China and the Modern World System

Origins of the 1st Opium War 


By the 1740's the English became tired of the Canton customs system and the greedy Imperial Household officials.

The EIC seemed to have only one recourse left and that was to appeal to the Ch'ien Lung Emperor himself.

Influenced by Chinese diplomatic rhetoric which promised to "nourish men from afar", company translator named James Flint sailed to Tientsin in 1759 and handed officials there a painfully written memorial written in Chinese to be submitted to Bejing.

When Flint's memorial arrived, Ch'ien lung was aghast at the barbarian's brashness.

Foreigners had been forbidden to learn Chinese, since classical literacy was itself a form of power.

In addition the right to memorialize was a jealously guarded prerogative of top officials, for Flint the barbarian to do this showed that he didn't know the proper relationship between the superior and an inferior.

Ch'ien lung had Flint banished, his Chinese tutors were executed, the responsible CoHong merchants disciplined and all future trade in perpetuity would be restricted to Canton.

During the period from 1760 to 1833, the EIC company traded solely at Canton, where commerce settled into an even more fixed routine.

At Canton English ship from India, England and later the United States would arrive.

The merchants lived with the other Western trader in the 13Factories, which was a row of warehouses, offices and residences walled into a thin strip along the Canton waterfront.

On Sundays and holidays Europeans were permitted brief excursions outside but the rest of the time was spent under guard in their walled areas.

 Tea was the reason for the growing entanglement in the Canton system.

 England's early trade with China dealt in what were essentially luxury items and medicinal herbs.

 In the 18th century tea gradually became a national beverage in England, until the average London worker spent 5% of his total
household budget on it.

 Thus, instead of importing Chinese goods for only the wealthy, the EIC found itself merchandising a product comparable to tobacco which everyone consumed.

 As the demand for tea rose, EIC cargoes of tea rose seven fold.

 By 1800 the company was investing 4 million British Pounds a year in teas, and the China tea trade had become a major source of revenue for the English government which imposed a 100% excise tax on EIC tea imports.

The company itself was forced to compete with interlopers and illegal smugglers of tea to England by buying and cornering as much tea as possible.


Now more than ever the EIC could not afford to give up the tea trade. The company's conquest of India begun at the battle of Plessey in 1757 was a costly venture which was financed by loans from the English crown.


By the early 1800's the EIC debt had grown to 28,000,000 pounds and the only way to repay the debt was to continue the triangular trade between England, India and China.


At first the English tried to export Indian cotton to China in an attempt to reduce the trade deficit.


The China trade in Indian cotton did not alone suffice to generate enough cash to buy all the tea that the EIC required.


China began producing its own cotton.


England then tried to export woolen goods to China.


This trade in English woolen goods was an abject failure as the Chinese didn't like the texture of wool and thought it inferior to its silk textiles.


To continue the tea trade the EIC accounts had to be supplemented by importing silver bullion into China from the mines of Peru and Mexico.


During the 18th century tens of millions of silver pesos flowed from the dominions of New Spain into China's coastal ports.


The EIC then in 1773 persuaded the English crown to pass on the cost of doing business to the consumers, especially those in the colonies.


In the 13 colonies in North America this sparked off the BostonÜf_Ü
Tea Party which helped to provoke the American Revolution which cut England off from Mexican silver.


Consequently, the EIC desperately needed some commodity to ease the trade deficit and then found it in the importation of opium.


Opium had been used as a medicine in China for over 1,000 years.


The Dutch had introduced tobacco and the Chinese had learned to smoke opium with tobacco.


During the 18th century a purer form of opium had spread through the empire despite prohibitions of the practice.


In the later 1700's the use of the drug increased sharply.


It has been hypothesized that the use of opium may have been caused by the users attempts to escape from the pressures and social problems of the later Ch'ienİlung reign.


But no doubt the increase in addiction was due to the availability of supply thanks to the EIC.


Aware that the drug sold well in Malaysia and China, the governorİ general of India, Warren Hastings, decided in 1773 to establish an EIC opium monopoly in Bengal.


Indian peasants were encouraged to plant opium poppies by the EIC and sell the raw treacle to company refineries outside of Calcutta, India.


In 1796 the Chinese government reiterated its prohibition of opium smoking.


But the EIC used middlemen to import the opium to Canton and the proceeds were used to fund the company's trade in tea.


During the 19th century opium sales in Canton rose in three dramatic leaps.


The first occurred in 1815 when the EIC lowered the price of patna opium.


The second in 1830 was the result of allowing privately grown opium to pass from western India into China for a small transit fee.


The final leap of 1834 was the highest of all as the EIC lost its monopoly on the China trade and private investments soared.


from 16,000 chests of opium unloaded in Canton, sales jumped the following year to 27,000 chests worth 17,000,000 silver dollars
to the English and Americans who sold the drug.


During the first decade of the 19th century, China's balance of trade was so favorable that 26,000,000 silver pesos were imported into the empire.


