Opium Trade in China


Opium Trade in China

Tensions Emerge

First Opium War

Second Opium War

Lasting Effects

Works Cited



The Qing dynasty of China, which began in 1644, was seen as very isolationist and wary of foreign trade and imports. However, the Europeans were very interested in developing two-way trade with China. Europeans had to pay directly in silver for the porcelain, silk, spices, and tea they imported from China. This was a significant stress on the European economy, which was already strained from internal tensions.

In the early 1700’s the Portuguese introduced a new form of smoke-able opium to China. The opium was mixed with tobacco and became a new commodity in China. Opium trade was originally dominated by the Dutch, but was soon taken over by the British due to British rule in India and the foundation of the East India Company. The British started to trade opium for silver in southern China, and from there the opium trade exploded. British exportation of opium from India to China facilitated a flow of silver into India. This compensated for the British drain on India and solidified India as a substantial financial base for England. For these reasons, the British heavily pushed opium trade with China.

The first anti-opium edict was issued by Emperor Yung Ching in 1729. Despite the threat of severe penalties being imposed on any merchant dealing with opium, trade continued to grow. In 1757 the Manchu government established Canton as the only legal port for foreign trade with China so that taxation and regulations could be enforced, and so that the government could make sure foreigners were only dealing with the Co-hong merchants, who were connected to the emperor. Trade rules in China were very strict, as can be seen by these regulations that were followed until 1840:

    1. No foreign warships may sail inside the Bogue [i.e., the harbor approach to Canton city]
    2. Neither foreign women nor firearms may be brought into the factories [i.e., the warehouse complex reserved for foreign traders within the harbor but outside Canton city walls]
    3. . . . foreign ships must not enter into direct communication with the Chinese people and merchants without the immediate supervision (of a native Chinese)
    4. Each factory [each trading nation had its own 'factory'] is restricted for its service to 8 Chinese (irrespective of the number of its occupants) . . .
    5. Foreigners may not communicate with Chinese officials except through the proper channel of the Co-hong
    6. Foreigners are not allowed to row boats freely in the river . . .On the 8th, 18th, and 28th days of the moon 'they may take the air . . . All ships' boats passing the Custom-houses on the river must be detained and examoined, to guard against guns, swords, or firearms being furtively carried in them. On the 8th, 18th, and 28th days of the moon these foreign barbarians may visit the Flower Gardens and the Honam Joss-house, but not in droves of over ten at one time. . . If the ten should presume to enter villages, public places, or bazaars, punishment will be inflicted upon the (interpreter) who accompanies them
    7. Foreign trade must be conducted through the hong merchants. Foreigners living in the factories must not move in and out too frequently, although they may walk freely within a hundred yards of their factories . . .
    8. Foreign traders must not remain in Canton after the trading season [which lasted from October to May each year] . . . they should return home or go to Macao [the Portuguese enclave at the mouth of the harbor]
    9. Foreigners may neither buy Chinese books, nor learn Chinese [difficult to accept that this restriction could be enforced!]
    10. The hong merchants shall not go into debt to foreigners

      Taken from I. Hsu, The Rise of Modern China, p.120

Illegal opium trade continued to increase and China was importing over 4,000 chests annually by 1790. In 1800 importation of opium made illegal again, but trade continued to rise, with China receiving approximately 5,000 chests in 1820, 16,000 chests in 1830, 20,000 chests in 1838.

Several decrees were made to try to stop the British from exporting opium to China, but the British government ignored the Chinese. In 1810 the Emperor issued a decree denouncing the use and trade of opium:

      “Opium has a very violent effect. When an addict smokes it, it rapidly makes him extremely excited and capable of doing anything he pleases. But before long, it kills him. Opium is a poison, undermining our good customs and morality. Its use is prohibited by law. Now the commoner, Yang, dares to bring it into the Forbidden City. Indeed, he flouts the law! He should be turned over to the Board of Punishment, and should be tried and severely sentenced.
      However, recently the purchases and eaters of opium have become numerous. Deceitful merchants buy and sell it to gain profit. The customs house at the Ch'ung-wen Gate was originally set up to supervise the collection of imports (it had no responsibility with regard to opium smuggling). If we confine our search for opium to the seaports, we fear the search will not be sufficiently thorough. We should also order the general commandant of the police and police- censors at the five gates to prohibit opium and to search for it at all gates. If they capture any violators, they should immediately punish them and should destroy the opium at once. As to Kwangtung and Fukien, the provinces from which opium comes, we order their viceroys, governors, and superintendents of the maritime customs to conduct a thorough search for opium, and cut off its supply. They should in no ways consider this order a dead letter and allow opium to be smuggled out!”

This decree had little effect because the government was centered in Beijing, which was too far north to control the trade in the south. Two similar decrees were issued in 1811, commanding the Chinese people to honor the prohibition of opium. Although all merchants, clerks, and their subordinates found to be involved in opium trade were to be severely punished, opium trade in China persisted and was encouraged by the British government.



Shandra Goldfinger © 2006.  Created for World Politics 116, Mount Holyoke College.  Contact: goldf20s at mtholyoke dot edu.

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