Why the 19th-cen­tury opium wars be­tween im­pe­rial China and Bri­tain are still rel­e­vant in mod­ern China

China Daily - - WEEKEND LIFE - By SATARUPA BHATTACHARJYA in Guangzhou satarupa@chi­nadaily.com.cn

In his speech at the open­ing of the 19th Na­tional Congress of the Com­mu­nist Party of China in Oc­to­ber, Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping said an­cient China was a great na­tion.

But things changed af­ter the opium war of 1840, he added.

“China was plunged into the dark­ness of do­mes­tic tur­moil and for­eign ag­gres­sion; its peo­ple were rav­aged by wars, saw their home­land torn, and lived in poverty and de­spair,” Xi told CPC mem­bers gath­ered at the Great Hall of the Peo­ple in Bei­jing for the week­long leadership meet­ing, which is held once ev­ery five years.

China is a dif­fer­ent place today. It is the world’s sec­ond-largest econ­omy and has the largest stand­ing army. Be­sides, the con­flict be­tween im­pe­rial China and the Bri­tish Em­pire ended nearly 160 years ago. So why does it still ap­pear as an im­por­tant his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ence in con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese pol­i­tics?

China Daily’s re­cent in­ter­views with his­to­ri­ans who live in China and Bri­tain, and vis­its to sites re­lated to the opium wars in South China’s Guang­dong prov­ince, for­merly Can­ton, sug­gest that the lessons — per­haps more than those from other for­eign con­flicts that fol­lowed — have shaped the coun­try’s pol­i­tics, mil­i­tary, diplo­macy and so­ci­ety in mod­ern times.

The opium wars are broadly di­vided into two phases: 1839-42 (first) and 1856-60 (sec­ond).

Many Chi­nese schol­ars con­sider 1840 as the most sig­nif­i­cant of the en­tire pe­riod, be­cause that year Bri­tish forces mounted a ma­jor at­tack on China in Hu­men, a bustling port town along the Pearl River, on the out­skirts of Guangzhou, the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal of Guang­dong.

The coun­try was then ruled by the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911), with whom the cen­turies-old monar­chy also ended in China.

The wars were trig­gered pre­dom­i­nantly by colo­nial ex­pan­sion in Asia and Qing op­po­si­tion to opium smug­gling into China by agents of the erst­while Bri­tish East India Com­pany, ac­cord­ing to Chi­nese his­to­ri­ans. Un­til the trade was of­fi­cially barred in 1800, for­eign mer­chants were freely trans­port­ing opium to China.

Fol­low­ing the Qing de­feat in the sec­ond phase of the war, the trade was le­gal­ized in 1859 for a while.

The nar­cotic drug made from the seed capsules of the opium poppy flower is used as an in­tox­i­cant. In med­i­cal use, it can pro­duce sleep.

Some 2 mil­lion Chi­nese, mainly male traders, soldiers, of­fi­cials and lower ranks of the im­pe­rial court, are es­ti­mated to have been ad­dicted to opium in the 18th and 19th cen­turies.

‘In­ter­na­tion­al­ist China’

Af­ter the loss in the First Opium War, also known as the An­glo-Chi- nese War, the Qing govern­ment had to sign the Treaty of Nan­jing that gave Bri­tain and sub­se­quently other West­ern pow­ers like France, access to ma­jor Chi­nese ports such as Shang­hai, Guangzhou, Ningbo, Fuzhou and Xi­a­men.

The treaty also led to Hong Kong be­ing ceded to Bri­tain.

“1840 is con­sid­ered es­sen­tially to be the be­gin­ning of the mod­ern phase of China’s his­tory and for that rea­son I think even now it is a ref­er­ence point for Chi­nese com­mu­nists,” Rana Mit­ter, a professor of mod­ern Chi­nese his­tory and pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford, says on phone from Bri­tain.

The First Opium War led to what Chi­nese his­to­ri­ans de­scribe as the coun­try’s “cen­tury of hu­mil­i­a­tion”, a se­ries of colo­nial mil­i­tary en­gage­ments as well as the Ja­panese in­va­sion.

“So in that sense I think that one of the things that made China very wary about in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions is the mem­ory of the ex­pe­ri­ence of in­va­sion from out­side,” Mit­ter says.

Dur­ing the Sec­ond Opium War, Bri­tish war­ships ar­rived in the north­ern port city of Tian­jin, neigh­bor­ing Bei­jing, ac­cord­ing to his­tor­i­cal ac­counts. Even­tu­ally, the Qing govern­ment had to open more ports, al­low West­ern con­ces­sions to be set up in Can­ton and “lease” Ma­cao to Por­tu­gal.

