The Opium War: the Beginning of Modern Chinese History (Part One)

Opium, derived from the poppy plant seen here, was brought in to China in great quantities by the British in the first half of the 19th Century.

Opium, derived from the poppy plant seen here, was brought in to China in great quantities by the British in the first half of the 19th Century.

For many scholars, the defeat of China in the Opium War (1839-1842) represents both the opening of China and the beginning of modern Chinese history.  China’s defeat at the hands of the British and the subsequent signing of the Treaty of Nanking (1842) not only showed the military superiority of the Western barbarians, but also destroyed the pseudo-tributary status of the Canton system – thus shifting the trade control to the West.  However, in order to understand the importance of both the war and the ensuing treaty one must understand the philosophies behind the coercive policies that the British detested.  Based on their sinocentric worldview, the Chinese responded to both British attempts at diplomatic equality and the pushing of opium through Canton with hostility and distrust.  The Chinese policy makers from their first contact with the westerners to Lin Zexu believed the Western barbarian had to be controlled with force to prevent their corrupting influence in the Celestial Empire.  Their fundamental belief in moral and cultural supremacy over the British guided every response to the West up to their inevitable defeat in the Opium War, which destroyed China’s policies of coercion.

Writing on Sino-British relations prior to 1842, Franz Shurmann and Orville Schell note, “The Chinese authorities consented to communicate with the British only in the context of an inferior-superior relationship.”[1]  Since their first contact with Europeans, the Chinese regarded them as inferior beings.  Although they came on ships (unlike the usual foreigners that came on horses) they were of no great importance – they were merely ‘hairy barbarians’ and ‘foreign devils’ whose rough habits and mannerisms were troublesome to the Chinese.[2]  These barbarians where ignorant of the values and norms of society – making them disgusting and animal-like.  Within China, Confucianist philosophies dominated the way the Chinese interacted.  It was believed that the more you followed the Confucian ideal, the higher up you were on the social level.[3]  The foreigners, in the minds of the Chinese, did not practice propriety, righteousness, moderation, benevolence, and other ideals that were central to Confucian ethics.  Therefore, how could foreigners be on the level of even the lowest Chinese if they were completely unaware of Confucianism?  Why would an emperor atop of the Confucian Empire interact with such barbarians?  China had all that it needed and knew it was the best society in the world.  While it was China’s duty to be benevolent to foreigners it certainly did not have to assume a level of equality.

Much like the other tributary nations in China’s history, Europeans were allowed to trade with China out of benevolence, but then only if the trading was done on China’s terms. China knew that its silks and teas were of the finest quality and felt that an unwillingness to share the fruits of its superior society would be brutish and barbaric.  However any attempts at diplomacy on the assumption of equal footing would not be tolerated.   Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) embodied these beliefs when he stated in an edict to King George III China had no need for the items of other nations items and that all must ‘tremblingly obey’ the orders of the Emperor.[4]  Hoping for some form of equality, King George had written to the Qianlong Emperor in order to discuss trade on other diplomatic issues on an equal footing.  However, the inferiority of the barbarians and their assumptions that they could discuss matters with the Son of Heaven were not well received.  In China, few were virtuous enough to converse with the Emperor – let alone a foreign barbarian!  Under Qianlong, the British were forced into using a single port – Canton – in which to conduct their trade, and only then with a select number of Cohong merchants.     This system (known as the Canton system) would be the preferred system of trade by future emperors – much to the dismay of the British.  However, because of its demands for Chinese exports and the profits that it could wield, Britain had to accept a system where they were considered an inferior nation.

In 1834 the first British Superintendent of trade at Canton, Lord William John Napier, attempted to bypass this system of control.  Arriving in Canton on July 25th of that year, Lord Napier wrote a letter to the imperial representative in Canton, Governor Lu, in an attempt to bypass the Cohong – a strict violation of the Canton system.  Outraged by Napier’s attempt at leveling diplomacy, Lu responded with a quick rebuke of the foreigner days later in an edict to the Cohong merchants, stating, “They are permitted only to eat, sleep, buy, and sell in the factories.  They are not permitted to go out and ramble about.”[5]  In the same edict, he declared in outrage, “Even England has its laws.  How much more the celestial empire!”[6]  His message was clear – the foreigners were overstepping their bounds and needed to be controlled.  However, while Lu was also outraged at Napier, he also felt a necessary burden to continue to help the British merchants and British in general – rejecting demands from certain merchants who called to end trade with the British .  Calling the goods received from Britain “utterly unworthy of one careful thought” he noted that China’s “tea, the rhubarb, the raw silk of the inner dominions are the sources by which the said nation’s people live and maintain life” noting that Britain need not pay for the sins of one man.[7]  This series of events, known in the West as the Napier Affair (1934) show two consistent beliefs that are important in shaping policy toward Britain:  that the British are utterly dependent on Chinese goods, and that controlling British merchants is the way to keep diplomatic order within the empire.

