The Opium Wars: Britain's Role in China's 'Century of Humiliation'
September 25th 2023
When Orientalist representations seep through the porous boundaries of ourselves, the demand for media representation is a demand for an authentic self.
Written by Emma Lin
Edited by Kristy Bryant, Kimberley Wong & Kinza Aelia
The Opium wars are a rarely taught episode of British Imperialism, but an exploration into the strategic geopolitical manouvres of a colonial power might help explain the origins of Yellow Peril.
Despite the deep cultural and economic imprints the Opium Wars left on China, they are often overlooked in the UK when analysing the global consequences of Imperial Britain. This article aims to shed some light on how they shaped modern political relations between China and the West.

The Opium Wars took place between 1839-42 and 1856-60; the former involving China and Britain, and the latter including France. As a result of these wars China would experience irreversible changes in terms of geopolitics, as well as civil unrest in the 19th Century, ultimately leading to the fall of the Qing dynasty. To this day, this period of time is known as the ‘Century of Humiliation’.
The Canton Trade System
In 1757, the Qing dynasty’s isolationist views led Emperor Qianlong to restrict all foreign trade to (modern day) Guangzhou, creating the Canton trade system. The trade system was implemented as part of a protectionist policy due to perceived foreign threats. This system meant that only the Hong merchant guild were able to trade with foreigners. They were in charge of imports, exports, and ensuring that Western traders abided by Chinese customs and duty regulations. Trade was conducted between the Hong merchants and the British East India Company, the largest global corporation with a monopoly on the tea trade.

Nearly 60 million pounds of tea had been imported from China to Britain as a result of increased British demand between 1772 and 1780. A huge trade deficit appeared as a consequence: Chinese consumers had no interest in the goods produced in Britain. Whilst tea had the largest demand, there was also a significant consumer base for other goods, such as porcelain and silk, further contributing to the deficit.

The exorbitantly high prices for tea due to significant taxes set by the British Crown meant lower and middle income households could not purchase legally imported tea, giving rise to extensive smuggling operations. By the early 19th century, a third of all tea was illegally smuggled into Britain. Subsequently, the British East India Company found itself on the verge of collapse. However, in the following 20 years, the balance of trade would be reversed in Britain’s favour as the Company illegally smuggled opium into China.
How opium devastated China
As the company had colonised the majority of India, they began large-scale production of opium in Bengal. The Company hired private American and British traders to transport the opium to the borders where Chinese smugglers would purchase it. Between 1810 and 1838, opium imports to China increased by nearly tenfold and thousands of Chinese citizens died due to addiction. In 1813, a ban was introduced on the production, importation, and smoking of opium, however, a lack of enforcement resulted in a futile attempt to abolish the system. In 1836, Emperor Daoguang, issued an imperial edict to reinforce the 1813 ban with more severe punishments, including execution. However, by this time, many government officials, army members and students were engaged in smoking opium. The significant corruption caused concerned officials to advise Emperor Daoguang that stricter actions needed to be taken.
The First Opium War
Consequently, Lin Ze Xu was appointed as Imperial Commissioner in 1839 to oversee the suppression of opium trade in the Guangdong province. Lin was a scholar and government official who fought against corruption, curbed the consequences of natural disaster, and supported villagers who had once been ill-treated by previous officers. As Imperial Commissioner, Lin ordered all foreigners in the city to surrender their opium stores within three days and offered a reward of 5 ½  pounds of tea for every opium chest turned over. Unfortunately, the traders ignored his deadline, so Lin took further measures: he blockaded a key trading firm and confined its 350 occupants. The British finally turned over 1,300 tonnes of opium after six weeks. Lin destroyed everything he seized in the Pearl River and also wrote a letter to Queen Victoria asking for her to halt the illegal smuggling of opium, but the letter was lost and never reached the Queen.

Tensions continued to build between the British and the Chinese: drunken British sailors murdered a Chinese merchant in Kowloon and the British refused to hand over the offenders to the Chinese authorities. Lin Ze Xu then declared a food embargo and decreed that the selling of food and supplies to the British was illegal. The British opened fire in order to demonstrate their power and so, in the autumn of 1839, the First Opium War began with the Battle of Kowloon. Lin was subsequently used as a scapegoat and exiled to Xinjiang.

Today however, he is revered as a national hero. The Qing dynasty greatly underestimated British war power and Chinese soldiers suffered drastically in every battle of the First Opium War. It is estimated that around 18,000-20,000 Chinese soldiers were killed or wounded, compared to 69 British soldiers killed and 451 wounded.