Wu Yix­iong, the dean of his­tory depart­ment at Sun Yat-sen Univer­sity in Guangzhou, says the early Qing rule saw a “closed-door pol­icy to the West”, echo­ing what some West­ern his­to­ri­ans have called China’s era of seclu­sion. But what China learned from the opium wars was also to open its eyes.

The im­pe­rial de­cree to al­low for­eign mer­chants to only trade through Can­ton Cus­toms was due to the east­ward ex­pan­sion of the West­ern coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to ex­hibits at the Opium War Mu­seum in Hu­men.

“It (1840) was the start­ing point for the great change,” Wu says. “The wars made peo­ple re­al­ize then that China wasn’t as strong as thought ear­lier and that it needed to be stronger to fight ex­ter­nal threat.”

“But China also re­al­ized that it needed to learn about the world out­side,” he adds.

The opium wars had turned the

It (1840) was the start­ing point for the great change. The wars made peo­ple re­al­ize then that China wasn’t as strong as thought ear­lier and that it needed to be stronger to fight ex­ter­nal threat.” Wu Yix­iong, dean of the his­tory depart­ment at Sun Yat-sen Univer­sity in Guangzhou

coun­try into a semi-feu­dal, semi-colo­nial so­ci­ety, Mao Ze­dong, the found­ing fa­ther of New China, had once said.

Af­ter the end of the Qing rule and dur­ing the early days of the Repub­lic of China, when the na­tion­al­ists were in power, Sino-Bri­tish re­la­tions were still un­even but that be­gan to al­ter in the 1930s with the rise of the United States, and the re­la­tion­ship was dif­fer­ent by the time of World War II be­cause the US and China were both seen as an­ti­im­pe­ri­al­ist pow­ers.

In ad­di­tion to the opium wars, ref­er­ences to events of the 1930s and ’40s by Chi­nese lead­ers today are also linked to a “more in­ter­na­tion­al­ist China that’s look­ing out­ward”, Mit­ter says.

China’s post-1840 his­tory up to 1949, when New China was founded, is known as jindaishi.

Blow to monar­chy

China’s last em­peror, Puyi, ab­di­cated in 1912 but held onto his royal ti­tle un­til 1924. The orig­i­nal Manchu name of the Qing house was Aisin Gioro, or “golden clan”.

Although his­to­ri­ans have dif­fer­ent views on whether the opium wars ul­ti­mately re­sulted in the demise of monar­chy in China, most have lit­tle doubt that the wars dealt a huge blow to it.

The wars re­duced con­fi­dence in the dy­nasty for not only its in­abil­ity to pro­tect the coun­try but also for the en­su­ing eco­nomic crises ow­ing to the ex­ces­sive out­flow of sil­ver to Bri­tain and the heavy taxes levied on the Chi­nese. Peo­ple felt the coun­try’s econ­omy wasn’t safe in Qing hands. The dy­nasty’s con­trol over ter­ri­tory also weak­ened.

“I think it’s fair to say that the wars — the opium wars and the colo­nial wars that fol­low do a great deal to desta­bi­lize the monar­chy but the monar­chy it­self did make some at­tempts to re­form and that’s worth re­mem­ber­ing also,” Mit­ter says.

In the first decade of the 20th cen­tury, the Qing ini­ti­ated po­lit­i­cal, ed­u­ca­tional and diplo­matic re­forms, he says of a lesser-known as­pect of the dy­nasty that is viewed to have failed China in many ways.

Few mem­bers of the Qing blood­line are alive.

Jin Yuzhang, a son of Puren, the fourth younger brother of the last em­peror, told Peo­ple’s Daily in 2000 that “con­ser­vatism in the Qing era re­sulted in an un­der­de­vel­oped state, which made the coun­try vul­ner­a­ble to for­eign at­tack”. Jin was then a Bei­jing district of­fi­cial but is now re­tired.

His sur­viv­ing cousins in­clude a singer and a for­mer school­teacher.

The Qing govern­ment was in­ef­fec­tive in con­trol­ling the spread of opium in China, partly due to cor­rup­tion. The Bri­tish East India Com­pany pro­cessed the drug in colo­nial India and the com­pany’s agents smug­gled it through Can­ton to Chi­nese deal­ers who then car­ried it to the rest of the main­land, in­clud­ing the royal court in Bei­jing, ac­cord­ing to the Chi­nese his­to­rian Wu.

It was the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the lo­cal Qing of­fi­cials to crack down on the smug­gling in Can­ton, but it con­tin­ued un­abated as marine troops ac­cepted bribes from for­eign agents and let ships with hid­den opium through, and when they were asked to in­crease pa­trolling by higher of­fi­cials, the bribe amounts usu­ally grew, he says.

“Grow­ing cor­rup­tion un­der­mined the na­tional strength, for the off­spring of for­mer gal­lant cav­a­liers were no longer en­ter­pris­ing, liv­ing plea­sure-seek­ing lives in­stead,” Jin had said in his ear­lier in­ter­view.

