This is the first of several episodes which will give broad historical background for our upcoming discussion of the Chinese Revolution and the international spread of ideas related to the Chinese Revolution. This episode focuses on the background to and events of the First Opium War (1839-1842). China’s defeat in the First Opium War began the Century of Humiliation at the hands of imperialist powers (Britain, France, Russia, Germany, USA, Japan) that ended with the revolution’s victory in 1949.
Good resources for more information on these events: Zheng Yangwen, The Social Life of Opium in China, Stephen Platt, Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age.
Welcome to the second episode of the People’s History of Ideas podcast.
This episode, we’re starting a series which will last a few episodes and provide necessary historical background for the topic of international Maoism. Basically, the reasoning is this: In order to understand international Maoism, you need to understand Maoism as it was originally developed in China. And in order to understand Maoism as it was developed in China, you need to understand the history of the Chinese Revolution. Now, where you start the history of the Chinese Revolution is kind of an open question. The Revolution was triumphant in 1949. The Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921. But the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party didn’t come from nowhere. There had been a big mass movement in China in 1919. And back in 1911 the Chinese people rose up and had a revolution which ended the Qing dynasty the next year. But there was a whole background to that as well. So… How far back should we go in order to give enough historical background?
Because the communist revolution in China fundamentally had its origins in the Chinese people’s efforts to find a way to end domination of their country by European and Japanese imperialist powers, I think that it makes most sense to start at the beginning of that foreign domination of China, which is the story of how increasing British trade with China led to a war in 1839-1842. This war, called the First Opium War, was one of the most outrageous acts of European aggression. Essentially, as you might guess from the name of the war, Britain fought a was against China because the Chinese had confiscated a bunch of opium from British opium smugglers. We’ll get into the details in a little bit here. But this war marked the beginning of a long series of humiliations that China suffered at the hands of Europeans, the Japanese and the Americans, and marked the beginning of what in China is known as the Century of Humiliation, which lasted from the First Opium War until the revolution’s victory in 1949.
So, the Opium War had its origins in China’s trade relationship with England. And it’s something of a classic example of how the internal logic of capitalist economic expansion can lead to conquest and imperialist war, despite no one starting off having those goals in mind at the outset. Let’s look at how that trade relationship developed.
There was one dominant Chinese commodity in the Anglo-British trade, and that was tea. There were some other Chinese products that the British trader for, such as porcelain and silk, but really the trade was about tea. By the middle of the 18th century, tea was a regular feature in the diets of many Brits, and consumption kept growing from there, as it became the main caffeine fix helping to fuel the workforce of the Industrial Revolution. In the 1780s the British government made a law that required the East India Company have a one year stock of tea on hand at all times in case there was an emergency and the flow of the tea got cut off.
The problem for the British was that they didn’t have anything that the Chinese wanted in anything near the quantity that the British wanted tea in. They sold some textiles and some luxury goods, like clocks, but the British had a huge trade deficit with China. And so, they had to make up that trade deficit in silver. The deficit was large enough that supplying the amount of silver needed to cover it was quite difficult, and this really pushed the British to try to find a way to balance their trade with China.
The British tried diplomatic efforts to spur trade with China, including two official embassies (one in 1793 and the next in 1816) which both ended in failure amidst deep cultural misunderstandings. But in the end it was market forces that came to the rescue of the British. One of the luxury products which the British traded for tea was opium, which was grown in India. In the early 19th century, a price war broke out among competing opium smugglers who got their opium from two different parts of India. As a result of this price war, opium went from an expensive luxury item sold in relatively limited quantities, to a much cheaper commodity which was sold in much larger quantities and which could be afforded by many more people.
At this point you’re probably thinking, hold on, wasn’t opium illegal? Well, it was in China, but it wasn’t in Europe at the time. So it was perfectly legal to grow opium, and in Europe and the United States opium was consumed recreationally and medicinally, usually as a tincture in alcohol. And while it was illegal in China, the trade and use of opium was widely tolerated. At least, it was until the sudden spread of cheap opium throughout China became such a big problem that something had to be done about it.
