them carefully and note down some key words or phrases to help you connect these to the activities in the upcoming unit of work.

Seixas' sixth concept, ethical dimension, is not one of the concepts outlined in the Australian Curriculum: History but it is one of the general capabilities, where it is organised under the following headings:

  • understanding ethical concepts and issues
  • reasoning in decision making and actions
  • exploring values, rights and ethical principles.

See General capabilities in the Australian Curriculum, January 2013; and the General capabilities in the Australian Curriculum: History.

Further worthwhile pre-reading can be found on the National Centre for History Education website. In particular the paper, Historical literacy, will be referred to throughout this unit of work. It is quite lengthy but reading it is a worthwhile exercise.

Task 3: Revise/Renew your China history

One final pre-unit activity you may find worthwhile is a refresher course on China. If you have not studied China yourself or you think you need to brush up on aspects of China's history, the Harvard Extension School: China traditions and transformation provides a series of online lectures on aspects of China’s history. Each lecture is about 50 minutes long and is accompanied by a slide show which appears on your computer screen. The slides advance on your screen as the lecturer presses the advance button. You can select whichever of the various lectures you feel are the most relevant for you. This professional development module focuses on China from 1750 to 1918 so you may decide to focus on those lectures from Harvard.

Curriculum links: Australian Curriculum: History – Asia and the world, Year 9

The key concepts of continuity and change; cause and effect; evidence; perspective; empathy; significance; and contestability are incorporated in this module.

Several of the overview content sections will be incorporated into this depth study. The one which will form the key focus is the extent of European imperial expansion and different responses, including in the Asian region. If your year 9 depth studies do not include the Industrial Revolution, then there is an opportunity to touch on this through the investigation of Chinese/Western relations. A driving force behind the push for trade with China in the 18th and 19th centuries was the desire to sell the products of the recently industrialised West. Teachers may choose to outline some key features of the industrial revolution in this way.

While the Australian Curriculum: History does not include the migration of Chinese in its suggestions in the overview, the nature and extent of the movement of people, there is no reason why Chinese migration in the 19th and early 20th centuries cannot be included as part of this overview. Chinese migration in the second half of the 19th century to places like Australia and America had a significant impact on these societies and led to legislation in both countries to restrict Chinese migration. This migration was influenced by the political, social and economic conditions in China during the last decades of Qing rule.

This module addresses the depth study, Asia and the world, as outlined in the curriculum for Year 9. The teaching and learning sequences will address all sections of Asia and the world as outlined below:

  1. The key features (social, cultural, economic, political) of ONE Asian society (such as China, Japan, India, Dutch East Indies, India) at the start of the period (ACDSEH093)
  2. Change and continuity in the Asian society during this period, including any effects of contact (intended and unintended) with European power(s) (ACDSEH094)
  3. The position of the Asian society in relation to other nations in the world around the turn of the twentieth century (that is 1900), including the influence of key ideas such as nationalism (ACDSEH142)
  4. The significance of ONE key event that involved the Asian society and European power(s), including different perspectives of the event at the time (ACDSEH141)
Overview of the depth study

This depth study is divided into three topics.

Topic 1 (activities 1-3) engages students in an investigation into the British Government's Macartney mission to China in 1793. This section provides a series of source based activities for students, with suggestions for teachers and links to the Australian Curriculum: History identified for each part of the section. Completing this Topic will address Part 1 of the content areas from the curriculum listed above.

Topic 2 (activities 4-6) engages students in an investigation of the First Opium War 1839–1842 and the Treaty of Nanking.

Note: The Treaty of Nanking is a more dated version of Treaty of Nanjing.

Students again investigate the section through a series of source based activities with links to the Australian Curriculum: History identified. Students are invited to examine the changes which have occurred since the Macartney mission and to compare the nature of Qing rule in China and China/Western relations between 1793 and 1842. This section addresses Part 2 of the content areas of the curriculum listed above.

Topic 3 (activities 7-9) engages students in an investigation of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Students analyse sources to explore the causes of the Boxer Rebellion and the consequences, and links to the Australian Curriculum: History are identified. This section addresses parts 3 and 4 of the content areas from the curriculum listed above.

