Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 4: Imperialism and the Open Door

Created March 10, 2011


The Lesson


Imperialism and the Open Door: John Hay

John Milton Hay (October 8, 1838 – July 1, 1905)

Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 1899 and 1900, Secretary of State John Hay issued what became known as the Open Door Notes to foreign powers involved in China. Secretary Hay called on those powers to respect the rights of each other, to agree to an open market and equal trading opportunities for merchants of all nationalities, and to respect the territorial and administrative integrity of China. The Open Door Notes were an important step in the process by which the United States emerged as a global power and developed a distinctive and expansive set of interests in East Asia. In this lesson, students will explore the impact of these notes on both America and foreign countries.

Guiding Questions

What purpose did the Open Door Notes serve for American Foreign Policy?

Learning Objectives

  • Analyze the short-term successes and failures of the Open Door Notes
  • Explain the key events surrounding the Open Door Notes
  • Identify key figures and terms associated with the Open Door Notes


From the time of the American Revolution, American policymakers placed a high priority on obtaining access to foreign markets, typically seeking the status of “most favored nation.” The United States did not seek preferential treatment for American businesses, but it did not want foreign governments to discriminate in favor of other nations. At times, as in the case of Korea and Japan, the United States actively, even aggressively, sought to open trade with nations hitherto closed to foreign powers. In 1844, following the earlier example of Britain, the United States signed the Treaty of Wanghia (Wangxia) with China, gaining trading privileges and the right of extraterritoriality (exemption of American citizens from Chinese courts).

During the latter half of the 19th century, the Chinese market, home to one-quarter of the world’s population, seemed in jeopardy. The ruling Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty had been in decline for over a century. It had been forced to sign disadvantageous arrangements -- “unequal treaties” – with various foreign powers. By 1899, Britain, France, Germany, Japan and Russia claimed spheres of influence within China in which they exercised exclusive economic and political rights. These great powers appeared on the verge of partitioning and colonizing the once-fabled Empire.  

Although American trade with China was quite small, perhaps one percent of overall U.S. commerce, the potential seemed enormous. In one widely-cited example, if Americans could sell just one shirt (or pair of shoes) per year to each person in China, U.S. factories would hum forever.  Businesses with interests in China lobbied the U.S. government to support access. Ordinary Americans, with their traditional revulsion against European imperialism, were generally sympathetic to the plight of the Chinese. Many Protestants held a special affection for China because of extensive U.S. missionary activity there. President McKinley and Secretary of State John Hay feared that the dissolution of China under foreign pressure would lead not only to the exclusion of American trade, but also to an imperial scramble for Chinese territory that would upset the world balance of power. The recent annexation of Hawaii and acquisition of the Philippines gave the United States an advanced strategic position on which to base a more assertive policy in Asia.  

The McKinley administration, however, had neither the inclination nor the ability to go to war to protect American interests in China. The U.S. Army was tied down with a growing insurrection against American rule in the Philippines. The United States did not want to claim for itself a sphere of influence in China or to join in the partition of the Empire. Nor did Hay believe it feasible politically to cooperate directly with Britain, which for decades had been the strongest advocate of equal opportunity for trade in China. In September 1899, Hay set out American policy through a diplomatic note to Great Britain, Germany, and Russia. Later notes were also sent to Japan, Italy, and France. Hay advocated the “Open Door” for all nations in China, based on three principles: (1) no power would interfere with the trading rights of other nations within its sphere of influence; (2) Chinese tariff duties (which gave most favored nation rights to the United States) should be collected by Chinese officials; and (3) no power should levy discriminatory harbor dues or railroad charges against other powers within its sphere. Hay carefully limited the Open Door in place and scope. In response, Britain and the other powers evaded, equivocated or agreed only with conditions. Hay nevertheless claimed that all the powers had accepted the American proposals and that he considered their assent to be “final and definitive.”  

The Chinese crisis reached a more dangerous phase the following year. In May 1900, a secret patriotic society, the Fists of Righteous Harmony (the “Boxers”), attempted to overthrow the imperial dynasty and expel the “foreign devils.” Behind the scenes the Empress Dowager, Cixi (Tzu Hsi), tried to harness the Boxers and nationalist resentment for her own purposes. In June she declared war herself against the foreigners. The Boxers killed several hundred foreigners, including leading U.S. missionaries and the German minister, and many Chinese Christians. They laid siege to the foreign legations in Beijing (Peking) and cut the city off from the outside world. The Western powers and Japan deployed a joint military force to relieve Beijing, and demanded that the Chinese government compensate them for loss of life and property. McKinley and Hay feared that the Boxer Rebellion would provide the final excuse for the intervening powers to destroy Chinese sovereignty.

The United States itself dispatched several thousand troops from the Philippines to aid the expedition, which successfully relieved Beijing in August 1900. This unusual American contribution to an international military force was designed to buttress Hay’s diplomatic objectives, which now expanded considerably. He aimed to prevent the spread of war, limit the extent of outside intervention, assure the rapid withdrawal of foreign troops, and restrain punitive demands on China. On July 3, Hay issued what became known as his Second Open Door Note to the intervening powers.  The policy of the United States was “to seek a solution which may bring about permanent safety and peace to China,  preserve the Chinese territorial and administrative entity,” and protect the Open Door throughout the entire empire, not just in the spheres of influence. The United States, significantly, now identified the political integrity of China, and not just American access to Chinese markets, as one of its key policy objectives.  