As opium went from being a luxury good to something that many people could afford, its use rapidly spread, and the effects were soon felt. In an 1830 edict, the Daoguang Emperor wrote that “Opium is flooding the interior. The multitude of users expands day by day, and there are more and more people who sell it; they are like fire and smoke, destroying our resources and harming our people. Each day is worse than the last.” Reports came in from around the country of widespread opium usage, including in the army and at all levels of the government bureaucracy, from officials as high as the governor-general of Zhili, the large northern province that included Beijing, down through the lower ranks of officialdom.
The Daoguang Emperor himself had been an opium smoker before becoming emperor in 1820, and even wrote about how much he enjoyed the drug: “Bored and tired, I ask the servant to prepare smoke and a pipe to inhale. Each time, my mind suddenly becomes clear, my eyes and ears refreshed. People in the past said that wine is endowed with all the virtues, but today I call smoke the satisfier. When you desire happiness, it gives you happiness.”
So, in addition to the reports of widespread usage, including among officials and soldiers, that Daoguang was receiving, he also had his personal experience with the drug.
But, aside from the devastating effects of addiction, there was another major problem being created by opium for China. A financial problem.
As I mentioned just a little while ago, before the explosive growth of the opium trade with China, British traders had a major problem with having to cover the trade deficit with China by paying in silver for the tea and other products that they wanted from China. By the 1830s, the British were trading so much opium that the problem now went the other way. China was buying so much opium that the British could buy all the tea they wanted, and there was still a trade deficit on China’s part. Which meant that China started to hemorrhage silver currency to the British. And where this had been a problem for the robust British economy earlier, this now exacerbated a larger, already existing economic crisis in China itself.
The economic crisis of the Qing Empire was rooted in a policy going back to 1712, when the Kangxi Emperor, in a magnanimous gesture of confidence in the strength of the dynasty, promised that land taxes, which formed about 80% of government revenue, would never be raised again. So while China’s population grew over the next century and more, and consequently the need for increased government administration and infrastructure spending grew, the tax base remained basically the same. The emperors who followed Kangxi were bound by filial piety to respect his promise not to raise taxes, but the cost to the empire was severe.
Prestige in Chinese society was attached to passing a series of brutally competitive exams which revolved around mastery of the Confucian classics. Upon passing these exams, scholars became qualified for appointment as government administrators, with the qualifications depending on the highest level of the exam which they had passed. But with a growing population of scholars taking the exams, and no real growth in the number of positions which successful scholars could take up in the government bureaucracy, the officials who handed out positions began to require large bribes. So new officials would enter their positions with large debts, from years of study and then from buying their positions, and the only way for them to make good on their debts, and to make themselves prosperous on top of those debts, was to squeeze those below them. This created a chain reaction of bribery and corruption all the way down to the lowest levels of Chinese society, where minor officials squeezed the common people, who had no effective legal recourse to having their property taken by greedy officials.
In the context of this ongoing crisis in China, the influx of silver from the tea trade with Britain had been an important source of additional silver revenue for the Chinese government. So when this situation was reversed, the effects were that an already oppressive situation became even more oppressive for the common people.
On the one hand, with even less revenue coming into government coffers, the pressure from corrupt officials became all the greater. But also, even though taxes in China remained unchanged on paper, they actually became more oppressive on the common people, because of China’s currency situation.
In China, both silver and copper were used as currency. Taxes were set in silver, and they didn’t change. But silver was expensive, and most common people used copper currency. The problem was, as silver became scarcer due to the need to use silver to pay the trade deficit with Britain, the value of silver relative to copper rose. So in the 1830s it became necessary for people to come up with more copper to meet the value of the silver that their taxes were levied in. Essentially, already desperate people were being squeezed even more, and something had to give. The result was a series of localized rebellions.