As opium consumption rose in the decade of the 1830's, 34,000,000silver pesos were shipped out of the country to pay for the drug.



In England there were numerous ways of justifying this trade.


Apologists insisted that the Western drug dealers were no more reprehensible than the gin merchants. They supplied a product which the Chinese wished in the first place.


The English were also careful to conceal that they distributed free samples of the drug to encourage addiction.


It was opium that bought the tea that serviced the EIC debts and paid the duties of the British crown comprising one sixth of England's revenue.


No one knows for sure the extent of addiction in China, but Chinese authorities conducting surveys estimated that in the city of Soochow alone there were over 100,000 full time addicts in1820.


Confucian political writers alarmed by the spread of opium addiction labeled Christianity as a barbarian toxin, spiritually poisoning the body politic. Now opium appeared to materialize that menace.


Opium was also identified with China's increasing economic difficulties.


By the early 1800's gentry tax evasion in order to consume opium had already increased the financial burdens of the peasantry.


The loss of silver to opium also increased the amount of taxes the peasants had to pay as peasants were forced to use their copper monies to pay inflated prices for pieces of silver just topay their taxes.


As opium imports and addiction continued to rise it was impossible to keep law enforcement officers from turning to corruption.


One of the solutions for the opium problem was legalization, and heavy taxation by the government. This would redress the currency balance as well as provide a major source of revenue for the regime.

Legalization would not however, solve the problem of addiction. Knowing the effects of opium addiction on his subjects the TaoŞkuang Emperor (1821İ1850) could not allow the addiction of an entire nation and culture.


Officials had struck only at the nearest branches of the drug trade by arresting and executing Chinese dealers.


 The Chinese decided that the trunk would have to be severed at its roots in order to cut off the supply of foreign opium even if that meant seizing foreign merchants and provoking armed resistance.


With that strategy in mind Taoİkuang Emperor decided in December of 1838 to dispatch a special commissioner to Canton, named LinTseİhsu who was given executive authority to do whatever possible to stop the opium trade.


Lin had a morally impeccable and politically brilliant service record. He had become a fullİ governor general at the age of 35.


Lin's advice on the opium problem was to attack it on three fronts simultaneously.


Addicts had to be threatened with severe penalties until they gave up the habit and were then provided with medical care to ease their withdrawal symptoms.


Chinese drug dealers had to be rounded up and punished until the domestic distribution network was completely smashed.


And foreign suppliers had to be discouraged from smuggling opium into China by confiscating their stores of the drug and by forcing them to sign bonds of good conduct.


The first two goals were quickly realized when Lin reached Canton in March, 1839. Addicts were rounded up and Chinese dealers were driven underground or arrested.


Lin realized though that to be effective Western smugglers would have to stopped from importing opium.


Lin being a devoted Confucianist assumed that Westerners could not fail to see the superior moral position of the Chinese on this issue, and he wrote a famous letter to Queen Victoria.


Also Lin argued that China could control its own seacoast due toÜf_Ü
the long distance between China and Europe.


Finally, he knew that the foreign factories in Canton were in one place and could easily be cut off from allies at sea, and that they could be virtual hostages of the Chinese.


The first two assumptions of Lin were wrong. English embarrassment over the drug traffic was more than compensated by their smug nationalism and economic convictions.


Due to the huge market that China represented 400 million consumers, the image of all those consumers inspired the free traders to urge the English government to break down the tariff barriers at Canton and widen their access to this huge market.


Also England could rely on the Indian subİcontinent a relatively short distance away. There garrisons, warships and provisions could all be mustered in time of war with China.


Despite the English tactical superiority the British were made aware of the momentary advantage of the Chinese.


On March 24, 1839 Commissioner Lin backed up his demand that the Westerners surrender their opium by surrounding the Factories with Ch'ing troops.


The British superintendent of trade Captain Charles Elliot was forced to surrender his supplies as he was afraid that the Ch'ing troops would massacre the 350 foreign traders.


Elliot promised to reimburse the major opium dealers if they peacefully turned over their stocks of opium to the Chinese.


The firms had not sold a chest of opium for five months and were delighted at the arrangement.


Lin maintained the blockade and was elated at his temporary success.


The opium was destroyed in salt and lime pits outside Canton harbor.


By June 25, 1839 over 21,000 chests or 2.6 million pounds of opium had been destroyed and washed away.


Lin then pulled back his troops and the Westerners fled from Canton to Macao.


Lin's next plan was to have the foreigners sign bonds promising never to deal in the foreign mud again.


This would make the Westerners liable to prosecution under
Chinese law if they were caught breaking the guarantee.


Elliot, in Macao refused to sign the bonds, as the foreigners did not wish to be subject to Chinese laws hampering their trade especially during the age of the free traders.


Lin then retaliated by forbidding all foreign trade in Canton, and the English decided to boycott all trade with the Chinese.


Elliot argued that such a move would eventually precipitate the removal of Lin by the Emperor.


In meantime the English would weather out the storm as pleasantly as possible in Macao.


