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Opium in China

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  • Pages: 8
  • Word count: 1774
  • Category: Chinese

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While most of the Western Hemisphere was undergoing drastic advancements, such as former colonies gaining their independence and transforming into more modernized nations, a lot of mishaps were occurring in the Eastern Hemisphere—China, specifically—a nation that was notorious for its isolation from foreign influences. European nations began to greedily eye China’s abundance of desirable resources, such as tea, porcelain, and silk. However, China had very little need or desire for European goods. In an attempt to resolve the trade imbalance Britain began importing opium into China, which would prove to be disastrous for the Chinese population. The dispute over the importation of the drug eventually led to the Opium War, beginning in 1839.

While several Chinese goods were in high demand, the market for Western goods in China was virtually non-existent, in part because China was very self-sufficient and their trade laws denied foreigners access to China’s interior. Only one port in China was open to foreign trade and the Chinese emperor had placed a ban on the trade of most European goods. Gold and silver were the only accepted forms of payment. China’s utter lack of interest in any European goods is clearly expressed in a Chinese emperor’s letter to King George of England, written in 1793. In it, he explains to the King that their country has allowed all European nations to carry on their trade with the people of China at Canton, the only open port, for many years despite the fact that the “Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lack no product within it borders…there was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.”

However, he allows the trade to continue, simply out of kindness, so that the Europeans could obtain the Chinese goods that they wanted (Document 1). The trade imbalance caused a shortage of silver in Europe, which in turn became a hindrance to trade of any sort. The silver deficiency spurred Britain’s need to end the trade imbalance and was a key contribution to the Opium War, the reason for this being that in order to rectify the situation, Britain found the one product they knew the Chinese people would come to desperately want: the highly addictive narcotic called opium.

In the beginning of the 18th century, the amount of opium imported by China was extremely low. Between the years 1770 and 1800 the number of chests of opium imported went from less than one thousand per year to roughly five thousand (Document 10). The people of China began to notice the addictive effects of opium as they observed the sudden increase of importation within a thirty-year span. This ignited the initial concern about the opium trade and Chinese officials were angered by the practice. They had opened their port and allowed trade as a gesture of kindness and in return, Britain “poisoned our brave people with opium” (Document 9).

The importation of opium increased drastically over the next 40 years, starting at 5,000 chests a year in 1800 and rising to 40,000 a year by 1840 as more and more Chinese citizens became addicted to the drug (Document 10). A group of opium smokers is depicted in Document 3. It shows five men seated around a table, clearly in an altered state of mind. This image conveys the mind-altering effects of the drug, which can be seen merely by observing the expressions on their faces. One man is practically unconscious, sprawled across the table, while the others are staring blankly into space.

The emperor of China place a ban on the trade, but this did not stop Chinese merchants and European traders from smuggling an astounding amount of the drug into China. The illegal trade fueled the start of the war. In a letter to the Queen of Victoria, Chinese commissioner Lin Zexu expressed his disdain toward the opium trade. He did not like how the “barbarians” were making a profit in his home country. His point of view is that if Britain is not allowing opium to do harm in their country, why would they pass it on to the harm of other countries.

He acknowledges that the Queen was surely too kind-hearted to impose that sort of treatment on another country, especially seeing as how she made each ship that went to Canto carry a document that said, “you shall not be permitted to carry contraband goods”. Thus, the Queen did not openly allow the trade of opium to continue, but failed to enforce the law. He implores her to make sure that the laws of the central dynasty were not violated again (Document 2). The perspective being shown is from a Chinese man who does not use opium, for he sees it as only causing harm.

Lin Zexu was the imperial commissioner who was originally assigned to stop the opium trade in Canton. He was fiercely opposed to the exchange of opium and his actions were considered to be a major catalyst for the start of the Opium War. The emperor wrote to Zexu, “You have caused this war by your excessive zeal” (Document 6).

