The Opium War and the Opening of China

Chinese opium smokers

China before the Opium War was closed to the West. Foreign trade was strictly controlled by the government. The Chinese had a false sense of superiority, believed that they had nothing to gain by trading with the “barbarians”. After China’s defeat in the Opium War, it was forced open. Moreover the weaknesses of China’s political and social system were exposed and the sense of superiority was shattered. The Manchu government could no longer represent and protect the Chinese people. The Treaty of Nanjing, signed after the Opium War, opened Chinese ports and markets to Western merchants, caused the inflow of cheap Western machine-made products and collapsed the Chinese economy. However, the remaining businesses adapted and evolved to survive, this stimulated the development of Chinese capitalism. As the Chinese economy collapsed, unemployment skyrocketed. Coupled by poverty and government’s inability to control the situation, riots, social insurrection and chaos spread over the country. The Opium War caused Chinese officials and intellectuals to realize that in order for China to catch up, they must learn from the West. Consequently officials madly imported Western technologies and industries, while intellectuals proposed a parliamentary government.

The Opium War forcefully and suddenly opened China to the world. The consequences of such abrupt exposure were deep and long lasting. This essay analyzes the impact of Opium War at each level and its overall effects.


China, with its rising political, military and economic powers, is quickly merging into the international community. Facing the rising China, the world has raised many questions. What role will China play at the international level? What style of foreign policy will China follow? How will China administer Hong Kong after the British handover in 1997? Above all, will China continue its economic reforms and its “Open-Door Policy” which are the main contributors to its successes? All of these questions can be answered by examining the effects when China was first opened, forcefully, by British gun-boats and battle ships in the Opium War. The humilation and the lessons learned at the Opium War 150 years ago are deeply rooted in Chinese mentality and still guides Chinese thinking in international relations. What effects did the Opium War have on the opening of China?

China before 1840 was completely closed, isolated from the rest of the world, except for the limited foreign trade in the city of Canton. The Western countries that wanted to penetrate the huge Chinese market, used the opium incident to wage the Opium War. China was soon overwhelmed and signed the Treaty of Nanjing. According to the Treaty, China opened its ports and markets to Western merchants, concessions were created in major cities and China became a semi-feudal semi-colonial state.

The inflow of cheaper Western machine-made products shattered Chinese native industries. The Chinese economy had to adapt and reform in order to compete with Western countries. The disastrous defeat of the Chinese army in the Opium War convinced every Chinese that China was no longer the “Heavenly Middle Kingdom”. Western ideas were brought in, and their consequences were felt at every level of society. Intellectuals believed that the root of China’s weaknesses lay within its backward political structures, and initiated many short lived political reforms.

The forced opening of China subjected China partially to foreign rule. It collapsed the Chinese economy, created social chaos and uprisings, and generated political instability. Yet ironically, the Opium War also awakened China from its fantasies and exposed it to the reality of progress. China was able to measure itself on the international level and realized that it was no longer on the top of the world. The Opium War gave China a sense of purpose, a desire to catch up. It signalled the beginning of the awakening of the giant.

The Closed China

In order to examine the effects of opening China, we must first study how and why China was closed. Before 1840, China was closed, or more accurately, it highly controlled its contacts with the outside world. The trade relationships were organized into the so called “Canton Trade System”, since only the port of Canton was opened for foreign trade. Having reached Canton, the Western merchants could only deal with a group of government appointed merchants called “Gong Hang” (“officially authorized firms”) which had a monopoly on the trade with the West. The volume of the trade and the prices as well as the personal activities of Western merchants were also regulated by the Gong Hang, which in turn was responsible to the Governor-General of Liangguang. The Western merchants were forbidden to have any contact with the Chinese except in trade and they had to live within a specific district in the city.

Why did China impose such limitations on trade? Two main reasons were present. China’s foreign policy at that time were dominated by its sense of superiority. The Chinese believed that the Heaven was round, and the Earth was a square. The Heaven projected its circular shadow onto the centre of the Earth. The area under the shadow, “Tian Xia” (“Zone Beneath the Heaven”) was China itself. Hence China was the “Heavenly Middle Kingdom”. The corners of the square not under the celestial emanation were ruled by foreign “yi” (“barbarians”). Thus morally to the Chinese, the “foreign devils” could not be on equal grounds with the Emperor, the “Son of Heaven”. On the economic level, China had a self-reliant economy and a self-sufficient domestic trade. The Chinese had the feeling that China had much to loose and nothing to gain from foreign trade. As Evariste Huc noted in 1844 after his journey through China, “One excellent reason why China is only moderately fond of trading with foreigners is that her home trade is immense… China is such a vast, rich and varied country that internal trade is more than enough to occupy the part of the nation which can perform commercial operations… there is everywhere to be seen movement and a feverish activity which is not to be found in the largest towns of Europe.”1

