Two Hundred Years of U.S. Trade with China (1784-1984)

It was February, 1784. Only five months earlier, the U.S. and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Paris (September 3, 1783). This agreement ended the Revolutionary War. U.S. ships could no longer trade with the British West Indies. Trade with other nations was in a slump. Americans especially missed tea. Robert Morris (1734-1806), a banker, decided to find a way to supply that tea. By doing so, he said, he hoped "to encourage others in the adventurous pursuit of commerce."

Empress of China

Morris hired a small ship and renamed it the Empress of China. The ship was set to sail east, around the southern tip of Africa, to Canton (Guangzhou), China. It would return by the same route. The ship's captain, John Green, had spent the war attacking British cargo ships. His crew of 34 men included a gunner, who would come in handy if the ship met pirates. Also aboard were two carpenters, a barrel-maker, and several boys. The boys were beginning their careers in the merchant marine.

In some ways, the most important man aboard was the "supercargo," Samuel Shaw of Boston. Shaw was a businessman, in charge of the $120,000 cargo in the ship's hold. The Empress carried lead, 2,600 animal skins, fine camel cloth, cotton, and a few barrels of pepper. It also carried 30 tons of ginseng, a root that grew wild in North America. The Chinese valued ginseng for its healing powers.

Trading in Canton

The Empress left New York harbor on February 22, 1784. Six months later, in August, it arrived at Macao, a Portuguese outpost on the Chinese coast. Here, Captain Green hired Chinese pilots to guide his ship up the Pearl River to Whampoa. Trading ships stayed in Whampoa while their supercargoes worked out deals in Canton, 12 miles upstream.

The Chinese wanted as few foreigners as possible in their country. They believed that China was the center of a square earth. Foreigners, they felt, had nothing but trouble to offer China. The Chinese called the Americans the "New People." But Americans were lumped with all outsiders as "Foreign Devils."

Samuel Shaw spent the next fourth months in Canton. Foreigners there weren't free to roam. The Chinese ordered them to stay in compounds call hongs [see Macartney and the Emperor for more about hongs]. Hongs were pleasant places, where Chinese merchants called to trade.

Shaw traded his cargo for tea, nankeen (Chinese cotton), tableware, silk, and spice. The shipment was welcomed in the U.S. when the Empress returned there in May, 1785. The Chinese goods brought Robert Morris and his partners $30,000 — an impressive profit.

Other U.S. merchants were quick to see the value of the China trade. At first, however, they flooded the Chinese market with ginseng. Chinese demand for the root dropped, and so did its price. But the Chinese did want sea-otter pelts, which Yankees traded from Indians in the American Northwest. Sandalwood, found in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), also brought a high price from Chinese merchants.

From Ginseng to Opium

The trade took an ugly turn in the early 1800s. British merchants began carrying opium to China, and many Americans followed suit. Opium, a drug, created its own demand by making addicts of its users. U.S. merchants found they could buy a pound of opium in Turkey for $2.50 and sell it in Canton for $10.00.

A Chinese attempt to shut down the opium traffic led to war with Britain. The "Opium War" lasted two years. It ended with a treaty that punished China and opened four more ports to British shipping. In later treaties, China granted the U.S. and France the same privileges Britain had.

Turmoil within China would interrupt trade with the U.S. during the next 100 years. Then, in 1949, a Communist government took over in China. The next year, Chinese and U.S. troops faced off in Korea, and the China trade ended for 22 years.

Now, commerce between China and the U.S. is picking up again. Trade has brought the two nations closer, just as it did in 1784.

Acknowledgement: Essay by Karen Markoe, Associate Professor at Maritime College, State University of New York. Published in Scholastic Search, November 14, 1980. Reproduced here with permission from the author.

Timeline of U.S.-China Trade

1784 NY ship, Empress of China, opens U.S. China trade
1787 Boston ship, Columbia, carries sea-otter pelts to Canton
1805 Baltimore ship, Entan, carries opium to Canton
1840-42 Opium War
1844 China grants U.S. trading rights in Treaty of Wanghia
1899-1900 U.S. persuades China to keep ports open to Western trade from all nations
1950 Korean War begins; U.S. and China break all relations
1972 U.S. China trade resumes
1979 U.S. and China resume diplomatic relations

Discussion Question

  1. How might trade between nations lead to peace? How might it lead to war?