The Opium War
The Opium War, also called the Anglo-Chinese
War, was the most humiliating defeat China ever suffered. In European history,
it is perhaps the most sordid, base, and vicious event in European history,
possibly, just possibly, overshadowed by the excesses of the Third Reich
in the twentieth century.
By the 1830’s, the English had become
the major drug-trafficking criminal organization in the world; very few
drug cartels of the twentieth century can even touch the England of the
early nineteenth century in sheer size of criminality. Growing opium in
India, the East India Company shipped tons of opium into Canton which it
traded for Chinese manufactured goods and for tea. This trade had produced,
quite literally, a country filled with drug addicts, as opium parlors proliferated
all throughout China in the early part of the nineteenth century. This
trafficing, it should be stressed, was a criminal activity after 1836,
but the British traders generously bribed Canton officials in order to
keep the opium traffic flowing. The effects on Chinese society were devestating.
In fact, there are few periods in Chinese history that approach the early
nineteenth century in terms of pure human misery and tragedy. In an effort
to stem the tragedy, the imperial government made opium illegal in 1836
and began to aggressively close down the opium dens.
The key player in the prelude to war was
a brilliant and highly moral official named Lin Tse-hsu. Deeply concerned
about the opium menace, he maneuverd himself into being appointed Imperial
Commissioner at Canton. His express purpose was to cut off the opium trade
at its source by rooting out corrupt officials and cracking down on British
trade in the drug.
He took over in March of 1839 and within
two months, absolutely invulnerable to bribery and corruption, he had taken
action against Chinese merchants and Western traders and shut down all
the traffic in opium. He destroyed all the existing stores of opium and,
victorious in his war against opium, he composed a letter to Queen Victoria
of England requesting that the British cease all opium trade. His letter
included the argument that, since Britain had made opium trade and consumption
illegal in England because of its harmful effects, it should not export
that harm to other countries. Trade, according to Lin, should only be in
To be fair to England, if the only issue
on the table were opium, the English probably (just probably) would have
acceded to Lin’s request. The British, however, had been nursing several
grievances against China, and Lin’s take-no-prisoners enforcement of Chinese
laws combined to outrage the British against his decapitation of the opium
trade. The most serious bone of contention involved treaty relations; because
the British refused to submit to the emperor, there were no formal treaty
relations between the two countries. The most serious problem precipitated
by this lack of treaty relations involved the relationship between foreigners
and Chinese law. The British, on principle, refused to hand over British
citizens to a Chinese legal system that they felt was vicious and barbaric.
The Chinese, equally principled, demanded that all foreigners who were
accused of committing crimes on Chinese soil were to be dealt with solely
by Chinese officials. In many ways, this was the real issue of the Opium
War. In addition to enforcing the opium laws, Lin aggressively pursued
foreign nationals accused of crimes.
The English, despite Lin’s eloquent letter,
refused to back down from the opium trade. In response, Lin threatened
to cut off all trade with England and expel all English from China. Thus
began the Opium War.
War broke out when Chinese junks attempted
to turn back English merchant vessels in November of 1839; although this
was a low-level conflict, it inspired the English to send warships in June
of 1840. The Chinese, with old-style weapons and artillery, were no match
for the British gunships, which ranged up and down the coast shooting at
forts and fighting on land. The Chinese were equally unprepared for the
technological superiority of the British land armies, and suffered continual
defeats. Finally, in 1842, the Chinese were forced to agree to an ignomious
peace under the Treaty of Nanking.
The treaty imposed on the Chinese was
weighted entirely to the British side. Its first and fundamental demand
was for British “extraterritoriality”; all British citizens would be subjected
to British, not Chinese, law if they committed any crime on Chinese soil.
The British would no longer have to pay tribute to the imperial administration
in order to trade with China, and they gained five open ports for British
trade: Canton, Shanghai, Foochow, Ningpo, and Amoy. No restrictions were
placed on British trade, and, as a consequence, opium trade more than doubled
in the three decades following the Treaty of Nanking. The treaty also established
England as the “most favored nation” trading with China; this clause granted
to Britain any trading rights granted to other countries. Two years later,
China, against its will, signed similar treaties with France and the United
Lin Tse-hsu was officially disgraced
for his actions in Canton and was sent to a remote appointment in Turkestan.
Of all the imperial officials, however, Lin was the first to realize the
momentuous lesson of the Opium War. In a series of letters he began to
agitate the imperial government to adopt Western technology, arms, and
methods of warfare. He was first to see that the war was about technological
superiority; his influence, however, had dwindled to nothing, so his admonitions
fell on deaf ears.
It wasn’t until a second conflict with
England that Chinese officials began to take seriously the adoption of
Western technologies. Even with the Treaty of Nanking, trade in Canton
and other ports remained fairly restricted; the British were incensed by
what they felt was clear treaty violations. The Chinese, for their part,
were angered at the wholescale export of Chinese nationals to America and
the Caribbean to work at what was no better than slave labor. These conflicts
came to a head in 1856 in a series of skirmishes that ended in 1860. A
second set of treaties further humiliated and weakened the imperial government.
The most ignominious of the provisions in these treaties was the complete
legalization of opium and the humiliating provision that allowed for the
free and unrestricted propagation of Christianity in all regions of China.
The Illustrated Gazatteer of Maritime
China’s defeat at the hands of England
led to the publication of the Illustrated Gazatteer of Maritime Countries
by Wei Yuan (1794-1856). The Gazatteer marks the first landmark event
in the modernization of China. Wei Yuan, a distinguished but minor
official, argued in the Gazatteer that the Europeans had developed technologies
and methods of warfare in their ceaseless and barbaric quest for power,
profit, and material wealth. Civilization, represented by China, was in
danger of falling to the technological superiority of the Western powers.
Because China is a peaceful and civilized nation, it can overcome the West
only if it learns and matches the technology and techniques of the West.
The purpose of the Gazatteer was to disseminate knowledge about the Europeans,
their technologies, their methods of warfare, and their selfish anarchy
to learned officials. It is a landmark event in Chinese history, for it
was the first systematic attempt to educate the Chinese in Western technologies
and culture. This drive for modernization, begun by Lin Tse-hsu and
perpetuated by Wei Yuan would gain momentum and emerge as the basis
for the “Self-Strengthening” from 1874 to 1895.