The second and the most important reason China closed its doors to Western countries was its desire to protect itself. After the Industrial Revolution, imperialism rose in Europe. In the rush to find new resources and new markets, Europeans madly explored and colonized “less civilized” countries. China was closed, but it was not so isolated that it did not know the Western conquest of the Philippines, the penetration of Malaysia, the rebellion of Christian converts in Japan. The British penetration and ultimately the conquest of China’s old neighbour, India, shocked the Chinese Emperor. In China, the overthrow of a dynasty was often successful when external threats were coupled with internal disturbances. The Manchu themselves used the civil unrest in China to conquer China and set up their Qing Dynasty. At a time when the Manchu rule in China was becoming weaker, the rulers could not permit any forms of foreign power to enter China that may help to overthrown them. The weaker the Manchu rule in China, the stricter their control on the foreign trade. From the stand point of the Manchu rulers, they were afraid that foreigners would learn China’s weaknesses, but they were even more afraid that Chinese would collaborate with foreigners. What was a better way to prevent all of these than to seal off China from the European powers who had proven themselves to be violent and destructive in their dealings with China’s neighbours? The hypothesis that China closed its doors due to its anxiety to protect itself rather than xenophobic hostility towards foreigners was confirmed by the fact that the “closed-door” policy did not apply to Russia. From the 17th century, China’s relations with Russia were based on equal participation. A well-balanced trade existed between the two countries. China welcomed peaceful merchants to the north while resisting the ones in the south.

China closed its doors to the West because of its false sense of superiority and most importantly, its desire to protect itself. China tried to resist foreign political and economic penetrations by restricting foreign trade. Yet its attempts to seal itself off invited an even more devastating penetration, the Opium War.

The Opium War and Its Background

Despite strict government regulations, foreign trade in China expanded during the late 18th century and early 19th century. As trade grew, the West found themselves to have a large and rising trade deficit with China. They were increasingly anxious to balance their trade. Yet the Chinese, having a self-sufficient econom, showed little interest in Western products. Finally, in 1820, the West found a product which China did not have, opium. Between 1829 and 1855, opium smuggling developed rapidly along China’s South Coast. In 1820, 9,708 chests of opium was smuggled in per year. 15 years later, the smuggled opium rose to 35,445 chests, a growth of 400%.

In the 1830’s, opium had became a vice in China. Virtually all men under 40 smoked opium. The entire army was addicted. It affected all classes of people, from rich merchants to Taoists. The total number of addicts in China in the 1830’s was as high as 12 million. Due to the smuggle of opium, the trade deficit Western countries had with China quickly turned into a trade surplus. China could not export enough tea and silk to balance the trade. Instead the difference in trade was made up by the export of Chinese silver, which was highly valued for its fine qualities. In the 1835-1836 fiscal year alone, China exported 4.5 million Spanish dollars worth of silver. In 1839, the Chinese opium smokers spent 100 million taels, while the government’s entire annual revenue was only 40 million taels. The drain of silver greatly weakened the Chinese government. One government official wrote, “If we continue to allow this trade to flourish, in a few dozen years, we will find ourselves not only with no soldiers to resist the enemy, but also with no money to equip the army.”2

Faced with this problem, the Chinese government opened a debate among Manchus and senior officials. The debate lasted for two years, in the end, a minority group which favoured an uncompromising stand prevailed. In 1839, the emperor issued 39 articles which imposed extremely severe punishments, including death, for smoking and trading opium. Special Commissioner Lin Ze-xu was sent to Canton to ensure the rules were carried out. Lin, while in Canton, made 1,600 arrests and confiscated 11,000 pounds of opium in two months. In June, Lin forced foreign merchants to hand over 20,000 chests of opium. He burned the opium in a public demonstration and scattered the ashes across the sea. When Lin gave the order that Canton should be completely closed to foreign trade, the British opened hostilities and started the Opium War.

China, with its backward army, was overwhelmed and backed down. Commissioner Lin was recalled in disgrace and sent to exile in the Northwest. The first of the unequal treaties, the Treaty of Nanjing was signed. The Opium War, which lasted from 1840 to 1842, ended with China losing in shame.

