Opium Wars

views updated May 29 2018

Opium Wars


Opium Wars is a term referring to two wars that Britain fought against imperial China in the middle of the nineteenth century, presumably over the attempts of the Chinese authorities to stop the growing influx of foreign-produced opium. The real cause of the first Opium War (18391842), also called the Anglo-Chinese War, was Chinese resistance to Britains free-trade demands and practices, of which the unrestricted trade in opium was only the most controversial example. Seeking to end high Chinese import duties and other restrictions on foreign trading, the British found a pretext for war when China prohibited the importation of the drug and then confiscated a British shipment of opium.

Opium had long been used in China to treat some ailments, but in the seventeenth and the early part of the eighteenth centuries millions of Chinese from all social classes began to use it recreationally. Britains East India Company was shipping large quantities of Indian-grown opium to China, which it traded for Chinese tea and other local products. The imperial government was so concerned at the growing number of Chinese opium addicts that in 1799 it forbade its import trade and even decreed the death penalty for illicit trafficking in opium. Despite this legal prohibition, the opium trade continued to thrive, as private traders from Britain and other Western countries, including the United States, made huge profits from selling the extract to Chinese opium eaters. By the late 1830s foreign merchants were importing into China an estimated 5 million pounds of the illegal drug annually. Opium smuggling had so upset Chinas balance of trade that its backward economy seemed to be on the verge of collapse. The alarmed imperial authorities made opium possession illegal in 1836 and began to close down the numerous opium parlors.

In 1839 Chinese customs officials seized a shipment of opium that British merchants were planning to market in the seaport city of Canton. In response, Britain rejected the legitimacy of Chinas opium ban and threatened to use military force if the confiscated opium was not returned to its British owners. When China refused, the British navy shelled Canton and occupied the coastal areas around it, including Hong Kong. The war continued until China was forced to accept the humiliating terms of the 1842 Treaty of Nanking and compensate British merchants for their lost opium. The opium trade continued and even expanded under the generous import-license privileges that the Treaty of Nanking had granted to British merchants. This first of the so-called unequal treaties with China also ceded Hong Kong to Britain, opened five coastal cities, including Canton, to British rights of residence and trade, and imposed a very low tariff on British imports under the most-favored-nation principle. In 1844 the French and the Americans pressured China into granting them the same trading rights as the British.

The second Opium War (18561860) is sometimes called the Arrow War because the British, incensed by what they felt were clear treaty violations, used as a pretext to renew hostilities the boarding and seizure of the British ship Arrow and the arrest of its twelve crew members for opium smuggling and piracy. This time France joined the British in launching a punitive expedition inland after an initial British attack had been repelled by the Chinese. A combined Anglo-French military raid into Chinas hinterland led to the signing of the 1858 Treaty of Tientsin. The Chinese imperial court refused to accept the onerous terms of this second unequal treaty until another joint Anglo-French expedition captured the capital Peking in 1860 and forced Chinas total surrender. The Treaty of Tientsin allowed foreign embassies in Peking, a closed city at that time, opened eleven more coastal cities to foreign trading, and completely legitimized the opium trade. It also allowed westerners to travel in the Chinese interior, gave Christian missionaries the right to proselytize and hold property throughout China, and lowered even further import duties on British goods. In 1860 similarly imposed treaties were signed with France, the United States, and Russia.

The Opium Wars marked the beginning of Chinas century-long subjugation and servitude to foreign powers. The defeated Chinese were forced to legalize the importation of opium, accept unfair and unbalanced terms of foreign trade, open up Chinas seaports and the Yangtze River to foreign commercial penetration under the so-called treaty port system, and exempt westerners from Chinas local laws and national jurisdiction. So severely curtailed was Chinas independence in that period that the Chinese still view the Opium Wars as a national disgrace.