Ironically, these rebellions brought the opium crisis home even more so. In 1836 the imperial troops sent into Hunan province to crush the rebellions there turned out to be such heavy users of opium that they could barely fight.
Clearly, from the perspective of restoring the stability of the Empire, something had to be done about opium. So, in China there was a vigorous debate on what to do about the opium problem and the scarcity of silver. (There were actually also a number of factors related to global events, not least of which were the recent revolutions in Latin America which disrupted silver production there, which contributed to making silver more expensive during this period, so the outflow of Chinese silver to foreign traders wasn’t the only factor making silver’s value rise, although it was the most apparent one to Chinese policymakers at the time.)
One potential policy that got a hearing was articulated by the scholar Wu Lanxiu, director of one of the Confucian academies in Guangzhou (called Canton by western traders at the time), who advocated legalizing opium. He began his argument by countering one policy proposal, which called for cutting off all trade with western countries. “The countries of the Western seas have been sending their ships here to trade for over a thousand years, and westerners have lived in Macao for more than two centuries. The only ones that sell opium are the English. So should we cut of trade just with Great Britain? Or should we cut off trade with all of the Western countries? Tens of thousands of our people who live along the southeastern coast will suddenly lose their jobs. They would have no means of making a living, and at best they would end up banding together as criminals and pirates. At worst, they could start a rebellion. This is how major trouble in the southeast could begin.”
Wu then followed this up by making his case for legalizing opium: “It’s not as if the laws are no already strict, or the punishments not severe, yet the bad practices continue as before. Why? Because corrupt government staff use the laws to enrich themselves. The stricter the laws, the larger the bribes. To an individual, it may seem like opium is a major problem while silver is a small one. But from the perspective of the empire as a whole, it is opium that is minor. Silver is the major problem. If you look at the old regulations, opium was taxed as a medicine. Why not order the foreign traders to pay this tax as before? By such means, we can trade in all the goods of the world but still keep our silver in the country. In ten years, the economy will recover.”
Wu Lanxiu wrote his essay in 1834, and it took two years to find a champion at the imperial court in Beijing, when a vice-minister named Xu Naiji endorsed Wu’s arguments, and added his own argument that in any case it was going to be impossible to shut down the opium trade anyways, as the policy of suppression that the government had been pursuing had done nothing to stop the spread of the drug. The Daoguang Emperor initially looked favorably on Wu and Xu’s arguments, and sent Xu Naiji’s memorial to the authorities in Canton, who began in 1836 to lay the groundwork for legalizing the trade in opium.
By early 1837, however, these efforts were put on hold, as law-and-order members of the imperial court reacted strongly against the legalization program. In 1838, one of these officials, Huang Juezi, put forward a counter-proposal, which called for the draconian enforcement of the opium ban on Chinese people. His reasoning was that the foreigners could not be controlled, but he had a dogmatic faith in the ability of the governing bureaucracy to enforce the law. His idea was to give drug addicts a year to stop using, this was his acknowledgment of the difficulty of breaking free from opium addiction, and then to execute drug users after the year’s grace period was over.
The Daoguang Emperor was now intrigued by this proposal, which seems odd since it’s so different from the legalization proposal, but there you have it. So Daoguang decided to ask for the advice of other senior officials on Huang Juezi’s proposal. Of the 29 officials who responded to Daoguang’s request for feedback, 21 thought that executing Chinese drug users was going to far, and that the suppression effort should continue to focus of dealers and traffickers.
But one official was especially enthusiastic for Huang Juezi’s proposal, and even expanded on it. This was Lin Zexu, the governor-general of the provinces of Hunan and Hubei. He had a tremendous belief in the power of the Confucian government to be a moral authority and model for the people, a government which should care for and guide the common people. In addition to endorsing the execution of drug users after a grace period, he also came up with proposals for public education campaigns against drug use and medical programs to help opium addicts break their habits before the grace period ended. He began these campaigns in Hunan and Hubei in 1838, and sent a series of triumphant reports to Daoguang reporting the successes of his campaign.
