The Opium war

17 Feb

The selling of opium by the British to the Chinese in 1840 can be highlighted as a significant factor as to why there was stagnation in the relations between China and the West.  The selling of opium by the British has also been argued to be a result of the wooden and inflexible response of the Chinese to the British pressure to introduce free trade to the region (Polacheck,1992). The Chinese would only accept silver as payment for tea; this was unsustainable and soon became unaffordable. In this light, opium presented itself as one of the few ways that the West could engage with the Chinese market. Opium was deliberately chosen to replace silver as a form of payment (Epstein, 2004).

The consequences of opium did not go unnoticed and there was a ban imposed by Emperor Yongzheng in 1729 and again in 1800 by the Emperor Jiaqing. Despite the stern embargoes placed on the trading, it still thrived on the black market. This opium problem greatly cost the Chinese economy and the Chinese people: many of whom sold much of their possessions to fund their addiction.

‘In the interest of self-perseveration, the Qing (Manchu) dynasty rulers in Beijing had to act’ (Epstein, 2004, p10). Over 20,000 chests of opium were seized from British merchants which was then confiscated and destroyed. ‘With opium responsible for a significant part of British …tax revenue, it didn’t take long for the government to send in the navy.’ (BBC History, 2012). This resulted in the first opium war. There were a large number of Chinese casualties which was heavily disproportionate to that of the British army.

The end of the war saw the signing of the ‘unequal treaties’ (Chow, 2007), it permitted the opening of Chinese ports to British trade and remuneration for the cost of the war and the opium that Lin Zexu (a special commissioner to Guanghou) had destroyed.



Chow, G. (2001) Perspectives Volume 2, No. 6. Overseas Young Chinese Forum, Available from: [Accessed 8th February 2012]

Epstein, I. (2004) From Opium war to Liberation. , China : Foreign Languages Press

Gibson, A. (2012) BBC History. [Accessed 8th February 2012]

Polachek, J. M. (1992) The Inner Opium War. Cambridge (Massachusetts) and London: Harvard University Press

3 Responses to “The Opium war”

  1. db7g09 February 18, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

    On the one hand, the Chinese focused on where their country had gone wrong. That so many Chinese were hooked on opium suggested a rot from within. Far from a blameless victim of foreign aggression, China was instead poisoning itself. Yan Fu, a 19th-century scholar and translator, mixed his admiration for the West with self-loathing: “There are almost innumerable practices in the customs of China, from law and institutions, scholarship and learning, to the ways we eat and live, owing to which the people’s strength is enervated and the quality of the Chinese race debased.”

    Others, especially later in the 19th century, took aim at the corruption and incompetence of the Qing, themselves foreign conquerors of China. The Daoguang Emperor, Ms. Lovell notes, didn’t even realize that he was meant to be fighting a “war” against Britain until July 1840, almost a year after the English judged hostilities to be underway. To that point records showed only that “clowns” and “robbers” were staging a “border provocation” against the Qing state, and that the emperor’s forces were dealing with the aggravation capably. Imperial China’s homegrown critics set the intellectual stage for the nationalist upheavals to come.

    But only a few decades later, Mao Zedong’s Communists found outrage to be the more useful frame. Casting the Opium War as part of an imperialist plot to impoverish China gave the Communists the role of saviors, brave anti-imperialists who would put an end to a “Century of Humiliation.” The Party still dusts off this narrative periodically to burnish Mao’s memory, yet it’s true that today Beijing’s every move, even in the external sphere, is made with an eye to the reaction at home. China’s leaders may recognize that adjusting their currency policy is economically sound, for instance, but they are also wary of the public anger that “capitulating to foreigners” would provoke among its people.

    A fascinating book you should read if you get the chance is Julia Lovell’s ‘The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China’, which details an extensive history of the tensions between China and Great Britain. Here is a quick interview on Lovell’s views on how its legacy of Chinese humiliation is still felt keenly in Beijing today:

    • db7g09 March 15, 2013 at 6:04 pm #


      Julia Lovell – ‘The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China’ (Picador, London: 2012)

  2. lo2g11 February 18, 2013 at 10:06 pm #

    Admittedly opium was widely used in China before it was imported by the British, but it was used mainly in medicine rather than recreational use.

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