Understanding the Opium Wars on China

OPIUM WARS PERIOD IN CHINA Reposted From the Excellent
Facts and Details Website:

In the late 18th century and early 19th century, opium was the world’s largest traded commodity and Britain operated the world’s largest drug cartel. Opium trade was dominated by the British East India Company, which oversaw the cultivation and processing of opium in India. American ships joined in pushing more and more Opium into China – Most of the Eastern Seaboard Coast, ‘Ivy League’: Harvard, Yale, built on the back of loot from worlds’ biggest drugs gang – the USUK governments – Much of the money for the Royal Navy came from the opium trade.


The success of the Qing dynasty in maintaining the old order proved a liability when the empire was confronted with growing challenges from seafaring Western powers. The centuries of peace and self-satisfaction dating back to Ming times had encouraged little change in the attitudes of the ruling elite. The imperial Neo-Confucian scholars accepted as axiomatic the cultural superiority of Chinese civilization and the position of the empire at the hub of their perceived world. To question this assumption, to suggest innovation, or to promote the adoption of foreign ideas was viewed as tantamount to heresy. Imperial purges dealt severely with those who deviated from orthodoxy.[Source: The Library of Congress]

When the Qianlong Emperor died at last in February 1799, leaving the kingdom apparently prosperous, but in fact riddled with contradictions and problems that had never been properly solved. China in the 19th century was humiliated and emasculated by colonialism after the Opium Wars, torn apart by rebellions and brought to its knees by famines. Most of the decisive events in 19th century occurred in southern China. The First Opium War (1839-42) took place primarily around Hong Kong and Canton. Shanghai was the center of the foreign occupation. And, the Taiping Rebellion (1851 to 1864) transformed parts of southern China into a brief quasi-utopian state.

Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “At the time these events were perceived [in China] largely as a border skirmish. The Qing emperor was preoccupied with a series of internal rebellions, and his officials were so nervous of passing on the letters the British handed in that he had little idea of what the trouble was about. When hostilities began, repeated accounts of glorious Chinese victories over the barbarians left the emperor in the dark about the real outcome. It was an inglorious episode on both sides, with its roots in an expanding imperial power being rebuffed in its efforts to trade.” [Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, September 11, 2011]

“There was nothing, the Chinese loftily replied to the British emissaries, that China needed or wanted from the west not their goods, not their ideas and certainly not their company. There was plenty that the British wanted to buy from China, though, and by the 1780s, the British appetite for tea and Chinese indifference to British goods had produced a trade deficit that the East India Company began to fill by supplying opium grown in British Bengal. It was a trade that greatly benefited the British exchequer, the merchants who traded it, the officials who grafted on it, the Chinese wholesalers who bought it and the foreign missionaries who travelled with it.”

barbers in a clearing

Website on the Qing Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Qing Dynasty Explained drben.net/ChinaReport ; Recording of Grandeur of Qing learn.columbia.edu Ming and Qing Tombs UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO World Heritage Site Map Opium Wars : Emperor of China’s War on Drugs Opioids.com ; Good Images from the Period on MIT’s Visualizing Cultures MIT’s Visualizing Cultures MIT’s Visualizing Cultures , MIT’s Visualizing Cultures and MIT’s Visualizing Cultures ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia Chinese History: Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia ; Books: “Cambridge History of China” multiple volumes (Cambridge University Press); “Chronicle of the Chinese Emperor” by Ann Paludan, “The Last Emperors: A Social History of the Qing Imperial Institutions” by Evelyn S. Rawski (University of California Press, 1999). “Forbidden City” by Frances Wood, a British Sinologist, “The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China” by Julia Lovell (Picador, 2011); “China: Alive in the Bitter Sea” by Fox Butterfield; “China: A New History” by John K. Fairbank; “China’s Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese History” by Charles O. Hucker; 5) “In Search of Modern China” by Jonathan D. Spence; 6) “The Chan’s Great Continent: China to Western Minds” by Jonathan Spence (Norton, 1998)’ “Sea of Poppies” by Amitva Ghosh (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008) is a novel set during the Opium Wars mostly in India but also in China that was shortlisted listed for the Man Booker Prize.


China in the Early 19th Century

Gathering fro a speech

“By the nineteenth century, China was experiencing growing internal pressures of economic origin. By the start of the century, there were over 300 million Chinese, but there was no industry or trade of sufficient scope to absorb the surplus labor. Moreover, the scarcity of land led to widespread rural discontent and a breakdown in law and order. The weakening through corruption of the bureaucratic and military systems and mounting urban pauperism also contributed to these disturbances. Localized revolts erupted in various parts of the empire in the early nineteenth century. Secret societies, such as the White Lotus sect in the north and the Triad Society in the south, gained ground, combining anti-Manchu subversion with banditry. [Source: The Library of Congress]