The Opening of China

The War, although entitled “The Opium War” was in fact not about opium at all. As President John Quinay Adams said, “The seizer of a few thousand chests of opium smuggled into China by the Chinese government was no more the cause of the Opium War than the throwing overboard of the tea in the Boston harbour was the cause of North American Revolution.”3 In the race to colonize the world, China represented the last prize in the Far East for European countries. The Opium War was the first step designed to open China along with its markets and resources for exploitation. The War itself physically opened China. However, it was the aftermath of the War that exposed China, economically, socially, politically and ideologically to the outside world. The unequal treaties signed after the Opium War were the primary mechanisms to open China.

Treaties and Their Effects

The Treaty of Nanjing (August, 1842) and supplement treaties (July and October 1843) signed between the British and the Chinese were the first of the humiliating “unequal treaties”. It radically increased the openings for trade in China and expanded the scope of British activities. The treaties opened five ports, Canton, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Linbou and Shanghai to conduct foreign trade as treaty ports. A war indemnity of 21 million Mexican dollars was to be paid by the Chinese government. Hong Kong was surrendered to the British, giving the British a base for further military, political and economical penetrations of China. The surrender of Hong Kong breached China’s territorial integrity. The Treaty stated that all custom duties must be negotiated with other countries. It therefore took away China’s control of its own customs. Furthermore, the import duties were lowered from 65% to 5%, this effectively shattered China’s home industries. The Nanjing Treaty abolished the system of Gong Hang. This allowed British merchants free trade in China. The Treaty exempted British nationals from Chinese law, thus permitting the operation of extraterritorial law on Chinese soil. Furthermore, any Chinese who either dealt with the British, or lived with them or were employed by them were also exempted from Chinese law. This made foreign concessions a haven for Chinese criminals. To Chinese officials, this clause also gave foreign invaders the legal right to setup and protect their spy and criminal networks. The treaties also allowed every treaty port to have one British military ship. Thus for the first time foreign warships were allowed free entrance to Chinese waters. The Nanjing Treaty allowed British merchants to bring families to live in the treaty ports. Furthermore, it also stated that Chinese local authorities must provide housing or other foundations which British merchants could rent. The Chinese officials believed that such a system would eliminate disputes in the treaty ports, and were quite happy to agree to it. To their surprise, this system was used to establish concession areas by foreigners in the treaty ports. The Treaty of Nanjing included the so called “most favoured nation” clause. This in effect gave the British any privileges extorted from China by any other country. The “most favoured nation” clause later was extended to all the foreign countries that dealt with China, giving all Western countries that dealt with China the same rights as the British.

The Treaty of Nanjing and supplement treaties opened China to the world. China became a semi-feudal semi-colonial state. Its influences were far reaching and long lasting. However because the Treaty of Nanjing was designed to obtain free trade, its economic effects were the most severe.

Economic Effects of the Opium War

With the abolition of the “Canton System” and the opening of the five treaty ports, foreign trade flourished. The treaty ports which lay on the South Eastern Coast of China between Shanghai and Canton, gave Western merchants access to the most developed area of China where the economy was liveliest. Western merchants mainly bought silk and tea from China. The export of tea from China increased to 42,000,000 kg in 1855 from only 7,500,000 kg in 1843, an increase of more than 500%. The export of silk rose to 56,000 bales in 1855 from 2000 bales in 1843. With the increased demand on Chinese silk and tea, the tea and silk producing regions around the treaty ports expanded and benefited from the foreign trade. More and more farmers abandoned the production of food stuffs to produce silk and tea. As a result, food prices were driven quite high. At the same time, Canton was no longer the only port for foreign trade. With the opening of five other ports, the inland boatmen and coolies, who transported goods to Canton from other areas before the Opium War, lost their lively hood. The unemployment group swelled and became increasingly poor as the price of food increased. However, freight traffic along the Chinese coast boomed. Chinese vessels joined in, and bought licence in Hong Kong. Inland traffic was replaced by offshore traffic.

The flourishing trade activities provoked a monetary crises. The sheer volume of the trade resulted in the shortage of the Spanish silver dollar. The Spanish dollar appreciated so much out of proportion that in 1853, Canton abolished it as an unit of account and introduced the Mexican dollar. The monetary disturbances brought on by the opening of China was enhanced by the internal monetary crises in China. The Chinese copper cash continued to depreciate due to poor administration and inadequate supply of copper. The monetary crises devastated the Chinese financial system. In 1853, paper money was finally issued in China.