Lin expressed his thoughts on the urgency of the opium crisis in the following words in one of his 1838 reports: “Before opium was widespread, those who smoked it only harmed themselves. The punishments of caning and exile were enough to keep them in line. But when its evil influence has penetrated into the whole country, the effect is tremendous. Laws should be put into rigid enforcement. In left in a lax state, then after a few decades, there will be no solider in this Central Empire to fight against invaders, nor money to bear the military expenses. I have the fear that if the evil be suffered to grow at this critical moment, there may be no more chance for remedy.”
The Daoguang Emperor was finally convinced to pursue a policy of aggressive suppression of the opium trade in November 1838, when the largest drug seizure so far in China’s history took place in Tianjin, a major northern city near Beijing. However, recognizing that Huang Juezi’s proposal would require more resources than the Empire could bring to bear, Daoguang and his advisors hoped that aggressive suppression of the opium trade in the area around Guangzhou would be enough to stop the opium trade, because that was where opium entered the country. Daoguang appointed Lin Zexu as imperial commissioner, answerable directly to the emperor, and sent him to Guangzhou to end the opium traffic for good.
Lin arrived on March 10 and immediately began his crackdown, ordering mass arrests of known Chinese dealers, putting up proclamations announcing his intent to destroy the opium trade, calling on users to hand in their pipes, and generally blaming the city for the whole country’s opium habit. On March 18 he issues an order to British merchants, ordering them to surrender all their opium within three days. When the British made no sign of cooperating by the next day, he issued an order to start executing the Chinese trading partners of the British once the three days were up if they were not forthcoming with the opium.
At the last minute, the British voted to hand over a thousand chests of opium, but when they made the offer they heard back that it wasn’t enough and that they should hand over four thousand chests instead. Then on March 22 one of the big British opium traders was summoned to be interrogated by Lin, but he refused to go, since he feared that he would end up jailed. The next day two of the Chinese who traded with the British were paraded around the small part of Guangzhou where the British were allowed to live and conduct their trading, but at this point many of the British were wondering if Lin Zexu’s threats were real, since the chains around the merchants’ necks were more like necklaces, and the three days had come and gone and no one had been executed and no opium had been turned over. There had been previous conflicts over the years, some quite serious, between the British merchants and Qing authorities, and Chinese threats always seemed to blow over amidst both sides’ desire for continuing trade relations.
On March 24, Lin Zexu ordered all the Chinese servants out of the foreigners’ district and stationed soldiers around the area in order to keep anyone from leaving. This was a tactic that had been used by the Chinese authorities in past conflicts, such as in 1830 when a British merchant brought his wife over from Macao to the factory district (as the area where the foreigners lived in Guangzhou was called), despite the Chinese prohibition on European women staying in the factory district (a measure meant to ensure that the foreign presence in Guangzhou would be restricted to the trading season). Most of the soldiers surrounding the foreign settlement were actually employees of the Chinese merchants who did business with the foreigners and who had been deputized for the occasion, so they were on friendly terms with the traders who they guarded and allowed plenty of food to be smuggled past their military cordon. And indeed, as many British suspected, Lin had issued orders that no violence should be committed against the foreigners, as he only wished to intimidate them into compliance. As Robert Bennett Forbes, an American trader who was trapped along with everyone else, recalled some years later, he and the other prisoners “suffered more from absence of exercise and from over feeding than from any actual want of the necessaries of life.” The biggest problem for the foreigners was that they now had to cook and clean for themselves, since their legion of Chinese servants had been ordered away.
