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