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The Opium Wars: Britain Invades China

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“Opium teaches only one thing, which is that aside from physical suffering, there is nothing real.” In the 1800’s British was a juggernaut and China were self-conceited. China remained completely isolated from most of the world in every aspect including foreign trade, which was limited to the city of Canton. Despite having rigid government regulations foreign trade gradually grew somewhere between the 18th and 19th century. But as trade flourished the Western powers found themselves at an increasing trade deficit with China. This happened for the simple reason that China was a self sufficient economy and therefore had little or no interest in western goods. Finally in the year 1820 the west penetrated Chinese markets with one good they didn’t possess naturally, opium. (Malraux, 1965)

Between the years 1829 and 1855 smuggling of the drug opium expanded throughout China’s South Coast. At the dawn of 1820 9708 chests of opium were smuggled but within a decade grew to 35445 chests approximately 400% increase. At the dawn of 1830 opium was strongly associated with China. Approximate every man below the age of 40 consumed opium, including majority of the army. All social classes were affected the upper class to the peasants. Somewhere about the late 1930’s there were 12 million addicts in China. Due to this high rate of smuggling the previously held trade deficit by the Western countries was now converted into a trade surplus. China was greatly set back. The economy was crippled by this plague. China on the other hand could not export enough silk and tea to reduce the increasing deficit.  To combat this Chinese government had to start exporting their much valued silver; by 1836 the Chinese government exported about 4.5 million worth of silver. While by the year 1839 opium smokers spent about 100 million taels whereas the government revenue was only 40 million taels. This drained and weakened the Chinese economy. (James, 1992)

Such devastating conditions needed remedy and in 1838 Lin Tse-hsu was called upon to the Imperial Palace and assigned him to the eradication of opium in China. Lin accepted the assignment knowing he faced an uphill task. Opium addicts grew to abut 2 million and the concentration remained near the port city on Canton where foreigners smuggled huge amounts of opium. Although the use of opium had been banned since 1800 but black markets flourished and were difficult to curtail. One of his first moves was to take over naval forces and arrest all known opium dealers. He also set up treatment centers for addicts hoping to cure this ailment. Over the months he enforced laws and collected half a million pound of opium and destroyed it but the British still went out of their way to defy Chinese laws and went down the Canton port to a Portuguese controlled port of Macao. This is the same place where William John Napier tried to convince Chinese officials to reconsider but without success. But even Lin Tse-hsu was unable to have a lasting impact on restricting the British.

On March 27, 1839 Charles Elliot, British Superintendent of Trade ordered all traders to hand over the opium and continue trade; they also signed an agreement to avoid trade in opium under the death penalty. In addition Lin-Tse-hue issued a memorial to Queen Victoria questioning the morals of their government. No response from the British government or the merchants but in 1840 the British Indian Army arrived and during the conflict their superiority was quite evident. Devasted China sued for peace where the British greatly benefitted with exorbitant privileges. This wasn’t the end of the so called Opium War, in 1956 Chinese officials boarded a provateer’s vessel registered under the British, and with a permit of a year the Chinese officials accused the Arrow of drug smuggling. The British officials retaliated by accusing the Chinese of defacing the British flag while inspection.

The second opium war started when the British attacked Guangzhou French forces joined in and many other countries got involved diplomatically. The Treaty of Tainjin was finally agreed to after a couple of years reluctantly. In 1859 disturbance erupted as China refused the setting up of the British Embassy in Beijing, where the British set fire to the summer palace after considerable looting. Brused and battered at the Convention of Peking in 1860, putting and end to the war and succumbing to British demands of legalizing opium. After all that had happened in the early 1900’s the Chinese government fought hard to reduce if not eradicate the use of opium. The primary difficulty faced by the Chinese government was that the indulgence and consumption of this drug was by all classes of the society. Being the national stimulant, the government lost revenue which had to make up by imposition of other taxes and that opium proved to be more profitable than cultivation of necessary cereals. (Opium in china, nd)

The opium war had various long-term implications. Firstly the economic implications, with the opening of the five ports to British trade flourished. These ports were centrally located in the most developed regions of China; export of tea was up to 7500000 kg and silk up to 2000 bales in 1843. With increase in demand for silk and tea farmers shifted occupations and food prices were driven up. With more ports opened local coolies and boatmen lost jobs. Freight trafficking increased but as much to compensate the loss in jobs. The hike in trade activities resulted in monetary crisis, the volume of trade cased a shortage of Spanish dollar and aggravated it to appreciate out of proportion, and so the Mexican Dollar was introduced.

