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Strictly speaking, the era of imperial China lasted until 1911. Yet the era of Chinese emperors as all-powerful demigods upon the earth began to wane well before that — began to wane, in fact, not that long after a disappointed George Mccartney returned to Britain from his failed diplomatic visit to Beijing. For during the period that followed, the entangling of the Eastern and Western versions of human history became indissoluble, much to China’s detriment. The “Century of Humiliation” — actually, more like a century and a half — which the once-august empire suffered at the hands of the Western nations remains imprinted on China’s national psyche to this day. These memories of a painful past do much to explain the modern state’s suspicion of the institutionalized Western world order, its dogged determination to engage with the world on its own terms. The guiding principle of China’s policies toward the rest of the world today might be summed up in two words which transcend politics and even ideology: “Never Again.”

All of is which is to say that, from the nineteenth century on, China’s history has immediate rather than background relevance to the behavior of the present-day country. It is therefore time for us to cease digesting said history on a scale of centuries per chapter, and start thinking more in terms of decades and concrete events. We begin with the demon drug of opium, the cause of the first direct military conflict between China and a Western nation.

Opium was itself one of the less enviable results of the new global economy that followed the European Ages of Exploration and Colonization: it was the first hard narcotic to make its deleterious effects felt all over the world, the first object of a widespread and illicit international drug trade. Refined from poppy seeds, the same raw material behind morphine and heroin, its cycle of use and addiction was also much the same as those more recent drugs.

In 1821, the British essayist Thomas De Quincy described the revelatory, otherworldly rapture one felt upon using opium for the first time: “Here was a panacea for all human woes; here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered. Happiness might now be bought for a penny and carried in the waistcoat pocket; portable ecstacies might be had cored up in a pint bottle, and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail coach.” He then explained how, after one began to use it regularly in the hope of recapturing that magical first high, opium “ceased to found its empire on spells of pleasure; it was solely by the tortures connected with the attempt to abjure it that it kept its hold.” And finally he told what it meant to try to shake opium’s grip on the body and soul: “Think of me as one, even when four months had passed, still agitated, writhing, throbbing, palpitating, shattered, and much perhaps in the situation of him who has been racked.” De Quincy’s recollections would become all too familiar to countless others in the decades to come; too many of them would never succeed in breaking opium’s hold, as he managed to do in the end.

A posed image of Chinese opium smokers, probably dating from the 1870s. Note the Qing-era coiffures, with the hair shaved in front and grown long in the back. (Public Domain)

Opium became as associated with China in the minds of Westerners as porcelain, silk, and tea; small wonder that the hallucinations it produced tended to have a distinctly Chinese cast to them, most famously in the example of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Xanadu.” But it wasn’t primarily a Chinese drug at all; the opium consumed by both De Quincy and Coleridge came from the Ottoman Empire, while even in East Asia poppy was more commonly cultivated in India than Inner China. That said, the Chinese knew of opium already during the Tang period, and partook of it occasionally for both medicinal and recreational purposes. Yet it was far from being a fixture of their culture. Ingesting it orally, as every user back then did, was not a very pleasant experience: the stuff was bitter and pungent. And it was also dangerous: different crops had different levels of potency, such that a nibble which had yielded only a blissful euphoria yesterday could shut down the respiratory system today.

The incarnation of opium that enslaved millions of addicts around the world during the nineteenth century was actually a thoroughgoing product of globalization; three continents had to come together to make it. First European explorers and colonizers learned from Native Americans how to smoke another substance, tobacco. They then brought tobacco and the practice of smoking it with them to East Asia, along with such other, healthier crops as peanuts, potatoes, and maize, all of which the Chinese quickly learned to cultivate for themselves. Thus a craze for tobacco smoking struck the Qing court by the early eighteenth century, not that long after it reached Europe; much of the choicest farmland outside Beijing was soon given over to the crop.

History does not record what clever individual first realized that opium could be smoked much like tobacco; we do not even know whether he was an Easterner or a Westerner. But we do know that opium smoking too was becoming a common practice by the beginning of the nineteenth century. At first, pipes were typically filled with a mixture of tobacco and opium, but in time the pure drug became preferable. Debilitating though it remained to consume over the long haul, it was at least much safer to smoke even pure opium in the moment than it was to ingest it; 80 to 90 percent of its potency drifted away into thin air when it was smoked, making the practice less of a game of Russian roulette. The Chinese took to it with considerable enthusiasm, notwithstanding that the drug had been formally outlawed by the Qing government as far back as 1729.

