Opium Wars with China 1839-1860

A good introduction to the Opium Wars waged by the British Empire against China. An important subject since it goes a long way towards explaining what is left unsaid, rather than what is visible, in the nowadays relationships between China and the United Kingdom and more generally, the West.

First appeared on Chinasage

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 出自清朝时期 under a Creative Commons license.

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.”

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

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, pomelos 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.