Opium Wars with China 1839-1860

If you want to pick an event that marked the change of the Chinese Imperial attitude towards the rest of the world you could well pick the episode of the Opium Wars. It marked the beginning of what is regarded as China's ‘century of humiliation’ 1842-1949.

China since the Ming dynasty had turned inward and could see no real benefit to trading with the barbarians who came from far away; they considered that they had all necessary goods in abundance, previous dealings with Europeans had proved them belligerent and untrustworthy. Britain since the Napoleonic wars had ruled the waves and saw herself as the chief advocate for Free Trade amongst all the nations. These incompatible world views came to their inevitable conflict over the unlikeliest of goods: opium.

A picture of Chinese people who became addicted to opium in the 18th Century. Source: He Huisheng, “Collective memories of Victoria Harbour,” Ming Pao Publishing House, early December 2005 edition Available by under a Creative Commons license .
The early history of China from pre-history to 770BCE

The early history of China from pre-history to 770BCE


Most of the ancient traditions of China had become established 3,000 years ago. The institution of Emperor, the written scripts and the key technologies (including silk) all come from China's distant past. The longevity and continuity of Chinese culture are the two key principles to understanding China - even today.

British Missions

The British felt that they had done everything they could reasonably have done to introduce free trade with China. In 1792 Lord Macartney went as far he could to negotiate a trade agreement with Qing Emperor Qianlong at Chengde. His refusal to show due deference to the Emperor with a kowtow proved a diplomatic stumbling block and also neatly symbolized Britain's self-estimation as an equal not a subordinate nation. China had a stranglehold on the tea trade that had grown from 6 million to 16 million taels of silver in 20 years. Britain was by then buying 15% of all tea grown in China producing a very useful income in silver for the struggling Qing regime. Yet access to the Emperor was minimal and the Macartney mission was unsuccessful, although it is said that they came away with tea plants that helped found the Indian tea industry which then cost China dearly in lost revenue. The Emperor viewed the British as yet another barbarian state of little consequence trying to inveigle higher prestige from China. The modern industrial and technical gifts Macartney gave the Emperor were not seen as having any particular purpose, just interesting toys. China had all it needed and had been run much the same for centuries, there was no need to change.

The British went away frustrated, they were still forced to carry out their limited business at the only port they were allowed to trade at: Guangzhou (Canton) under the harsh and strict control of the Chinese officials who supervised all business (the cohongs ). Europeans were not allowed onshore, and all negotiations had to go through, usually corrupt, middle men. They were only allowed to trade if sufficiently submissive and obedient and had to accept arbitrary taxes imposed on top of agreed terms. Trade was only permitted during a short season, the rest of the time the foreigners had to leave, and most waited at Macau for the next trading opportunity. Chinese were banned from learning European languages and vice versa, the authorities sought to limit contact to the barest minimum. Europeans and Americans were subject to Chinese Law and some (as in the case of the ships 'Emily' and 'Lady Hughes ') Europeans were put to death according to Chinese laws for apparently unfortunate accidents. The rest of the world wanted China's tea; silks; porcelain and spices, while China only wanted silver in return; she did not want any of the mass produced textiles and industrial goods Europe could now offer in exchange. At the time in China there was high unemployment and so the cost of goods in China was driven very low and even Manchester cloth struggled to establish itself as a competitive product.

The official attitude to these foreign barbarians is summed up in this court maxim:

“The barbarians are like beasts, and not to be ruled on the same principles as citizens. Were any one to attempt controlling them by the great maxims of reason, it would tend to nothing but confusion. The ancient kings well understood this, and accordingly ruled barbarians by misrule. Therefore to rule barbarians by misrule is the true and the best way of ruling them.”

The foreigners got the message, this is the report of Sir John Davis, a former governor of Hong Kong.

“The rulers of China consider foreigners fair game; they have no sympathy with them, and, what is more, they diligently and systematically labor to destroy all sympathy on the part of their subjects, by representing the strangers to them in every light that is the most contemptible and odious. There is an annual edict or proclamation displayed at Canton at the commencement of the commercial season, accusing the foreigners of the most horrible practices, and desiring the people to have as little to say to them as possible.”