While the merchants were quite prepared to wait out the situation and see where things went, the British superintendent of trade, Charles Elliot, saw things differently. While Lin Zexu’s efforts at intimidation weren’t working on the British merchants, they were working on Elliot, who feared the prospect of starvation and mass execution (neither of which were in fact at all likely). Elliot’s previous position had been in the British colony of Guyana, where he had served in position as ‘protector of slaves,’ a position in which he was supposed to mitigate the worst abuses of slavery. It was a basically powerless position, and it had turned him into an abolitionist. When slavery was abolished in British Guyana in 1833, he was out of a job and eventually want sent to China. But his experience with the abolition of slavery gave him an idea about how to handle the crisis he found himself in in China. When slavery was abolished in the British Empire, the former slaveowners were paid for the slaves who had been freed, for the loss of their property. Elliot, who was morally opposed to the opium trade, had the idea to end the opium trade in a similar manner, and issued an order in the name of the Queen that all the opium should be turned over to him with the promise that the full value would be paid by the British government.
Despite the fact that he had no authority to issue such an order, the merchants jumped on the chance to safely unload all their risky contraband for its full value, and were confident that they could later find some way or another to make the British government pay up. In this manner, Queen Victoria became the largest holder of opium in the world, £2 million worth (or about 240 million in today’s US dollars). This was well over 1000 tons of the unprocessed drug.
Elliot made this announcement on March 26, after just a couple days of being locked down, and Lin promised that once ¾ of the opium was delivered he would lift the siege of the foreign factories. Turning in the opium was going to be an involved process, however, as most of it was on ships that had taken off for safer waters, with some going as far as Singapore and Manila. By early April Elliot’s panic had turned to outrage that Lin would not let foreigners leave Guangzhou while they waited for the opium to come in. Elliot felt that his personal honor was besmirched, and wrote a dispatch (which he sent with someone who was allowed through the cordon in order to arrange to handover of opium to the Chinese) back to London asking for a punitive naval expedition against China to avenge this treatment. The opium trickled in slowly, and it wasn’t until May that the foreigners in Guangzhou were released.
Beginning in August, word began to arrive in London of what had happened in Guangzhou. And word mainly arrived in the form of opium traders clamoring for reimbursement from the government. Demands for payment for confiscated opium started arriving more than a week before any word from Elliot did. And the opium traders weren’t the only merchants bothering the British government about events in China. The more legitimate traders (to the degree that these did not overlap with opium smugglers), such as tea merchants, were also upset, because trade had been shut down entirely. They demanded that the British government do something to ensure that trade relations become more stable, such as forcing China to agree to a treaty which would establish norms for trade relations, including how disputes would be settled.
In the face of these demands from the trading community, the British government decided to send the punitive fleet to China that Elliot had requested. The purpose of the fleet would be to force the Qing Empire to pay for the opium (Britain had no intention of paying what Elliot had promised it would),
The British fleet arrived off China’s southern coast in June 1840. The first phase of the war ended quickly, as Britain blockaded Guangzhou and then moved up the coast, seizing the island of Zhoushan in July and using it as a base for intercepting traffic coming out of the Yangzi River, and then sailing unopposed to the mouth of the White River, near the Dagu forts, which were China’s main defenses blocking the approach to Tianjin and then, further inland, Beijing. Negotiations to end the war started here quickly, and then moved down to Canton.
The initial approach of the Qing was the blame the whole thing on Lin Zexu, who was dismissed and sent to the desert in western China. An initial agreement to end the war was reached in January by Elliot and Daoguang’s advisor, Qishen. This initial agreement gave the British Hong Kong, reparations equal to a bit more than half of what the British would need to pay for all the confiscated opium, established official diplomatic channels between the British and the Qing, and promised to reopen trade at Guangzhou in 10 days. Both governments, refused to ratify this treaty, however, because they felt it gave away too much.
Qishen was banished by Daoguang for this treaty, but the British government also felt that Elliot had given up way too much. He had been given orders to extract enough reparations to pay for all of the opium and for the war itself, and Lord Palmerston, the secretary of foreign affairs, was furious that Zhoushan, the main prize the British had seized, had been given up for Hong Kong, “a barren island with hardly a house upon it.” A soldier with extensive colonial experience, Henry Pottinger, was sent to relieve Charles Elliot of his command.
