While prohibited as early as 1729, British traders continued to smuggle opium into China. With the abolition of the British East India Company’s trading monopoly, the trade of opium increased significantly from 1834 onwards. The Chinese viewed the opium trade as a blight on the nation, corrupting its moral integrity and draining the treasury. The British, driven by the desire for free trade, needed the opium trade to balance their own treasury. They viewed the Chinese as corrupt and exaggerating the moral high ground. Both empires believed they had the legal authority, the Chinese in prohibiting trade and the British in advancing it. This clash of moral, financial, and legal ideals is why the British and Chinese views of the opium trade differ do strongly from one another.

China pursued prohibition of the opium trade from a position of moral authority. The Chinese Emperor believed it was his ancestral duty to take care of the empire, and the prohibition of opium was necessary to “save the lives of the people” [1]. On the other hand, the British believed the Chinese officials were corrupt, taking bribes and using opium themselves[2]. Highlighting Chinese hypocrisy, the British accused the Chinese of doing nothing to stop local opium production, while only cracking down on trade[3]. More specifically, the British viewed the Chinese prohibition on opium as a method to keep out foreign opium and “prosper their own farmers”[4]. In fact, these were false beliefs, as there was a great effort by the Chinese to crack down on local production in 1831[5]. They also introduced serious punishments for the consumption of opium to crack down on the moral degradation of society[6]. Therefore, Chinese and British views on the opium trade differ so strongly because both nations believed they had the moral high ground.

However, the British were justified in believing that is was more than just a moral issue, as Chinese authorities were increasingly concerned with the financial and legal consequences of the opium trade. Some Chinese officials were instead concerned with the fact that more foreign money was leaving the country than entering it, and to that extent were in favour of legalizing opium[7]. As the British merchants demanded to be paid in silver, the exchange rate between silver and China’s copper currency increased, which “created an inflationary effect”[8]. The opium trade was directly affecting the Chinese currency and Britain was blamed for the hardship and poverty that ensued[9]. Meanwhile, the British were reliant on the opium trade to avoid a deficit, effectively making it a solution to economic stagnation[10]. If trade were to continue, the Chinese empire’s silver holdings would be significantly depleted[11]. If trade were stopped, the British would need to reconsider their attachment to free trade and find a new way to balance the treasury[12].

Lastly, the British were strong believers of free trade. The doctrine of free trade had “been gathering momentum in England since the middle of the 18th century”[13] and they were not about to abandon it. The British refused to acknowledge China’s right to prohibit opium trafficking because China itself was unable enforce the laws[14].  Because of this, the Chinese saw the British as greedy barbaric smugglers[15] with the “assumption and audacity of pirates”[16]. Britain further justified its view by accusing the Chinese of corruption and hypocrisy. In Lord Palmerston’s Declaration of War, he highlights how China “virtually abolished its own Law, by permitting its own officers to act as if no such Law existed”[17]. This is because opium was still being handled by official Hong merchants when it arrived from foreign ships[18]. Because both countries believed they had the legal authority, the trade eventually led to military conflict. The British believed “China should be opened for its own good”[19] while China was more concerned about the “future control of foreign traders”[20]. Ultimately the British believed strongly in their right to free and open trade, while China saw the conflict as a “crusade against opium”[21].

This essay has specifically shown why the Chinese and British views on the opium trade differ so strongly, as both countries had a different view on the moral, financial, and legal issues surrounding the trade. The Chinese believed that opium was a moral blight on society, which the British dismissed due to Chinese corruption and their own false beliefs. The Chinese desired an end to the trade to stop the drain of silver leaving the country, while the British desired the advancement of free trade and more silver in the treasury. Finally, both sides believed they had the legal authority to decide whether the trade should have continued or ceased. It is for these reasons that the British and Chinese view of the opium trade differed so strongly.

 

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Spence, Jonathan D., Michael Elliot Lestz, and Pei-kai Cheng, eds. “Annexed Laws on Banning Opium, July 1839.” In The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection, 1st ed. New York: Norton, 1999.

———, eds. “Lord Palmerston’s Declaration of War, February 20, 1840.” In The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection, 1st ed. New York: Norton, 1999.

———, eds. “Memorial on Banning Opium, October 1836.” In The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection, 1st ed. New York: Norton, 1999.

———, eds. “Memorial on Legalizing Opium, June 10, 1836.” In The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection, 1st ed. New York: Norton, 1999.

Stearns, Peter N., ed. “Britain: A View from a Participant.” In World History in Documents: A Comparative Reader, 2nd. ed. New York: New York University Press, 2008.

———, ed. “China: Official Statements.” In World History in Documents: A Comparative Reader, 2nd. ed. New York: New York University Press, 2008.

 

Secondary Sources

Dikötter, Frank, Zhou Xun, and Lars Peter Laamann. Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Fairbank, John King, and Merle Goldman. China: A New History. 2nd enl. ed. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.

Hanes, William Travis, and Frank Sanello. Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another. Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, 2002.

Hsü, Immanuel Chung-yueh. The Rise of Modern China. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Marchant, Leslie R. “The Wars of the Poppies.” History Today 52, no. 5 (May 2002): 42.

Waley, Arthur. The Opium War through Chinese Eyes. China : History, Philosophy, Economics 33. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

[1] Peter N. Stearns, ed., “China: Official Statements,” in World History in Documents: A Comparative Reader, 2nd. ed (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 246.

[2] Stearns, ed., “Britain: A View from a Participant,” in World History in Documents, 2008, 248.

[3] Arthur Waley, The Opium War through Chinese Eyes, China : History, Philosophy, Economics 33 (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 26.

[4] Leslie R. Marchant, “The Wars of the Poppies,” History Today 52, no. 5 (May 2002): 45.

[5] Waley, The Opium War, 26.

[6] Jonathan D. Spence, Michael Elliot Lestz, and Pei-kai Cheng, eds., “Annexed Laws on Banning Opium, July 1839,” in The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection, 1st ed (New York: Norton, 1999), 120–22; William Travis Hanes and Frank Sanello, Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another (Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, 2002), 37.

[7] Spence, Lestz, and Cheng, eds., “Memorial on Legalizing Opium, June 10, 1836,” in The Search for Modern China, 1999, 112–13.

[8] Waley, The Opium War, 25; John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman, China: A New History, 2nd enl. ed (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), 198.

[9] Marchant, “The Wars of the Poppies,” 45.

[10] Immanuel Chung-yueh Hsü, The Rise of Modern China, 6th ed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 173.

[11] Frank Dikötter, Zhou Xun, and Lars Peter Laamann, Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 43; Hsü, The Rise of Modern China, 169; Waley, The Opium War, 14.

[12] Marchant, “The Wars of the Poppies,” 42; Hsü, The Rise of Modern China, 172–73.

[13] Hsü, The Rise of Modern China, 173.

[14] Marchant, “The Wars of the Poppies,” 43, 45.

[15] Stearns, “China: Official Statements,” 245.

[16] Spence, Lestz, and Cheng, eds., “Memorial on Banning Opium, October 1836,” in The Search for Modern China, 1999, 115.

[17] Spence, Lestz, and Cheng, eds., “Lord Palmerston’s Declaration of War, February 20, 1840,” in The Search for Modern China, 1999, 121.

[18] Marchant, “The Wars of the Poppies,” 46.

[19] Ibid., 47.

[20] Hsü, The Rise of Modern China, 173.

[21] Ibid., 184.