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CHINA – YUNNAN: Notice sur le Yunnan rédigée par l’État-Major des troupes de l’Indo-Chine (15 décembre 1899). [accompanied by:] Note sur la possibilité d’une action militaire anglaise au Yunnan.

Extremely rare – two related works bound together authored by the General Staff of the French Army in Indochina, providing a fascinating analysis of one of the great geopolitical concerns of the fin de siècle era, being the rival French and British designs to control Yunnan, the last major wealthy Chinese province not be exploited by foreign powers: the highly detailed work provides a stellar overview of the current state of play in Yunnan and the local strength of the Chinese Army, while assessing the feasibility of France or Britain mounting a military invasion of the province; brilliant works of military intelligence, illustrated by 8 original coloured maps/diagrams, published in Hanoi by the city’s leading commercial printer, FrançoisHenri Schneider.


4° (27 x 18 cm) – 2 works bound in 1 with separate titles: Notice sur le Yunnan: [2 pp.], 86 pp., [2 pp.], plus 7 folding colour lithographed plates (6 maps, 1 profile chart); Note sur la possibilité: [1 f.], [2 pp.], 12 pp., plus 1 folding colour lithographed map; bound in original black cloth with gilt debossed spine (Very Good, text with very light even toning, small marginal tears to 2 leaves not affecting text, maps with small tears at hinges with no loss and old repairs from verso, binding worn and stained with some splitting at head and tail of spine but overall holding firm).

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Yunnan, China’s most southwesterly province, has long been a land of great bounty.  Located at the headwaters of the region’s great rivers, its deep fertile valleys produced vast harvests of cash corps (Yunnan is “the birthplace of tea”), while its hills were rich in minerals.  China’s most ethnically diverse province, it is home to at least 25 distinct ethnic groups, and today at least 38% of its population is other than Han Chinese (traditionally this percentage was higher).


During the late 19th century, Yunnan was seen by European powers as the last great largely untapped market in China, with many resources to acquire and a large internal consumer base who could buy European manufactured goods.  France’s conquest of Tonkin (northern Vietnam) in 1886 and Britain’s takeover of northern Burma in 1885, gave both of these rival powers direct borders with Yunnan, so jumpstarting a Anglo-French rivalry to be the first to exploit (if not control) the province.


However, there were forbidding barriers to entry.  Yunnan’s terrain, and most of the approaches to it, were incredibly rugged, and traversed only by very poor infrastructure.  Moreover, China’s relations with both Britain and France were strained, to say the least.  France successfully countered a Chinese attempt to prevent its takeover of Tonkin during the Sino-French War (1884-5), leaving much bad blood, while in 1898, the European powers forced China by gunpoint to grant them major territorial and trading concessions.  Moreover, Yunnan was politically unstable, with many of its ethnic groups resentful of Chinese rule.  A mass insurrection by the Muslim Hui people, the Du Wenxiu Rebellion, or Panthay Rebellion (1856–1873), had cost the lives of 2 million people, and while suppressed, it had permanently weakened Chinese authority in the province.  Naturally, the Chinese Army in Yunnan was on alert for both Western and internal threats, negating the possibility of any stealth interventions by France or Britain.


Yet, despite the difficulties, France and Britain embarked upon a race to gain the upper hand in Yunnan, in one of the last high-stakes Anglo-French geopolitical contests before the two powers ‘buried the hatchet’ upon the signing of the Entente Cordiale (1904).


The Present Work(s) in Focus


Present here, are two related works, bound together, written by the État-Major des Troupes de L’indo-Chine (The General Staff of the French Army in Indochina), that present a fascinating analysis of the current state of Yunnan and all the factors that would mitigate any possible French or British interventions in Yunnan.  Taken together, they represent one of the most fascinating and insightful works of military intelligence on what was at the end of the 19th century one of the great geopolitical questions.  Richly illustrated with original and attractive coloured maps, the works were pushed by FrançoisHenri Schneider (1851-1929/30), the Hanoi printer who was by far and away the preeminent commercial publisher in northern Vietnam.  While his enterprise produced all manner of books, maps and pamphlets, it was most famous for the lavishly illustrated magazine, Revue Indo-Chinoise (issued from 1893 to 1928), which was one of the most influential and high-quality periodicals in Southeast Asia. 



Turning to the first work, Notice sur le Yunnan rédigée par l’État-Major des troupes de l’Indo-Chine (15 décembre 1899), it provides a meticulous overview of the province’s history and the state of play as it was in 1899, while providing an incredibly detailed analysis of the all the factors relevant to possible interventions by France or Britain.


