The Chinese signed very few treaties with other nations before the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Generally, nations sent embassies to China and bowed down before the Son of Heaven, acknowledging the Chinese emperor as the most important ruler in the world, above all other national leaders.
One of the very few treaties the Chinese signed with an equal nation, was the treaty of Nerchinsk, agreed to by the Qing under the Kangxi Emperor and the Russian Czar, Peter the Great in 1689. The two leaders did not meet, the agreement was made by two delegations with Jesuit priests acting as go-betweens and communicating in Latin. The border agreed to in 1689 was far north of the current border between Russia and China, specifically, the border was delineated by mountains which ran north of the Amur River, a full 850 north of the border today. For details on this and other matters relating to the Kangxi Emperor’s conquest of “the west”, see Peter Perdue’s great book China Marches West.
Why is the current border different? What changed? Normally borders change because the two nations fought a war, and one lost. But Russia and China did not fight any wars, they never have. The other reason why borders change is because one nation sells off land it no longer needs, in exchange for something valuable. This is the reason.
The Qing had three main reasons for giving up this land. First, they didn’t care about this part of their empire. The few people who lived here were called “Wild Jurchens”. They were primitive hunters who still followed ancient shamanistic traditions. A wonderful film was made about the Russian exploration of this region by the great Japanese director Kurosawa, called Derzu Usala. It is based on the real story of the Russian explorer, Vladimir Arsenyev.
Second, this entire region was considered the “home land of the Manchu” (not actually true) and none but the natives were allowed to live in this region. No Chinese were given permission to move here and set up businesses. This was officially part of the Manchu exclusion zone. But the Manchu who ruled China wanted to live IN China, so the region gradually lost nearly its entire population.
Third, the Qing did not care about sea ports on the Pacific, nor about trade with America (or even Japan). So the land the Russians were interested in was nearly empty, produced no income and the Qing government had made no effort to develop it. It was easy for them to sell it.
Starting in 1850, the Russians decided they wanted a port on their eastern coast of Siberia. However, due to the Treaty of Nerchinsk, the Russians had no suitable ports in Siberia. Due to an accident of geography, no natural harbors can be found north of the mouth of the Amur river, all the way up to the Bering Straits. The best port would be ice-free, with deep water close to shore, and with a protected bay. The modern city of Vladivostok is just such a place, but it was 830 miles south of the Russian-Chinese border.
The Russians explored the Amur river starting in 1852 and found that the mouth of the river might be suitable for some smaller oceanic boats. They then started ignoring the treaty of Nerchinsk and began building settlements along the Amur River. The Qing official in charge of the region, with his tiny, ill-equipped military force, failed to notice this was going on for several years. Finally, he and his small detachment met with the Russian commander and he signed, under duress, what is now called the Treaty of Aigun. Even now, 150 years later, it is unclear if the Manchu governor had the authority to sign away 300,000 square miles of land which was previously inside the Qing border. Whether this treaty was ever sent to the Emperor in Beijing is unclear.
The Qing government had no great desire to give up this region north of the Amur to Russia but they were weak and they were distracted. The Taiping Rebellion was the catalyst for the change. The rebellion, a massive, 14 year civil war, nearly destroyed the ruling Manchu government of China. In 1858, the Manchu government was making little progress in defeating the Taiping, and so the Russians in Beijing made an offer: 8,000 rifles, 8 cannons, and the aid of 500 Russian navy on gunboats in exchange for not just the land north of the Amur, but all the land south to Vladivostok. In all, more than 600,000 square miles.
The land the Russians wanted was more than six times the size of Korea, more than 600,000 square miles (three times as big as Texas, about the same size as Alaska). In America in the 1860s, you could by a Sharps Repeating Rifle for around $20. During the Civil War, the USA mass-produced about 100,000 of these magnificent rifles. So, 8,000 Russian rifles were worth perhaps $250,000. The eight cannons might have been worth $5,000 each, depending on their size and how modern they were. All told the Russians were offering goods worth no more than $300,000 for land equal in size to California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Idaho, and Arizona put together.
Naturally, the Chinese did not agree to this deal.
But by the end of 1860, the situation was desperate for the Qing government. In the summer of 1860, the British and the French destroyed the Taku Forts which protected the capital, Beijing, from a sea invasion. Then they utterly defeated the combined Manchu-Mongol army just 20 miles from Beijing at the battle of Tongzhou. This was a devastating defeat for the Qing and the Emperor fled Beijing to a hunting lodge 150 miles north of the capital. But that wasn’t all. At nearly the same time, the Taiping destroyed the massive Qing armies which had been besieging their capital city of Nanjing for six years and they conquered the important Chinese coastal cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou. By the fall of 1860, the Qing had almost no functional military left and they had to sign a peace treaty with England and France, promising to pay 16 million taels of silver, at a time when they were bankrupt.
The Russian envoy, the remarkably clever Nikolay Ignatyev, secretly offered the same deal from two years earlier. 8,000 rifles, 8 cannons, in exchange for all the land north of the Amur, as well as all the land down to Vladivostok. Now, Russia was not involved with the British and the French attack on China and he came to Beijing as a supposedly helpful mediator between the two sides. When he proposed this deal to the Qing government, they agreed.
The deal was absurdly unequal. $300,000 dollars worth of military small weapons in exchange for more than 600,000 square miles of land? Again, Russia was not involved in the war, Russia had not harmed the Qing State since 1689, but neither had they helped the Manchu government (of course, the Qing had never asked for help!). The Louisiana Purchase was considered a steal at $18 per square mile. This deal was 40 times MORE favorable to the Russians than the Louisiana Purchase was for the Americans.
The moral of this story: the Qing Dynasty was on its last legs in 1860. They should have collapsed but didn’t. Instead, through luck and the dedicated efforts of men like Zeng Guofan, they beat the Taiping and clung on to power for an additional 60 years. The Qing saw little interest in trade or in developing sea power, and the northern lands were so uninteresting to them, that they essentially gave them away. It is curious that this sale of 600,000 square miles of eastern Siberia to Russia is so little known today. But Russia benefited from it, and China lost very little that they cared about so… no harm, no foul?