“The Manchus were sensitive to the need for security along the northern land frontier and therefore were prepared to be realistic in dealing with Russia. The Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689) with the Russians, drafted to bring to an end a series of border incidents and to establish a border between Siberia and Manchuria (northeast China) along the Heilong Jiang (Amur River), was China’s first bilateral agreement with a European power. In 1727 the Treaty of Kiakhta delimited the remainder of the eastern portion of the SinoRussian border. Western diplomatic efforts to expand trade on equal terms were rebuffed, the official Chinese assumption being that the empire was not in need of foreign–and thus inferior–products. Despite this attitude, trade flourished, even though after 1760 all foreign trade was confined to Guangzhou, where the foreign traders had to limit their dealings to a dozen officially licensed Chinese merchant firms. [Ibid]

“Trade was not the sole basis of contact with the West. Since the thirteenth century, Roman Catholic missionaries had been attempting to establish their church in China. Although by 1800 only a few hundred thousand Chinese had been converted, the missionaries–mostly Jesuits–contributed greatly to Chinese knowledge in such fields as cannon casting, calendar making, geography, mathematics, cartography, music, art, and architecture. The Jesuits were especially adept at fitting Christianity into a Chinese framework and were condemned by a papal decision in 1704 for having tolerated the continuance of Confucian ancestor rites among Christian converts. The papal decision quickly weakened the Christian movement, which it proscribed as heterodox and disloyal. [Ibid]

Chinese View of Foreign Incursions on Chinese Soil

According to the Chinese government: In 1644 the Qing troops marched south of Shanhaiguan Pass and unified the whole of China, initiating nearly 300 years of Manchu rule throughout the country. The Manchus made their contributions in defending China’s frontiers from foreign aggression. As early as the mid-17th century, Russia made repeated incursions into areas along the Heilong River. In 1685, on orders of Qing Emperor Kang Xi, Manchu General Peng Chun led his “eight banner” troops and naval units in driving out the Russian invaders. The subsequent Treaty of Nerchinsk, signed on an equal footing in 1689, delineated a boundary line between China and Russia, and maintained normal relations between the two countries for more than 100 years. [Source: China.org china.org |]

“Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, troops sent by the Qing court repulsed British-backed Gurkha invasions of southern Tibet and local rebellions in Xinjiang, also incited by the British colonialists. These and other military exploits of the Manchu emperors brought into being a unified Chinese state that extended from the outer Hinggan Mountains in the north to the Xisha Islands in the south, and from the Pamirs in the west to the Kurile Islands in the east in the heyday of the Qing Dynasty. |

“China was reduced to the status of a semi-colonial and semi-feudal country after the Opium War of 1840. During the war, many Manchus, as well as Hans, lost their lives in fighting for China’s independence and the dignity of the Chinese nation. A 276-man Eight Banner unit under Major Fu Long, fighting to the last man at Tianzunmiao in Zhejiang Province, beat back the onslaught of British invaders five times in succession. In another battle fought in Zhenjiang City, Jiangsu Province, 1,500 Eight Bannermen yielded no ground in defiance of an enemy force ten times their strength. The Second Opium War of 1856-60 ended with Russia annexing more than a million square kilometers of northeast China. Local Manchus and people of other nationalities in this area waged tenacious resistance against the aggression and colonialist rule of Russia.” |


China, National Humiliation and Foreigners

Suffering and humiliation at the hands of foreigners was a theme in Chinese history in the 19th century and 20th century. In the Opium Wars era, Britain subdued the Chinese population with Indian opium; made tons of money; and took over Chinese territory with humiliating unequal treaties. Later, the Russians and Japanese occupied the industrial north; European nations established “treaty ports” on the Chinese coast to exploit China’s resources and labor; and, finally, Japan raped and pillaged China like medieval invaders before and during World War II. The Chinese describe their feelongs with the word guochi, or “the national humiliation.”

In the early 19th century Napoleon said, “Let China sleep when she wakes the world will be sorry.” At that time misery and rebellions caused by overpopulation and an inefficient dynasty resulted in famines and wars which left tens of millions dead. Foreigners were aware of the way China was being exploited. In 1900, the future Russian revolutionary leader, Vladamir Lenin, said, “The European governments have robbed China as ghouls rob copses.” A descriptive 1898 French lithograph showed Queen Victoria of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, the Japanese emperor Mutsuhito and Czar Nicholas II all sitting around a giant pie, inscribed with China, dividing it up with butcher knives.

China expert Orville Schell wrote, “The most critical element in the formation of China’s modern identity has been the legacy of the country’s “humiliation” at the hands of foreigners, beginning with its defeat in the Opium Wars in the 19th-century and the shameful treatment of Chinese immigrants in America. The process was exacerbated by Japan’s successful industrialization, Tokyo’s invasion and occupation of the mainland during World War II, which in many ways was more psychologically devastating than Western interventions because Japan was an Asian power that had succeeded in modernizing, where China had failed.”

“This inferiority complex has been institutionalized in the Chinese mind, “Orville wrote. “In the early 20th century China took up its victimization as a theme and, and it became a fundamental element in its evolving collective identity. A new literature arose around the idea of bainian guochi—“100 year of national humiliation.” After the 1919 Treaty of Versailles gave Germany’s concessions in China to Japan, the expression wuwang guochi—“Never forget our national humiliation”—became a common slogan.”