SEE ALSO Colonialism; Drugs of Abuse; Imperialism; Protected Markets; Protectionism; Sovereignty; Trade


Beeching, Jack. 1977. The Chinese Opium Wars. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Fay, Peter W. 1975. The Opium War, 18401842: Barbarians in the Celestial Empire in the Early Part of the Nineteenth Century and the War by Which They Forced Her Gates Ajar. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Hu, Sheng. 1991. From the Opium War to the May Fourth Movement. Trans. Dun J. Li. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Inglis, Brian. 1976. The Opium War. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Rossen Vassilev

Opium Wars

views updated May 29 2018


first opium war (1839–1842)
second opium war (1856–1860)

The Opium Wars is the name given to two nineteenth-century wars between China and Western countries. The military confrontations that occurred between China and Britain from 1839 to 1842 are known as the first Opium War. Historians refer to the war that transpired from 1856 to 1860 between China and joint Anglo-French forces as the second Opium War.

first opium war (1839–1842)

Britain had established the East India Company in 1600 in part to gain access to the Chinese market. Thereafter the company enjoyed a monopoly over Britain's trade with China. Given Britain's growing demand for tea, porcelain, and silk from China, trade between China and Britain remained in China's favor down to the early nineteenth century. In order to find money to pay for these goods and cover the trade deficit, the company started to import opium to China in large quantities starting in the mid-eighteenth century. The size of these imports increased tenfold between 1800 and 1840 and provided the British with the means to pay for the tea and other goods imported from China. By the 1820s the trade balance had shifted in Britain's favor, and opium became a major commercial and diplomatic issue between China and Britain.

The opium trade was illegal in China. The Qing state had banned opium sales that were not strictly for medical purposes as early as 1729. But the law was not rigorously enforced. A century later more Chinese people had become opium smokers, which made enforcement of the ban more difficult. By the mid-1830s growing drug addiction had created such serious economic, social, financial, and political problems in China that many Chinese scholars and officials were becoming concerned about the resulting currency drain, moral decay, and diminishment of the military forces' fighting capacity. They argued that China had to ban the opium trade once and for all.

The emperor agreed and in 1838 decided that the opium trade must be stopped. He sent an official named Lin Zexu (1785–1850) to Guangzhou with a special mandate to solve the opium problem. Lin launched a comprehensive attack on the opium trade, targeting users as well as providers of the drug. In his dealing with British opium traders, he used a combination of reason, moral suasion, and coercion. He even sent a letter to Queen Victoria to argue his case. In his carefully phrased letter, Lin tried to appeal to the British queen's sense of moral responsibility and legality. When reason and moral suasion did not work, Lin blockaded the residence compound of the foreign opium traders, including the British superintendent in Guangzhou, to force them to give up more than twenty thousand chests of opium.

The goods from China carried away by your country not only supply your own consumption and use, but also can be divided up and sold to other countries, producing a triple profit. Even if you do not sell opium, you still have this threefold profit. How can you bear to go further, selling products injurious to others in order to fulfill your insatiable desire?…Suppose there were people from another country who carried opium for sale to England and seduced your people into buying and smoking it; certainly your honorable ruler would deeply hate it and be bitterly aroused.

Lin Zexu's Letter to Queen Victoria, 1839. In China's Responses to the West, edited by Ssu-yü Teng and John King Fairbanks. (Cambridge, 1954), p. 26.

For the Chinese, Lin's actions were about opium. For the British, however, the drug was a key component in their trade with China. Without the profits from opium, British merchants would not be able to pay for Chinese tea and silk, and Britain was prepared even to risk war to continue the opium trade. Because the opium trade was illegal in China, Britain could not officially argue for a war to protect the opium trade. Instead, it claimed that Lin's strong action on opium insulted British national honor. In 1834 the British government abolished the East India Company's monopoly on China trade. This had serious consequences for Anglo-Chinese relations because the chief representative of British interests in China now represented his country rather than the company, so that an insult to the British trade superintendent was now a matter of state. Britain also claimed that it went to war with China to promote free trade.