The sector most affected by foreign trade after the Opium War would be the textile industry. For centuries, the Chinese made cloths by hand. With the rush of cheaper Western machine-made products, the home textile industry was almost eliminated. What was left adapted to survive by decreasing the price of the products. However, because the production methods remained basically unchanged, the cost of production was kept the same. Therefore the lower price came at the cost of the lower of the living standards of the textile workers. However because Chinese workers had to compete with Western machinery, fundamental changes occurred in the Chinese economy.

Even before the Opium War, a market economy was already developing in China’s urban areas. The old self-sufficient economy mainly composed of petty agriculture and homestead industries was changing under pressure. Capitalism was developing in China’s social-economical development. The “invasion” of foreign capitalistic powers enhanced this change. However, the coming of outside influences did not result in the independent development of capitalism in China, rather it made China into a semi-colonial semi-feudal state. This was so because Chinese industries were prematurely exposed to the outside world. They were inadequately prepared and poorly equipped to compete in the international and even domestic markets. Most exporters were small individual producers and most of their profits were taken by numerous “middle man”. Western capitalism greatly changed the Chinese economy. On one hand, the opening of China undermined the basis of China’s self-sufficient economy, the urban handicraft and rural homestead industries. On the other hand, it greatly enhanced the development of China’s urban market economy. Such fundamental changes in the Chinese economy inevitably brought changes at the social and ideological levels.

Social, Political and Ideological Effects

After China’s disastrous defeat in the Opium War, the Chinese realized that they were no longer the “Heavenly Middle Kingdom”. Lost at the hands of the “barbarians”, Chinese intellectuals recognized that in order to deal with the strangers from the West, they must understand the Westerners and the place they came from. The first of such intellectuals was Commissioner Lin Ze-xu. While he was enforcing the anti-smuggling law in Canton, he collected translated materials from foreign publications and wrote a book entitled The Introduction of the Four Continents in 1840. Afterwards, Lin gave his materials to a friend, Wei Yuan, who used it and published a fifty chaptered book Maps and Introductions of Overseas Countries in 1842. This book went through a couple of editions and was finally expanded to 100 chapters in 1852. At the same time, Xu Ji-yu in Fuzhou wrote another book called Concise Global Introductions. This book was shorter but more accurate, especially in terms of maps.

Before the Opium War, the Chinese concept of European countries was very vague and in some cases, even preposterous. After the Opium War, China intellectually discovered the West. Western political ideas, social structures, and in some areas, technology were introduced to China. Western ideas of parliamentary democracy and capitalism were vaguely made known. International diplomacy became a concept. One of the writers, Wei Yuan, first proposed that in order to fight the West, China must learn from the West.

Wei’s proposal received huge responses. After all, China lost to Westerner’s “strong ships and sharp weapons”. Under such circumstances, China for the first time established what was the equivalent of a foreign ministry. The foreign ministry was mainly occupied with the study of Western technology, modernization of the Chinese army and the open of modern factories. The first factories opened were for the military, and specialized in the production of modern weapons and ships. Because the products of these factories were not merchandise, making money was not a concern. The running of these factories did not depend on the profit it made, nor the demands of the market. Thus administration techniques of managing a large commercial enterprise were not yet developed.

Nevertheless, seeing that Western enterprises made a profit, the Chinese government began to establish commercial enterprises. Immediately after the Opium War, Western merchants had not yet fully penetrated the Chinese market. The Manchu government, although short in revenue, could still find enough funds to start new industries. The private sector also was quite wealthy. With the collapse of the feudalistic economy and the stimulations by Western capitalism, it was willing to invest in modern enterprises. At the same time, Western companies absorbed some Chinese capital. It could be said that shortly after the Opium War, Chinese capitalism had a good opportunity to develop.

However, the enterprises established were controlled by the feudal bureaucrats. The private sector invested, but had no say over the administration of the businesses. The bureaucrats ran the commercial enterprises as if they were running the non-profit military industries. They also used their powers to monopolize the markets, which prevented the growth of Chines private sector industries. Many new enterprises went bankrupt due to poor administration, a few that made money rarely reinvested their profits. As for the bureaucrats that ran the enterprises, they became extremely wealthy regardless of whether the company made a profit or not. However, the establishment of modern industries inevitably advanced the social-economic development of China. Attempts at forming modern enterprises, although failed, still stimulated the growth of Chinese capitalism.