The sports writer Tom Boswell said, “China’s whole history predisposes it to believing that foreign nations wish it ill and want to belittle it…Always sensitive to criticism from outsiders, China feels picked on.”

All of China’s leaders in the 20th century tapped into it. Sun Yat-sen described China in 1924 as “a heap of loose sand” that had “experienced several decades of economic oppression.” Chiang Kai shek spoke of the entire country for more than 100 years ‘suffering under the yoke of unequal treaties” and demanded the “national humiliation be avenged.” And when Communist China was founded in in 1949 Mao declared, “Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation.”

American ship filled with Chinese goods

In 2001 the National People Congress proclaimed a “National Humiliation Day” but because there were so many historical dates that could be used delegates could not agree on a single one.

Shu-Zen, the director of the film Dark Matter, told Schell, “There is something almost in our DNA that triggers automatic, and sometimes extreme , responses to foreign criticism or put downs.” The famous Chinese essayist Lu Xun wrote in the 1930s, “ Throughout the ages Chinese have had only one way of looking at foreigners. We either looked up to them as gods or down on them as wild animals.”

See Nationalism

Foreigners and Trade in the Opium Wars Era

As elsewhere in Asia, in China the Portuguese were the pioneers, establishing a foothold at Macao (Aomen in pinyin), from which they monopolized foreign trade at the Chinese port of Guangzhou (Canton). Soon the Spanish arrived, followed by the British and the French. Trade between China and the West was carried on in the guise of tribute: foreigners were obliged to follow the elaborate, centuries-old ritual imposed on envoys from China’s tributary states. There was no conception at the imperial court that the Europeans would expect or deserve to be treated as cultural or political equals. The sole exception was Russia, the most powerful inland neighbor.

In 1636, King Charles I authorized a small fleet of four ships, under the command of Captain John Weddell, to sail to China and establish trade relations. At Canton the expedition got into a firefight with a Chinese fort. Other battles occurred after that. The British blamed the failure in part on their inability to communicate.

In 1820, China accounted for 29 percent of the world’s gross domestic product and China and India together accounted for more than half of the world’s output. Foreigners thought they could get rich in China. There is a famous story about an 18th century Englishman who thought he could make a fortune in the textile business by convincing every Chinese person to extend the length of their shirt tails by one inch. A Harvard historian told Smithsonian magazine, “People signing on to voyages to Asia weren’t just looking to make a living, They were looking to make it big.”

Book: Opium Regimes, China, Britain and Japan, 1839-1952 edited by Timothy Brook and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi (University of California Press, 2002).

20080217-1028_foreignfactories_canton opium columb.jpg

Trade in Canton

Up until the late 17th century, Western traders were allowed to conduct business only in Macau, a Portuguese enclave 75 miles south of Canton. In 1685, the powerful Qing emperor Kangxi was persuaded that he might profit from an expansion in trade and thus he permitted Western merchants to trade in Canton itself, which at that time was a bustling city along the Pearl River with about a million people.

Trade with Europe expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries. Favorable concessions were given to French and British traders, who set up shop on the East Coast of China. The reasoning was that if they were preoccupied with trade they would not cause mischief. Failure to keep pace with Western arms technology and the isolation of the Qing dynasty made it vulnerable to attacks from European weapons and exposed China to European expansion.

The lives of Western traders in Canton were greatly restricted. They could only come to Canton half of the year and then were forced to live in ghettos outside Canton’s walls and were not permitted to bring their families (who were required to stay in Macau). They were also forbidden from boating on the river and trading with anyone other than authorized representatives of the Emperor, who tried to bilk the foreigners for everything he could get. The “foreign devils” worked out of offices called “factories” where the local people came by to stare at their big noses. Their vessels were required to anchor ten miles downstream on the Pearl River at Whampoa.

Canton and Trade Between Europe and China

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Many Europeans had contact with China over the centuries. When Marco Polo traveled to China in the thirteenth century, he found European artisans already at the court of the Great Khan. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, priests such as the Italian Matteo Ricci journeyed to China, learned Chinese, and tried to make their religion more acceptable to the Chinese. These contacts were made usually by individual entrepreneurs or solitary missionaries. Although some Western science, art, and architecture was welcomed by the Qing court, attempts to convert Chinese to Christianity were by and large unsuccessful. More importantly, the Chinese state did not lend its support to creating a significant number of specialists in Western thinking. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, consultants Drs. Madeleine Zelin and Sue Gronewold, specialists in modern Chinese history, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“Direct oceanic trade between China and Europe began during the sixteenth century. At first it was dominated by the Portuguese and the Spanish, who brought silver from the Americas to exchange for Chinese silks. Later they were joined by the British and the Dutch. Initially trading took place at several ports along the Chinese coast, but gradually the state limited Western trade to the southern port of Canton (Guangzhou). Here there were wealthy Chinese merchants who had been given monopoly privileges by the emperor to trade with foreigners.

