Mar 30, 2020 in Informative

Aspects of the Opium War (1839-1842)


At the beginning of the XIX century, Qin dynasty continued to pursue the policy of isolation from the rest of the world. However, this situation could no longer hold many European powers that were at a stage of rapid economic growth and needed new markets for their goods, cheap sources of raw materials and labor.

The middle of the XIX century became a crucial period in the history of China. This change had been associated with violent familiarization of Chinese society with forms of civilization, worked out by the European global development. Capitalism was a social phenomenon of the global order, which had formed in the middle of the XIX century and was based on the world market in the capitalist civilization. The paper will discuss the aspects of cooperation of western powers, and especially England, and China and the efforts to enter the Chinese market more aggressively, which at the time was slightly opened to foreign trade, and caused a military conflict.

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Strengthening of the Chinese Contacts with the Outside World

Chinese Empire was fully capable not only to solve problems in ways repeatedly tested in the history of the Chinese state but also to ensure economic growth (expansion of cultivated areas, increase in manufactured products, population growth, the increasing complexity of trade relations, etc.). However, from the European point of view, it was a "growth without development". This kind of development meant the complexity of technological links between man and nature, the intensification of the technologies. 

At the turn of XVIII-XIX centuries western powers, and especially England, were trying more aggressively to enter the Chinese market, which at that time was slightly opened to foreign trade. Since the second half of the XVIII century, all China's foreign trade could take place only in Guangzhou (except trade with Russia, which was conducted through Kyakhta). All other forms of trade relations with foreigners were prohibited and severely punished under Chinese law. The Chinese government has sought to control the relationship with foreigners, and to this end, the number of Chinese traders, who had been authorized to deal with them, was reduced to a minimum. Only 13 trading firms, constituting the Gunhan corporation, had the right to deal with foreign merchants. They acted under the exacting control of officials, sent from Beijing. “The trade with China that commenced from the seventeen-sixties became increasingly important for the expansion of British commerce overseas”.

Foreign merchants were allowed to stay on the Chinese territory only within a small concession, located near Guangzhou. But they could stay on the territory of the settlement only for a few months in summer and spring. Chinese authorities sought to prevent the spread of information among foreigners about China, believing that they could be used to penetrate into the country without going through the bureaucratic control. Chinese themselves were forbidden under penalty of death to teach foreigners the Chinese language. Moreover, even the export of books was banned, since they could also be used to study the Chinese language and to obtain information about the country. Chinese were not able either to change their associations with outside nations and people groups when all is said in done and the relationship amongst Chinese and Western culture specifically, or to determine issues of the advanced change of Chinese culture.

 A difficult task was set for the ruling circles of England - to achieve from the Chinese government broader opening of the Chinese state to foreign trade and setting the contractual legal basis. The problem of change of structure of trade relations between two states was also important. “They involved Britain’s determination to force China into the modern, industrial global economy against their will, and to use opium as their major import to exchange for China’s commodities of silk and tea—a tactic violently opposed by the Chinese”.

The Aggravation of the Anglo-Chinese Relations

Attempts of England to establish diplomatic relations with the Chinese empire on the basis of the principles adopted in the European world, taken at the end of XVIII - the beginning of the XIX century, were unsuccessful. In 1793, a mission led by Lord George McCartney was sent to China. It was a widely educated man and an experienced diplomat, who headed the British Embassy in Russia for several years. The mission was sent at the expense of the British East India Company, but it represented the interests of the British government. McCartney arrived in China on board the 66-cannon warship, accompanied by a large number of representatives of the academic and cultural circles of Britain. The expedition consisted of two vessels laden with product samples produced by the British industry. “China would have actually benefited from the increase in trade – had it not arrived through gunboats”.

The talks were held in an atmosphere of rather mutual benevolence, than hostility. The British mission was graciously accepted by Emperor Qianlong, though not expressed a desire to meet the British proposals. Britain could at best become for the government of the Celestial Empire dependent barbaric state with which China would maintain friendly relations. The English envoys were told that China had everything needed and it did not need the English goods, samples of which were brought by McCartney, were taken as a tribute. Thus, China rejected the offer to join the world of modern economic and international relations on an equal basis. Nevertheless, the Chinese sovereign power from the moral and legal point of view had the right to maintain its isolation and almost complete isolation from the outside world.

So, in the first decades of the XIX century, there were sharp differences in the relations between China and the West, primarily China and Britain: trade between the two sides expanded, changing its character, but there were no international legal institutions that could regulate it. The problem of changing the nature of trade between the two countries not contradicting the principles of the British mercantilist policy was equally difficult for the English side. However, the Chinese internal market was focused on local production. The words uttered by Emperor Qianlong about the presence of everything that he could wish in the country were ascertaining the real situation.