Warring States

Warring States


The second part of the Zhou dynasty was known for incessant warfare between kingdoms. It was time of great importance to China as the philosophical traditions were developed that went on to dominate the next two thousand years. The first unification of China as a large nation state then followed.

At heart were opposing underlying philosophies. Britain saw mercantile effort as the supreme achievement, it was the way anyone could rise to wealth and influence. In China the merchant class was low in public estimation compared to the philosophers, public servants and even farmers who were all seen as serving a more useful purpose. In China, the ambition to make yourself rich on the back of other's work was despised.

Two Opium Smokers on Java by James Page. This carte-de-visite photograph shows two opium smokers on the island of Java. Opium smoking was introduced into Java by the Dutch, who established a major port at Batavia (present-day Jakarta) and imported Indian-grown opium for local sale and later for re-export to China. Opium smoking was at first mainly a part of social life among Javanese upper classes, but in the 19th century it increasingly spread to the laborers who served the expanding colonial economy. The photograph was taken by the firm of Woodbury & Page, which was established by the British photographers Walter Bentley Woodbury and James Page in 1857, and specialized in portraits, ethnographic images, and photographs of life in the Dutch East Indies. The photograph is from the collections of the KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies in Leiden. Available under a Creative Commons license .

The Opium Trade

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The History of Opium in China

With a burgeoning Indian Empire , generating vast amounts of money, the British were on the doorstep of China, and they must have hoped to repeat the successful Indian business model there. Britain turned to goods that were so highly prized that Chinese officials could be bribed to turn a blind eye to trade in them; this was opium. For centuries China had imported opium from northern India by way of overland transport through Yunnan. Limited amounts of opium were also grown in China for centuries, at least as long ago as the Tang dynasty, however it was widely adulterated with linseed oil and other substances, the Indian opium was considered higher quality, particularly from Madhya Pradesh . The Chinese came to believe that this powerful drug must contain some potent additional substance, rumors suggested that it was made from poppies mixed with the putrefied flesh of an eagle and a man. The opium trade from India was not started by the British, the Portuguese were making vast profits in it from the late 16th century. When Britain took control of India, she inherited the existing trade in Opium and then greatly expanded it. The silver from the opium crop was then used to buy Chinese goods that were then shipped back to Europe. In 1796 China imposed a ban on opium import, really to suppress trade and protect the Chinese producers of opium rather than to discourage consumption. Indeed the tax on opium sales were a welcome source of income. To protect its tea trade Britain ceased direct open trade in opium, instead selling it to Indian middlemen who then sold it to Chinese. With the end of Spanish control of the American silver mines the supply of silver in China became restricted and opium came to be used as an alternative currency in the south.

Song dynasty

Song dynasty


The Song dynasty is a period of Chinese refinement and peace rather than military prowess. Great strides were taken in the creative arts and literature. Prosperity from the growing trade by sea rather than overland fueled the building of huge cities. The eventual conquest by the Mongol hordes brought the dynasty to a tragic close.

At this time opium and other narcotics were not seen as the evil thing they are today. Educated and refined people in England took a nightly dose of opium (as laudanum ) to help them sleep. Although some people became addicted it was seen as no worse than alcohol. So opiates were not seen in Europe as an awfully bad thing, if taken in moderation, therefore trade in opium was widely seen as unfortunate, but not evil. However in China opium had had a crippling effect on many people, particularly government officials, and so it was banned in 1813. The ban had limited effect in the coastal states. Smugglers and criminal gangs managed to circumvent the law and maintain a steady supply of the drug. The Manchu government saw its tax income from trade in tea and silk decline as the illicit trade in opium grew enormously.

