The Opium Problem

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Chinese opium den


Although the Chinese had grown poppies for hundreds of years, it was used only for medicinal purposes until the 1700s and 1800s. With readily available supplies, more and more Chinese became addicted to opium. The disintegrating effects of the drug on Chinese society were felt more and more. The Chinese law prohibited the import and trade in opium, but they were unable to stop the smuggling of the opium traders. The emperor ordered a firm stand against the British smuggling. Commissioner Lin appealed to Queen Victoria, stating the Chinese case.  

"We have heard that in your own country opium is prohibited with the utmost strictness and severity:---this is a strong proof that you know full well how hurtful it is to mankind. Since then you do not permit it to injure your own country, you ought not to have the injurious drug transferred to another country, and above all others, how much less to the Inner Land! Of the products which China exports to your foreign countries, there is not one which is not beneficial to mankind in some shape or other. There are those which serve for food, those which are useful, and those which are calculated for re-sale; but all are beneficial. Has China (we should like to ask) ever yet sent forth a noxious article from its soil?"

There was no British response. Commissioner Lin ordered the destruction of British supplies of opium illegally stored in China. The British responded by sending warships to China, beginning the opium wars.

Part of The Decline of Imperial China exhibit


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