The work is divided into orderly thematic sections and is illustrated by 7 colour plates (6 maps and 1 profile chart).  Opening topics include I. Orography (pp. 1-3); II. Hydrography – Climate (pp. 4-7); and III. Races – Religions (pp. 8-19), discussing the Chinese, Aboriginal, and the Frontier peoples, as well as their religions (Buddhist, Muslim, Christian); and IV. Administration (pp. 20-3), noting the government system from the Chinese Viceroy down to the control of the province’s 20 prefectures, while also discussing the telegraph system and its use of Chinese characters (these sections relate to Plate 4 below).


Critical to any foreign design to intervene in Yunnan, is V. Productions – Commerce – Routes of Communication (pp. 24-36), that discusses the province’s I. Agriculture, mining and fauna; II. Commerce, industries and trade, weights and measures, banks, customs, crops, and minerals: and, crucially, III. Commercial Routes, describing the major established trade routes into Yunnan from Central China, Canton, Tonkin, Tibet, and Burma, including itinerary details, such as the number of days of march between points (this section relates to Plate 1 below).


Perhaps the most interesting and important section is VI. Army (pp. 37-61), which provides an in-depth analysis of the organization, strength and disposition of the Chinese Army in Yunnan, including the names of brigade commanders, and details on militias and frontier forces.  A long running chart (pp. 50-61) lists all the Chinese Army bases and outposts in Yunnan, along with their troop strengths, details on their defenses and notes, etc.


In VII. History (pp. 62-9), Yunnan’s past is surveyed, noting that the province was not comprehensively colonized by Han Chinese until the Ming Dynasty.  There is also a detailed discussion of the recent Du Wenxiu Rebellion / Panthay Rebellion (this section relates to Plate 3 below).


The section VIII. Explorations (pp. 70-5), describes the experiences of the early European visitors to Yunnan, from Marco Polo to the Jesuit missionaries (1714-8), before detailing the recent trips to the province, since 1860, conducted by French, British and German explorers.  Of note, was the 1895 diplomatic trip by Monsieur Bonin, the French Vice-Resident in Tonkin, and a mission by the Lyon Chamber of Commerce in 1895-6.


In IX. Connections between Yunnan and Tonkin – Routes of Penetration (pp. 76-86), it is noted that the boundary between Yunnan and Tonkin had been agreed by China and France by treaties in 1887 and 1895 and was officially demarcated by a joint commission in 1897.  The most viable river and land routes between Tonkin and Yunnan are described in detail.  Importantly, it is mentioned that since 1897 France had a concession to build a railway from Tonkin to Yunnan (which would result in the Yunnan Railway, completed in 1910) (this section relates to Plates 5,6, and 7 below).


The work is illustrated by 7 excellent plates, as follows:


No. 1: Routes commerciales du Yunnan. (35 x 44 cm). This map shows Yunnan within its greater geographic context, detailing the major travel routes into the province.


No. 2: Croquis schématique de divisions militaires. (34 x 44 cm). This map details the military organization of the Chinese Army in Yunnan.


No. 3: Croquis pour server à l’histoire du Yunnan. (35.5 x 43.5 cm). This map shows important historical locations in Yunnan.


No. 4: Itinéraires des principaux explorateurs. (35.5 x 43 cm). This map depicts the itineraries of major European exploring expeditions in Yunnan.


No. 5: Croquis au 500.000e de la frontière du Yunnan et du Tonkin. (39.5 x 76.5 cm). This large map details the Tonkin-Yunnan borderlands, noting the locations of transport routes and French and Chinese outposts.


No. 6: Routes conduisant de la vallée du fleuve Rouge à Mong-tzé. (34 x 21.5 cm). This map shows the various travel routes near the Red River valley from the Lao Cai, Tonkin to Mongtze, Yunnan.


No. 7: Profil de la voie ferrée entre le fleuve Rouge à Mong-tzé. (34.5 x 19.5 cm).  This profile chart shows the elevation of the route from the Red River up to Mongtze, Yunnan.



The second work, Note sur la possibilité d’une action militaire anglaise au Yunnan, assesses the possibility and feasibility of any British invasion of Yunnan.  Since the British conquest of Northern Burma in 1885, Whitehall had actively considered invading Yunnan, using some contrived pretext (ex. a boundary dispute, or a false flag operation) to send troops across the frontier.  While most of the border between Burma and Yunnan was settled, China still claimed the ‘Irrawaddy Triangle’, a sliver of territory that British considered to firmly be part of Burma, so providing the root of a ‘convenient’ dispute.  However, the terrain along the Yunnan-Burma borderlands was incredibly rugged and there were no good passes leading through the mountains into the heartland of Yunnan.  By 1899, the northern head of the railways in Burma only extended as far as Myitkyina, distant from the Yunnan frontier.  Thus, any British invasion force would be vulnerable to ambushes and would have to maintain long supply lines in difficult conditions.


