The Opium War During Late Qing Dynasty

Trade relations between the countries of the world have different history among the history of Great Britain and China has several critical points. During the 1800s Great Britain was a country powered by the funds from its newly acquired dominions and the results of industrial progress. However, despite this power it lacked specific goods, which were produced only in China. On the contrary, China, having a hundred year history and being the primary power in Asia, could not defend its national interests and resist the emerging power of the Western World. As a result, the world’s history knows the Opium War of 1980s, which were both victories and shame of Great Britain’s international and trade policy in Asia. This paper investigates the factors leading to the Opium War as well as the peculiarities of international relations between China and Great Britain. Moreover, it analyzes historical documents for finding evidence supporting specific cultural, geopolitical and institutional assumptions, which aggravated trade relations between the mentioned nations. This investigation is useful for the students and researchers of the history of Asia and Great Britain as well as the researchers of the Britain’s economy of 1800s.

Trade Relationships between Great Britain and China before the Opium War

It is important to characterize trade and cultural aspects of international relations between China and Great Britain during 1800s, which preceded the Opium War in order to enhance the understanding of their causes. Thus, during the 1800s, Britain and China presented the leading nations of their regions, which were Europe and Asia respectively. However, their sources of power and cultural aspects significantly differed, which partially caused misunderstanding in trade relations. Great Britain, after obtaining India as its dominion, have gained a source for influence on the countries of the Asian region. This influence have been practiced by way if establishment of transit Indian ports for easier access to China as well as the new places of production of different goods such as opium. On the contrary, China had been practicing in trade relations for centuries, which led to the fact that its powerful production of silk, tea and other goods made it a powerful economy. In this respect, it is significant to mention that despite during the 1800s China was the only economic leader of the Asian region, unlike Britain, it did not experience industrialization. Therefore, despite the Chinese Emperor dictated the rules of the trade with foreigners, he had no competent military power to reject them with weaponry. On the other hand, at the beginning of the century, Great Britain practiced only diplomatic approaches to trade relations, which was drastically changed some decades later.


Being a nation with a long cultural heritage, China of the 19th century was bound to its traditions, which led to trade conflicts with the merchants and the government of Britain. Thus, the analysis of the historic documents leads one to a conclusion that the Chinese nation preferred being an enclosed economy with restricted trade relations with the foreigners. For instance, the Lord Macartney’s mission of 1793 for the establishment of profound trade relations was a complete failure.  At that time, Great Britain saw China as the only exporter of such critically important goods as tea, porcelain and silk.  However, defending its economic interests, it was reluctant to export gold and silver for trading it to the goods produced in China. Nevertheless, the attempts of establishing a barter trade were not successful because the Emperor saw no use of the foreign goods. Consequently, his verdict was “I decree that your request is refused and that the trade shall be limited to Macao”.  Furthermore, the merchants and the state powers of Great Britain were seeking methods of bypassing the ban and involving China in the international trade system with the aim of using its resources.

The Opium War

The Opium War of the 1800s was the consequence of the deterioration of international trade relations between China and Britain where each country perceived one’s individual interests. In seeking alternatives to silver and gold, Great Britain turned to another product massively consumed in China capable of reversing the trade balance, which was opium. This drug has a long history of consumption and in China it is usually associated with smoking. Despite it was mostly used for medical purposes, opium began to be smoked at a large scale in China in the 19th century, which is why it was officially banned.  The Europeans noticed that this aspect was the weakness, which was capable for bringing them a considerable advantage in trade. The reason for this was the fact that the Chinese citizens continued smoking easily evading the ban and bringing opium with the help of smugglers. As a result, Great Britain’s merchants started using Indian production capacities for producing massive amounts of opium for sell to Chinese smugglers. Eventually, at the beginning of 1800s millions of Chinese at every social and economic level were addicted to opium  increasing the unofficial national demand for this product. At the same time, the national Chinese rhetoric directed towards the British traders was changing for worse. 

