China and the Opium Wars Overview

China The Opium War, 1839-42

The use of tea, a relatively new beverage in Western culture, led to a significant expansion of the market for tea in both Europe and America throughout the eighteenth century. In addition to this, there was a consistent demand for silk from China as well as porcelain. However, since China was still in its pre-industrial stage, it was not interested in purchasing much of what the West had to offer. As a result, the Westerners, mostly the British, had a negative balance of trade. In order to rectify the problem, the foreigners devised a third-party commerce in which they exchanged their wares in India and Southeast Asia for raw materials and semi-processed commodities, which found a ready market in Guangzhou. This allowed the foreigners to profit from the situation. In spite of the fact that opium was explicitly banned from entering the country by an imperial order, by the early nineteenth century, raw cotton and opium from India had become the primary commodities that the British sent to China. The opium trade was only feasible thanks to the complicity of profit-driven businesspeople and a bureaucracy that was riddled with corruption.

After a decade of ineffective anti-opium efforts, the government of the Qing dynasty enacted stringent prohibitionist legislation in 1839 to crack down on the opium trade. In order to put a stop to the illegal trafficking of opium, the emperor sent a commissioner by the name of Lin Zexu (1785–1850) to Guangzhou. Following the detention of the whole foreign population and the seizure and destruction of almost 20,000 chests of illegal British opium, Lin was able to capture and destroy illegal stockpiles of opium that were held by Chinese traders. As a form of retaliation, the British sent a punishing expedition, which led to the beginning of the first Anglo-Chinese conflict, sometimes referred to as the Opium War (1839-42). The Chinese were ill-prepared for the battle and greatly underestimated the capabilities of their adversary, which led to a humiliating setback for the Chinese, who suffered irreparable damage to the reputation of their own imperial might as a result. The Chinese refer to a series of agreements with Western trade countries as “unequal treaties.” The earliest of these treaties was the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), which was signed on board a British vessel by two Manchu imperial commissioners and the British plenipotentiary. As part of the terms of the Treaty of Nanjing, China handed over the island of Hong Kong (also known as Xianggang in pinyin), ended the licenced monopoly system of trade, opened five ports to British residence and foreign trade, opened the tariff on trade to 5 percent ad valorem, granted British nationals extraterritoriality (the right to be exempt from Chinese laws), and paid a substantial indemnity. In addition, the United Kingdom was to be accorded most-favored-nation status, which meant that it would be eligible to obtain any commercial advantages the Chinese government provided to other nations at the time or at a later date. The extent and nature of an unequal relationship that would last for the next century of what the Chinese would refer to as “national humiliations” were established by the Treaty of Nanjing. After the pact, a series of subsequent invasions, battles, and treaties resulted in the granting of more concessions and the addition of new rights for foreigners.

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