Each section begins with an investigation of a visual source, complemented by written sources and teacher resources. There are suggestions on how the sources could be investigated but teachers may well prefer to devise their own approaches. Teachers may choose to select from the activities provided if time is too short.

Chronological sequencing is one of the requirements of the Australian Curriculum: History document. Because the three sections above are organised as part of a three 'slices of time' approach, teachers may like to have their students keep track of the unfolding events by recording them on a timeline. Using a program like Dipity allows students to use ICT to keep a record of the key events as they go. It is a useful tool and their timelines are done online and can be added to as new events are explored. Teachers might like to add some key events in between the periods investigated. Events in other parts of the world (for example, the date of the first convict arrivals in Australia) might also be added to give students different points of reference.


The Australian Curriculum: History has the following statement about achievement standards by the end of Year 9. The student activities throughout this module will address all aspects of this statement. The final paragraph can be addressed by the assessment task teachers set. For this module, a variety of tasks is possible. Teachers might choose to have students investigate a selection of sources, either seen or unseen, and respond to a question/hypothesis using the sources. Teachers may also choose to have a series of short responses based on questions linked to specific sources. Another choice could be a research assignment where students investigate an event like the Boxer Rebellion in more detail and present their findings in a formal essay or as a multimodal response.

By the end of Year 9, students refer to key events and the actions of individuals and groups to explain patterns of change and continuity over time. They analyse the causes and effects of events and developments and make judgments about their importance. They explain the motives and actions of people at the time. Students explain the significance of these events and developments over the short and long term. They explain different interpretations of the past.

Students sequence events and developments within a chronological framework, with reference to periods of time and their duration. When researching, students develop different kinds of questions to frame an historical inquiry. They interpret, process, analyse and organise information from a range of primary and secondary sources and use it as evidence to answer inquiry questions. Students examine sources to compare different points of view. When evaluating these sources, they analyse origin and purpose, and draw conclusions about their usefulness. They develop their own interpretations about the past.

Students develop texts, particularly explanations and discussions, incorporating historical interpretations. In developing these texts, and organising and presenting their conclusions, they use historical terms and concepts, evidence identified in sources, and they reference these sources.Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA)

Before starting Topic 1, teachers should begin with an orientation task with students such as a KWHL chart on China or just a simple task of doing a quick 'around the class' word suggestion to note any words they immediately associate with China (for example the Great Wall, noodles). This ensures the teaching and learning sequence starts with what the students already know about China. This orientation task might also be directed at helping students reflect on the role of China in world history and the rather prickly topic of China's relationship with the West, the key focus of the teaching and learning sequence.

Teachers could encourage students to suggest a key question to guide an investigation of China/Western relations. Student suggestions could be discussed and an initial question adopted. The question which heads each section can then be seen as a focus question for each section.


A gateway to the teaching and learning of history in Australia's schools – includes the detailed presentation Historical literacy, one of the many useful resources on this Australian site, The National Centre for History Education website,

China: traditions and transformations – an extensive free video lecture course covering Chinese history from earliest to recent times. This is available as a video with accompanying slides as well as audio only. While it is too detailed for year 9 students, it provides excellent background for teachers, Harvard Extension School website,

Dipity – a free digital timeline website,

KWHL chart – an explanation and template, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Victoria website,

The Australian Curriculum: History – Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) website,

The historical thinking project – directed by Peter Seixas at the University of British Columbia, Canada, promotes critical historical literacy and includes many excellent resources for teachers. Seixas has won world recognition for his approach to historical inquiry. This is a must-view site, The Historical Thinking Project website,

'What is the shape and place of historical thinking in high schools?', Peter Seixas' presentation in Québec City at the Association for Canadian Studies Conference, 24 October 2008 is presented in three parts:

More useful websites

Asia for educators – Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University website,

A cornucopia of resources on China and Asia from Columbia University for students and educators at all levels. Make sure you click on Recording the grandeur of the Qing for an impressive education site built around primary sources to explore society and politics during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor.