The analysis of the historical documents allows indicating that the Chinese regulators attempted influencing Great Britain’s leaders and merchants by legal means, which turned out to be useless and provoked the climax of the conflict. Thus, one of the newly appointed state commisionners, Lin Zexu, wrote a letter to Queen Victoria in 1839 hoping for a constructive dialogue on the basis of trade within a legal framework. In contrast of the previous documents of the Emperor, Zexu’s letter vividly explained the reasons for banning opium trade as a poison killing the nation. Moreover, it had a warning that merchants willing to trade in China should have refused from supplying opium, which would lead to peaceful international trade.  However, the letter was ignored, which is why Zexu was sent to Guangzhou to stop drug trafficking by destroying of the largest opium storages.  This step was critical for the Emperor because he wanted o stop the gradual decay of the nation because of the negative influence of opium. In this respect, it is important to explain the reason for characterizing the reaction of the British government for declaring a war is considered unjust and even shameful.  Technically, the destroyed property belonged to British merchants, which is why they had a right for obtaining compensation. However, under officially declared regulations and warnings, the merchants had no right for storing and trading opium in China.  Consequently, the Opium War initiated by Britain pursued the only aim, which was the possession of Asian ports and its introduction into the international trade system. 

It was easy for the British monarchy to win Opium War because the industrial progress gave it steam engines and new weaponry, which outperformed the Chinese power in multiple times. The vivid example of this is the naval battle near Guangzhou in 1841 where the newly built iron-built warship Nemesis destroyed a Chinese fleet. Thus, the superiority of the industrial technology demonstrated China that its trade traditions had to be forgotten for the sake of the new era of international trade. Seeing the losses of China in combats, the Chinese Emperor signed the Treaty of Nanjing in August of 1842 being present at one of Britain’s iron vessels.  The text of the treaty depicts the complete loss of power which was once demonstrated by the Emperor’s restrictions of trade relations. Thus, according to the agreement, despite the declaration of peace, China lost its key ports that were given to different European countries. Moreover, the Emperor ceded the island of Hong-Kong to the Queen of Great Britain along with the provision of financial compensations of 21 millions of dollars.  Consequently, the signed agreement significantly contrasted with both previously written documents that were the Emperor’s declaration and Lin Zexu’s letter to the Queen of Great Britain. Despite each of them was written in the respectful official style, the Treaty of Nanjing significantly reduced the power of the Emperor towards the aspect of trade. The reason for this is the fact that the key trade ports of the country became accountable before governed by the representatives of other nations. Lastly, Britain obtained the previously denied rights such as the free trade of any kind of goods for the Chinese tea, porcelain and silk. Therefore, the Opium War of 1839-1842 led China to the loss of its key points for international trade, which involved the country into the international trade system.


Summarizing the presented information, the paper concludes that the Opium War of the 1800s was a result of trade tensions between China and Great Britain, which let the latter entering the Chinese market. Initially, the Chinese Emperor realized that such goods and team, silk and porcelain are of critical importance for Great Britain and other countries. However, he rejected the possibility of barter trade with the British merchants because the British goods were of no interest in China. At the same time, Great Britain searched for the ways of reversing a trade balance for its silver staying inside the country. A useful instrument for his goal was opium, which was traded to the Chinese smugglers bypassing the national ban. Defending one’s people from nationwide drug addiction, the Chinese Emperor destroyed opium storages causing outrage of the British Government. As a result, the Opium War was initiated for gaining control over the ports of China in order to introduce free international trade. Succeeding in war because of industrial advantages, Great Britain obtained several ports, the Hong Kong Island and a tremendous financial compensation. At the same time, the Emperor lost control over the trade sphere of the country. The changing rhetoric of official legal regulations and treaties between China and Great Britain demonstrated that he became only a formal leader approving the regulations of the Queen of Great Britain.