Sebastien Roblin wrote in This Week: “Foreigners— even on trade ships — were prohibited entry into Chinese territory. The exception to the rule was in Canton, the southeastern region centered on modern-day Guangdong Province, which adjoins Hong Kong and Macao. Foreigners were allowed to trade in the Thirteen Factories district in the city of Guangzhou, with payments made exclusively in silver. The British gave the East India Company a monopoly on trade with China, and soon ships based in colonial India were vigorously exchanging silver for tea and porcelain. But the British had a limited supply of silver. [Source: Sebastien Roblin, This Week, August 6, 2016]

Merchant guilds trading with foreigners were known as “hongs,” a Westernization of hang, or street. The original merchant associations had been organized by streets. The merchants of the selected hongs were also among the only Chinese merchants with enough money to buy large amounts of goods produced inland and have them ready for the foreign traders when they came once a year to make their purchases.

“The Chinese court also favored trading at one port because it could more easily collect taxes on the goods traded if all trade was carried on in one place under the supervision of an official appointed by the emperor. Such a system would make it easier to control the activities of the foreigners as well. So in the 1750s trade was restricted to Canton (Guangzhou), and foreigners coming to China in their sail-powered ships were allowed to reside only on the island of Macao as they awaited favorable winds to return home.”

Frustrations About Trade with China Before the Opium Wars

The Qing dynasty’s restrictions on foreign trade increasingly frustrated Europeans, especially the British. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “For many years this system was acceptable to both the Chinese and the Europeans. As the demand for tea increased, however, and the Industrial Revolution led them to seek more markets for their manufactured goods, the British began to try to expand their trade opportunities in China and establish Western-style diplomatic relations with the Chinese.[Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University consultants Drs. Madeleine Zelin and Sue Gronewold, specialists in modern Chinese history, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“In the later half of the eighteenth century, the British East India Company sought to expand their trade with China, but the British traders soon found that they had little to offer the Chinese other than silver — and opium. Furthermore, the Qing emperors stipulated that the British trade only with a limited number of licensed merchants, did not allow the British to communicate directly with Qing officials, and limited the trade to the adjacent ports of Macao and Guangzhou (Canton). Furthermore, the taxes and fees charged by Qing officials in the port of Guangzhou were not to the liking of the British. The British East India Company continued to come to China because the tea trade was — despite the terms of trade — quite profitable. Nonetheless, the British East India Company was not satisfied with the terms of trade.

“This brought them immediately into conflict with the Chinese government, which was willing to allow trade without diplomatic relations, but would only allow diplomatic relations within the traditional tribute system that had evolved out of centuries of Chinese cultural leadership in Asia. In exchange for trading privileges in the capital and recognition of their ruler, neighboring states would send so-called tribute missions to China. These envoys brought gifts for the emperor and performed a series of bows called the “kow-tow” (koutou).

“Aside from a handful of foreigners who lived permanently in Peking (Beijing) and served the emperor, foreigners only visited the capital on such tribute missions. Therefore, when British citizens came to Peking in the late eighteenth century, their purpose was misunderstood. When they refused to follow the centuries-old system of tribute relations and began demanding both expanded trade and the establishment of embassies in the capital, they were immediately resisted and seen as challenging the Chinese way of life.

Lord Macartney’s Mission to China

Qianlong Emperor receiving Lord McCartney

In 1792 Great Britain sent a diplomat, Lord George Macartney (1737-1806), to present its demands to the Qianlong emperor (1711-1799; r. 1736-1796). According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “One of the most famous British attempts to expand trade with China demonstrates the miscommunication between the two nations. Lord Macartney led a mission in 1793 to the court of the Qianlong emperor of China. This emperor reigned over perhaps the most luxurious court in all Chinese history. He had inherited a full treasury, and his nation seemed strong and wealthy enough to reach its greatest size ever and also to attain a splendor that outdazzled even the best Europe could then offer. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University consultants Drs. Madeleine Zelin and Sue Gronewold, specialists in modern Chinese history, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

With the cooperation of the British Crown, Lord Macartney was sent to the court of the Qianlong emperor as representative from George III of England (1738-1820) to convince the Chinese emperor to open northern port cities to British traders and to allow British ships to be repaired on Chinese territory. Macartney was received with great ceremony by the Qing officials and by the elderly Qianlong emperor himself. Lord Macartney was able to communicate King George’s wishes directly to the Emperor. This also included the British desire for a convenient offshore island as a permanent trading post, more ports opened to trade, and diplomatic representation in Beijing.

“Macartney arrived in North China in a warship with a retinue of 95, an artillery of 50 redcoats, and 600 packages of magnificent presents that required 90 wagons, 40 barrows, 200 horses, and 3,000 porters to carry them to Peking. Yet the best gifts of the kind of England had to offer — elaborate clocks, globes, porcelain — seemed insignificant beside the splendors of the Asian court. Taken on a yacht trip around the palace, Macartney stopped to visit 50 pavilions, each “furnished in the richest manner… that our presents must shrink from the comparison and hide their diminished heads,” he later wrote. Immediately the Chinese labeled his mission as “tribute,” and the emperor refused to listen to British demands. He also ordered Macartney to perform the kow-tow and dashed off the following reply to the British king.”

