China, to the First Opium War

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China, to the First Opium War

China was first confronted with European colonialism in the course of the Portuguese expansion in Asia during the early sixteenth century. In 1511 Malacca (Melaka), on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, was occupied by a force under the command of the Portuguese viceroy of India, Afonso de'Albuquerque (d. 1515). Malacca became an important base for Portuguese trade contacts with China. Malacca had been a Chinese vassal state and the sultan called for assistance, but the Chinese emperor only issued an edict to Siam (Thailand) to send help, which never arrived.

The Portuguese arrived on China's southern coast in 1514 to 1516 and reached Canton (Guangzhou) in 1517. China granted the Portuguese permission to trade, but after several confrontations the Portuguese were driven out in 1522 to 1523. Nevertheless, some Portuguese traders, mainly involved in smuggling, remained in China. In 1557 they achieved permission to settle in Macao on the southern coast of China, which became the region's main base for Western trade for over a century.

Spain began colonizing the Philippine archipelago in 1565. Shortly thereafter, galleon trade between Acapulco in Mexico and the Philippine port city of Manila was established, bringing goods, mainly silver, from the New World into the Asian trade system. This development caused the emergence of a silver money economy in China and stimulated Chinese commerce.

Spain soon challenged the Portuguese position in the China trade and in 1598 even tried to establish a trading post near Canton. Even after Portugal fell under Spanish rule in 1581, the Portuguese in Macao remained eager to keep their monopoly, and they repeatedly attacked Spanish shipping.

In 1601 the first Dutch ship entered Chinese waters near Macao. The Dutch quickly became a serious rival for Portuguese trade. They attacked Macao and established a base on Taiwan. However, the Dutch were besieged and driven out of Taiwan in 1662 by the army of Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong, 1624–1662), which was retreating from the increasing power of the upcoming Qing dynasty.

One important factor of European influence in China were Christian missionaries. The Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) arrived in southern China in 1582 and went on to Beijing in 1601. Ricci not only attempted to convert the Chinese to Christendom, he also introduced such Western knowledge as the solar calendar. Ricci's most prominent successors were the Jesuits Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591–1666), who reached Macao in 1619, and Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1688). The Jesuits also brought knowledge of China to Europe, which led to a "China fashion" in philosophy and art. Most missionaries were expelled from China by the Kangxi emperor in 1721 after Pope Clement XI (1649–1721) decided in the "Chinese rites controversy" that the adoption of Chinese customs was incompatible with Catholic principles.

China's contact with the outside world had been repeatedly limited. Ming dynasty (1368–1644) rulers prohibited private trade completely and limited foreign trade contacts to tribute missions. China still participated in the Southeast Asian trade system, but this participation expanded considerably only after the Ming officially lifted their ban in 1567. Chinese communities developed in growing colonial ports, such as Batavia (Jakarta) and Manila, and became important agents for contacts between the European colonies and mainland China.

China was itself an empire, and maintained considerable interests in and colonial relations with its neighbours. Ming China regarded itself as the center of the world, foreign relations being only possible as tribute relationships. Although the early Qing dynasty (1644–1911) originated as foreign rulers over China, the Qing emperors soon adopted the Ming view of the Chinese world order. The Qing quickly moved from consolidation to expansion. In the course of exterminating the last Ming forces, they occupied territories in southern China and the island of Taiwan. In the eighteenth century, the high Qing period, China conquered Tibet and parts of Central Asia and gained control over Mongolia.

Soon after the Qing came to power, they banned most contacts with the outside world to prevent any foreign support for the remaining Ming armies. But in 1684, when the Qing dynasty established its hold on power, the Kangxi emperor relaxed the earlier ban and permitted limited trade along China's southeast coast.

The first British ship called at Xiamen (Amoy) in 1685. Other nations, such as Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden, were quick to follow. The first American traders arrived in 1784 after their war of independence. The British, however, dominated this renewed trade with China from the start, and around 1800 British trading vessels to China amounted to twice as many as all other nations combined.

The Western trade concentrated at the southern Chinese port of Canton, and in 1760 the Qianlong emperor restricted trade to this port. The so-called Canton system developed at this time, according to which Western traders were only allowed to trade during the winter season and had to remain in Macao for the rest of the year. Trade was confined to a small area outside the city walls, and transactions with Chinese were limited to a group of licensed merchants called cohong (after the Chinese gonghang, meaning "official company").

Russia was the only Western power to trade with China via her inland borders. After minor conflicts, China and Russia resolved their border conflicts and regulated trade in the treaties of Nerchinsk (1689) and Kyakhta (1727).

The most important goods exported from China were porcelain, silk, and tea. The English East India Company enjoyed the monopoly of direct trade between China and England and thus profited enormously, as did the British government through import taxes. The main problem in this exchange was the inability of the West to bring products of equivalent value to China. Chinese exports were mainly paid for in silver.

Great Britain hoped to change the restrictive Canton system in 1793 by sending Lord George Macartney (1737–1806) to request the opening of additional ports, but China's Qianlong emperor refused to alter the terms of trade. To compensate for the trade deficit, the East India Company began growing opium in India and exporting the drug to China. As the opium disrupted the trade balance and silver began to flow out of China, the Qing rulers reacted by banning opium imports. In response, British and other Western traders smuggled the opium into China. With the growing popularity of the concept of free trade, however, the East India Company's monopoly was abolished in 1834. When the Chinese government resolved to implement harsher measures against the opium trade in 1839, the British government came under severe pressure from the free trade lobby to bring down the restrictive Canton system, leading to the first Opium War (1839–1842).

see also China, First Opium War to 1945; China, Foreign Trade; Guangzhou; Hong Kong, to World War II; Religion, Western Presence in East Asia; Shanghai; Taiping Rebellion; Treaties, East Asia and the Pacific.


Fairbank, John King, ed. The Chinese World Order: Traditional China's Foreign Relations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Fairbank, John King, ed. The Missionary Enterprise in China and America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization, 2nd ed. Translated by J. R. Foster and Charles Hartman. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Osterhammel, Jürgen. China und die Weltgesellschaft: Vom 18, Jahrhundert bis in unsere Zeit. Munich: Verlag C. H. Beck, 1989.

Perdue, Peter C. China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Twitchett, Denis, and Frederick W. Mote. The Cambridge History of China; Vol. 8: The Ming Dynasty, 1368–1644, Pt. 2. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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China, to the First Opium War

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