Chinese account of the Opium War – Internet Archive website,

This is a digital copy of the full text of this 1888 account. Scroll down the page to find excerpts which can be easily produced for use as primary source material.

Territories of dynasties in China – Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia website,

This map of China is an animated gif which shows the progression of territorial control through the dynasties. Students can gain a better appreciation of the extent and power of the Qing by comparing it to the extent of the Ming Dynasty which preceded it.

More print resources

Ropp, Paul S 1990, Heritage of China: contemporary perspectives on Chinese civilization, University of California Press, Los Angeles.

This book contains a number of essays on different aspects of Chinese culture. There is a particularly useful chapter titled 'Western perspectives of China' which teachers would find very helpful for this unit of work. Other chapters are also worth reading. For example the chapter on 'Modern Chinese social history' has much to recommend it for its identification of the changes in Chinese society over the historical period under investigation. While the book was published in 1990 and thus does not make comparisons or observations on most recent Chinese history, it nevertheless is well worth the read for its historical periods, going right back to China's earliest civilisation.

Walker, D 2012, Australia's Asia: from yellow peril to Asian Century, University of Western Australia Press, Western Australia.

A collection of essays on different aspects of Australia's relationship with Asian countries and with Asian communities in Australia. Whilst not dealing directly with the Qing Dynasty, this book is nevertheless useful for its essays on China's problems in the latter part of the 19th century which encouraged the migration of Chinese to America and Australia. There are excellent essays on the Chinese in Australia and the issues relating to immigration and settlement.


It is recommended that teachers preview websites to ensure they are suitable for their students prior to use in class. Content accessed via these links is not owned or controlled by the Asia Education Foundation and is subject to the terms of use of the associated website.


Supplementary documents

Useful websites and resources

Topic 1: The Macartney mission to Peking in 1793

A caricature on Lord Macartney's Embassy to China – James Gillray caricature, Wikimedia Commons

Cranmer-Byng, JL 1963, 'Macartney diaries' in JL Cranmer-Byng (ed), An Embassy to China, Lord Macartney's journal 1793–4, Western Printing Services Limited, Bristol, (p 65).

Historical literacy – National Centre for History Education website

Ignorant gaze: George Macartney's negotiation with China in 1793 – Angela M Zhang thesis submitted in partial fullfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in the Faculty of Graduate Studies (Art History), University of British Columbia April 2010, University of British Columbia website

Excerpts from Macartney's diary are contained in this thesis. Interested teachers may want to read more extensively from this document.

Lord Macartney embasssy to China 1793 – painting by William Alexander, Wikipedia

Qian Long: Letter to George III, 1793 – Modern history sourcebook, Fordham University website. This is quite long and there is also a further mandate from King George III, which is not necessary for the activity.

Topic 2 : The treaty of Nanking 1842

Barrow JH 1840, The mirror of parliament, vol 3, Longman, Orme, Brown, Green & Longmans, UK

Commissioner Lin: letter to Queen Victoria 1839 – full text from the Modern history sourcebook, Fordham University website

Drugs, slaves, guns, a YouTube documentary in two parts about the opium trade, providing an overview of the role of the East India Company and the hostilities between China and Britain:

Names of the principal officers and official gentlemen who are represented in the engraving of the signing and sealing of the Treaty of Nanking – The British Museum collection

The signing and sealing of the Treaty of Nanking – John Platt (painter) and John Burnet (engraver), Wikimedia Commons website

The signing and sealing of the treaty of Nanking – image, Center for digital scholarship, Brown University Library website

This source allows students to view the image in close-up and allows them to zoom in on sections of the image. Click on View Image and then click on the zoom buttons above the image. There is also the capacity to download the image if they need to work offline.