On these grounds, the full British fleet under Admiral George Elliot, consisting of sixteen warships and four newly designed steamships, arrived in Guangzhou in June 1840. They blockaded Guangzhou and Ningbo and fought their way farther up the north coast, and in 1840 threatened Tianjin, a port city close to Beijing. The Qing court agreed to negotiate, and in 1842 the Treaty of Nanjing concluded the first Opium War. As a result Hong Kong was ceded to Britain, and China was forced to abolish the Guangzhou system on which Chinese trade relations had been based for over a century and agreed to allow the British to trade and reside in four coastal cities in addition to Guangzhou: Shanghai, Fuzhou, Xiamen, and Ningbo. China in addition agreed to pay an indemnity of $21 million to cover the losses claimed by the British opium traders and Britain's war expenses. A supplement to the treaty signed in 1843 extended most-favored-nation treatment (a guarantee of trading equality) to Britain, and the Qing state later granted most-favored-nation treatment to all the Great Powers. The treaty therefore symbolized the beginning of the so-called century of shame for China. Other powers immediately followed suit and forced China to sign a series of unequal treaties. The foreign powers' unequal rights in China lasted until 1943. With the Treaty of Nanjing and the unequal treaties that followed, China lost its judicial and tariff autonomy and other crucial parts of its national sovereignty. Although the nineteenth century was a century of rivalries among major European powers, because of the most-favored-nation clause they continued to be allied against China.

second opium war (1856–1860)

Despite the importance of opium in the war, the drug was not legalized by the Treaty of Nanjing. Although the British negotiators pushed the issue hard at the time, the Chinese authorities simply would not agree. British policy makers realized that as long as opium was illegal in China, their positions could be weakened. Wanting to gain more privileges in China, the British therefore looked for another pretext for war and found one in an 1856 incident involving a ship named the Arrow.

The Arrow was formerly registered in British-controlled Hong Kong but built in China and owned by a Chinese. In October 1856 the Chinese authorities arrested the Arrow's Chinese crew, who were reported to have engaged in illegal activities when the ship was anchored in Guangzhou. But Britain claimed that its national flag had been insulted when the Chinese authorities boarded the ship. Although there was overwhelming evidence suggesting the British flag was unlikely to have been flying, given the British practice that no ship fly its flags while at anchor, the British government decided to use the Arrow incident as a pretext for military action against China. Even before the Arrow incident occurred, the British government had actively sought support from France and the United States for a prospective war on China. The French joined the British on the pretext of the judicial execution of a French missionary in February 1856 in the interior province of Guangxi, which was not yet opened to the West. The Anglo-French forces soon captured Guangzhou and Tianjin, where they—along with the Americans and Russians—reached a series of treaties with the Chinese in 1858. The Treaties of Tianjin contained the following provisions: the opening of ten new treaty ports, including four inland along the Chang (Yangtze) River; the establishment of permanent Western diplomatic missions in Beijing; permission for foreigners, including missionaries, to travel throughout China; the reduction of customs duties to 5 percent and of the likin tax (the internal customs dues that were levied on commodities as they moved from one locality to another) to 2.5 percent ad valorem; and the transfer of the Kowloon Peninsula, on the mainland opposite Hong Kong, from Chinese to British control. China also had to pay both Britain and France an indemnity of eight million taels (about US$ 11 million), and the treaty, by implication, legalized opium.

The Qing court, however, was strongly opposed to the idea of a permanent foreign diplomatic presence in Beijing and refused to approve the treaty. The Anglo-French troops therefore marched to Beijing and looted many Chinese treasures and burned down the Yuan Ming Yuan (the summer palace). Much of the Yuan Ming Yuan's collections later found their way into affluent homes in Europe and onto the European art market. With their troops in Beijing, Britain and France in 1860 secured the Convention of Beijing through which they were able to obtain everything they wanted and more from the Treaties of Tianjin. Tianjin became a treaty port, and France secured the right for Catholic missionaries to own properties in the interior of China.