Emperor Qianlong’s Response to Lord Macartney’s Mission: Edict 1

The Qianlong emperor’s responded to the British requests with two edicts. The first one — Edict 1 — reads: “You, O King, live beyond the confines of many seas, nevertheless, impelled by your humble desire to partake of the benefits of our civilization, you have dispatched a mission respectfully bearing your memorial. Your Envoy has crossed the seas and paid his respects at my Court on the anniversary of my birthday. To show your devotion, you have also sent offerings of your country’s produce…I have perused your memorial: the earnest terms in which it is couched reveal a respectful humility on your part, which is highly praiseworthy. In consideration of the fact that your Ambassador and his deputy have come a long way with your memorial and tribute, I have shown them high favour and have allowed them to be introduced into my presence. To manifest my indulgence, I have entertained them at a banquet and made them numerous gifts. I have also caused presents to be forwarded to the Naval Commander and six hundred of his officers and men, although they did not come to Peking, so that they too may share in my all embracing kindness. [Source: “Changing China: Readings in the History of China from the Opium War to the Present,” by J. Mason Gentzler (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1977) Asia for Educators, Columbia University consultants Drs. Madeleine Zelin and Sue Gronewold, specialists in modern Chinese history, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“As to your entreaty to send one of your nationals to be accredited to my Celestial Court and to be in control of your country’s trade with China, this request is contrary to all usage of my dynasty and cannot possibly be entertained. It is true that Europeans, in the service of the dynasty, have been permitted to live at Peking, but they are compelled to adopt Chinese dress they are strictly confined to their own precincts and are never permitted to return home. You are presumably familiar with our dynastic regulations. Your proposed Envoy to my Court could not be placed in a position similar to that of European officials in Peking who are forbidden to leave China, nor could he, on the other hand, be allowed liberty of movement and the privilege of corresponding with his own country; so that you would gain nothing by his residence in our midst.

“Moreover, Our Celestial dynasty possesses vast territories, and tribute missions from the dependencies are provided for by the Department for Tributary States, which ministers to their wants and exercises strict control over their movements. It would be quite impossible to leave them to their own devices. Supposing that your Envoy should come to our court, his language and national dress differ from that of our people, and there would be no place in which he might reside. It may be suggested that he might imitate the Europeans permanently resident in Peking and adopt the dress and customs of China, but, it has never been our dynasty’s wish to force people to do things unseemly and inconvenient. Besides, supposing I sent an Ambassador to reside in your country, how could you possibly make for him the requisite arrangements? Europe consists of many other nations besides your own: if each and all demanded to be represented at our Court, how could we possibly consent? The thing is utterly impracticable.

“How can our dynasty alter its whole procedure and regulations, established for more than a century, in order to meet your individual views? If it be said that your object is to exercise control over your country’s trade, your nationals have had full liberty to trade at Canton for many a year, and have received the greatest consideration at our hands. Missions have been sent by Portugal and Italy, preferring similar requests. The Throne appreciated their sincerity and loaded them with favours, besides authorizing measures to facilitate their trade with China.

“You are no doubt aware that, when my Canton merchant, Wu Chaop’ing, was in debt to the foreign ships, I made the Viceroy advance the monies due, out of the provincial treasury, and ordered him to punish the culprit severely. Why then should foreign nations advance this utterly unreasonable request to be represented at my Court? Peking is nearly 10,000 li from Canton, and at such a distance what possible control could any British representative exercise? If you assert that your reverence for Our Celestial dynasty fills you with a desire to acquire our civilization, our ceremonies and code of laws differ so completely from your own that, even if your Envoy were able to acquire the rudiments of our civilization, you could not possibly transplant our manners and customs to your alien soil. Therefore, however adept the Envoy might become, nothing would be gained thereby.

“Surveying the wide world, I have but one aim in view, namely, to maintain a perfect governance and to fulfill the duties of the State; strange and costly objects do not interest me. If I have commanded the tribute offerings sent by you, O King, are to be accepted, this was solely in consideration for the spirit which prompted you to dispatch them from afar. Our dynasty’s majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under Heaven, and Kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures. This then is my answer to your request to appoint a representative at my Court, a request contrary to our dynastic usage, which would only result in inconvenience to yourself. I have expounded my wishes in detail and have commanded your tribute Envoys to leave in peace on their homeward journey. It behoves you, O King, to respect my sentiments and to display even greater devotion and loyalty in the future, so that, by perpetual submission to our Throne, you may secure peace and prosperity for your country hereafter. Besides making gifts (of which I enclose a list) to each member of your Mission, I confer upon you, O King, valuable presents in excess of the number usually bestowed on such occasions, including silks and curios—a list of which is likewise enclosed. Do you reverently receive them and take note of my tender goodwill towards you! A special mandate.”