The Opium War exposed the weaknesses of the Chinese feudal system. The cost of the war and later the war indemnity all fell on the shoulders of the farmers. The Manchu government could no longer protect, and govern its people. As China’s economy collapsed, poverty was wide spread, insurrection sprang up all over the country. The Manchu government showed its weaknesses when it signed the Treaty of Nanjing without exhausting all possibilities of resistance. The Opium War helped to discredit the Manchu government and encouraged popular movements.

Seeing the social chaos and the weakening of the Manchu dynasty, Chinese intellectuals sought to make China strong. Unlike the government, the intellectuals believed that simply adapting Western technologies and industries was not enough, rather China must undergo political changes. They, like the officials, believed that the government should allow and protect the growth of capitalism and that the army must be modernized to fight Westerners on the battlefields. But most importantly, private enterprises should be formed without government interventions and companies must be created to compete in the market place. The intellectuals also proposed a parliamentary system. This proposal was the first attempt of private citizens to get involved in the government.


The Opium War was no doubt the event that opened China’s doors to the outside world. Before 1842, China was closed and self isolated. The Chinese believed that their country was the “Heavenly Middle Kingdom”, their emperor was the “Son of Heaven”. The Opium War, in effect, shattered China’s false sense of superiority. It physically forced open China, and in doing so, exposed the inadequacies of Chinese social and political structures. The Treaties signed after the war opened Chinese ports, and along with it, Chinese markets to Western capitalism. This almost entirely collapsed China’s economy. However, it also forced China’s economy to quickly adapt and evolve. The war speeded up China’s development of capitalism.

The Opium War greatly weakened the Manchu rule, and this, coupled with a collapsed economy, resulted in swelling poverty over the country. This gave rise to social chaos and insurrections. The Opium War also caused Chinese officials and intellectuals to rethink China’s social and political system. They realized that in order for China to regain its past glories, it had to learn from the West. Chinese intellectuals began to study Western countries. At the same time, the Chinese government imported Western technologies and industries. The intellectuals also proposed a new, more democratic political system.

The Opium War opened China against the will of the Chinese people. It put China into the control of Western countries and made it a semi-feudal semi-colonial state. To the Chinese, the Opium War was a shameful defeat and they vowed to strengthen China in order to prevent it from happening again. For the same reason, leaders of modern China are reluctant to bow to international pressure. The Opium War also game rise to other problems such as the birth of proletariat industrial workers, the stir of anti-Western sentiment and the rise of nationalism. All of these issues are vital to Chinese modern history and must be examined at a later time.


Chinese Publications:

  1. Chen Hua. Zhong Guo Jing Dai Bu Pin Deng Tiao Yue (The Unequal Treaties of Modern Chinese History). Chinese People’s University Press, Beijing, 1993.
  2. Hu Cheng. Cong Ya Pian Zhan Zhen Dao Wu Ci Yun Dong (From the Opium War to the May 4th Movement). Shanghai People’s Publishing House, Shanghai, 1981.
  3. Hu Cheng. Di Guo Zhu Yi Yu Zhong Guo Zheng Zhi (Imperialism and Chinese Politics). People’s Publishing House, Beijing

English Publications:

  1. Beeching Jack. The Chinese Opium Wars. Hutchinson & Co (Publishers) Ltd., London, 1975.
  2. Chang Hsin-pao. Commissioner Lin and the Opium War. Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1964.
  3. Chesneaux Jean, Bastid Marianne, Bergere Maie-Claire. China From the Opium Wars to the 1911 Revolution. Patheon, New York, 1976.
  4. Epstein Israel. From Opium War to Liberation. New World Press, Beijing, 1956.
  5. Gibson Michael. China Opium Wars to Revolution. Wayland Publishers, London, 1975.
  6. Graham S. Gerald. The China Station. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978.
  7. Inglis Brian. The Opium War. Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1976.
  8. Polachek M. James. The Inner Opium War. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1992.
  9. Tan Chung. China and the Brave New World. Allied Publishers Private Limited, Bombay, 1978.
  10. Woodcock George. The British in the Far East. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1969.

(1) Chesneaus, Jean. China From the Opium Wars to the 1911 Revolution. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976. p.53
(2) Chesneaus Jean. China From the Opium Wars to the 1911 Revolution. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976. p.55
(3) Tan Chung. China and the Brave New World. Bombay: Allied Publishers Private Limited, 1978. p.1