Nanking, Treaty of

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Signed aboard the deck of the HMS Cornwallis on 29 August 1842 by British plenipotentiary Sir Henry Pottinger (1789–1856) and Qing dynasty (1644–1911) imperial clansman Qiying (d. 1856), the Treaty of Nanking concluded the First Opium War, the Sino-British conflict of 1839–1942. Although it was provisional in nature (the details of the pact were to be settled later), the document's twelve articles established the legal framework for the advance of British commercial interests in China under what came to be called the system of "unequal treaties." Articles Two and Five opened the five coastal cities of Canton, Amoy (Xiamen), Foochowfoo (Fuzhou), Ningpo (Ningbo), and Shanghai to British merchants and diplomats, ending the previous arrangement restricting European traders to Canton and limiting their transactions to imperially licensed Chinese merchants. Article Ten required, moreover, that tariffs and customs levied on such trade be "fair and regular." A supplementary treaty established specific rates for various articles the following year, effectively ending Chinese tariff autonomy until 1928.

Other stipulations were more directly punitive: Article Three ceded the island of Hong Kong to the British "in perpetuity," while Articles Four and Six exacted a $21 million indemnity from the Qing government to pay for British opium stocks destroyed in 1839 and the costs of the war. (Article Seven decreed that repayment take place by the end of 1845; thereafter interest would accrue at 5 percent per annum.) Conspicuously absent from the treaty were provisions regarding future trade in opium, imports of which doubled to sixty thousand chests by 1860.

Most of the remaining articles pushed China to comply with the system of international relations by which nineteenth-century European nation-states conducted their affairs. Traditional Chinese governments practiced diplomacy through a ritual hierarchy affirming the superiority of Chinese civilization in general and the universal suzerainty (dominion) of the Chinese emperor in particular. Under this formula, Beijing rewarded ritual gestures of submission with limited trading privileges. Although Asian states had long subverted the system's formal Sinocentrism by acknowledging Chinese superiority in Beijing but ignoring it elsewhere, Europeans predictably chafed at linguistic and ceremonial forms designed to suggest their inferiority and subordination. Until 1839, however, they lacked the resources necessary to force the issue. Thus, Article One made each government responsible for the property and security of the other's resident nationals, while Article Eleven stipulated the use of value-neutral language in official correspondence.

The Treaty of Nanking signaled not only China's loss of sovereignty over key aspects of political, economic, and diplomatic activity but also the dawn of a new international order in East Asia. First to dine at the table set by the British was the United States, which in 1844 secured an agreement called the Treaty of Wanghia. Although modeled on the Nanking pact, the American treaty elucidated in some detail the principle of extraterritoriality whereby Americans suspected of crimes in China could only be tried by U.S. officials under U.S. law. By October, the French had engineered a treaty of their own, the Treaty of Whampoa, that further extended the privileges secured by the British and American agreements.

The key legal precedent fueling this diplomatic feeding frenzy was contained in the 1843 supplement to the Treaty of Nanking, which granted Britain "most favored nation" status: any privileges wrested from China by another power automatically extended to London also. Thus enabled, the British seized a seemingly innocuous clause in the Treaty of Wanghia allowing for treaty revision in twelve years to demand revision of the Nanking provisions in 1854. Qing resistance resulted, ultimately, in another war and defeat by British forces. The ensuing Treaty of Tianjin (1858) expanded foreign privileges by an order of magnitude, providing for ten new treaty ports, right of travel in the Chinese hinterland, and the right of missionary proselytization throughout the country, to name but a few. Qing refusal to accept these terms spurred a resumption of hostilities culminating in the burning of the magnificent Jesuit-designed Summer Palace complex in Beijing's northwest suburbs and the imposition of the Convention of Peking (1860).

Thus, one consequence of the Treaty of Nanking was a pattern in which ostensible Chinese treaty violation resulted in punitive military action by one or more powers, which produced another treaty facilitating further foreign penetration of China. By the 1890s the treaty ports had become centers of an urban Sino-foreign culture administered under joint sovereignty. As the harbinger of European imperialism in East Asia, the Treaty of Nanking was far more significant for the process it began than the conflict it ended.

See alsoChina; Great Britain; Imperialism.


Fairbank, John King. Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842–1854. Cambridge, Mass., 1964.

——. "The Creation of The Treaty System." In The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 10: Late Ch'ing, 1800–1911, Pt. I, edited by Denis Twitchett and John K. Fairbank, 213–263. Cambridge, U.K., 1978.

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

Wood, R. Derek. "The Treaty of Nanking: Form and the Foreign Office, 1842–1843." Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 24.2 (May 1996): 181–196.

John Williams