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Causes opening china

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The Causes for the Opening of China by England

after the First Opium War

For centuries, China has been able to withstand barbarian invasions. Before we venture any further, it is important to note that barbarian denoted not the ethnicity of a person, but his culture. A Westerner can be Chinese if he adopts the Chinese culture. So for all these years, China has maintained its cultural integrity by not allowing any foreign manipulations to it. By the early 19th century, as the West was more present on the mainland, China was not able to defend itself against these new "red-haired" barbarians as she described them. How was it that China was able to assimilate and fend off the Jurchen or the Mongols, but was powerless against the Western invasion? After the First Opium War, 1840-1842, China was opened by force and foreigners have during the course of the next century played an important role in China. In our essay, we shall look upon what factors eroded the Imperial powers of the government which was unable to deal with the barbarian threat in the begining of the 19th century leading up to the Opium War. We will also briefly touch upon what immediate results have the two main treaties (Nanking Treaty and Supplementary Treaty) had upon China after the first Opium War which reshaped Sino-Western relationships.

China has always been able to deal with barbarians from inner Asia mainly because they became accustomed to their threat and presence. The Mongols from the steppes, or the Jurchens from the North could be dealt with in a similar manner. The Chinese have always seen themselves as at the center of the world; their culture was to be followed as it was the most "civilized". After all, China had a language unlike any other in the world, they dressed in a fashion that was incomparable to any. China has always been able to "sinicize" the barbarians that presented themselves on its territory by the Confucian theory that their cultural superiority will act like the pole star (Ebrey 1990, p. 21), it was to be imitated. Foreigners would be attracted to it by all its virtues. Of course, whatever goes for the Chinese goes also for the West. The Europeans also thought that their culture was superior to any and they would never let themselves be assimilated by the Chinese culture. The West came to China with the same mentality as when they came to any other place in the world: civilize the barbarians. Both people did not want to be assimilated. In this regard, the Chinese were not able to engulf these barbarians in their system as they have with others since it did not develop a separate strategy for dealing with these barbarians.

The Board of Rites was Chinaís way of dealing with foreign invasions. Chinese officials would greet foreigners and immerse them in Chinese culture and shower them with gifts hoping that the barbarian would tire of it and simply go away. The Chinese tried to deal with the West as if just another barbarian clan from Asia not taking into account that they were dealing with a completely different culture (Fairbank 1969, p. 7). More to the point, the Board of Rites which distributed gifts to foreigners only attracted the red-haired barbarians even more as they were able to resell these gifts in the West for nice sums of money.

The Chinese were largely ignorant of the West, they confused countries with one another. At one point, two delegations from Portugal were mistaken as deleguations from two separate countries; Spain and Portugal. This ignorance showed the Chinese cultural arrogance. Why should we bother to learn about an inferior culture? In fact, it was the barbarians that must pay tribute to the superior Chinese culture (Fairbank 1969, p. 27). Paying tribute was the first step of assimilating the barbarians as they would have to act according a rigid code of Chinese conduct. Moreover, the tribute showed the Emperorís Mandate of Heaven as he was supposed to rule over all mankind. In other words, the clash of culture and the arrogance of both peopleís aggravated the situation. The Chinese and the Europeans would never deal with each other on an equal footing. All the while, the Chinese simply assumed that they would be able to assimilate through time these new barbarians.

In this respect, the intellectuals of China also played a role in the manner in whihc the central authority dealt with the problem. Intellectuals turned a blind eye to the Westís presence dismissing it as another annoying passage of a barbarian clan that would be rapidly assimilated. The inertia of the powers at be in China was hence caused by their ethnocentricity and their traditional views of barbarians.

The weakness of the ruling Imperial House is also a cause for the opening up of China and it rather passive response to the red-haired barbarians. The cyclical notion of Chinese history where one dynasty falls only to be replaced by another one is always preceded by certain factors: peasant rebellions, growing corruption amongst officials, hunger and starvation, and the loss of the central authorityís power. All these signs, as we will see, were present in the early 19th century in Imperial China. The weakness of the Imperial power disabled it to deal properly with the threat of the West.