Although officials like Governor Lu might have found British contributions of no great importance in 1834, it is obvious that this is simply not the case.  The British had something that the Chinese did want in great abundance:  opium.  Starting in the 1820s, close to five thousand chests of opium had been flowing from India to the Celestial Empire every year, despite the fact that the drug had been outlawed since 1729.[8]  However, demand and advances in ship building (to get past the monsoons of the China Sea on the way from India) allowed for more and more importation of opium.  By 1837, Britain was importing 34,000 chests of opium – and that number continued to rise.[9]  Whereas it was previously claimed that China had the best of everything – whether it be food, tea, or clothes – soon British merchants found themselves with the ability to buy anything and everything they wanted financed solely by Opium.  Silver, which had previously flown from the West to the East in trade, was now flowing in the reverse.  As power shifted, the British used bribery and intimidation to keep pushing opium through the country.[10]  Despite China’s attempts to stop the rampant Opium sale and addiction – soon they found their country to be full of opium addicts and corruption due to the flow of the illicit drug.

The Emperor Daoguang (reign 1820-1850) found himself in a situation where foreign barbarians had overrun the country with opium.  While officials agreed that something had to be done about the corruption brought on by the Opium trade, the way in which to find a solution was up for debate.  In a letter to Daoguang in 1836, Xu Nanji suggests legalizing opium so it could be used for medicinal purposes, trade could be regulated, and kept out of the hands of criminals.[11] Certainly the Cohong merchants also sought legalization, as they could stand to make great profit in the opium trade.  In contrast, a memorial by the official Zhu Zun of that same year suggests that legalization will just cause the problem of addiction to worsen and seduce China’s citizens to do evil.[12] Daoguang, desperate for a solution to the problem, called upon Deng Tingzhen (Governor General of Guangdong and Guangxi) to act upon the British in 1836-1837.  Deng posted public notices in which he forbade the British from seeking out women and young boys to fulfill their sexual appetites.  Arrests were made and opium dens were raided in attempts to curb the supply of opium[13]  While public notices (specifically ones about sexual activities) suggested the usual moral inferiority and searches of boats ordered by way of Peking were making it harder for opium to come in, the air of superiority and supremacy that had characterized policy toward westerners was not as present as it had been in recent times.  However, things would soon change.


[1] Franz Schurmann and Orville Schell, Imperial China:  The Decline of the Last Dynasty and the Origins of Modern China (New York:  Random House, Inc., 1967), 131.

[2] Peter Ward Fay, The Opium War 1840-1842, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1975), 31.

[3] Ch’en Jerome, China and the West (London:  Indiana University Press, 1979), 25-26.

[4] Ch’ien-lung Emperor, “Two Edicts from the Chi’en-lung Emperor to King George  III of England,” in  Changing China, J. Mason Gentzler, ed. (New York:  Praeger Publishers, 1977), 23-28.

[5] Loo Taoukwang .“Loo, Governor, &c. &c., to the Hong Merchants,” in Modern Chinese History:  Selected Readings, vol. 1, MacNair, Harley Farnsworth, ed.  (Taipei:  The Commercial Press Ltd., 1962), 73.

[6] Loo, 73.

[7] Loo,  73-74.

[8] Fay, 42-43.

[9] Hsin Pao Chang, Commissioner Lin and the Opium War (New York:  W.W. Norton and Company Inc., 1964), 223.

[10] Hsin Pao Chang, 29-32.

[11] Xu Naiji, “Memorial on Legalizing Opium,” The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection, ed. by Pei-kai Cheng & Michael Lestz (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 111-114.

[12] Zhu Zun, “Memorial on Banning Opium,” The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection, ed. by Pei-kai Cheng & Michael Lestz (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 114-120.

[13] Fay, 118-119

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One thought on “The Opium War: the Beginning of Modern Chinese History (Part One)

  1. Pingback: History For Free | The Opium War: The War That Changed China (Part Two)

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