This scene of an opium den in California is not dissimilar from scenes of opium dens in China in the early twentieth century, when opium addiction had spread like wildfire after British merchants began importing opium to China in vast quantities.

The First Opium War (1839–1842) between Britain and China was triggered by disputes regarding the trade of opium, but contentious Sino-British relations had already been in existence for nearly a century. China’s clear defeat in the war began another century-long era in which China was subject to active foreign aggression.

Chinese attempts to prohibit British importation of opium in the 1830s, and the First Opium War (1839–1842) that resulted from them, were clear defeats for the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). After the war, while opium trade in China continued, China lost Hong Kong to Britain and was then forced to open “treaty ports” to foreign trade and to accept unequal treaties that limited China’s control over its foreign affairs.

Opium imports became a serious concern for the Qing dynasty in the 1820s as the court worried about the effects of smoking opium on officials and soldiers and the supposed drain of silver out of the country. In the 1830s people debated whether these problems were best dealt with by legalizing and regulating opium or by prohibiting it. Prohibition won, and Commissioner Lin Zexu was sent to Guangzhou (Canton) in March 1939 to bring about the end of the trade.

The British had for years been unhappy that the Chinese government forbade them to trade in ports other than Guangzhou—and while in Guangzhou they were forced to trade with a group of monopoly merchants (the Cohong). By forbidding the trade of opium, the Chinese now forced the British to smuggle it or relinquish the enormous profits it brought. (Two earlier British attempts to win the British full access to Chinese markets and European-style diplomatic relations with China, the Macartney mission of 1792–1794 and the Amherst mission of 1816, had also failed.) British merchants were also unhappy at being subjected to Chinese law, which they regarded as barbaric.

When Lin Zexu seized and destroyed the British opium at Guangzhou he demanded that foreign merchants pledge not to import opium again. The British deemed these actions to be justification for war and sent a naval and military force from India; skirmishes ensued throughout 1939. Formal fighting began in June 1840 when a large British expeditionary force was dispatched from Singapore. The British strategy was to seize the island of Zhoushan, near the mouth of the Yangzi (Chang) River, and then sail north to Tianjin, demand payment for the seized opium, and completely renegotiate relations between the two countries. The British easily defeated all the Chinese naval and land forces they faced. The Qing court was eventually forced to agree to the Treaty of Nanjing. The Second Opium War of 1856–1858, also called the “Arrow War” (because an of incident on the ship Arrow involving Chinese marines) resulted in the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin, which further opened China to foreign penetration. These treaties were the foundation of the system of unequal treaties that would govern China’s relations with the imperialist powers until World War II. The opium trade continued and grew, and the political and economic dislocations caused by the war and the treaty were key causes of the Taiping Rebellion, which lasted from 1851 to 1864.

Further Reading

Chang Hsin-pao. (1964). Commissioner Lin and the Opium War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Polachek, J. M. (1992). The inner Opium War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Waley, A. (1958). The Opium War through Chinese eyes. London: Allen & Unwin.

Source: Baumler, Alan. (2009). Opium War, First. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1667–1668. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Opium War, First (Dì-Y? Cì Y?piàn Zhànzh?ng ???????)|Dì-Y? Cì Y?piàn Zhànzh?ng ??????? (Opium War, First)

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