Commissioner Lin was obliged to refuse the English that comfort.


Personally leading troops to Macao, he convinced the Portuguese authorities to expel the English who left in their ships and anchored off the vacant coastline of what would later be Hong Kong.


Lin then ordered his forces to prevent the English from landing at Hong Kong for food and water.


This provoked the first shots of the yet undeclared OPium War.


When the English ships supplies ran out on September 4, 1839 Elliot ordered a party ashore under the guns of the warship Vogue which fired on an encampment of Chinese troops.


The British and Chinese again clashed in November and this engagement cost the Chinese four war junks.


The very next day the English PM Lord Palmerston sent a naval expedition to China.


Palmerston's decision was not universally applauded. English public opinion was split on the opium issue, but their existed a powerful China lobby in London that was backed by important financial interests in England.


The Opium War (1839İ1842) passed through two distinct phases. The first under Captain Elliot's command lasted until the summer of 1841 and resulted in an abortive peace.


The second phase begun in the spring of 1842, by a new leader Henry Pottinger ended with the defeat of China.


During the 1st phase Elliot sailed north.

The appearance of enemy vessels in the North China Sea alarmed the court which until then had been receiving favorable reports from Canton.


The emperor was furious and fired Lin for misleading him.


The emperor then gave Lin's job to Ch'I-san.


Ch'iİsan met with Elliot, negotiated with him in the South, but both governments refused the treaty.


Both officials were punished Elliot by being stripped of his command and Ch'iİsan by having his fortune confiscated after being brought back to Bejing in chains.


The second phase of the war, under Pottinger's command was a more thoroughly planned military venture.


Pottinger's strategy was based of the London China lobby to cut the empire in two at the Yangtze, sealing off the North from the tributary grain of central and south China.


The British occupation of Ningpo gave the Chinese to test their infantry strength against the British.


But the campaign was an unmitigated disaster for the Chinese due to poor military tactics, a lack of strategic coordination, British artillery, and advanced military technology of the English.


Later in 1842 entire garrisons of Manchu bannermen fought to the death, their wives committing suicide rather than surrender. Although the English did not march into China completely unopposed, the Ch'ing military machine was rusty.


By the summer of 1842 the Yangtze River lay open to the British as far as Nanking, and in August their vessels reached the outskirts of the old Ming capital and prepared to shell the city.


If so symbolic a city fell to the enemy, Taoİkuang understood that his mandate might be in jeopardy.


The emperor felt he had no choice but to accept England's demands and sign a peace agreement.


The Treaty of Nanking forced harsh concessions on the defeated Chinese.

1. The cession of Hong kong to the British

2. The opening of five treaty ports at Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo and Shanghai to foreign consuls, businessmen and missionaries.

3. The payment of indemnity of 21 million silver dollars to the British crown.

4. The abolishment of the Cohong monopoly.

5. The establishment of a moderate tariff.Ŝ_JŜ

6. Foreign officials would have equal status and free access to Chinese officials.

7. Extraterritoriality.

8. The adoption of MostİFavored Nation principle in diplomatic agreements with Western countries.


The war had begun over the opium traffic, but English victory did not actually result in its legalization.


The war provided an opportunity to force China to abandon its traditional tributary diplomacy an deal with Western nations on their own terms.



According to the mostİ favored nation clause, any concession granted by China to one country automatically extended to other treaty signatories as well.


The initial response of the Ch'ing held that all concessions should be resisted as appeasement would bleed China dry.


The barbarians should be kept at length so that China could study the West and rebuild its economy and militaries and eventually expel the foreigners altogether.


Yet conservatives realized that to study and emulate the West, China's own cultural standards would be jeopardized.


If scientists and scholars were encouraged to command the empires defenses what role would be left for Confucian ritualists andclassical scholars.


The influence of the conservatives won out and China postponed acquiring Western military technologies and techniques until it was far too late to resist Imperialism.


The war did have major social effects, provoking a wave of disorder in southeastern China that continued to swell even after the treaty was signed.


Triad secret societies recruited widely in the midİ1840's while the British navy drove pirates away from the coast and up the rivers into the highlands above the Canton delta.


There were many psychological effects of the war.


China could no longer be regarded as the Middle Kingdom, it was no longer the center of the universe, England and Europe was.


The Cantonese had watched the gunboat Nemesis command all the water ways, and sink Chinese warships with impunity.


Most hated the West but at the same time felt its influence overpowering enough to consider its new and alien doctrines and ideologies.


Among the group susceptible to Western influence and especially Christianity were the Hakkas, northern Chinese immigrants in the south who were the object of discrimination.


The Hakka were a very literate people who in return for the discrimination they received feuded with the peoples of the south.


During the 1850's these communal wars took the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.


The Hakka's also played an instrumental role in the Taiping Revolution for they formed the core cadre of the revolution and it was the Hakka visionary Hung Hsiuİch'uan whose mystic revelations inspired a rebellion that turned into a Revolution which was the major turning point of 19th century history.