Emperor Qianlong’s Response to Lord Macartney’s Mission: Edict 2

Qianlong in armor

Edict II by the Qianlong Emperor reads: “You, O King from afar, have yearned after the blessings of our civilization, and in your eagerness to come into touch with our converting influence have sent an Embassy across the sea bearing a memorial. I have already taken note of your respectful spirit of submission, have treated your mission with extreme favour and loaded it with gifts, besides issuing a mandate to you, O King, and honouring you with the bestowal of valuable presents. Thus has my indulgence been manifested. [Source: “Changing China: Readings in the History of China from the Opium War to the Present,” by J. Mason Gentzler (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1977) Asia for Educators, Columbia University consultants Drs. Madeleine Zelin and Sue Gronewold, specialists in modern Chinese history, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“Yesterday your Ambassador petitioned my Ministers to memorialize me regarding your trade with China, but his proposal is not consistent with our dynastic usage and cannot be entertained. Hitherto, all European nations, including your own country’s barbarian merchants have carried on their trade with Our Celestial Empire at Canton. Such has been the procedure for many years, although Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce. But as the tea, silk, and porcelain which the Celestial Empire produces are absolute necessities to European nations and to yourselves we have permitted, as a signal mark of favour, that foreign hongs2 should be established at Canton, so that your wants might be supplied and your country thus participate in our beneficence. But your Ambassador has now put forward new requests which completely fail to recognize the Throne’s principle to “treat strangers from afar with indulgence,” and to exercise a pacifying control over barbarian tribes, the world over. Moreover, our dynasty, swaying the myriad races of the globe, extends the same benevolence towards all. Your England is not the only nation trading at Canton. If other nations, following your bad example, wrongfully importune my ear with further impossible requests, how will it be possible for me to treat them with easy indulgence? Nevertheless, I do not forget the lonely remoteness of your island, cut off from the world by intervening wastes of sea, nor do I overlook your inexcusable ignorance of the usages of Our Celestial Empire. I have consequently commanded my Ministers to enlighten your Ambassador on the subject, and have ordered the departure of the mission. But I have doubts that, after your Envoy’s return he may fail to acquaint you with my view in detail or that he may be lacking in lucidity, so that I shall now proceed to take your requests one by one and to issue my mandate on each question separately. In this way you will, I trust, comprehend my meaning.

“1) Your Ambassador requests facilities for ships of your nation to call at Ningpo, Chusan Tientsin and other places for purposes of trade. Until now trade with European nations has always been conducted at Macao, where the foreign hongs are established to store and sell foreign merchandise. Your nation has obediently complied with this regulation for years past without raising any objection. In none of the other ports named have hongs, Trading firms licensed by the Chinese government. been established, so that even if your vessels were to proceed thither, they would have no means of disposing of their cargoes. Furthermore, no interpreters are available, so you would have no means of explaining your wants, and nothing but general inconvenience would result. For the future, as in the past, I decree that your request is refused and that the trade shall be limited to Macao.

“2) The request that your merchants may establish a repository in the capital of my Empire for the storing and sale of your produce is even more impracticable than the last. My capital is the hub and centre about which all quarters of the globe revolve. Its ordinances are most august and its laws are strict in the extreme. The subjects of our dependencies have never been allowed to open places of business in Peking. Foreign trade has hitherto been conducted at Macao, because it is conveniently near the sea, and therefore an important gathering place for the ships of all nations sailing to and from. If warehouses were established in Peking, the remoteness of your country lying far to the northwest of my capital, would render transport extremely difficult. Possessing facilities at Macao you now ask for further privileges at Peking, although our dynasty observes the severest restrictions respecting the admission of foreigners within its boundaries, and has never permitted the subjects of dependencies to cross the Empire’s barriers and settle at will amongst the Chinese people. This request is also refused.

“3) Regarding your nation’s worship of the Lord of Heaven, it is the same religion as that of other European nations. Ever since the beginning of history, sage Emperors and wise rulers have bestowed on China a moral system and inculcated a code, which from time immemorial has been religiously observed by the myriads of my subjects. There has been no hankering after heterodox doctrines. Even the European (missionary) officials in my capital are forbidden to hold intercourse with Chinese subjects; they are restricted within the limits of their appointed residences, and may not go about propagating their religion. The distinction between Chinese and barbarian is most strict, and your Ambassador’s request that barbarians shall be given full liberty to disseminate their religion is utterly unreasonable.

