Opium: The Downfall of Imperial China

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Opium: The Downfall of Imperial China

We tend to think of the "drug problem" as a modern phenomenon. But a century ago, illegal drugs brought an end an empire that had lasted for thousands of years.

In 1793, China was the home of a sophisticated culture and a rich history. Among other remarkable achievements, China invented movable type, kites, and gunpowder. They perfected porcelain, silk and tea production. 1793, however, was the beginning of the end of Imperial China.

Great Britain and other European nations, desiring her silk, tea and porcelain, wanted badly to trade with China. China, however, wanted nothing to do with Europe, and even refused to see European diplomats. Finally in 1793, a British diplomat was successful in reaching the Chinese court. He told the Chinese of the wonderful products of his country, convinced that once they really knew what Europe had to offer, they would quickly agree to engage in trade. China, however, was unmoved. In a letter to King George, the emperor said,

. . . As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things.  I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures. . . Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce. But as the tea, silk and porcelain which the Celestial Empire produces, are absolute necessities to European nations and to yourselves, we have permitted, as a signal mark of favour, that foreign hongs [merchant firms] should be established at Canton, so that your wants might be supplied and your country thus participate in our beneficence.

They would sell Europe their silk, tea and porcelain, but would buy nothing in return. 

Because Chinese goods were so sought-after in Europe, an imbalance of trade developed. European gold and silver went to China to import goods, but none returned because there was no possibility of export. This was unacceptable to the British and they desperately looked for a solution. 

The solution to Britain's problem was opium. Although opium had been used in China for medicinal purposes for a long time, it had not been used as a recreational drug. The British introduced opium to China in 1825, and soon, not surprisingly, Chinese began to be addicted to the drug. The emperor outlawed the possession, use, and trade in opium, but the profits were so immense, that an illegal trade quickly developed. The East India Company in India supplied all the opium the Chinese wanted and the Chinese government was unable to stop the smuggling. The balance of trade gradually reversed.

In 1839 the Emperor ordered Commissioner Lin Tse-Hsu to put a stop to the opium trade. Lin wrote to Queen Victoria, appealing to the British sense of justice and compassion:

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?

He received no reply. Left on his own to solve the problem, Lin ordered the destruction of a large supply of opium stored on Chinese soil. (The Chinese had allowed the British one port in which they could trade with China).

The British were outraged, and the first Opium War began. Faced with British industrial weaponry, it was no contest, and Britain easily defeated the Chinese. As part of the settlement of the war, China was forced to agree to open up new ports for trade, and to surrender the island of Hong Kong. A second Opium War was launched by Britain in 1856, forcing more concessions on the Chinese. Among other humiliations, the Chinese government was no longer able to hold foreigners accountable under Chinese law for crimes committed in China. The proud Central Kingdom had lost the ability to control trade and foreign nationals within its own borders.

An ever-weakening Chinese government also lost the support of its own people, whom it could no longer protect. By 1911, the empire was dead and a republic was born in China.


Part of The Decline of Imperial China exhibit

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