Even before Pottinger arrived in China, there had been renewed skirmishes between the British and local peasant militias formed around Guangzhou and led by local patriotic gentry. One of these skirmishes, at Sanyuanli village, was the sole Chinese victory in the war, when Chinese peasants ran off invading British troops. While it was a minor battle and inconsequential in relation to the final outcome of the war, it was the one bright spot for the Chinese in the war, and because of the importance of the Opium War as the beginning of the Century of Humiliation for China which followed, it is considered an important event in China today, an example of heroism that children learn about in school. And perhaps it can be seen as foreshadowing of the eventual liberation of China through a peasant war.
After arriving in China in August 1841, Pottinger fought up the coast, seizing cities including Xiamen, Ningbo, Shanghai and Zhenjiang. His aim was to force the Qing to capitulate by strangling the central waterways of China, blocking traffic on the Yangzi River and the Grand Canal, China’s important north-south waterway. The firepower of the British was overwhelming in these engagements, and large numbers of Chinese civilians and soldiers were massacred without any real ability to fight back. At one point in 1842 the admiral of the British fleet requested that his forces be spared from invading any more Chinese cities because “our visitations are so calamitous to the wretched inhabitants,” and the experience of repeatedly killing large numbers of people who could not fight back was affecting British morale.
The war finally ended in August 1842 when Pottinger threatened the city of Nanjing. The Treaty of Nanjing that ended the war was the first of a series of what are known as the ‘unequal treaties,’ and marked the discovery by the western powers that they could get what they wanted from China through violence. More unequal treaties would follow during the rest of the 19th century, and we’ll cover some of those events in upcoming episodes.
The Treaty of Nanjing itself established a new trading system, called the Treaty Port system, which allowed the British and other foreigners to trade with China at several ports instead of just at Guangzhou, the most significant of which was Shanghai. It also established the principle of extraterritoriality, which meant that British citizens in China were subject to British jurisdiction and could not be tried in Chinese courts. It also gave Hong Kong to the British. The Qing were required to pay the British the cost of all the opium confiscated and the cost of the war as well. As the opium trade was too embarrassing to the British to formally include in the treaty, the legalization of the opium trade was left out. But it was understood that the British would be free to trade in opium from this point onwards without harassment from the Qing authorities, and that is exactly what happened, with the trade exploding in scale beyond what had existed previously.
There is a tendency in the literature on the Opium War to, even while exposing the totally immoral nature of the war, it’s colonialist or imperialist aspect and the fact that China was attacked in order to make it pay for confiscating drugs from English drug smugglers, that kind of tries to excuse the war. Or, if not excuse it, to contextualize it in such a way that the actions of Britain are rendered somewhat more sympathetic. It’s clear, after all, that the Qing Empire was a corrupt, brutal and arbitrary regime. No one would have known that better than the millions of Chinese peasants who lived under the Manchu thumb. And clearly, the British, both the government and the traders in tea, not to mention the opium smugglers (not that these were mutually exclusive categories), were repeatedly frustrated and humiliated by the Qing Empire’s refusal to play by the rules of commerce and diplomacy that the British were used to playing by. In some academic and popular narratives of the Opium War, one almost gets a sense that the author feels that, at the end of the day, the Qing made the British wage war on them.
The emphasis that is sometimes laid on the corruption and decline of the Qing Empire, very real things, and the difficulty that foreigners had in interacting with that Empire, can obfuscate the essential aspect of the Opium War, which is that Britain waged a highly uneven war, in reality a series of repeated massacres of people in Chinese coastal cities, in order to advance its commercial interests.
In our next episode, we’ll take the story of China’s ‘century of humiliation’ a step further, looking at both the Taiping Revolution and the Second Opium War.