China The Opium War, 1839-42
Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies
During the eighteenth century, the market in Europe and America for tea, a new drink in the West, expanded greatly. Additionally, there was a continuing demand for Chinese silk and porcelain. But China, still in its preindustrial stage, wanted little that the West had to offer, causing the Westerners, mostly British, to incur an unfavorable balance of trade. To remedy the situation, the foreigners developed a third-party trade, exchanging their merchandise in India and Southeast Asia for raw materials and semiprocessed goods, which found a ready market in Guangzhou. By the early nineteenth century, raw cotton and opium from India had become the staple British imports into China, in spite of the fact that opium was prohibited entry by imperial decree. The opium traffic was made possible through the connivance of profit-seeking merchants and a corrupt bureaucracy.
In 1839 the Qing government, after a decade of unsuccessful anti-opium campaigns, adopted drastic prohibitory laws against the opium trade. The emperor dispatched a commissioner, Lin Zexu (1785- 1850), to Guangzhou to suppress illicit opium traffic. Lin seized illegal stocks of opium owned by Chinese dealers and then detained the entire foreign community and confiscated and destroyed some 20,000 chests of illicit British opium. The British retaliated with a punitive expedition, thus initiating the first Anglo-Chinese war, better known as the Opium War (1839-42). Unprepared for war and grossly underestimating the capabilities of the enemy, the Chinese were disastrously defeated, and their image of their own imperial power was tarnished beyond repair. The Treaty of Nanjing (1842), signed on board a British warship by two Manchu imperial commissioners and the British plenipotentiary, was the first of a series of agreements with the Western trading nations later called by the Chinese the "unequal treaties." Under the Treaty of Nanjing, China ceded the island of Hong Kong (Xianggang in pinyin) to the British; abolished the licensed monopoly system of trade; opened 5 ports to British residence and foreign trade; limited the tariff on trade to 5 percent ad valorem; granted British nationals extraterritoriality (exemption from Chinese laws); and paid a large indemnity. In addition, Britain was to have most-favored-nation treatment, that is, it would receive whatever trading concessions the Chinese granted other powers then or later. The Treaty of Nanjing set the scope and character of an unequal relationship for the ensuing century of what the Chinese would call "national humiliations." The treaty was followed by other incursions, wars, and treaties that granted new concessions and added new privileges for the foreigners.
Data as of July 1987
NOTE: The information regarding China on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of China The Opium War, 1839-42 information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about China The Opium War, 1839-42 should be addressed to the Library of Congress.