The Triumph of the British Arms – 1842 medal, First Opium War, by Peter C Purdue, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Visualizing culture website

Topic 3: From Opium War to Boxer Rebellion

55 days at Peking – film, 1963, directed by Nicholas Ray and Guy Green, Amazon website

China (Boxer Rebellion), 1900–01 – Australian War Memorial website

China – the cake of kings and … of emperors – Henri Meyer, French political cartoon, from Le petit journal, 1898, Wikimedia Commons website

Fei Ch'i-hao: The Boxer Rebellion – 1900, Modern history sourcebook, Fordham University website

Fists of Righteous Harmony – teaching resources, including the edict of the Empress Dowager Cixi, Small Planet Communications website

Foreign spheres of influence in China 1904 – map, from the Portsmouth Peace Treaty website by the Japan-America Society of New Hampshire

In search of history: China's Boxer rebellion – History Shop website

This documentary is about 40 minutes long. It has a scene of beheaded Boxers so teachers should screen this for suitability before showing students. Comments from people who experienced the events are included, and teachers might like to discuss with students whether the documentary favours one side or the other.

Pallas (Athena) – Pallas Giustiniani, photo-engraving from 1899 of the original marble statue in the Vatican, Wikimedia Commons website

Remembering the Boxer uprising: a righteous fist – article from The economist, 2010, presenting different interpretations of the Boxers in China since 1900 and whether the Boxers were the early forerunners of a nationalist movement in China, The Economist website

The first duty – front cover illustration of Puck magazine, 1900, Library of Congress website

It is recommended that teachers preview websites to ensure they are suitable for their students prior to use in class. Content accessed via these links is not owned or controlled by Asia Education Foundation and is subject to the terms of use of the associated website.