Mr. C.V.A. Peel describes a visit to an opium den in the late 19th century:
“A Chinese opium den was a surprise to me and very different from what I had expected. On entering one night a house brilliantly illuminated outside with red and gold paint and dozens of Chinese lanterns, I was at once met by a most courteous gentleman speaking a little ‘ pidgin’ English, who led me up into a large well lighted room, the walls of which were beautifully decorated with red silk, embroidered with gold. The room was crowded with Chinamen, eating, sipping tea, listening to a large orchestra and flirting with a number of girls with horribly white painted cheeks, red lips, no eyebrows, and deformed feet. I was made to partake of some very weak tea, cakes, pomeloe, and other fruits. I was, in fact, most hospitably entertained. I ventured to remark to my host that it was a very beautiful room”.
“My host next prepared or ‘ cooked’ an opium pipe for me. The pipe consists of a bamboo about a foot long, with a hole three quarters of the way down, into which is pushed a porcelain bowl, which is very porous, and in the center of which there is a small hole not much bigger than a large pin-hole. The opium, which is viscous like treacle, is kept in a small tin box, into which is dipped a skewer-like instrument. What opium this implement brings up is held in a small spirit lamp resting on a table between two smoking divans on which smokers recline at full length whilst enjoying this fascinating drug.
“ When the opium on the skewer begins to bubble it is smeared on to the surface of the pipe bowl, and some is inserted into the pin-hole, the skewer being twisted round in order that the hole may not be entirely clogged up. The pipe is then cooked and ready to be smoked ; it is held bowl downwards over the flame of the spirit lamp all the time the opium is being inhaled. It takes at least ten pipes to make one feel drowsy”.
Massacres of Christians by the Heathen Chinese pp. 354-355.

Han Dynasty

Han Dynasty


After the trauma of the Qin dynasty it was the succeeding Han dynasty that established China as a stable nation. Many Imperial institutions inaugurated at this time lasted for the next two thousand years. Together with the Tang and Ming it is considered one of the great periods of Chinese history.

Suppression of Opium Trade

In 1838 Commissioner Lin Zexu was sent by the Emperor to stamp out the opium trade in Guangzhou. The reaction by Britain was to circumvent the ban. Lin Zexu had learned that England was ruled by a young girl (Queen Victoria), and the Emperor sent 'instructions' to her to demand that she suppressed the trade. The letter never reached her, and would have been ignored if it had. After being forced offshore the opium traders still managed to sell their opium by using small boats at night, Lin then imposed a blockade to starve them out. The dispute became entangled with other issues after the death of a Chinese seaman Lin Weixi, the Chinese demanded the British sailor who had beaten him to death to be handed over to Chinese justice, which would have meant certain death. The British investigated and found Lin Weixi had been beaten with sticks by sailors and could not find any grounds for any particular sailor to be implicated and in any case the charge would have been manslaughter not murder. The dispute escalated between Lin Zexu and Captain Elliot, with Lin Zexu demanding Elliot to stand trial if the culprit was not handed over. The British were able to take a high moral stance on the grounds of defense against barbaric Chinese justice; allowing them to feel virtuous even if they could not defend their trade in opium. The Emperor grew annoyed with Lin Zexu's apparent prevarication and replaced him with a Manchu Qishan , a cousin of the Emperor; this proved equally unwise. Lin Zexu's approach was to give no ground and no compromise was possible with him, Qishan on the other-hand quickly negotiated an apparent permanent cessation of barely inhabited Hong Kong island at the Convention of Chuenpee . When the Emperor learned of this unsanctioned deal, Qishan was removed from office and banished.

Even Lin Zexu later admitted that the Emperor's intervention came too late; if it had come twenty or ten years earlier the opium addiction could have been controlled. By 1840 so many traders at Guangzhou had become rich from the trade, indeed it was said that anyone traveling from Guangdong province was under suspicion of being an opium dealer. The bribes and cuts through handling the drug formed a huge network of traders and officials complicit in the trade, and their loyalties could not be trusted. Before hostilities commenced, the loyalty of Guangzhou traders was often with foreign barbarians bringing valuable goods rather than a remote Emperor of foreign Manchu blood imposing his will. Southern China had for centuries been allowed to trade quietly on its own terms without much Imperial control.