Importantly, it must also be considered that Britain was heavily distracted by the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), which compelled it to redirect troops and resources from India that could otherwise be used for an invasion of Yunnan.  Moreover, the war in South Africa ensured that British policymakers were hesitant to take on any risky ventures elsewhere.


The present work commences with a long passage written by an anonymous British author, only identified by the initials ‘W.M.’, originally published in the Rangoon Gazette (July 6, 1900).  W.M. relates a trip he made from Manhao, Burma to the Yunnan border, an itinerary that took 12 days.  The author opined that it was easier for Britain to invade Yunnan from Burma that it was for France to invade the same from Tonkin.  The reasons for this were that the Chinese Army maintained a larger force in the east, near Tonkin, than it did near the Burmese frontier, while the borderlands near Burma were inhabited by Hui Muslims who disliked the Chinese and would likely support any British invasion force.  The author concludes by advocating for a British invasion, writing “In sum, it is to be hoped that England will not remain behind in Yunnan, in spite of the presence of a French expedition”.


There then follows a commentary by the French editor of the present work that notes that while Britain recently declined to extend the railway head in Burma northward towards Yunnan (owing to the cost), it was clear that Whitehall was still highly interested in mounting an invasion, writing that “The events in China make this question all its topicality. We cannot foresee what complications will come out of it, but there is no need to prophet to say that the English will take advantage of this to establish their influence in the upper Yangtze valley and in the Szechuan”.  It continues that “there would be nothing surprising in their attempting military action on the western part of Yunnan and Szechuan from Burma, whatever difficulties it might encounter…” and that “they would be able to act without attracting too much attention form the other powers” (p. 3).


There then follows a detailed account of the best route for a British force to follow from Rangoon, Burma to ‘Yunnan-sen’ (Kunming), the capital of Yunnan, illustrated by a side profile of part of the route supplied by the recent Lyonnais commercial mission to Yunnan.


The British military establishment in Burma was heavily dependent upon the army of the Madras District of India.  It is known that Britain had recently deployed from the Madras District 10,000 troops to South Africa and 12,000 to coastal China, such that the overall force was at reduced strength.  As for the available British forces already in Burma, it is recorded that in the entire country British infantry numbered 4,016 troops, Native Infantry had 7,515 men, there were 868 artillery pieces, the engineering corps had 419 members, while the police force numbered 14,681 men, all for a total manpower count of 30,336.


The writer opines that Britain has enough British Infantry already present in Burma, but not enough artillery (which would have to be supplemented from Madras) to mount a “small expedition” to Yunnan.  It is thought that Britain would need at least 2,000 British infantry and 4,000 Indigenous troops to mount an invasion; however, as there were few resources on the ground beyond Tali, Yunnan, such that the British would have to maintain a 480 km-long supply line.  Such an endeavour “would absorb the full forces of Burma”, such that the security of the country would be left to the police force.  It notes that the “the conclusion drawn from the above it that an English military action in Yunnan is possible”.


The work is illustrated by an attractive map, Carte militaire de la Birmanie (45.5 x 33 cm), that details British troop strength in Burma and the main transportation routes from there into Yunnan.




As it turned out, although Britain seriously considered invading Yunnan, these plans were shelved.  The tremendous pressures from the ongoing Second Anglo-Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion (November 1899 to September 1901), whereby Britain and its allied forces had to attack Beijing, distracted British policymakers from the Yunnan question.  This allowed France to step into the void.  From 1904 to 1910, France built the Yunnan Railway, which ran for 855 km from Haiphong to Kunming.  France this gained control of the only rapid transport route into the heart of Yunnan, and so reaped the spoils, becoming the preeminent foreign player in the province until World War II. 


A Note on Rarity


The present work is extremely rare. We can trace only 3 institutional examples, held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France, University of Washington (Tateuchi East Asia Library), and the Josai University Library (Tokyo).  Moreover, we are not aware of any sales records for any other examples going back at least a generation.


References: Bibliothèque nationale de France: 4-O2L-253; University of Washington (Tateuchi East Asia Library): DS515 .A2 1900; OCLC: 21125888, 460560611, 1227360504; (ref. to the Notice sur le Yunnanonly:) Henri CORDIER, Bibliotheca sinica: Dictionnaire bibliographique des ouvrages relatifs à l’Empire chinois, toms. 1-2 (Paris, 1904), p. 319; (ref. to Note sur la possibilitéonly:) Bulletin de la Société de géographie et d’études coloniales de Marseille, tom. 25, (1901), p. 104.

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