The Opium Wars

The Opium Wars were two conflicts fought between China and Western powers in the 1800s. Caused as much by incompatible world views, pride and misunderstandings on both sides as it was by opium and European demands on an increasing troubled Qing Dynasty, the Opium Wars signaled the beginning of a new era in Chinese history. China was defeated in both wars, weakening the legitimacy and power of the Qing Dynasty in the face of other internal and external crises. While the Opium Wars are generally forgotten in the West today, the impact of the conflict shaped the course of China for well over a century and remains a contentious and pivotal topic in modern Chinese history.

From its inception in the 1700s, trade with China had been profitable as well as frustrating for European powers. European markets craved Chinese goods in the form of silks, tea and porcelain. For the British, tea became an everyday staple of life in high demand and it was Chinese tea that was dumped into Boston Harbor by American revolutionaries. Yet European traders could not find any goods equally in demand by Chinese markets. The Qing court did not regard overseas trade as vital and accepted only silver in exchange for Chinese goods, a stipulation that kept an excellent balance of trade for China but put tremendous pressure on the British. In search of a product that could traded in place of silver, British merchants found their answer in opium. Opium as a drug had been illegal in China since 1729, yet quickly found popularity in China, especially among the military. By the mid-1800s it is likely that ten percent of the population was addicted. The drug also helped the British recoup the debt from the conquest of India, as British opium came from the poppy fields of India, making the subcontinent profitable after the collapse of the cotton market earlier in the 1800s.

Although named for the drug trade, the root causes of the First Opium War include other factors. The British were committed to the concept of free trade, aggressively opening new markets for their products and a new found European model of international behavior forged in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. To the British, Qing China represented all that was wrong and backwards in a nation, as the Qing government hampered free trade, blocked access to markets and refused European ambassadors and missions. Accepting the European demands was deeply against the Qing worldview, as such an action would place European powers on the levels of equals. The lack of free trade and access to Chinese markets greatly frustrated the British government, as did the Qing refusal to accept a European framework of (nominally) equal nation-states.

By the 1830s, tensions between the British and the Empire of the Qing were on the rise. While increasing amounts of smuggled opium and the related loss of silver income greatly concerned Chinese authorities, Europeans chafed at the restrictions placed upon China trade by the Qing. Western traders were confined to the city of Canton in the south of China, conducting business through Chinese intermediaries. In the Qing court, the imperial government found itself split on opinions as to how to combat the problem. Some ministers backed legalization and taxation while others stood by the 1729 ban. The Daoguang Emperor, finding the situation unacceptable, decided to enforce the ban and appointed Lin Zexu as commissioner to handle the problem. Lin traveled to Canton and demanded all opium be turned over to him. When the demand was refused, Lin ordered the blockade of the Canton port. An uproar ensued among the Europeans and Americans, especially among merchants not involved in the opium trade. To mollify the opium traders and reopen the port, British commissioner Charles Elliot announced that the British government would compensate traders for the loss of their opium. The staggering amount of over two and a half million pounds of opium (1,210,000 kg) was handed over and Lin Zexu had the drugs dumped into the Pearl River. Elliot then demanded compensation from the Chinese government, which was refused on the grounds that opium was illegal in China. However, Commissioner Elliot’s decision to offer compensation to the merchants put the British government in a bind. By honoring the repayment, the British government would be admitting to complicity in the drug trade, as well as taking on a fairly substantial monetary burden. Adding to the British desire for war was the realization that armed conflict could be the means to obtain concessions from China. Although some voices dissented, the British empire decided on war.

British forces mobilized from from India in 1840. Although on land British marines were repulsed at several points by Chinese troops, at sea the technological advances of the industrial age gave the British unparalleled naval superiority. The British were able to take Canton and Shanghai and win several major battles. After destroying the forts guarding the mouth of the Yangtze river, the British fleet sailed up the river, capturing the vital Qing tax barges full of silver and occupying Nanjing. The barges held the fiscal means for the Qing government to operate and put immense financial strain on the empire. Seeing little potential resolution to the war and with other foreign and domestic crises draining manpower and the imperial treasury, the Qing government relented. The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, which gave the British much of what they wanted. China paid a large indemnity to Britain, following the European practice of a defeated power paying the war costs of the victor. Five new ports were opened to trade including the modern financial center of Shanghai and Hong Kong was ceded to Britain. British citizens could now live on mainland China and conduct business without the Canton system, as well as enjoying the right of extraterritoriality. Similar treaties were soon signed with the United States and Russia. The Treaty of Nanjing was the first of the “unequal treaties,” so called because they imposed limits and demands upon China without any reciprocal action by the Western powers. The treaties also compromised the ability of the Qing court to operate as a sovereign nation and began the rising tide of anti-Manchu sentiment that would cumulate in the Revolution of 1911.

The Second Opium War began in 1856. Although named for opium, the drug was only a small part of the cause for the conflict. Britain was eager to gain more concessions from China such as legalizing the opium trade and allowing a British ambassador to Beijing. The seizure by Qing authorities of a illegally British flagged ship named the Arrow in 1856 provided the impetus for war. British forces mounted attacks on Guangzhou and destroyed Chinese war junks. After calling for an alliance with the United States, Russia and France, only France joined on the pretext of retaliation for the murder of a French missionary. In 1857 British and French forces pressed new attacks, capturing Guangzhou and destroying the Taku forts near Tianjin. By 1858 a treaty had been arranged to end the conflict. However, after initially agreeing to the treaty, the Qing government reversed its stance and dispatched troops to the Taku forts. After a series of battles and engagements, the allied forces were in position to march on Beijing. A diplomatic end to the war was averted by the arrest of the British envoy and the execution of several members of his party. At the Battle of Palikao the Anglo-French forces destroyed a Manchu army and entered Beijing. The Summer Place was looted and the Old Summer Palace was looted and burned by British and French troops as a message to discourage the killing of Western civilians. The Xianfeng Emperor fled Beijing and the negotiations resumed under his brother, Prince Gong. The Treaty of Tianjin was signed, allowing for the long sought after legalization of the opium trade, the opening of ten more ports to trade, the establishment of legations in Beijing and the free movement of Westerners within China along with another substantial indemnity to France and Britain.

The Opium Wars proved to have a long lasting impact. The wars cemented an idea in the West of China as a weak and backwards power, a perception that has been dominant in the historiography of Qing China ever since. Resentment by ordinary Chinese civilians against the ruling Manchu of the Qing Dynasty continued to rise, while Western powers amassed more and more power in China. Qing authorities were spurred into action, attempting a series of reforms which ultimately failed due to internal dissent The wars are extensively covered in history courses in the People’s Republic of China and figures such as Lin Zexu are widely hailed in modern times for their efforts in attempting to stop the flow of opium into China.