Lecture Twenty-Eight

Threats from Within and Without

Scope: In the first half of the 19th century, China began to face new challenges, some arising from within its borders and some arriving from the outside world. Domestically, the long era of peace and prosperity that had lasted into the late 18th century gave way to one of increasing economic, demographic, and social problems. China’s population growth began to put serious stress on the empire’s ability to feed itself, and economic problems limited China’s capacity for expansion of production. Popular rebellions began to break out as living conditions deteriorated. At the same time, the British began marketing opium in China on a rapidly growing scale, reversing the flow of silver into China and creating a drain of money just when China was in need of greater capital for investment. Efforts by the Qing to stop or regulate the opium trade led to war with Britain in 1839. The Treaty of Nanjing, which ended the war in 1842, not only created de facto legalization of the opium trade but also forced open coastal ports to foreign traders.


I. At the end of the reign of Qianlong and the beginning of the 19th century, China was at a turning point in its modern history.

A. The very success of the Qing state had created conditions that now began to undermine the dynasty.

1. Population growth, which had been rapid during the long years of peace and prosperity, finally began to push against the available food supply, and little land was left to be brought into cultivation.

2. Patterns of intensive labor utilization in agriculture had rendered technological improvements unprofitable.

3. The wealthy elites of literati and merchants sought to protect their economic interests against state taxation and against the demands of the peasantry.

4. Frustration and resentment began to be manifested in popular rebellions against landlords and local officials.

B. The international context was also shifting.

1. From the middle of the 18th century, China had regulated its trade with the West through the Canton trade, also called the cohong system.

2. Trade was permitted only at the port of Canton, or Guangzhou, in the far south, and had to be conducted through state-licensed brokers, known as hong merchants.

3. The flow of silver into China continued as Western merchants bought large volumes of tea, silk, ceramics, and many other kinds of valuable commodities.

4. But the changes in the West, as outlined in the previous lecture, were putting pressure on this system.

5. In 1792 and again in 1816, the British sent diplomatic missions to seek open trade relations, but in both cases, they were rejected by the Qing.

II. As the British consolidated their control of large parts of India, they came into possession of the opium growing regions and found an ideal commodity to change their trading relationship with China.

A. Opium had been known in China for a long time.

1. It was produced in small quantities in the far southwest and had been used as a medicine for centuries.

2. Non-medicinal use was banned by the Yongzheng emperor in the 1730s.

B. The British destroyed the indigenous cotton industry in Bengal and other parts of India to convert farms to opium production.

1. They first began trading opium in Southeast Asia and found that it was popular among the Chinese coolie workers there.

2. Imports into China began in the early 19th century but only took off after the end of the Napoleonic Wars allowed Britain to refocus its attention on Asia.

3. From around 1816 to the mid-1830s, the volume of opium shipped into China grew every year.

C. The impact of the opium trade was dramatic.

1. Millions of Chinese became addicts.

2. The British demanded silver in payment for opium, and the flow of silver, which had been heavily in China’s favor, was rapidly reversed.

3. By the 1830s, China was losing silver at such a high rate that it began to face serious shortages of capital and prices were subject to dramatic fluctuations.

III. The Qing state faced difficult problems in responding to these challenges.

A. The government had become bureaucratically rigid.

1. Efforts to deal with problems creatively were frustrated by established interests.

2. Revenues were declining, which limited the capacity of the government to fund reforms or maintain infrastructure.

B. Control of the opium trade was opposed by the British.

1. The Qing repeatedly protested to the British about the evils of opium and its adverse impact on the Chinese economy.

2. The court called for policy ideas from officials across the empire.

3. Lin Zexu, an experienced official who had been serving in Central Asia, proposed a mix of rehabilitation for addicts and strict prohibition of imports and sales.

4. Lin was named Imperial Commissioner to eradicate the opium trade.

C. When China tried to stop the trade, Britain went to war.

1. In 1839, Lin confiscated opium held by British merchants and arrested some leading British traders.

2. The British argued that the real issue was free trade, and when the Chinese destroyed the opium, the British declared war.

3. British military superiority inflicted serious defeats on the Chinese.

IV. The Opium War of 1839-1842 ushered in a new age in China’s relations with the outside world.

A. In 1842, the Qing were forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Nanjing; although it never mentioned opium, the treaty had the effect of legalizing the trade.

1. The treaty required the Chinese to open ports along the coast to British and other foreign traders.

2. The treaty allowed British merchants to trade freely in China, without using the cohong brokers.

3. It ceded Hong Kong island to Britain.

4. It established the Principle of Extraterritoriality, which decreed that while British citizens were in China, they would be subject to the laws of Britain, not China.

B. In the wake of China’s defeat, other Western powers also signed treaties.

1. These expanded the rights of foreign powers in China.

2. They included the “no most favored nation” clause, which ensured than any privilege granted to any one power must be granted to all.

3. Foreign missionaries were given legal protection to operate in China.

4. All these provisions opened China to the power of the West and led to severe disruptions of the domestic economy and political order.

5. In the next lecture, we will turn to one of the stranger results of this situation, the Taiping Rebellion.

Essential Reading:

Frederick Wakeman, Strangers at the Gate.

Supplemental Reading:

James Polachek, The Inner Opium War.

Questions to Consider:

1. Opium was illegal in England, yet Parliament voted to go to war to force China to open its markets. How is this different from the “war on drugs” of the present period?

2. Why were the Chinese so reluctant to open their domestic markets to the outside world?

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