See alsoBoxer Rebellion; China; Imperialism.


Fay, Peter Ward. The Opium War, 1840–1842: Barbarians in the Celestial Empire in the Early Part of the Nineteenth Century and the War by Which They Forced Her Gates Ajar. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1975. Reprint, 1997.

Melancon, Glenn. Britain's China Policy and the Opium War: Balancing Drugs, Violence, and National Honour, 1833–1840. Aldershot, U.K., 2003.

Polachek, James M. The Inner Opium War. Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

Wong, J. Y. Deadly Dreams: Opium, Imperialism, and the Arrow War (1856–1860) in China. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.

Xu Guoqi

Opium Wars

views updated May 18 2018

Opium Wars

In the early nineteenth century, British merchants began to smuggle opium from India into China in order to balance their purchase of Chinese tea, porcelain, silk, and other goods for export to Britain. The British resorted to opium smuggling because Britain had no more silver for the China trade, and China, a country with a self-sufficient economy, was not interested in any Western product but silver.

The effects of opium smoking on Chinese society were devastating, and the drain of silver, which was spent on purchasing opium, greatly decreased the Chinese government's revenues. In an effort to stem the tragedy, the imperial government made opium illegal in 1836, and the traffic in opium thus became a criminal activity. However, British traders still smuggled massive amounts of opium into Guangzhou (Canton) by bribing local Cantonese officials.

In order to enforce the imperial government's prohibitions on the importation of opium, the imperial commissioner, Lin Zexu (ca. 1785–1850), was sent to Guangzhou by the Chinese emperor. Lin Zexu clamped down on all traffic in opium and destroyed all the existing stores of opium confiscated from British merchants at Guangzhou in March 1839. Great Britain, which had been looking for a means to end China's restrictions on foreign trade since the middle of the eighteenth century, responded by sending warships in June 1840 to attack Guangzhou and Xiamen, but the British effort was not successful.

From January 1841 to July 1842, however, British troops captured, in succession, Guangzhou, Xiamen, Dinghai, Zhenjiang, Ningbo, and Wusongkou. The British also captured the Chinese fleet anchored off Nanjing. British forces encountered fierce resistance from the Chinese, but China had only old and outdated weapons and artillery at their disposal. Finally, on August 29, 1842, the Chinese were forced to sign the "unequal" Treaty of Nanjing.

The Treaty of Nanjing opened five ports—Guangzhou, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Lingbo, and Shanghai—to conduct foreign trade as "treaty ports." In addition, a war indemnity of 21 million taels (1 Custom tael = 0.0378 kilograms = 0.10127 avoirdupois pounds) of silver was to be paid to Britain, and Hong Kong was surrendered to the British. The treaty further stipulated that all customs duties must be negotiated with other countries, and import duties were lowered from 65 percent to 5 percent. The treaty abolished the decree designating Guangzhou as the sole port for foreign trade and allowed British merchants to engage in free trade in China. Finally, the treaty allowed British merchants to bring their families to live in the treaty ports, and the Chinese local authorities had to provide housing or other establishments, which British merchants could rent.

To supplement the Treaty of Nanjing, the British forced the Chinese to sign the Treaty of the Bogue in 1843. According to this supplemental treaty, all British citizens would be subject to British, not Chinese, law if they should commit any crime on Chinese soil. Furthermore, any Chinese person who either dealt with the British, or lived with them, or was employed by them did not come under Chinese jurisdiction either.

In addition, the so-called most-favored-nation clause was included. This gave the British the same privileges extorted from China by any other country. Within a few years, several other Western powers signed treaties with China and received similar commercial and residential privileges. The treaties opened the Chinese markets and resources to Western capitalism, caused the inflow of cheap Western industrial products, and toppled China's self-sufficient economy. However, the terms of the treaties also speeded up the development of capitalism in China. At the same time, the treaties opened China to the outside world against the will of the Chinese people, turning China into a semifeudal, semicolonial state, with Western domination of China's treaty ports after the war.