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The Opium War

Open hostilities commenced and Lord Palmerston responded by sending gun-boats to, ostensibly, protect British ships and sailors. This force in 1840 sought to negotiate with the Emperor a solution to hostilities, when they were rebuffed, the superior British naval force attacked key ports along the coast (Fuzhou; Xiamen; Ningbo; Tianjin) and threatened Nanjing. A great weakness of the Chinese position was that they repeatedly gave false accounts of easy victories over the English. This was partly because a Chinese commander would gain promotion for such a victory, and what actually happened was difficult to know with any certainty. And so the Chinese leadership were fed a diet of misleading and outrageously inventive tales. The British force grew to 10,000 men and 14 steamships. The force sailed up the Eastern coast and took Dinghai, Zhejiang . On many occasions the Chinese defense was halfhearted with abandonment of positions after only initial shots fired. At one time the honorable side of the British idea of warfare was exposed when they had heard that Admiral Guan 'had lost his button' after fighting bravely but in vain, they searched the battlefield and returned a 'button' to the Chinese. In fact 'losing a button' had the meaning that the Admiral had been demoted by the Emperor because of his defeat. Perhaps the propaganda pamphlet written by Marjoribanks 'A brief Sketch of British Character and Policy' had had its effect, many Han Chinese blamed the Manchu overlords as much as the British for their predicament. The naval force went on take Ningbo easily and then Shanghai and most of Zhejiang province. Some measure of the incompetence of the Chinese defense can be seen from the behavior of the Emperor's cousin Prince Yijing . He was appointed General and at once he employed a team of learned scholars to write up their forthcoming, supposedly inevitable, victory. All the Chinese age old war tactics failed to work, the British knew about such things as fire boats and night attacks; so Britain gained an easy victory. An attempt to retake Ningbo ended in many Chinese deaths and a humiliating defeat. Superstition paid a major part in the attack, the tiger was considered the totem that would defeat the British so the attack took place on a tiger day in a tiger month at a tiger hour. The British then sailed up the Yangzi River with the aim of splitting off southern from northern China and seized the important city of Zhenjiang and threatened the major city of Nanjing. In the conflict about 20,000 Chinese were killed or injured but tellingly only 69 killed and 451 wounded amongst the British. More British died of disease than in the conflict.

The Emperor capitulated and at the Treaty of Nanjing (1842) acceded to British demands, giving them Hong Kong island in perpetuity and free access to ports including Shanghai. The foreign enclaves in these treaty ports became subject to foreign law (extra-territoriality) and not Chinese law. America keen not to be left out of trade agreements sent a mission headed by Caleb Cushing and exacted similar concessions from China soon after in 1843.

When the British parliament came to vote on the Opium War on April 7th 1840 (only after hostilities had begun) William Ewart Gladstone spoke passionately against the shamefulness of the war and Palmerston only won by seven votes. Before the conflict, the Rev. A.S. Thelwall had published a book 'The Iniquities of the Opium Trade with China' in 1839, which caused a bit of a stir, so it is unfair to implicate all British people with the 'crime' of the trade. It is significant that Sir George Staunton , who served as a page boy in the ill-fated MacCartney embassy of 1794 spoke in favor of the war, even though he had been given a gift by the hands of the Emperor himself.

Beijing, Old Summer Palace, architecture, ruin
Ruins of the Old Summer Palace (Yuan ming Yuan) Beijing. It was destroyed by British and French Army in the Second Opium War
The Chinese Stars

The Chinese Stars


The Chinese system of astronomical observation is as ancient and distinctly different that as that developed in Europe and the Middle East. More emphasis was put on the moon than the sun and stars were arranged into groups according to a view of the Imperial system.