On one hand, the Emperorís court was divided in two: the Manchuís and the Hanís. The Imperial regime was actually a dyarchy composed of the Manchus who were the public figures that assisted at public and social functions, and then there were the Chinese who did the actual bureaucratic work and ran the country on a day to day basis. The Manchu rulers of the time were hence caught in a bind. How could they advocate anti-barbarian feelings, when they themselves were of barbaric origin (Fairbank 1969, p. 45)? Hence, this dyarchy also slowed things down as the regime was atrophied by this unlikely duality.

The dissent faced by the Manchu leaders was not restricted to inner-court politics, it was also present in the countryside and other cities. Secret societies emerged everywhere to contest the Manchu rulers, growing hunger in the countryside, and general starvation amongst Chinese. Societies such as the Red Spears, Small Knife, or White Lotus all wanted a more egalitarian Chinese society in which to live. These societies organized rebellions in the countryside whihc greatly weakened the regime as it had to concentrate on putting down revolts instead of concentrating on the barbarians.

The agriculture of China was also in decay. In less than a century, there was a tremendous spur in the population. Chinaís population almost doubled in less than a century as it grew from 213613163 in 1770 to 412814828 in 1840 (Chesneaux & co. 1976, p. 47). Thismgrowth put a lot of pressure on Chinese agriculture which was at the time falling apart.

Canals and dykes which were central to Chinese agriculture were being left aside to decay. At one point, instead of building a large dyke, the central authorities (although it is to be said with the accord of peasants) built narrow dykes in order to avoid flooding arable land and also to save money, because as we will see, the government was short on funds during this period. These narrow dykes, at the first heavy rain, broke and flooded the fields destroying thousands upon thousands of acres of harvest. These floods caused hunger in the countryside which caused many agitations in the peasantry (Chesneaux & co. 1976, p. 45). Revolts erupted in 1820 in Guangxi; 1822 in Shanxi; 1826 in Guizhou and Taiwan; 1830 in Taiwan; 1831 in Jiangxi and Hainan; 1832 in Jiangsu, Hubei, Taiwan, Hunan, Guangxi, Guangdong, 1834 in Sichuan, 1835 in Shanxi, 1836 in Guangxi... and the list goes on and on. In the 1830ís, there was not a sinlge year where there was not a revolt somewhere in China. How could the Imperial House deal with the barbarians when their own people where rebelling against it? These revolts only exacerbated the loss of power and control of the Emperor over his country.

Floods and other natural disasters were also more present in the 1830ís and 1840ís. This was also a sign in the Confucian mind that the dynasty was collapsing. For the Confucian, the Mandate of Heaven (Ebrey 1993, p. 17) given to the Emperor meant that he could also control the elements and predict when was a good time to harvest. This was just another sign of the weakness of the Manchu rulers and the coming to an end of another cycle in Chinese history.

Trade was also beginning to overtake any impetus to throw the barbarians out. For instance, as we have seen, paying tribute to the Emperor was an integral part for the Chinese of dealing with the barbarians. Moreover, tribute missions were done all over the Pacific Rim in order to get the various indigenous populations to pay their tribute to the Emperor. However, as time went by, these tributary missions took on a completely different meaning as the junkboats that were used for these missions were slowly being modified for trade missions. Hence, the junkboats went to these barbarians (Malay pennisula, North of the Philipines) not for tribute, but for trade. Thus, Chinese merchants gained much power in the Empire. As the West was trying to settle in China, the merchants saw a great opportunity to expand their trade. For the first time in history, a large class of Chinese was greatly benefiting from the presence of barbarians.

The question of trade brings us to an important tenet of Chinese foreign policy; the Canton System. This system was central to the control of the barbaric elements on the mainland but fell apart due to the weakness of Manchu rule. Basically, foreigners were given specific places, far away from local populations in order not to infect them with their inferior culture, where they could conduct their daily activities, including trade. Perhaps the first sign of the weakness of the Imperial authority was that the control of barbarians was relinquished to local authorities.