“It may be, O King, that the above proposals have been wantonly made by your Ambassador on his own responsibility, or perhaps you yourself are ignorant of our dynastic regulations and had no intention of transgressing them when you expressed these wild ideas and hopes. I have ever shown the greatest condescension to the tribute missions of all States which sincerely yearn after the blessings of civilization, so as to manifest my kindly indulgence. I have even gone out of my way to grant any requests which were in any way consistent with Chinese usage. Above all, upon you, who live in a remote and inaccessible region, far across the spaces of ocean, but who have shown your submissive loyalty by sending this tribute mission, I have heaped benefits far in excess of those accorded to other nations. But the demands presented by your Embassy are not only a contradiction of dynastic tradition, but would be utterly unproductive of good result to yourself, besides being quite impracticable. I have accordingly stated the facts to you in detail, and it is your bounden duty reverently to appreciate my feelings and to obey these instructions henceforward for all time, so that you may enjoy the blessings of perpetual peace. If, after the receipt of this explicit decree, you lightly give ear to the representations of your subordinates and allow your barbarian merchants to proceed to Zhejiang and Tientsin with the object of landing and trading there, the ordinances of my Celestial Empire are strict in the extreme, and the local officials, both civil and military, are bound reverently to obey the law of the land. Should your vessels touch shore, your merchants will assuredly never be permitted to land or to reside there, but will be subject to instant expulsion. In that event your barbarian merchants will have had a long journey for nothing. Do not say that you were not warned in due time! Tremblingly obey and show no negligence! A special mandate!”

In the fifty years after Macartney’s visit, Western powers pushed their demands on China further, leading to war and the gradual shift from tribute to treaty relations.

Tea, Opium and Cotton Trade Before the Opium Wars

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Two things happened in the eighteenth century that made it difficult for England to balance its trade with the East. First, the British became a nation of tea drinkers and the demand for Chinese tea rose astronomically. It is estimated that the average London worker spent five percent of his or her total household budget on tea. Second, northern Chinese merchants began to ship Chinese cotton from the interior to the south to compete with the Indian cotton that Britain had used to help pay for its tea consumption habits. To prevent a trade imbalance, the British tried to sell more of their own products to China, but there was not much demand for heavy woolen fabrics in a country accustomed to either cotton padding or silk. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University,consultant: Dr. Sue Gronewold, a specialist in Chinese history, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Tea became a major Chinese export product to Britain. The first tea arrived in London from China in 1652. By the late 18th century and early 19th century traders from newly industrialized Britain were importing millions of pounds of tea from China. The British had hoped to trade finished goods such as textiles for tea and silk without having to go through the Emperors’ greedy middlemen, but that didn’t happen. Imperial China had no need for foreign products and they were importing virtually nothing from Europe. In an effort to get the Chinese Emperor to open up markets outside of Canton, British King George III, sent a regent to China that was welcomed with great ceremony but was told China has “no need of the manufactures of outside Barbarians.”

. To remedy the situation, the foreigners developed a third-party trade, exchanging their merchandise in India and Southeast Asia for raw materials and semiprocessed goods, which found a ready market in Guangzhou. By the early nineteenth century, raw cotton and opium from India had become the staple British imports into China, in spite of the fact that opium was prohibited entry by imperial decree. The opium traffic was made possible through the connivance of profit-seeking merchants and a corrupt bureaucracy. [Source: The Library of Congress]20120528-opium Manufacture_of_opium_in_India.jpg
Manufacture of opium in India

Opium as a Medium of Exchange

The British East India Company built up a huge debt for silk, tea and lacquerware.The unfavorable balance of trade between Britain and China and resentment over China’s restrictive trading practices set in motion the chain of events that led to the Opium Wars When the United Kingdom could not sustain its growing deficits from the tea trade with China (partially also because the Qing imperial court refused to open the Chinese market for British goods), it smuggled opium into China.

The British had few things that the Chinese wanted so opium, grown in India, was introduced as a new medium of exchange. Opium was the perfect commodity for trading. It didn’t rot or spoil, it was easy to transport and store, it created its own market and it was highly profitable. The standard measurement for opium was a 135-pound chest, which sold for as much as a thousand silver dollars. The Chinese referred to opium as “foreign mud” or “black smoke” and sometimes called it yan, which entered the English language as “yen” (“a sharp desire or craving”). [in Chinese, opium has usually been called ya-pian, a transliteration. It was also called Afurung, another, more elegant transliteration, and dayen, big smoke. Yan is the Cantonese pronunciation of Mandarin yin, which means addiction, not opium. Mandarin yen means smoke, as in dayen. Different words.]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The only solution was to increase the amount of Indian goods to pay for these Chinese luxuries, and increasingly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the item provided to China was Bengal opium. With greater opium supplies had naturally come an increase in demand and usage throughout the country, in spite of repeated prohibitions by the Chinese government and officials. The British did all they could to increase the trade: They bribed officials, helped the Chinese work out elaborate smuggling schemes to get the opium into China’s interior, and distributed free samples of the drug to innocent victims. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University,consultant: Dr. Sue Gronewold, a specialist in Chinese history, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

20120528-opium Chinese_opium_smokers.jpg

Opium in China

Opium was well known in China before the Opium Wars although its quality was inferior to the opium brought from India by the British. In the 1600s, the habit of smoking opium became popular in Formosa (now Taiwan) after Dutch sailors introduced tobacco smoking and residents of the island mixed tobacco and opium. The Formosans introduced the custom to the mainland, where tobacco was abandoned and opium was smoked alone.

Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “Opium had been consumed in China since the eighth century and several emperors had sung its praises. It began to be smoked with the introduction of tobacco in the late 16th century, turning its consumption from a medicinal to a social habit. By the 1830s, China was producing large quantities of opium domestically, though the imported drug was judged superior. The British traders argued, disingenuously no doubt, that they were merely supplying an existing demand, delivering the opium to a network of Chinese traders who distributed it across the empire. “[Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, September 11, 2011]

The British-supplied opium was very popular in China. Rich and poor Chinese alike gathered in opium dens called divans to smoke the dreamy drug, and millions of Chinese—government officials, merchants, court servants, sedan bearers—became addicted and subdued. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: ““The cost to China was enormous. The drug weakened a large percentage of the population (some estimate that 10 percent of the population regularly used opium by the late nineteenth century), and silver began to flow out of the country to pay for the opium. Many of the economic problems China faced later were either directly or indirectly traced to the opium trade. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University,consultant: Dr. Sue Gronewold, a specialist in Chinese history, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

In the 50 year period between 1780 and 1830 China’s annual opium imports increased from 75 tons to 900 tons (Chinese sources say that during the early years of the reign of Chian Lung / Qianlong, no more than 200 cases of opium were imported annually. By 1830, 20,000 cases were imported annually, and by 1838, more than 40,000 cases). The opium trade significantly ate into the China’s foreign trade reserves. By 1836, it transformed a huge trade surplus into a huge trade deficit.

Opium Business and China

Lin Wexu

In the late 18th century and early 19th century, opium was the world’s largest traded commodity and Britain operated the world’s largest drug cartel. The opium trade was dominated by the British East India Company, which oversaw the cultivation and processing of opium in India that was sold at auctions in Calcutta. About a six of India’s revenues and much of the money for the Royal Navy came from the opium trade.

Sebastien Roblin wrote in This Week: “Starting in in the mid-1700s, the British began trading opium grown in India in exchange for silver from Chinese merchants. Opium was illegal in England, but was used in Chinese traditional medicine. However, recreational use was illegal and not widespread. That changed as the British began shipping in tons of the drug using a combination of commercial loopholes and outright smuggling to get around the ban. Chinese officials taking their own cut abetted the practice. American ships carrying Turkish-grown opium joined in the narcotics bonanza in the early 1800s. Consumption of opium in China skyrocketed, as did profits. [Source: Sebastien Roblin, This Week, August 6, 2016]

In spite the Emperor’s objections to the business, the opium trade boomed in China. In 1773, the British unloaded 150,000 pounds of Bengal opium in Canton to pay off their foreign debt. By 1800, they were exporting 200,000 pounds of opium a year to China. The British justified their involvement in the opium trade by saying that they were only trying to meet demands for the drug in China and Chinese officials encouraged the business.

Opium was also brought to China by American ships from Turkey. Englishmen, Scotsman, Parsis in Indian and prominent families in Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore all made fortunes off the opium trade. Ancestors of presidents Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt were partners in the United States’s largest opium firm; and profits from the opium trade in the United States were reinvested in railroads and factories and used to finance universities and hospitals.

Roblin wrote: “Some British had moral objections to the opium trade, but they were overruled by those who wanted to increase England’s China trade and teach the arrogant Chinese a good lesson. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities had indicated they would allow trade to resume in non-opium goods. Lin Zexu even sent a letter to Queen Victoria pointing out that as England had a ban on the opium trade, they were justified in instituting one too. The letter never reached her, but it eventually appearred in the Sunday Times.”

Efforts By China to Clamp Down on the Opium Trade

destroying opium in Canton

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The government debated about whether to legalize the drug through a government monopoly like that on salt, hoping to barter Chinese goods in return for opium. But since the Chinese were fully aware of the harms of addiction, in 1838 the emperor decided to send one of his most able officials, Lin Tse-hsu (Lin Zexu, 1785-1850), to Canton (Guangzhou) to do whatever necessary to end the traffic forever. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University consultant: Dr. Sue Gronewold, a specialist in Chinese history, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“Lin was able to put his first two proposals into effect easily. Addicts were rounded up, forcibly treated, and taken off the habit, and domestic drug dealers were harshly punished. His third objective — to confiscate foreign stores and force foreign merchants to sign pledges of good conduct, agreeing never to trade in opium and to be punished by Chinese law if ever found in violation — eventually brought war.”

Sebastien Roblin wrote in This Week: Lin Zexu instituted arrested 1,700 dealers, and seized the crates of the drug already in Chinese harbors and even on ships at sea. He then had them all destroyed. That amounted to 2.6 million pounds of opium thrown into the ocean. Lin even wrote a poem apologizing to the sea gods for the pollution. Angry British traders got the British government to promise compensation for the lost drugs, but the treasury couldn’t afford it. War would resolve the debt. [Source: Sebastien Roblin, This Week, August 6, 2016]

Image Sources: 1) Smuggling ships, Columbia University; 2) Canton factories, Columbia University; 3) Opium wars fighting, Ohio State University; 4) Attack of clipper ships, Columbia University; 5) Treaty of Nanking, Ohio State University; 6) 19th century map of China, Columbia University, Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

You need to add a widget, row, or prebuilt layout before you’ll see anything here. 🙂