The Second Opium War began in 1856 for reasons just as petty as the first war. The Chinese had still not allowed the British to enter the city of Canton—though they allowed them to trade outside the city walls—because of a disagreement over the translated language in the Treaty of Nanking. Despite protests, the Chinese held firm on this and the inconvenience and indignity rankled the British. One day Chinese police boarded an improperly registered British boat (that did not have the required British flag flying) and took twelve Chinese citizens into custody, including three well-known pirates that the British merchant had hired. The British official complained that the Chinese were not allowed to board a British boat and the men were returned. But, seeing an opportunity to push the thorny issue of foreigners being banned from entering the city of Canton, the British officer demanded a written apology. When the Chinese refused, British gunboats opened fire on Canton starting the Second Opium War (Beeching 217). The real reason for the British reopening the war was that they wanted to force a more favorable revision of the Treaty of Nanking, and this time the French and Japanese piled on.
Just as in the First Opium War, European military technology proved too much for the Chinese. The British quickly destroyed the Chinese fleet at Canton and took the city. Some Chinese generals thought that they could beat the combined British and French forces if they lured them inland away from their indomitable gunboats. But European forces crushed the Chinese forts and inland armies with superior fire power and moved to Peking. The young, scared Emperor fled to a hunting lodge a hundred miles north of the capital. (Beeching 298). The prince who was left in charge to defend Peking took foreign ambassadors hostage when they came to negotiate. French and British armies numbered only 3500 against 20,000 Chinese soldiers (Beeching 300). Europeans had cavalry, disciplined professional soldiers, and the new breach loading Enfield rifles. In contrast, the Chinese used cavalry armed with bows and arrows. In one major battle there were 35 European casualties to 1500 Chinese (Beeching 305).
When the British and French forces arrived in Peking, they looted and destroyed the most precious royal treasure. The Summer Palace was an amazing eighty square miles of meticulously planned park, buildings, and artistic treasures, including gold, silver, jade, silk, and ancient royal robes and thrones. The French and British troops plundered it all (Beeching 316-318). Ironically, the thousands of looters missed the biggest prizes, perhaps because they were hiding in plain site—two enormous lion statues that were assumed to be cheap brass were actually solid gold (Beeching 321). After the looting, the European armies burned down the Summer Palace. New treaties forced China to open up to more free trade and Christian missionaries.