The Canton System was divided into two main parts: the Hoppo and the Cohong. The Hoppos (Superintendents of Maritime Customs) were used to collect duties, inspect foreign trade and ships, and control native customs; that is make sure that the Chinese way of life was preserved. The Cohong were actually Chinese merchants used as agents, brokers, and middlemen between the government and the foreign traders. The Thirteen Factory Hongs of Canton were set up where British and American traders could operate freely. The Cohongs had a monopoly over regulations and foreign trade. The Cohongs had thus a great stake in the foreign presence. Since the Imperial powers had little control over the Cohongs, they could not keep their interests in check which were primarily to let the barbarians in China in order to expand their trade.

The East India Company had for a long time monopolized trade in China for the British. It was hard for the company to balance its trade with China as Europe did not have anything attractive to offer China (Roberts, 1995, p. 801). On the other hand, Europe was very interested in Chinese tea. For a while, the trade deficit was financed with cotton exports from India, but this soon proved to be insufficient. The solution was found in opium. Soon thereafter, the Company was dependent on the revenue of opium to finance other activities in China. More and more opium was being smuggled into China. From 1820 to 1825, 9708 crates were smuggled in; from 1825 to 1830, the number rose to 18712; while in 1830 to 1835, there were 35445 crates of opium that were smuggled into China (Chesneaux & co. 1976, p. 54). After the Company lost its monopoly over trade in China, private companies such as Jardine Matheson & Co. only exacerbated the opium trade. As competition grew more fierce, these companies demanded that trade be not restricted to Canton only and that more treaty ports be created.

The spread of the Opium trade could not have been done without the connivance of the Chinese. Corrupt officials were easily bribed into looking the other way whenever a new shipment of opium came in. More to the point, certain officials such as Ma even helped Englishmen such as Lord Amherst to conduct trade outside the officially sanctioned treaty ports. Everybody wanted to profit from the opium trade: the British traders, the corrupts officials, and the Cohongs that also had a hand in the opium trade as they helped the distribution of the drug throughout their contacts on the mainland. The fact that Canton was so far away from Beijing and the central authority made it easier to escape the power of the Imperial House. It is to be said that the fact that the Emperor lost control of the Cohongs, hence the treaty ports, only shows how weak this institution had become by this time. Local officials, which were corrupt and greedy, were basically in full control of the South.

Even though there have been paper denunciation of the trade by the Emperor and in 1839 a Statute of 39 articles proposed heavy punishments (including death in some cases) to those who use or trade opium; nothing was done because the officials had so much to gain in the trade that it would be to their disadvantage to squeal on the traders or users as they generated so much income for these officials.

The English realized that they were able to continue in the so-called illegal opium trade with little fear. The British also realized that at every port they would take, some group of Chinese would be willing to support them since much money was to be made from opium (Fairbank 1969, p. 68).

The opium trade continued to flourish. Opium was very expensive and needed to be paid for by silver. During this time, incredible amounts of silver were taken out of China which created a monetary crisis. Two modes of payment were used in China: copper for the peasants, and silver for the better off and merchants. Copperís value was linked to silver, and silverís value was used to calculate taxes. In other words, as silver fled China, it became more rare, hence grew in value. The peasant's money, that is copper, devaluated drastically as it was linked to the value of silver. The official rate in 1829 was 1000 copper cash to one tael (silver), however, tax collectors worked at rates of 2800, 4000, and even 4600 (Chesneaux & co. 1976, p. 43). This inflation was due mainly to the hemorrhaging of silver outside the country, but also of the corrupt officials that artificially devalued copper cash to augment their profits. As the government lost power of Canton, locals collected taxes for the Emperor, however they would keep most of the money for themselves. Not only did these officials become more rich and powerful, but they also deprived the Imperial treasury of large sums of money which again weakened it. The central authority had no more power over its corrupt tax collectors.