In 1841, after the Battle of Chuenpi, negotiations quickly began between Admiral Charles Elliot and Qishan - the officials appointed by the British and Chinese, respectively, to negotiate trade terms. On the 26th of January 1841, it was declared that Hong Kong be conceded to the British. However, neither the British nor Chinese governments were satisfied with this result; Elliot was to be replaced by Henry Pottinger and Qishan was sentenced to death for conceding Hong Kong and betraying his country. The British continued fighting their way to Canton.

In May 1841, it became apparent that the Qing dynasty’s warfare was no match for the British and so negotiations commenced once again. One of the British requirements was that $6 million be paid - known as “The Ransom of Canton” - as reparations for the destroyed opium. Whilst Elliot wished to end the conflict, British General Hugh Gough wanted to continue fighting and captured Xiamen in August 1841, before occupying the Yangtze  River - a key source of income for the Qing dynasty. Once Elliot was officially replaced by Pottinger, who agreed with Gough’s views, the British attacked Zhoushan, Zhenhai, Ningpo, Cixi and Zhapu. In 1842, Shanghai was captured along with Baoshan and Nanjing.

The war finally ended after Nanjing was bombarded and local Qing officials dispatched diplomats to negotiate peace. This led to what is now known as ‘the unequal treaties’: the Treaty of Nanjing with the British, the Treaty of Huangpu with the French, and the Treaty of Wangxia with the US. In essence, all three treaties had the same terms, including the forcing of ports to open at Guangzhou, Shanghai, Xiamen, Ningpo, and Fuzhou; abolishment of the Canton trade system; extraterritoriality for British, French, and US citizens and finally a ‘most favoured nation clause’, meaning that any rights gained by other foreign countries would automatically be applied to these three countries as well. The British also ordered that Hong Kong be conceded and a total of $21 million to be paid as an indemnity.
The Second Opium War
In 1850, Emperor Daoguang died and his son Emperor Xianfeng,  took over the Qing dynasty as his successor. China was in the worst state it had ever been in: multiple uprisings against the Qing dynasty had occurred, including the Taiping Rebellion, and the treasury was now empty from the First Opium War. The rapid growth of Western imperialism led to increasing demands of privileges in China.

In 1856, Auguste Chapdelain, a French Catholic missionary, was arrested and murdered for illegally preaching in Guangxi, since Christianity was strictly authorised in the five open treaty ports. Later that same year, Chinese officials boarded a British ship and arrested several Chinese crew members under suspicion of piracy, since it had previously been used by pirates. These events outraged the French and the British, resulting in the formation of an Anglo-French alliance which aimed to demonstrate Western imperial power and force Western ideologies onto China. They captured Canton and imprisoned the governor, who subsequently died in India, before heading to Tianjin. There, they intended to demand further privileges.

With the Qing dynasty embroiled in multiple civil rebellions, the Treaties of Tianjin between China, Russia, the US, Britain, and France were signed in June 1858. The terms included: providing residence in Beijing for foreign envoys, opening more coastal ports to Western trade, the right of foreign travel within China, and preaching of Christianity throughout the nation. Since China received nothing in exchange, moreover for thousands of years China remained a closed and self-sufficient kingdom, unsurprisingly Emperor Xianfeng refused to ratify the treaties as they were even more unequal than before, and so hostilities quickly resumed.

The Anglo-French forces’ response to this was swift: in August 1860, they destroyed the Dagu forts and captured Beijing by October. There, they looted and burned the Yuanming Garden also known as the Imperial Summer Palace. Emperor Xianfeng and his wife fled into hiding in Chengde, leaving his half brother Yixin in charge in Beijing. With the Qing dynasty severely weakened, Yixin negotiated and ratified the Convention of Beijing, an agreement comprising three distinct treaties between the Qing dynasty and Britain, France and Russia. The convention ordered that the Emperor ratify the Treaties of Tianjin, and additional articles were added stating that China must cede the Kowloon Peninsula to Britain, open up trade ports along the Yangtze River and, most importantly, legalise the opium trade. This convention marks the end of the Second Opium War in October 1860.
The West’s brutal and exploitative methods and war power resulted in a national tragedy for a then-rising civilisation. Ultimately, the Opium Wars led to the first geopolitical concessions of China to the West, took the lives of thousands of Chinese citizens and, in the long term, encouraged the racist ideology of the Yellow Peril which is still perpetuated today.
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