Glossary of terms

Term Explanation
'China proper' China proper refers to provincial China and not the vast Inner Asian territories of the Qing. Over the last 15 years or so, a new historiographic take on the Qing has emerged particularly among US-based historians. This is called "New Qing history" and it problematises the question of the simple equation of the Qing empire with China ie the Qing from this perspective should be conceptualised as a multi-ethnic Eurasian empire (alongside the Romanov and the Ottoman) dominated by an Inner Asian ruling elite, the Manchus and of which Chinese sections were just one part. Some of the tensions in 20th and 21st century Chinese history arise from the claims that Chinese nationalists made after the fall of the Qing to the entirety of this empire and its people ie the making of empire into the Chinese nation. Reference: Rowe, William T. 2009,China's Last Empire: the Great Qing, Harvard University Press
Extraterritoriality This describes the right to have citizens tried under the laws of their country of origin rather than their country of residence. This formed one of the terms of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. Foreign nationals in the foreign enclaves in Chinese ports were to be under the jurisdiction of the laws of their respective countries while others were to be dealt with under Chinese laws. This was very much resented by the Chinese as it removed their sovereignty over parts of their own country. Great Britain and the United States maintained this right up till 1943. Note: the treaty of nanking is also known later as the Treaty of Nanjing
Most favoured nation clauses These are clauses in treaties with China which demanded that any trade favours given to one country were to be extended to the signatory of the treaty. Western countries and Japan placed these demands on China after the Opium Wars. Whatever special favours in trade, such as lower tariffs, were granted to a particular nation had to be extended to the treaty nation. Historians dispute whether such clauses actually prevented wholesale exploitation of weaker states or increased the exploitation.
Open Door Policy The United States was keen to ensure it was not excluded from the lucrative trade with China by treaties the European powers had exacted from China. In 1899 the US Secretary of State, John Hay, called on the powers with interests in China to sign up to an agreement not to prevent others from trading in their sphere of influence in China. The United States wanted to prevent any carving up of China into areas dominated by one power to the exclusion of others. Most European nations did not openly disagree but were reluctant to formalise their viewpoints. Hay took the matter as agreed and proceeded to act as if all nations had agreed.
Spheres of influence These refer to areas of China where one particular Western nation considered it had a particular interest to the exclusion of others. While China was never actually carved up into colonies, with perhaps the exception of Hong Kong and Macao, there were some areas of China where particular nations exercised more influence than other nations and where they considered they had a particular interest to the exclusion of other nations. China resented this situation as it challenged her sovereignty and was considered humiliating.
Unequal treaties This refers to treaties between China and various European powers, as well as Japan (Treaty of Shimonoseki), which demanded privileges from China, particularly trade privileges, and from which China gained nothing. These unequal treaties were resented by China and were seen as an assault on her sovereign rights.
Boxers This was the name given to a secret Chinese society known as Righteous and Harmonious Fists. This group practised martial arts (thus Boxers) and believed they were impervious to the bullets and weapons of Western powers. They were determined to rid China of all foreigners, especially Christian missionaries. Initially they were also anti-Qing, because they saw the Qing Dynasty as foreign (the Qing ruling class was from Manchuria). The Qing tried to stamp them out but the Empress Dowager changed her policy and thought she could use the Boxers to rid China of foreigners. She encouraged their attacks on foreigners and supported them with imperial troops when they attacked the foreign legation in Peking in 1900. Once imperial troops were involved the complexion of the rebellion changed as far as Western powers were concerned. However, the Empress Dowager seems to have resisted total commitment and refused to allow the heavy artillery of the imperial army to be used, perhaps a concern that it might fall into the hands of the Boxers and be used against the Qing. Even after the Empress Dowager gave her support to the Boxers, provincial governors in parts of China still continued their resistance to the Boxers.
Empress Dowager The term 'dowager' is used to refer to the wife of a deceased monarch who acts as regent for the heir until he is old enough to assume control himself. Cixi (also referred to as Tsu Hsi) was originally a concubine of the Xianfeng Emperor and bore a son, the only male heir. The Tongzhi Emperor was too young when his father died in 1861 so Cixi became regent and removed a group of advisers her husband had nominated to assist the young Emperor. Against all protocol, she nominated her nephew as heir and continued her regency when the Tongzhi Emperor died. She managed to retain control of China until her death in 1908. She has been both reviled and praised for her role in Chinese history. Some see her as a manipulative and evil woman with no concern for China beyond retaining power for herself, and on whom much of the blame for the fall of the Qing Dynasty should fall. Others, particularly more recently, see her as a clever and astute woman who managed to hold China together as one nation against unsurmountable odds and who was no more ruthless than any other ruler in similar circumstances.
Second Opium War The Second Opium War 1856–1860 pitted the Chinese against both Britain and France. The Treaty of Tientsin which ended the war resulted in more humiliation and more payments from China. The Russians were able to force a permanent presence in Beijing from the Qing. The Summer Palace was looted and destroyed and there were even suggestions the Forbidden City should be destroyed. The British, in particular, were furious that their envoy, Harry Parkes, and his entourage had been imprisoned, tortured and killed. The Treaty of Tientsin, agreed to in 1858 but not ratified by the Qing until 1860, granted Britain, France and Russia a permanent diplomatic presence in Beijing, forcing the Qing to recognise these powers as equals. It was not long before other nations followed and established a permanent presence in Beijing. China was also forced to pay a huge indemnity and opium was legalised.
Taiping Rebellion The Taiping Rebellion 1850–1864 saw significant parts of southern China under the control of rebels led by a man who claimed to be the brother of Jesus. The Taipings established a virtual state within the state of China, and throughout this period Qing forces constantly besieged the rebels with their centre of power in Nanjing. It was the deadliest civil war in history with at least 20 million people losing their lives. The Qing finally ended the rebellion with the help of French and British forces.
First Sino-Japanese War The Sino–Japanese War 1894–1895, fought between Japan and China, was over the future of Korea. Korea was a long-time vassal state of China but the weakness Japan saw in China as a result of the opium wars made Japan wary of any foreign power gaining a foothold in Korea. Japan had been undergoing rapid modernisation under the Meiji Emperor and she was intent on protecting her own economic and military interests in the region. Unrest and local rebellions in Korea brought about both Chinese and Japanese intervention. Hostilities between the two countries finally broke out and China was soundly defeated by the modernised Japanese military. It was a humiliating loss for China and there were strong protests throughout China at the loss of one of her traditional vassal states. The defeat intensified resentment against the Qing in parts of China and intensified anti-Japanese feelings in China. This resentment towards Japan increased when Japan was given control over Germany's former sphere of influence in China by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I.
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