The devaluation of copper cash was also caused by a lower production if copper and the poor servicing of mints. The decay of this Imperial institution caused much false money to be coined which only helped the inflation rate rise. The government had now lost its power to coin money efficiently. Many of the peasant uprisings that we have named before were partially caused by this.

The Imperial House was also divided on the manner in which to deal with the opium trade. They were two lines of thought: the hardliners and the conciliatory attitude. The hardline approach was symbolized by Lin Tse-hsu, or more commonly known as Commissioner Lin. Lin favored a forceful end to the trade; this was shown when he burned pounds upon pounds of opium which was the spark that ignited the Opium War. The conciliatory attitude favored a legalization of opium with the hopes that it would be more easily containable. This ideologically split represented well the schism between the Manchu aristocrats and the Chinese officials. The Manchus represented the hardline approach while the Chinese were more in favor of the conciliatory approach. This split was representative of the government's inability to take any coherent and swift decisions.

The population took matters into its own hands to deal with the opium trade. The gentry and the peasants organized local militias to get rid of the British. The Sanguanli incident in 1841, during the Opium War, proved the inability of the central authority to deal with the problem as it was up to locals to defend themselves against the invaders. These local militias were somewhat successful; of course they could not fight the British with sticks and stones only and hope to rid China of these foreigners. It is to be said that this first opium war made the gulf between the imperial power and popular forces still more obvious than before (Chesneaux & co., 1976, p. 64). It was now very clear that the Manchu leaders were powerless against the Westís desire to open up China. The British frigates were no match to the Chinese junkboats... the Opium War was lost even before the first shot was fired.

Without going into too much detail, the treaties that followed the first Opium War redefined the Sino-Western relationship for years to come. The Treaty of Nanking in 1842 and the Supplementary Treaty of 1843 (Gentzler 1977, p. 29-33) were the crux of the new Sino-Western relations. The major provisions of these treaties were as follows: Hong Kong was ceded to England; China was to pay twenty million dollars in indemnity for the war, and would do so in any future wars; five ports were opened as treaty ports (Canton, Shanghai, Ningbo, Amoy, Fuzhou); foreign merchants and consuls could operate in the country freely; Chinese custom duties were limited to 5% which was 60%-70% lower than before (Chesneaux & co. 1976, p. 65); the Cohongs monopoly of trade with the West was abolished; and finally, extra-territoriality was given in treaty ports. The grant of extra-territoriality was perhaps the most important as British and American traders could rule these ports with their own laws and customs. Previously, legal institutions were a point of discord between the West and China.

To sum up, we have seen how different factors have caused China to open up. Firstly, China treated the West in the same way it treated barbarians from inner Asia. What worked to repel Asians actually attracted the West as seen by the Board of rites. Secondly, as the opium trade flourished, imperial officials did little to stop the trade, and in some cases helped the West, since great wealth flowed from opium. The corruption of officials also made it hard for the Emperor to execute any sanctions on the trade. This brought us to another point, the dissent between the Manchu and Chinese officials created a split that paralyzed much of the bureaucracy. The opium trade also created a monetary crisis by which the peasants, who were already suffering from the neglect of the agricultural infrastructures, lost all their "buying power" as the copper cash was devalued. The peasant misery caused them to rebel, which in turn weakened even more the central authority. This weak government was thus unable to prevent the opening of China which resulted in treaties that weakened Chinaís position with the West for years to come.


CHESNEAUX, Jean & co., "The Opium Wars to the 1911 Revolution", Pantheon Books, New York, 1976.

EBREY, Patricia Buckley, "Chinese Civilization A Sourcebook", The Free Press, New York, 1993.

FAIRBANK, John K., " Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast", Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1969.

GENTZLER, J. Mason, "Changing China", Praeger Publishers, New York, 1977.

ROBERTS, J. M., "The Penguin History of the World", Penguin Books, England, 1995.

Britian china history
British museum downplays opium role { May 24 2002 }
Causes opening china
China history
China qing dynasty
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Opium throughout history
Opium war

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