How was China before the Opium War

First opium war

HEIC Nemesis destroys a Chinese junk

The First opium war was a military conflict between Great Britain and the Chinese Empire of the Qing Dynasty from 1839 to 1842. As a result of the war, China was forced to open its markets and, in particular, to tolerate the opium trade.


Since the first appearance of European merchants off the coasts of the Chinese Empire in the 16th century, the Middle Kingdom had subjected maritime trade with foreign countries to various restrictions. In the end it was only possible via the port of Canton. The Europeans had to live there in a kind of ghetto and, when communicating with the Chinese trading houses, had to rely on merchants from the so-called Cohong guild and the court-appointed trade officials ("Hoppo" 關 部guan1bu4, Chinese customs director in Canton). As a rule, they were helplessly exposed to their various harassments, such as administrative price fixing.

Until around 1820, the bilateral trade balance was always clearly in favor of the Chinese, as the Europeans usually had little to oppose to the coveted Chinese export items such as tea and silk. The associated foreign exchange outflows to China led to a noticeable shortage of silver in Europe, which in turn had fatal effects on the national economies there.

From around 1820 the British East India Company systematically increased the export of Bengali opium to China. Between 1821 and 1837 alone, the amount handled increased fivefold. This led to increasing problems in the Chinese administration and a trade deficit on the Chinese side. Not least because of concerns about the outflow of silver abroad, Emperor Daoguang endeavored for years emphatically, but with moderate success, to curb the opium trade: the British opium trade continued to grow unhindered.


In 1838, the emperor therefore finally sent the top official Lin Zexu to canton as a special commissioner. His campaign against Chinese consumers and middlemen, based on a mixture of intelligence and repression, was still relatively successful: by mid-July 1839, over 1,600 Chinese had been arrested and 73,000 kg of opium and 70,000 opium pipes had been confiscated.

Between 1830 and 1840, the East India Company became one of the largest drug cartels the world had ever seen. To this end, she had expanded her influence in China, the Philippines and Java on various occasions. The company remedied its critical shortage of cash to buy tea, silk and china by exporting tons of opium produced in India to China. Due to their economic interests, the foreign traders showed little cooperation and massively pushed the illegal import of opium into China. The situation escalated when, on March 24, 1839, under an imperial edict of March 18 banning foreigners from the opium trade in China, Lin interned 350 foreigners involved in the opium trade in their factories. This was the only way he managed to get over 22,000 boxes (= 1400 tons) of opium from the British superintendent for trade, Charles Elliot, officially to protect the Chinese population from further drug addiction. He had the opium burned near Humen from 3 to 23 June 1839 and then flushed into the sea.


Despite energetic intervention by the predominantly British opium dealers and the East India Company, the British House of Commons refrained from formally declaring war on China. It only approved the dispatch of a fleet that was supposed to demand “satisfaction and reparation” from the emperor and, if necessary, take Chinese property as pledge.

In the summer of 1839, Admiral George Elliot set sail with 16 warships with 540 cannons and a crew of 4,000. At the same time, on August 23, his cousin, Superintendent Charles Elliot, occupied Hong Kong Island as a base of operations. In this context, a Chinese man was murdered by drunken British sailors. However, Great Britain refused to extradite the perpetrators to the Chinese judiciary and brought them to a British court in Canton. In June 1840 the British fleet arrived in China, where after skirmishes with Chinese war junks they secured the mouths of the Pearl River (Hong Kong), the Yangtze River (Ningbo and Zhoushan) and finally the Beihai (Tianjin) one after the other by leaving some ships behind.

In January 1841, Charles Elliot signed an agreement with the governor-general of Tianjin, Qishan, in which the Chinese undertook to cede Hong Kong, pay war compensation of 6 million silver dollars, and allow the Europeans to have direct contact with the Qing government. The agreement met with rejection from both Emperor Daoguang and British Prime Minister Palmerston. The latter then replaced Charles Elliot with Sir Henry Pottinger and instructed him to continue the war.

In late August 1841, Pottinger's fleet captured the cities of Xiamen, Ningbo, and Zhoushan and blocked several important waterways. After reinforcement troops arrived from India, Shanghai and Zhenjiang fell in the summer of 1842. An offer from China to negotiate was turned down, and the British pushed as far as Nanjing in August. On August 29, 1842, the war ended with the Treaty of Nanking, the first of the so-called Unequal Treaties. Among other things, he obliged the Chinese to open the trading ports of Canton, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Shanghai and Ningbo to foreigners, to tolerate largely unrestricted trade, to cede Hong Kong and to make reparation payments.


The First Opium War ushered in the decline of China from the once absolute hegemonic power of Asia to an informal colony of Western powers that China would remain until the turn of the 20th century. The awareness of one's own superiority over the "barbarians" (sinocentrism), which has persisted since time immemorial, was lastingly shaken by the ease with which the British troops defeated China. In particular, the reputation of the Manchurian foreign-ruled Qing dynasty was also impaired, which - in addition to the continued forced import of opium by the British and the obligation to subject all British citizens in the Chinese Empire to British law - led to considerable domestic political instability and possibly also to Taiping Riot and other civil unrest.

At the same time, through the forced opening of its markets and its society, China involuntarily stepped out of its self-imposed economic isolation from the Europeans and found a long-term connection to the developments of the modern age. China was forced to give up its economic protectionism. According to Chinese historiography, it is not for nothing that the “modern history” of China begins with the First Opium War.

What the Chinese and other peoples of the region still remember today are the means used by the European countries to open up China: the import of opium through military force to enforce colonial economic interests. After China's defeat, it was forced to resume drug trafficking and relinquish Hong Kong.


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