The second Opium War (1856–1860) is also called the Arrow War. On October 8, 1856, Chinese officials boarded the Arrow, a Chinese-owned but British-registered ship, in Guangzhou. The British quickly responded to the "Arrow Incident" and attacked Guangzhou. France soon joined British action under the pretext of seeking revenge for the execution of a French missionary, Father August Chapdelaine (1814–1856), by local Chinese authorities in Guangxi Province. The United States and Russia also sent envoys to Hong Kong to help the British-French alliance.

The joint English-French troops attacked again and occupied Guangzhou in late 1857. They maintained their colonial rule in the city for nearly four years. The coalition then cruised north to briefly capture the Dagu forts near Tianjin in May 1858. From there, they threatened to invade Beijing.

On June 23, 1858, the Chinese were forced to sign the Treaty of Tianjin, to which Britain, France, Russia, and the United States were party. The major points of the treaties were: Britain, France, Russia, and the United States would have the right to station legations in Beijing, and ten more ports would be opened for foreign trade, including Niuzhuang, Dengzhou, Tainan, Danshui, Chaozhou, Qiongzhou, Hankou, Jiujiang, Nanjing, and Zhenjing. Foreign vessels, including warships, would have the right to navigate freely on the Yangzi River. In addition, foreigners would have the right to travel within China's interior for the purpose of travel, trade, or missionary activities. China was also to pay an indemnity to Britain and France of two million taels of silver each, and compensation to British merchants of two million taels of silver.

China subsequently attempted to block the entry of diplomats into Beijing. In order to force China to comply with the terms of the new treaty, British and French allied forces landed at Beitang on August 1, 1860, and successfully attacked the Dagu forts on August 21. On October 6, the coalition occupied Beijing and burned the city's Summer Palace (Yihe Yuan) and the Old Summer Palace (Yuanming Yuan), completely destroying the Old Summer Palace. The Chinese emperor finally ratified the Treaty of Tianjin in the Convention of Beijing on October 18, 1860.

The opium trade was thereafter legalized. In addition, Christians were granted full civil rights that were previously denied to them on the grounds of religious belief, including the right to own property. They were also allowed to proselytize and spread their faith unhindered. The contents of the Convention of Beijing stated that: China should recognize the validity of the Treaty of Tianjin; China would open Tianjin as a trade port; the district of Jiulong Si was ceded to Britain; Chinese laborers were permitted to emigrate to work overseas; and the indemnity to Britain and France would increase to eight million taels of silver each.

see also China, First Opium War to 1945; Opium.


Chesneaux, Jean, Marianne Bastid, and Marie-Claire Bergère. China from the Opium Wars to the 1911 Revolution. Translated by Ann Destenay. New York: Pantheon, 1976.

Holt, Edgar. The Opium Wars in China. London: Putnam, 1964.

Gentzler, J. Mason, ed. Changing China: Readings in the History of China from the Opium War to the Present. New York: Praeger, 1977.

Gibson, Michael. China: Opium Wars to Revolution. London: Wayland, 1975.

Inglis, Brian. The Opium War. London: Hodder, 1976.

Melancon, Glenn. Britain's China Policy and the Opium Crisis: Balancing Drugs, Violence, and National Honour, 1833–1840. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003.

Polachek, James M. The Inner Opium War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Waley, Arthur. The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1958.

Wong, J. Y. Deadly Dreams: Opium, Imperialism, and the Arrow War (1856–1860) in China. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Opium Wars

views updated Jun 27 2018

Opium Wars (1839–42) Conflict between Britain and China. It arose because Chinese officials prevented the importation of opium. After a British victory, the Treaty of Nanking gave Britain trading rights in certain ports and the grant of Hong Kong. A second, similar war (1856–60) was fought by the British and French. When China refused to ratify the Treaty of Tientsin (1858), Anglo-French forces occupied Peking.

Opium War

views updated Jun 11 2018

Opium War. See China wars.