The Opium War only lasted from 1839-1842 and 1856-1860, but it was far more devastating to China’s view as the center of the world. China had always treated the outside as inferior and felt that when faced with conflict they could overcome them. Until the nineteenth century, China had been able to withstand the Western Powers not because they were stronger, but because of a lack of conflict. What the Qing dynasty, the emperor family at reign during this time period, could not know was this confrontation would mean an end to China’s isolation. Also that it would indirectly contribute to the weakening of Imperial rule, which would be overthrown in the early twentieth century by communism.
When the Qing dynasty came to power involvement with foreigners was not a real issue. They had no Ministry of Foreign affairs; instead other smaller agencies in the country would deal with the inferior outsiders. In many ways it cannot be looked at as the fault of the Qing dynasty. The people of China were raised to feel culturally superior to outsiders. They were after all, the chosen people of G-d. The emperor was supposed to have been given a mandate to rule the people of China. How was a man of such stature supposed to have interactions with mere mortals? Their confrontations were with the Mongol people and the Russians. Their solution was to marry high-ranking officials of such places with the daughters of China thus creating a bond to prevent any conflict. The only other outsiders faced by the Chinese were those such as Koreans who were tolerated because of their cultures similarities to the Chinese culture. When it came to Chinese traveling outside China for business, those Chinese were viewed as traitors and were not viewed at as citizens in time of need of their country. (Spence 117)
Prior to about 1741 the Chinese had not had any real involvement with the Europeans anyway. They were looked at by the west as harmonious people. Then in 1741 Mother Nature decided to change east-west relations forever. Commodore George Anson of the British Royal Navy on course to battle was forced to dock in Canton harbor (China) because of damage his ship had from a storm. This brought the British Navy in direct with the Chinese people. Other European powers had western ports but Britain was not one of them. Anson was ill treated and taken advantage of for his vulnerability in high prices and cheap supplies. When he returned to Britain, Anson published his tales of horror with the Chinese and it was published into several European languages. This ethnocentrism portrayed in Anson’s book recruited many new Europeans to have hatred towards the Chinese. All that the Chinese had to do was help one man in trouble. But because of their superiority complex brought by their culture, they refused. (Spence 120-121)
In 1821 another incident occurred which also did not help relations between the west and China. The Emily, a United States merchant ship, was docked in a Chinese port. One of the crewmen accidentally dropped a pitcher on the head of a Chinese fruit seller in a boat below and the fruit seller fell into the ocean and drowned. At first the Americans refused to turn this crewmen over to the Chinese because it was only a mistake. They wanted to hold the trial demanded by the Chinese on the ship to secure some form of justice for the crewman. However, when the Chinese threatened to end trading between them and the Americans, the Americans felt they had to turn him over. No westerners were able to witness the trial. The crewman was not only found guilty but also immediately executed the next day. This only further fueled the western hatred of the Chinese. It was very hard for the west to accept the role of inferiors; they knew that there must be a change. (Spence 127)
The Europeans, especially the British, also felt that they were superior and that’s what made this treatment even worse. So ignorant of the message of the Chinese that they were not interested in dealing with the West, the British East India Company sent James Flint to deal with the Qing dynasty. Illegally traveling through northern Chinese ports, Flint somehow managed to be seen by the emperor Qianlong. While first accepting Flint’s point, when the British boat was lost at sea, Qianlong changed his mind and had Flint placed under arrest. His sentence was determined to be three years for his illegal travels, his untruthfulness with the emperor and the fact that he had learned Chinese. (Spence 121)
Britain relentless in its pursuit to gain access to China sent another convoy to China in 1792-1793. This one was led Lord George McCartney who was a veteran emissary for the British government. Under the false pretenses of traveling to honor the great emperor Qianlong for his eightieth birthday, McCartney’s ship was granted access to Peking to see the Emperor. This time, the Chinese would not remotely yield to any of the British requests and sent a message back to King George III that there was no need for China to deal with them. (Spence 122-123)
Britain’s problems were bad at his time. The trade deficit with China was only growing larger. Much of China’s products were sent to Britain and now by the late eighteenth century the United States, especially tea. This would normally be fine except the Chinese did not need anything from the British other than the silver that was accepted. “Westerners had to pay for Chinese goods mainly in silver, and this steady flow of silver into China- one of the causes of the general prosperity in Qianlong’s reign- became a source of alarm to the British government.” Then came a solution. Britain found something that they had to trade with China: Opium. Britain began to export opium to China from India at the end of the eighteenth Century, where use of the drug quickly became a widespread social problem. (Spence 129)
At first Opium was a luxury for young men from wealthy families. Then it became prevalent among urban workers and low ranking officials until it became somewhat of an epidemic. Women who were trapped in wealthy households with no freedom smoked opium. The drug offered many different things to many different people. To some it was an escape from harsh realities others it was a form of recreation. No matter what the reason for using the drug, addiction to it was extremely common.
Britain had achieved its goal: Not only was China in complete disarray but from a trade that was completely one sided in China’s favor, the amount of goods being shipped from the Orient did not even equal the amount of purchases brought into China from the West. The Qing dynasty knew that something had to be done to control this.
Another problem for the Qing dynasty was “corruption and blackmail of Chinese officials.” The Qing Dynasty was in a real bind. One argument that by legalizing the drug not only could the corruption have been ended but the economy could be saved as well. (Spence 151) The trade deficit, which was once non-existent, had grown exponentially due to opium. Not only could this shift be reversed but also the opium grown in China, believed to be better than that from the west, could be sold. In hindsight this would probably have been the wisest choice. The west would have been forced out because the opium would have been supplied without them. War may have been inevitable because if this had happened the British would have lost a large amount of money but short term it would have solved the Chinese problems.
The emperor decided differently, however. Opium had already been deemed illegal by the government and yet the number of chests had increased by over twenty thousand chests from 1729 to 1832 (200-23,570). (Spence 130) Instead of legalizing it, the emperor Daoguang decided to set up a commission led by a Confucian scholar, Lin Zexu, to rid China of the problem. He punished those that smoked and used scholar groups working together to catch smugglers in the country. () Commissioner Lin then sent a letter to Queen Victoria pleading for an end to the Opium trade. Certain points in the letter, such as how the British were not allowed to smoke Opium, ruined the impact the letter would have because Opium was in fact legal in Britain and considered less dangerous than alcohol. (Spence 153)He was doing very well dealing with the problem within China’s walls but should never have dealt directly with Britain. In 1839 when the foreign traders in the country refused to give up the opium they had in their possession, the foreigners were then blockaded in the factories. They were given the necessities to live but lived in squalor conditions full of fear for six weeks. Then upon surrendering the twenty thousand chests of Opium they were freed. Lin Zexu then did what seemed the only choice for him, which was to destroy the Opium. () When word of the Chinese ill-treating the British in China reached Queen Victoria, she was not pleased. She herself was not a fan of the Opium trade but could not, “permit that her subjects residing abroad be treated with violence, and exposed to insult and injustice.” But like in many wars where one incident takes the spotlight over many other underlining reasons for the war to come, this one is viewed as the beginning of the Opium war.