The Opium War and Foreign Encroachment

Introduction for Teachers

It is highly recommended that this unit be used with the teaching unit on Macartney and the Emperor. Once students have read about China's negative response to Great Britain's aggressive demands for the expansion of trade and exchange of ambassadors, they will be prepared to appreciate more fully the Chinese perception of the Opium War and the conditions imposed upon the country in the "unequal treaties" that followed. China's experience of Western aggression in the 1800s continues to be an important factor shaping both the nation's foreign policy and its drive for modernization.

Reading for Students:
The Opium War and Foreign Encroachment

Two things happened in the eighteenth century that made it difficult for England to balance its trade with the East. First, the British became a nation of tea drinkers and the demand for Chinese tea rose astronomically. It is estimated that the average London worker spent five percent of his or her total household budget on tea. Second, northern Chinese merchants began to ship Chinese cotton from the interior to the south to compete with the Indian cotton that Britain had used to help pay for its tea consumption habits. To prevent a trade imbalance, the British tried to sell more of their own products to China, but there was not much demand for heavy woolen fabrics in a country accustomed to either cotton padding or silk.

The only solution was to increase the amount of Indian goods to pay for these Chinese luxuries, and increasingly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the item provided to China was Bengal opium. With greater opium supplies had naturally come an increase in demand and usage throughout the country, in spite of repeated prohibitions by the Chinese government and officials. The British did all they could to increase the trade: They bribed officials, helped the Chinese work out elaborate smuggling schemes to get the opium into China's interior, and distributed free samples of the drug to innocent victims.

The cost to China was enormous. The drug weakened a large percentage of the population (some estimate that 10 percent of the population regularly used opium by the late nineteenth century), and silver began to flow out of the country to pay for the opium. Many of the economic problems China faced later were either directly or indirectly traced to the opium trade. The government debated about whether to legalize the drug through a government monopoly like that on salt, hoping to barter Chinese goods in return for opium. But since the Chinese were fully aware of the harms of addiction, in 1838 the emperor decided to send one of his most able officials, Lin Tse-hsu (Lin Zexu, 1785-1850), to Canton (Guangzhou) to do whatever necessary to end the traffic forever.

Lin was able to put his first two proposals into effect easily. Addicts were rounded up, forcibly treated, and taken off the habit, and domestic drug dealers were harshly punished. His third objective — to confiscate foreign stores and force foreign merchants to sign pledges of good conduct, agreeing never to trade in opium and to be punished by Chinese law if ever found in violation — eventually brought war. Opinion in England was divided: Some British did indeed feel morally uneasy about the trade, but they were overruled by those who wanted to increase England's China trade and teach the arrogant Chinese a good lesson. Western military weapons, including percussion lock muskets, heavy artillery, and paddlewheel gunboats, were far superior to China's. Britain's troops had recently been toughened in the Napoleonic wars, and Britain could muster garrisons, warships, and provisions from its nearby colonies in Southeast Asia and India. The result was a disaster for the Chinese. By the summer of 1842 British ships were victorious and were even preparing to shell the old capital, Nanking (Nanjing), in central China. The emperor therefore had no choice but to accept the British demands and sign a peace agreement. This agreement, the first of the "unequal treaties," opened China to the West and marked the beginning of Western exploitation of the nation.

Other humiliating defeats followed in what one historian has called China's "treaty century" (major aspects of the so-called "unequal treaties" were not formally voided until 1943). In 1843, France and the United States, and Russia in 1858, negotiated treaties similar to England's Nanking (Nanjing) Treaty, including a provision for extraterritoriality, whereby foreign nationals in China were immune from Chinese law. To compel a reluctant China to shift from its traditional tribute based foreign relations to treaty relations, Europeans fought a second war with China from 1858-1860, and the concluding Treaty of Tientsin (Tianjin) and Convention of Peking (Beijing) increased China's semi-colonial status. More ports were open to foreign residence and trade, and foreigners, especially missionaries, were allowed free movement and business anywhere in the country.

Conflicts for the rest of the century wrung more humiliating concessions from China: with Russia over claims in China's far west and northeast in 1850 and 1860, with England over access to the upper reaches of the Yangtze River in 1876, with France over northern Vietnam in 1884, with Japan over its claims to Korea and northeast China in 1895, and with many foreign powers after 1897 which demanded "spheres of influence," especially for constructing railroads and mines. In 1900, an international army suppressed the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion in northern China, destroying much of Beijing in the process. Each of these defeats brought more foreign demands, greater indemnities that China had to repay, more foreign presence along the coast, and more foreign participation in China's political and economic life. Little wonder that many in China were worried by the century's end that China was being sliced up "like a melon."

Acknowledgment: The consultant for this unit was Dr. Sue Gronewold, a specialist in Chinese history.

| back to top |

Lin Zexu (Lin Tse-Hsu), Letter of Advice to Queen Victoria (1839)

Refer to the letter that Commissioner Lin Zexu wrote to Queen Victoria in 1839. Discuss the four questions found at the end of the essay.

The Treaty of Nanjing, August 1842

In The Treaty of Nanjing, August 1842 [PDF], students will find several clauses that forced the Chinese to grant to the British precisely those rights they had denied them fifty years earlier.

Discussion Questions and Suggested Activities


  1. Compare the Treaty of Nanjing with the Chinese emperor's reply to Lord Macartney. What sort of rights did the Chinese give to the British that they previously refused to give?
  2. If the word "imperialism" is defined as "the policy of seeking to dominate the affairs of weaker countries," do you think Chinese today are justified in saying that China suffered from Western "imperialism" begun by the British?


  • Imagine you are diplomats charged with concluding these treaties for the Qing state on the one hand and for foreign powers on the other. Write a report detailing your negotiations. What are your main concerns? What are different ways you could look out for your interests?

  • In your textbook, in the library, or on the Internet, locate maps which show the increase over time of treaty ports (by 1900 there were more than 100) and the "spheres of influence" claimed by foreign powers in China. When did the greatest number of concessions occur? What else occurred at this time to explain how greater demands could be made by foreigners? Which parts of China were most heavily involved? Least involved? Was the effect of foreign presence and power in China the same everywhere? Why?
    [Suggested maps:; or in Patricia Ebrey, Cambridge Illustrated History: China, 241; or in Barraclough et. al, The Times Atlas of World History, "Dismemberment of the Chinese Empire, 1842-1911."

  • Locate copies of the treaties China concluded with foreign powers from 1842 until 1905, including the entire Treaty of Nanjing, the Treaty of the Bogue and Treaty of Wanghui in 1844, the Treaty of Tianjin of 1858 and Beijing Convention of 1860, the Zhefu Convention in 1876, the Tianjin Convention of 1876, the Treaty of Tianjin of 1885, the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, the Boxer Protocol of 1900, and Japan's Twenty-One Demands of 1915. Trace the evolution over time of greater concessions and indemnities imposed upon China. Given what you know of China's situation and foreign powers, evaluate these treaties. Were they "fair," "just," or defensible?

  • Research the long-term effects of the different foreigners active in China at this time. For example, trace the long-term impact of the missionaries, charting the number of Christian converts from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, by 1949, and on into the 1980s. Where are the largest communities of Christians located? What does this say about long-term cultural contact and the effects of imperialism? Also, look at the long-range economic impact of imperialism in China by tracing the nineteenth and twentieth century histories of tea, porcelain, sugar, tobacco, and textiles.

| back to top |

© Asia for Educators, Columbia University |