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: http://www.oycf.org/Perspectives2/12_063001/chinese_econ.htm [Accessed 8th February 2012]
Epstein, I. (2004) From Opium war to Liberation. , China : Foreign Languages Press
Gibson, A. (2012) BBC History. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/0/204281670 [Accessed 8th February 2012]
Polachek, J. M. (1992) The Inner Opium War. Cambridge (Massachusetts) and London: Harvard University Press