Second Opium War

The deal did not bring lasting peace. Local Chinese officials reacted to the humiliation of the treaty by not sticking to the agreement. Using the excuse of the Chinese boarding of a British ship, the 'Arrow' in 1856 by Chinese, U.K. Prime Minister Lord Palmerston sent back the gun-boats . The Taiping Rebellion had by then taken hold in southern China and Britain found itself having to deal with two regimes in China. British interest at the time was not focused on China, for the Crimean War (1853-56) had started and Russia was the chief threat and enemy; the Great Game with Russia over control of Central Asia was in full play. In the Second Opium War the British had French support (America, France, Germany, Japan were all keen to open up trade with China) and once more attacked Tianjin and the Dagu forts Taku WG that protected Beijing. The result was more Chinese humiliation, the European weaponry was far superior to anything the Chinese had to offer. The Treaty of Tianjin (1858) imposed more onerous conditions on China including the legalization of the opium trade. The Emperor Xianfeng still refused to deal directly with the Anglo-French forces. He fled to Mongolia and the expeditionary Anglo-French force burnt his Summer Palace to the ground after looting it. The pretext for the raid was that a peace mission including Henry Loch ; Harry Parkes and some journalists had been incarcerated and tortured with several members dying as a result. A Pekingese dog was captured and presented to Queen Victoria who named it 'Looty '. Lord Elgin entered Beijing and forced China to sign the Convention of Beijing in 1860 giving away yet more control over trade to the Europeans. Inland China was opened up to foreign Christian missionaries. The opium trade continued with up to 10% of the population smoking opium by 1900, with a high proportion of low ranking officials among the addicts. Even Dowager Empress Cixi took opium, and in her edict of 1906 banning the taking of opium absolved all those over sixty years old (including herself) from the law.

Not all Europeans rejoiced in the destruction of the Summer Palace, no less a writer than Victor Hugo lamented the loss.

Once in a distant corner of the world, there was a great wonder, a wonder known as the Summer Palace. Everything born of the imagination of an almost superhuman people was there... Build a dream of marble, of jade and bronze; cover it with porcelain; cover it with precious stones; drape it in silk; make of it a sanctuary, a harem, a citadel; fill it with gods and monsters; varnish it, enamel it, gild it, adorn it; let poet-architects build the thousand and one dreams of the thousand and one nights; add gardens and ponds, fountains of water and foam, swans, ibises and peacocks, a dazzling cavern of the human imaginations...

It had taken the patient work of generations to create it, and people spoke of the Parthenon of Greece, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Coliseum of Rome, the Summer Palace of the Orient... This wonder is no more.

There came a day when two bandits entered that Palace. One plundered it, the other put it to the torch. Involved in this we find the name of Elgin , which fatally reminds us of the Parthenon. What one Elgin began at the Parthenon has now been repeated at the Summer Place, but more completely, such that nothing at all remains. All the treasures of all our cathedrals taken together would not have equaled this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. A great exploit, a true godsend! One of the conquerors filled his pockets, the other his coffers, and the two returned to Europe arm in arm, in laughter.

We Europeans are civilized, and to us the Chinese are barbarians. Here is what civilization has done to barbarism!

History shall call one of these bandits France, the other England. But I protest!

The French Empire has pocketed half the spoils of this victory, and today, with a proprietor's naiveté, it displays the splendid bric-a-brac of the Summer Palace. But I hope the day will come when France, cleansed and delivered, will return its booty to despoiled China.

Until then, when we have is theft, and two thieves.

I take note.

Such Sir, is the degree of approbation I bestow upon the China expedition.

Victor Hugo

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Taiping Context

The second Opium War took place at the same time as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) and China's weakness must be seen in the context of a sideshow compared to this devastating Civil War. In 1860 one third of China (and the most prosperous parts) were under Taiping control. The foreigners could threaten to support the Taiping rebels in the power play against the Qing Imperial system. Indeed foreign arms and tactical support was being provided to both sides of the Rebellion. The two Opium Wars compared to the Taiping Rebellions were skirmishes. In the 2nd Opium War 2,000 Allies (Britain; America; France) were killed compared to 30,000 Chinese. The Taiping rebellion cost something like 25,000,000 Chinese lives.

Within China the world view changed, China was not the only major nation in the world. Other nations were not just irritating gnats biting the central behemoth. China had to understand foreign perspectives and no longer ignore all things non-Chinese.

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Citation information: Chinasage, 'Opium Wars 1839-1860', last updated 30 Nov 2016, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/opiumwars.htm.

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