Treaties with the Russians

To the Chinese, the Russians were not Europeans as much as yet another Asian tribe that made trouble for them on their northern frontier. This was particularly the case from the 1640s onward when Russia’s imperial expansion through Siberia took them all the way to the Amur river basin, an area just north of the Manchu heartlands. Once they had conquered all of China in the 1680s, the Manchus decided to deal with this threat. It was clearly impossible for Russia to militarily defend a territory this far away from Moscow and in 1685 the Chinese forced them to back off. The two countries concluded a treaty, signed at Nerchinsk in 1689, which established a common border between them. In exchange for territorial concessions, the Russians obtained access to Chinese markets and the right to establish a Russian church in Beijing.

The official version of the Treaty of Nerchinsk was written in Latin, with translations made into Russian and Manchu. Interestingly, there was no official Chinese text, and there were no Confucian scholars present at the negotiations. Throughout the talks, the Chinese treated the Russians with a surprising amount of respect. The tents of the two delegations were, for example, placed next to each other to symbolize their equal status, and the treaty itself made no reference to the Russians as tribute bearers to the Chinese emperors. These concessions may indeed be a reason why the treaty never was translated into Chinese. The Manchu rulers wanted peace on their northern borders but they were not prepared to publicly renounce their belief in China’s preeminence over its neighbors.

A further treaty between China and Russia was signed at Kyakhta in 1727. Here the earlier border was confirmed and new borders were drawn up which separated Mongolia, now under Chinese control, from Russia. The treaty led to a revival of the caravan trade – the Russians buying Chinese tea in exchange for furs. This was the first time the new science of cartography, emphasizing the exact representation of territory, was used in this part of the world.


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