English merchants tried hard to find a product that would be accepted by the Chinese market. At the end of the XVIII century there began to appear the outlines of the following configuration of trade relations in the Far East. England supplied fabric factory production to India, the Chinese market received these goods from India. However, the Chinese market had not sought to take not only the English cloth but also cotton from India. Yet such an important product was eventually found - it was opium, which traditional producer was the Mughal empire before its transformation into a British colony.

That opium as perhaps the most convenient commodity for trade with China was elected by the English merchants as a means of leveling the trade balance between the countries. In India, the poppy cultivation had been turned into a monopoly of the East India Company, obliging Indian farmers produce this plant and take it as tax collectors companies. The merchants, who had a patent of the company, brought it to the Chinese coast. Opium was sold there to Chinese merchants, of course, for money, which is subsequently used for the purchase of tea, and other products that were interesting for England. Thus, from the point of view of the commercial interests, the British problem was solved: silver continued to feed the arteries of the British economy and at the same time imports from China continued to grow. “Opium was an important element in Sino-British trade and relations even after renewed Chinese prohibition in 1821”.

But the arisen situation had certain moral aspect clearly aware of both the West and the East. Trade in opium was quite rightly considered by public opinion in England and in China as immoral, undignified way of solving business problems. The leadership of the East India Company's banned the spread of opium in British India and its export to China was sought to present as a private matter of merchants, who traded with that country.  The representatives of the opposition in the British Parliament repeatedly criticized the opium trade. In China, the import of opium was repeatedly banned by imperial decree. “Opium smoker was an accurate reflection of the average Chinese man”.

Very powerful commercial, and as a consequence - political interests were affected in the case of the opium trade. So its voluntary termination by the British could not become real under the pressure of moral motives. The only force that could stop this trade was the Chinese government that was increasingly concerned about the developing situation. But the accepted orders were not executed. Not far from the Chinese coast, in Guangzhou, foreigners made a floating warehouse where opium was stored and where Chinese traders received it. Local Chinese authorities could not, and partly did not want to put an end to smuggling since they themselves were interested in this fishery. From extravagance to need, opium experienced diverse stages; distinctive images and values were developed and credited to it. It served in various purposes.

In 1836-1838 according to the orders of the Emperor the most influential power officials took part in the discussion of the current situation - they were invited to send to the capital the memoranda outlining the program of measures necessary to stop the opium trade. The Chinese government developed two directions, which proponents tried to solve the problem were diametrically opposite. One group offered to legalize the opium trade and thus increase the revenue of the treasury, as in this case, the trade would pass through Chinese customs, rather than bypassing it. Another group of officials, on the other hand, advocated using the most drastic measures to put an end to the penetration of opium country. The episode of the Opium Wars and the results of those wars significantly shook China's conventional society and customary culture.

In March 1839 Guangzhou Emperor ordered Chinese traders to stop the opium trade, he ordered to confiscate their opium, as well as to withdraw it from the landlords of institutions, attended by addicted to drugs. In addition, he turned to foreign traders to immediately deliver all opium to the Chinese authorities and to give a written promise not to engage in the future this kind of trade. Western learning, attended as it was by brutal invasions and a pernicious opium trade, met with instinctive opposition from the Chinese.

Negotiations headed by Charles Elliot, a spokesman for the British government to control trade in Guangzhou, stalled. The British agreed to transfer the drug stocks that were in the territory of their factories. These stocks were little more than 1 thousand of opium boxes, while the floating warehouses stored more than 20 thousand. Stiffness and perseverance shown by Lin Zexu had an effect, and the British agreed to surrender and give back their opium, many of them even signed a written promise not to engage in the future in this fishery (though that promise was later broken). For nearly two months, representatives of the Chinese authorities were engaged in the confiscation of huge reserves poisonous potion, which was concentrated near the Chinese coast. More than three weeks it took to destroy the confiscated goods. However, all these measures not only defused the situation, but it heated up even more. The British were determined to take revenge by using the action taken by Lin Zexu, to start a war against China. In November 1839 there was the first major clash between the British warships and ships of the Chinese navy. However, technically, none of the parties announced the beginning of the war. “In those days, formality and habit required at the start of a war a declaration to that effect”.

Warfare During the Opium War

In the spring 1840 issue of the war against China was discussed in the House of Commons and, in spite of the strong opposition to direct military intervention in the UK event in China, it was decided not formally to declare war, to send the naval squadron to the Chinese coast. In June 1840 The English fleet, which consisted of 20 warships, with the support of several dozen civilian ships had in total on board several hundred cannons and more than 4,000 man squads, struck near the South China coast. “The term ‘Opium War’ was popularized by opposition newspapers such as the Tory Morning Herald and the Chartist Northern Star, and it was meant in an unambiguously pejorative sense, a war begun by opium smugglers and pestiferous smuggling rascals”.

The list of requirements, prepared by the British include: compensation for the confiscated opium; reimbursement of costs for the organization of a military campaign; elimination of barriers to trade; the establishment of equal relations between the two countries, as it was understood by the British; giving the English side of the island near the Chinese coast, which could become a British trading base in China.