By 1839, war was imminent. The opium trade had caused the reversal of the silver deficit, now putting an economic strain on China, while Britain’s economy flourished from the profit they were making off the drug. Because it was being illegally imported, all of the money was going directly to Britain instead of to the Chinese government in the form of taxes. This caused a severe economic decline in China as unemployment rose, agriculture declined, and funding for public improvements diminished.

During a public meeting in Canton, an agreement was made among the people of China. “Behold that vile English nation . . . these people have long steadily devoured all the western barbarians and . . . they now suddenly exalt themselves here. They have carried on a large trade and poisoned our brave people with opium . . . the English barbarians murder all of us that they can.” The speech went on to express how the English men’s desires could never be satisfied and that they could not know that the peace they were proposing was real or pretend, so their only option was to unite together and go to war (Document 9).

In Document 4, we are presented with the perspective of a European scholar named Thomas Arnold. Although he was not a Chinese citizen, he was opposed to the Opium War. He viewed the war as “wicked . . . a national sin of the greatest possible magnitude.” He pointed out that this war was completely unjustified, as it was only for the purpose of maintaining the smuggling of a demoralizing drug that the government of China wanted to keep out. However, Britain still chose to fight the war for nothing more than personal gain.

After Britain’s refusal to end the trade of opium, the Chinese—led by Lin
Zexu—blockaded European trading ports and confiscated about 20,000 chests of opium from warehouses. Britain quickly retaliated, utilizing their powerful navy and attacking China by sea in 1839. The war continued for the next three years. Document 7 depicts an Opium War battle scene in which British troops capture Chin-Keange-Foo on July 1st, 1842. The war ended with China’s defeat, who asked to negotiate for peace. China was forced to accept a series of unequal treaties. The Treaty of Nanking ended the Opium War on August 29th, 1842. The treaty gave the major port of Hong Kong to Britain and opened five additional Chinese ports where British merchants were allowed to trade with anyone they wished.

They gained the rights to send consuls to communicate directly with Chinese merchants. China was forced to pay 3 million in debts that Hong merchants in Canton owed British merchants. The Qing government was obliged to pay Britain’s government 6 million silver dollars for the opium Lin Zexu confiscated at the start of the war. They were required to pay 12 million dollars for war reparations. The total sum of 21 million was to be paid in installments over the next 3 years. If the government did not pay Britain in a timely manner, China would be charged an annual interest rate of 5 percent. Additionally, China had to release all British prisoners of war and grant pardons to any Chinese citizen who had cooperated with Britain during the war. The treaty was considered entirely unfair because Britain had no obligations in return (Document 5).

Out of all the documents expressing opposition toward the trade of opium and the war it caused, only one document showed the perspective of someone who approved of the Opium War. Julia Lovell, a modern historian, shares her point of view. Her opinion is that although China expressed that there was they nothing they needed or wanted from the west, there was plenty that Britain wanted. The trade deficit that resulted from this conflict of interest was filled by supplying opium to China.

The trade benefited everyone involved, including the British exchequer, the merchants who traded it, the officials who grafted on it, the Chinese wholesalers who bought it, and the foreign missionaries who traveled with it (Document 8). Her perspective is much more recent. This excerpt was taken from a book she wrote on the Opium War in 2011. While her opinion brings to light the benefits that it might have had, it is less valid than the ones presented by the historical figures who were actually present during the war and affected by the opium trade.

Addition documents from a Chinese source that supported the British presence of the opium trade in China’s ports would have been beneficiary. It would be interesting to know what someone who may happen to use opium thinks of the British supplying it to them, how it is affecting their lives, and what it is doing to their own Chinese government.

Economic gain was the main cause of the Opium War. Britain’s desire to end the trade imbalance with China led them to go to desperate lengths and introduce a highly addictive drug to the people of China. The results of the opium trade had devastating consequences for China and numerous benefits for Britain. Ultimately, Britain took control of most of China’s trading ports and continued to make a massive profit off of the importation of opium. The results of the Opium War severely weakened Chinese society. Eventually, the dispute between China and Britain would erupt into a Second Opium War.

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