But it wasn’t all inaction on part of the Qing govern­ment as one case of the large-scale de­struc­tion of opium in Hu­men in­di­cates.

In 1839, Em­peror Daoguang per­ceived a threat to his rule from opium af­ter he re­ceived re­ports of mass ad­dic­tion from dif­fer­ent prov­inces of the coun­try. He sent Lin Zexu (1785-1850), an of­fi­cial from Bei­jing to Can­ton as spe­cial com­mis­sioner, task­ing him with the mission of clear­ing opium smug­gling from the Pearl River, which flows into the South China Sea.

Soldiers sur­rounded the Thir­teen Hongs (fac­to­ries) area in Can­ton, where for­eign traders lived, and seized the opium they found and burned it on the river­front in neigh­bor­ing Hu­men for days in June.

“Later that sum­mer, Lin Zexu learned that the war of 1840 was com­ing,” Wu says of what he thinks was a Bri­tish re­sponse to the Qing re­sis­tance.

Gate­way Can­ton

In the 18th cen­tury, Bri­tain was buy­ing tea, porce­lain ware and silk from China while sell­ing woolens, watches and forks. But the trade sur­plus emerged in China’s fa­vor. For a while Bri­tain also sold cot­ton to China but the im­port fell due to China’s own fiber plan­ta­tions.

By many ac­counts, that’s when opium en­tered the pic­ture.

To re­duce the trade deficit, Bri­tish mer­chants “dumped” opium on the Chi­nese mar­ket, ac­cord­ing to an ex­hibit at the Opium War Mu­seum.

“If they wanted to bal­ance the trade they had to bring China some­thing, but they didn’t have the prod­ucts,” Wu says.

In the im­me­di­ate decades be­fore the first phase of the opium wars, an es­ti­mated 20,000 boxes (60 kilo­grams in each) were be­ing an­nu­ally trans­ported to China. A box of opium would sell be­tween 500 and 800 taels (an­cient Chi­nese cur­rency) of sil­ver in Can­ton, much higher than what it cost in colo­nial India.

Once opium was out­lawed by the Qing govern­ment in 1800, the so-called free traders, with ties to the Bri­tish East India Com­pany, started smug­gling it by mix­ing busi­nesses. They would hide the opium in ships and boats that sailed with com­modi­ties that they were al­lowed to legally sell in China and hand the sub­stance to Chi­nese deal­ers at Huangpu har­bor in Can­ton.

An anti-opium drive was launched af­ter 1820, the smug­gling’s hey­day, which made the har­bor off-lim­its for both traders and deal­ers. That was when a ware­house on the waters near an es­tu­ary of the Pearl River was set up, serv­ing as the new cen­ter of the il­le­gal busi­ness and later as a site of bat­tle.

The Chi­nese deal­ers would pick up the opium from there, ac­cord­ing to the mu­seum ex­hibits. Wu calls it the “dirty trade”. The opium wars also ex­posed the frail­ties of the Can­ton Sys­tem in op­er­a­tion then. It was a mo­nop­oly run by the Hong mer­chants with whom alone for­eign traders could li­aise for their busi­ness in China. Other than Bri­tish pres­ence in the Thir­teen Hongs area, there were Dan­ish, Span­ish, French, Amer­i­can, Swedish and Dutch com­pany rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

The Can­ton Sys­tem later col­lapsed from within mainly be­cause of the lack of fi­nan­cial sup­port.


The art­work at the Opium War Mu­seum in Hu­men, Guang­dong prov­ince, de­picts an en­clave by the Pearl River in Guangzhou where West­ern traders lived in the 19th cen­tury. The prov­ince was then called Can­ton.


Left: The stat­ues at the Opium War Mu­seum show Chi­nese par­tic­i­pat­ing in an anti-opium cam­paign by the Qing govern­ment in Hu­men in 1839. The sub­stance, which was smug­gled into China by for­eign traders, is es­ti­mated to have left mil­lions ad­dicted. Above:...


A view of Can­ton Tower in present-day Guangzhou, cap­i­tal of South China’s Guang­dong prov­ince, through which the Pearl River flows.


From left: The ex­hibits at the Opium War Mu­seum in Hu­men in­clude “opium paste” that fu­eled mass ad­dic­tion in China in the early 19th cen­tury; a paint­ing of Lin Zexu, a Qing of­fi­cial who led an anti-opium drive in 1839; and an art­work de­pict­ing Can­ton...


Above: The en­trance of the Sea Bat­tle Mu­seum in Hu­men, Guang­dong prov­ince, where vis­i­tors can get a glimpse of the his­tory of the opium wars. Left: A colo­nial-era build­ing in Shamian in Guangzhou, where a West­ern con­ces­sion was set up in 1861 af­ter the...

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