The crisis magnified with the opening of China’s economy due to internal crisis. The Chinese copper cash depreciated due to faulty administration and shortage of copper supply. With financial system capitulating paper money was finally introduced in 1853. The most severely affected was the textile industry, with imports of cheaper machines the price of products went down. Resulting in lower standards of living, causing a fundamental change to the economy of China. Although, China was making a move towards a market economy. Foreign exposure speeded up the process, but left China poorly equipped to compete in foreign and domestic markets. On one hand such change undermined China’s self-sufficiency, the urban and rural handicraft industries while on the other hand it bought great development opportunities. (James, 1992)

Secondly, the social, political and ideological effects of the opium war caused China to realize and discover many social and political ideas. Concepts of capitalism and democracy, and international diplomatic ties were all made known. It became empirical to learn from the west, to fight with the west. Chinese also set up a foreign ministry of a sort to study technological advancements and modernity of warfare. Factories to cater for the depleted and old fashioned armies were also set up. With western intervention capitalism flourished resulting in new industries sprouting all over. Sadly these industries were run by bureaucrats. They ran these industries as if for non-profit purposes and created monopolies which prevented economic growth. Social economic China flourished but modern enterprises failed, still stimulating growth of China capitalism. The War exposed many of the government’s weaknesses. The farmers had to shoulder all the brunt and the economy collapsed it encouraged many movements. With social chaos prevalent, adapting western practices weren’t enough. Private enterprises needed to survive without government intervention. Also the need of a parliamentary system was emphasized. (James, 1992)

A war of any sort can take a lot of a country. The social and economic implications are visible but the foundations are shattered to cause misery for the generations to come. The opium war was a result of the imposition of British supremacy on other weak nations ignoring all ethical and moral grounds in conducting their dealings. The opium war exposed China to the West, they believed their county was Heavenly Middle Kingdom and the emperor was considered to be the Son of Heaven. The war made China realize its inadequacies in social and political fields and remove false notions regarding their supremacy. The treaties signed gifted the British and others to defile China. The exposure to capitalism did infact weaken China’s economy but in the end helped them evolve and adapt to new and efficient practices. The war helped capitalism grow in China. (Ryan, 2004)

The opium war greatly weakened the government and accompanied with a collapse in economy resulting in high levels on unemployment and poverty over the country. All these factors disruptedthe tranquility in the country, social unrest as well as mutiny further weakened the foundations of the previously self-sufficient economy. The war had such a devastating impact that the elders, officials and intellectuals of the country were forced to revise and design new social and political system for the country. Adaptation was called for; officials realized that in order for China to regain past accolades they had to learn from the west. Intellectuals began to study western countries. On the other hand the government imported various modern technologies to compete in various industries in both foreign and domestic industries. The notion of democratic rule was being seriously considered. It is to this extent did China have to change.

This was opened China. It put China at the mercy of the west. The war made the Chinese realize what a weak nation they were, and the need to strengthen to prevent future discrepancies feelings of nationalism and anti-western sentiments erupted. These issues play an important part in Chinese modern history. In the late 1600’s Chinese imported poppy seeds for medical treatments little did they know these seeds would create to loss of life and revamping of the whole economy through war and destruction. Both the opium wars caused he sad demise f Qing’s dynasty, China’s last imperial dynasty. Most would argue that the war bought foreword a much needed boost to modernity, the Chinese will always consider them as a dark page in history, greedy and cruel fight.


Boy, A. (2006 May 10). Opium Wars. Retrieved February 27, 2008, from Scriptovia Web site: http://scriptovia.com/document-landing.aspx?DocID=383

Carl A. Trocki, Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy: A Study of the Asian Opium Trade, 1750-1950 (London: Routledge, 1999

Chrastina, Paul (1920). Opium Wars. Retrieved February 27, 2008, from Old News Web site: http://www.oldnewspublishing.com/opium.htm

Dale, Ryan (2004). Global Problems, Global Responses. Retrieved February 29, 2008, from the national Association of Christian Recovery Web site: http://www.nacronline.com/dox/library/daler/global.shtml

James, P (1992). Opium Wars and Opening of China. Retrieved February 27, 2008, from Homestead Web site: http://historyliterature.homestead.com/files/extended.html#Abstract

Malraux, A. (1965). Andre Malraux quotes. Retrieved February 27, 2008, from Think exist Web site: http://en.thinkexist.com/quotes/andre_malraux/

USDHEW, Nida. (1978). Opium in China (1700-1860). Retrieved February 27, 2008, from APACHE Web site: http://mojo.calyx.net/~schaffer/heroin/opichin1.html

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