Only Great Britain, France and Germany responded favorably to Hay’s circular; but American pressure helped persuade the intervening powers to accept a monetary rather than territorial indemnity from China. The United States eventually returned a substantial portion of its indemnity (originally set at $25 million), which the Chinese government placed in trust for the education of Chinese youth in their own country and in the United States.

The McKinley administration, and most Americans, prided themselves on the principles of the Open Door. They contrasted America’s high-minded actions in China with the rapacious behavior of other great powers. But as always, the situation on the ground was more complicated. The scramble for special foreign concessions in China continued for years thereafter.  The enormous China market that would supposedly fuel American prosperity proved to be a myth. Trade remained small. The United States invested its prestige and diplomatic capital for what turned out to be relatively modest material benefits. America also expanded its economic interest in an Open Door into a declared political-strategic interest in the territorial integrity of China; but over the ensuring decades the United States did not develop credible means to defend its expanded commitments in China and East Asia, including the Philippines. In proclaiming the Open Door, the United States acted in what it believed were the best interests of the Chinese people – but it did so without consulting Chinese authorities and undermined the imperial regime’s preferred strategy of playing foreign powers off against each another. Secretary Hay and other American officials quite reasonably questioned the intentions and viability the Chinese government. But even those Chinese who admired the United States often resented what they regarded as America’s paternalistic attitude. They were also put off by legal and social discrimination against those of those of Asian descent by the United States (an issue that also seriously threatened U.S.-Japanese relations). The Open Door, then and now, is not always welcomed by those who are behind the door. America’s policy towards China, well-intentioned and not without benefit to the Chinese people, was not immune to the demands of self-interest and the contradictions of international politics.

Preparation Instructions

Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF.

Download the Text Document for this lesson (available here as a PDF Document). This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the various activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.

Most importantly, review the web interactive and familiarize yourself with both the format and content of the site. In addition, if your students need assistance with primary source documents, the following EDSITEment-reviewed websites may be useful:

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. A Divided China

For well over a century, the major European imperial powers, Japan, and the United States had sought access to Chinese markets. Americans also promoted missionary and humanitarian activities there and elsewhere in Asia. By the turn of the 20th century, the United States judged that the ability of its citizens and businesses to operate freely had been jeopardized by the growing division of China into exclusive “spheres of influence” dominated by outside powers. In response, Secretary of State John Hay issued the Open Door Notes to assert American interests in China.

To begin explain to students how Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Japan divided China into spheres of influence. Use the web interactive to show where these spheres were located and to discuss the purpose and management of the spheres (you can also use the Background for Teacher section for more information). Depending on computer availability, you can have students view this interactive individually or you can project it for the entire class to see at once. Explain to the students that the United States favored open and equal access to China. President McKinley and Secretary Hay favored this idea of an “Open Door” to ensure that the American economic position was protected; to avoid a great-power scramble to partition China outright; and to distinguish the United States from what the Americans regarded as more aggressive and self-interested nations.  

Next, give each student a copy of the First Open Door Note located on page 1-2 of the text document and in its entirety through the EDSITEment reviewed resource History Matters. Read this note together as a class.  Either individually or in groups, have students determine John Hay’s main point, any supporting points, and what evidence he provides to support his claims. Discuss with students what can they determine about the tone of the letter?  Does this point to any underlying issues?

Then, break the class into six groups and explain to them that they will be creating a visual “timeline” of the events surrounding the Open Door Notes. Provide each group with the corresponding documents below (which are in chronological order), found in their excepted forms in the text document, or in their entirety through the EDSITEment reviewed resources History Matters or the American Presidency Project and a 5x7 piece of construction paper and markers.  In their groups, students are to read their document(s) and make notes of its main points on their piece of construction paper.

Group 1: British and Russian Replies to the Open Door Note (page 3 of the text document)

Group 2: The Powers and Partition of China (pages 4-5 of the text document).

Group 3: McKinley’s 1900 Annual Message to Congress (pages 6-7 of the text document).

Group 4: Fei Ch’i-hao: The Boxer Rebellion (pages 8-9 of the text document).

Group 5: Remarks by Kaiser Wilhelm II on the Boxer Rebellion (page 10-11 of the text document).

Group 6: The Future of the Chinese People (pages 12-13 of the text document).

Once groups have read their document(s) and written down their information, have each group present their document(s) to the class, placing their papers in chronological order on the board so that students have a visual idea of what happened when.  

Using information garnered from both the interactive and document activity, conclude by discussing the impact that these Open Door Notes had on American foreign policy (see the Background for Teacher section). Ask students if they think these notes were effective given their original intent.  What were the short-term successes of this policy, if any? 


Students might be asked to identify and explain the significance of the following:

  • Spheres of Influence
  • John Hay
  • Boxer Rebellion

Students might also be asked to answer the following in a 3-5 paragraph essay:

  • Describe the reasons why the United States adopted the Open Door Policy towards China and discuss possible problems with that approach.

Extending The Lesson

The Boxer Rebellion reflected the anti-foreign sentiments increasingly held by the Chinese people. The PBS television documentary show American Experience, created a multi-themed series “America 1900.” On that series is an episode about the Chinese Boxer Rebellion that if time permits you could show to the class. See the PBS site for more information and lesson ideas. After viewing this, discuss with students if anything like this has/could ever happen in America towards immigrants? 

Selected EDSITEment Websites

American Memory at the Library of Congress

American Experience

The American Presidency Project

History Matters

National Archives

The Basics

Grade Level


Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > People > Asian American
  • History and Social Studies > People > Hispanic
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Globalization


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources

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