Military operations were planned in several places. Initially, military action could be concentrated in the south, in the district of Guangzhou - the main center through which the trade passed. In case if the Chinese government did not respond to it properly, the next place of military action had to become coastal province lower Yangtze. There, the main object of the impact was chosen Zhenjiang city, located in a strategically important area, where the Yangtze River joined the Grand Canal, and Nanjing, the ancient capital of the Celestial Empire. The capture of Zhenjiang had to block the economic ties between the provinces of Central China. The threat of Nanking, as expected, could exert moral and political influence on the Chinese government and to force it to go to the adoption of the English requirements. If the victory of the British weapons at the second stage of the war would not lead to the desired results, then it supposed to transfer military actions immediately to the north - an offensive in the direction of Beijing was to create a direct threat to the central government. As subsequent events showed, this military-strategic plan was drawn up very well, and later it was this plan that was behind the military campaigns undertaken by foreigners in China.

Blocking Guangzhou, the main part of the British fleet moved along the Chinese coast in the north to reinforce the British demonstration of the full power of modern weapons. The real start of the war could be considered the first step of the squadron to seize Chinese territory. In June 1840 the British troops captured Dinhay city - the administrative center subsequently converted into the base of operations of the invading forces. Then British ships moved farther north and in August appeared on the roads of the port Doug, located in the estuary of river Bay-ho, the capture of which opened the way for foreigners to Beijing. The appearance of the British fleet near the Beijing caused panic in in China. At the start of negotiations, the representatives of the Manchu court insisted on the return of the British fleet on the south, promising that diplomatic contacts would be continued in Guangzhou. The British agreed to these proposals hoping that the demonstration of military power was the best argument in their favor after the reopening of British conditions. Military diaries demonstrate that numerous officers moreover stole for profit.

Until August 1841 the main events related to the Anglo-Chinese conflict developed in Guangzhou. The negotiations were interrupted by the outbreak of hostilities, the British managed to block even the capital of Guangdong province, capturing fortifications were on the approaches to it. English troops, numbering slightly more than 2 thousand soldiers, surrounded one of the largest cities in China, where the garrison numbered more than 20 thousand people, not counting the local population, ready to take up arms and take part in the resistance to the English invasion. Prior to the control of Guangzou in 1841, English officers grabbed a general's toilet pack as a trophy after he relinquished his ship.

The British, realizing that even taking Guangzhou, they were unlikely to force the central government to make concessions, in August 1841 transferred major military operations in the coastal province of river Yangtze. In the spring of 1842, the British Expeditionary Force received new reinforcements: 20 warships arrived from India, accompanied by dozens of ships carrying to China's shores more than 10 thousand British troops. The threat of capturing the ancient Chinese capital became real.

Treaty of Nanjing and the Results of the Conflict

In August 1842 negotiations began between Britain and China, which ended August 26, 1842, with the sealing of the Treaty of Nanking. The fundamental goals, which tried to accomplish the British, were accomplished: China had an obligation to pay a huge indemnity for that timer, in addition, four ports were opened for foreign trade in Guangzhou: Amoy, Fuzhou, Ningbo, Shanghai - with the privilege of changeless home of British exporters; England got an everlasting ownership of Hong Kong and the Gunhan company was replaced. Finally, the agreement included articles relating to the regulation of the customs assessment of British goods. “During the Opium Wars a culture of collecting arose among the British military that revolved around the plunder and purchase of Chinese things”.

The arrangements of the Treaty of Nanking implied not just the foundation of the worldwide legitimate structure of relations amongst China and the West, spoke to for this situation by England that was the first case in Chinese history additionally demonstrated the sort of relationship later on. The participants of the agreement were not equivalent members. China's power over Nanking assertion had been encroached, at minimum twice. China was forced to cede power to a foreign state part of its territory, and also lost the absolute control over its own customs system. The English thus received most importantly, what they wanted, - access to the Chinese market in the conditions most favorable to them. The Chinese had lost power over the state.  The Treaty of Nanking was unjust for China indeed and not simply as far as the political conditions. This understanding started a radical new page in the historical backdrop of the Chinese state - as a feature of a reliant fringe of the world industrialist framework. In addition, thus they laid the preconditions for the formation of Chinese nationalism, which was based on the desire for national liberation and reconstruction of a fully sovereign state.


The Opium War was a terrible national humiliation for China, which until that time considered itself the only center of civilization. The understanding that completed the First Opium War tied the hands of the Chinese government to actualize strategies went for keeping up a national venture, if the Chinese government chose to talk from the position of protectionism. Later, in the XX century, the battle for the recuperation of traditional self-rule was a standout amongst the most imperative regions of the national actions. However, there was another side to the effects of this conflict - China became open to Western technology and innovation, the western system of education and medicine. Modern missionary schools and hospitals were set up across the country, but the price for such progress was paid very high.

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