Opium and War in China
China History

Research Report
Web Resources


The presence of opium has played a significant role in the development of China as a modern nation.  Although opium has been in existence in China for hundreds of years before it became a national epidemic, the dilemma first began with the importation of opium into China by the British East-India Company.  In hopes of attaining some degree of trade equality within the Canton System, the British began to import opium. The number of chests of opium brought in increased by near exponential amounts within the few years to follow.  The effects of the narcotic on China and her people were not only physical, but social and economic as well.  It caused a great outflow of silver, which in turn increased taxes for working peasants.  This set the wheels of progression in motion for China

Historical Background

The legacy of opium’s presence in China’s socio-economic evolution can be traced back to the time of the Canton System and the presence of the British.  The Canton  System, which began in 1760 was a system of commerce in China that restricted trade with foreigners, the English in particular, to one port city in the Guandong province called Canton. Under this system, foreigners who wanted to trade with China were required to live in the city, but could not bring in their wives of settle in the area. Among other restrictions, trade took place in warehouses called factories, in which the foreigners worked with Chinese trade officials called Hongs.  These officials had nearly complete control over the prices of commodities, as well as the amounts purchased.  The system ultimately kept mainland China closed off from foreigners and the rest of the world. During this time, the relationship between the British and Chinese was limited to commerce. The Chinese government at the time had not allowed any form of diplomatic relations with the foreigners.
As a result of the restrictions set on foreign trade, there arose an immense imbalance.  The British were importing far more goods from China thus causing the apparent disparity. The British East India Company, which was granted a monopoly over trade in this region had relied primarily on their exportation of cotton form India into China, but the amounts supplied by the corporation could not compare to the quantities of their imports. The primary trade commodity at the time, which  the British depended on was Chinese tea.  The tea was in such demand that, due to the lack of trade commodities that the British were exporting into China, they were forced to use silver to buy tea.  This in turn caused a great influx of silver into the Chinese economy

Research Report

As a means of reconciling the situation, the British East India Company began to import opium into China.  Opium was first used for its medicinal purposes, however once the importation of the drug began, people started to use opium recreationally. This epidemic spread so drastically that  in 1729 the first imperial edict prohibiting the use of the drug was issued by Emperor Yung Cheng.  This attempt at prohibition however, proved to be ineffective and the use of the drug continued to increase.   Nevertheless, at this time the quantity of opium brought into China did not exceed 200 chests (2020site.org).  The British went about bringing opium into China from their suppliers in India.  As the opium was brought into Canton, the distribution of the drug was left in the hands of smugglers. These individuals smuggled the drugs primarily through the networks in which salt was smuggled.

The use of opium spread through out China for various reasons.  For some individuals, the use of opium was viewed as a means of furthering themselves in the Confucian tradition. “One of the cardinal precepts of Confucian tradition is that of li, which can be variously translated as ritual, etiquette, propriety, or ceremony: the external exemplification of gentlemanly behavior” (Slack,34).  In light of this belief, the inhaling of opium was seen as a ritualistic act.  “Smoking rarely occurred in solitude; it was an experience shared with other people in a setting of human interaction.  Whether the setting was the yamen of a government official, a restaurant, one’s one residence, or even the omnipresent opium den, the act of smoking was a shared social experience” (Slack, 34).  In addition to the ritualistic use of opium, it was also used for other purposes. As Slack mentions, “contemporary documents seem to suggest three basic answers to the question: opium was used as a ‘cure’ for physical maladies and ailments, or as a stimulant; as a commodity to facilitate social intercourse (yingchoupin); or when visiting prostitutes (wannong), gambling, or whiling away time (xiaoqian)” (pp. 40).

The use and importation of opium had great effects on Chinese society. As a result of the hefty outward flow of silver from China, the value of copper coinage decreased.  Since the Chinese peasants and farmers at this time had to pay their taxes in silver, and the value of their copper cash (what they were paid with) decreased because of inflation, the peasants inconspicuously paid higher taxes.  And despite the fact that there was no obvious increase in the taxation rate for these individuals, the peasants were outraged.  They were forced to pay higher taxes in order to support the habits of the upper classes. In addition to this increase in peasant taxation, the old Confucian foundation of education and its role in the placement of public officials was corrupted. Instead of individuals being examined for public positions, the rising merchant class (that was advancing as a result of the opium influx) began to buy official diplomas and government positions. This enraged the emperor and  eventually led to the inevitable; a great war with British.

In order to suppress the wide-scale use of opium, the Chinese government in 1836 decided to strike back.  Those who sold the drug faced immense prosecution and were often arrested and killed.  This made it difficult for anyone trying to import or sell the drug, thus causing the price of the product to fall considerably.  The campaign, which was under the authority of Lin Zexu, took effect in Canton in 1839.  Once in Canton, Lin Zexu reeked havoc on corrupt Chinese officials that facilitated trade.  With regards to foreign importation, Lin had demanded corporations who imported opium to surrender their entire stock and sign a promissory statement that ensured that such trade would cease. In order to ensure that the foreigners would be compliant, Lin had surrounded the city and confined the foreigners.  With regards to the confiscated opium, Lin had entire stock destroyed, 21,306 chests.

The British did not take this ordeal lightly.  In retaliation to the supposedly illegal act committed by the Chinese, Great Britain sent a military force consisting of 16 warships, 4 steam ships, and approximately 4,000 soldiers. They seized Canton first and then moved to other cities along the coast. Due to the persistence of the British, they were able to force China to give into their demands. Perhaps the most significant would be the attaining of Hong Kong as a concession.  The ending of this ordeal ended with the signing of the treaty of Nanjing  on August 29, 1842.

The signing of this treaty brought an end to the Canton system of trade and the seizure of Hong Kong by the British.  Along with this, the ports of Fuzhou, Xiamen, Ningbo, Shanghai, and Canton were opened to foreign trade. The trade of opium persisted during this time as well  This greatly demoralized the Chinese people and enhanced their anti-foreign sentiment. Despite the opening of these new port cities, the English did not attain the end that they were expecting; a large scale market for their textiles.

Unsatisfied with the concessions they were given after the opium war, the British engaged in another battle with the Qing.  The Arrow War, otherwise known as the second opium war, lasted from 1856 to 1860.  After the opium war, foreign ships eventually were granted safe passage to the inland areas of the China through their rivers.  Along with safe passage came the exemption from certain taxes. Corrupt foreign officials and businessmen in the cities opened by the treaty of Nanjing began to sell their nations flags to Chinese ships, thus granting them tax exemptions and protection. The Chinese officials became greatly discontented with this practice due to the fact that the foreigners were gaining more of the revenue that the nation required.
Thus in 1856, the conflict began when a Chinese vessel flying a British flag was detained by officials. The moment Britain got word of the event, they immediately sent troops to Canton and seized the city for a second time. The English troops were then joined by the French.  France’s involvement in the conflict was purely the result to their attain “Most Favored Nation Status,” ( a system by which any other nation that could negotiate a better treaty with China than that negotiated by the British, would gain the privileges stated in said treaty).  The allied forces eventually defeated the Chinese.  The end of the war was marked by the signing of the treaty of Tianjin in 1860.  Under this treaty, ten more port cities were opened and Opium was made an official trade commodity.

Historical Significance

If not for the presence of opium in the country, China would still be oblivious to the true importance of foreign trade and globalization. The Canton System nay have existed for a much longer period of time, thus causing the nation to fall even further behind the nations of the west with regards to government and economics.  The catastrophic effects of this drug on the Chinese people sparked the desire for change and modernization within the nation.


 Cunynghame, Arthur.  The Opium War.  Scholarly Resources Inc.:Wilmington,1972.
 Polachek, James M. The Inner Opium War.  Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1992.
 Hoe, Susanna & Derek Roebuck. The Taking of Hong Kong.  Curzon Press: Surrey, 1999.
 Slack, Edward R.  Opium, State, and Society.  University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu, 1963.
 Wong, J.Y.  Deadly Dreams.  Cambridge University Press:  New York, 1998.

Web Resources

http://mojo.calyx.net/~schaffer/heroin/opichin1.html   Chronology of Opium in China

http://www.ibiblio.org/herbmed/eclectic/journals/ajp-jan1871-VI.html    Opium Trade of China

http://serendipity.magnet.ch/wod/hongkong.html    Opium War, Britsh take Hong Kong

http://www-unix.oit.umass.edu/~zongli/extended.html    Opium in China

http://www.2020site.org/opium/china.html    History of Opium in China