The British greeted the newfound Chinese interest in opium as a godsend, for their Indian plantations could easily produce thousands of tons of poppy, a crop which didn’t grow as well in most parts of Inner China and was tough to cultivate under the noses of the imperial authorities even where it was otherwise practical. They saw in opium nothing less than their long-awaited opportunity to redress the negative balance of trade which had prompted George Macartney’s fruitless visit to Beijing in 1793. The problem was, you’ll recall, that the Chinese had heretofore showed no interest in importing goods from Britain and other European nations, only in exporting their own goods. (This applied even to the robust and nutrition-dense New World crops which the Europeans brought with them, given that the Chinese could grow them for themselves as soon as they had acquired their seeds.) Now, at long last, the British had something the Chinese wanted and were willing to pay dearly for.

With the merest presence of British vessels in Chinese ports strictly regulated under the Canton System, to say nothing of the contents of their holds, the new opium trade was an illegal black-market exercise from the start — the domain of men with few moral compunctions, often little better than pirates. They brought their contraband up from India in fast, nimble “opium clippers” which could easily outrun or outmaneuver Chinese pursuers. With all legitimate ports closed to them, they typically made landfall at one of two previously deserted islands in the Pearl River Delta of Southern Inner China: either Nei Lingding or its neighbor Hong Kong. Both islands were close to the great commercial hub of Guangzhou, third largest city in the world after London and Beijing and the only place in China where Britons with no special diplomatic status were legally allowed to reside, in a dockside compound outside the city’s walls. Locals ferried the opium from the islands up to Guangzhou, to be hidden in warehouses inside the compound there. From this distribution hub, the drug then fanned out across Inner China and beyond via a thousand convenient contrivances. The 350 or so Britons who lived in Guangzhou were soon spending more of their time as drug dealers than legitimate traders.

The whole operation was aided immeasurably by the corruption that was beginning to plague the Qing dynasty as it passed into middle age, in accordance with the inexorable logic of Chinese history. There was never a shortage of ordinary Chinese willing to become drug mules and local kingpins, nor of Chinese authorities willing to have their palms crossed with silver in return for looking the other way; such bribes were a small price to pay in the eyes of the foreign purveyors of an expensive commodity exempt from the usual import duties by virtue of its illegality. (The same corruption permitted a growing internal Chinese trade in home-grown opium, but that stuff was deemed to be of poorer quality than the choicest Indian strains.) As for the British government: it never officially endorsed the opium trade, but neither did it do anything whatsoever to stop it. The smugglers were, after all, breaking no British laws.

Still, it was a nasty business to be complicit in, this inculcating of addiction and all of its associated suffering in the citizens of another nation, in defiance of said nation’s own laws. One needed only look to the saddest denizens of the opium dens that were cropping up on the streets of London as well to see what the drug did to its users. But of course people have always been uncannily good at not seeing the negative aspects of those things which are profitable to them personally. One trader insisted to the banks and moneyed interests back home who backed his enterprise that he “rarely, if ever, saw anyone physically or mentally injured from [opium]. Smoking was a habit, as the use of wine was with us, in moderation.” The financiers and parliamentarians in London were only too eager to take him at his word, even as they crowed how “the turn of the balance of trade between Great Britain and China in favour of the former has contributed directly to support the vast fabric of British dominion in the East, and benefit[ed] the nation to an extent of £6 million yearly.”

By now, the phenomenon that modern economists call the Great Divergence had gotten underway in earnest: China had clearly and undeniably fallen behind Europe in terms of all of the standard indexes of human development. In 1750, the per-capita incomes of Britain and China had been roughly equal; in 1820, the average Briton was earning almost three times as much as the average Chinese. And the trend lines were a veritable order of magnitude worse for China. While all of the relevant numbers were soaring in Europe and North America, thanks to a steam-powered Industrial Revolution that was now in full flight, they were plunging in China, thanks to technological stagnation and encroaching late-dynasty corruption and aimlessness.

From 1820, one Daoguang (“Radiant Path”) was the emperor of China. Nervous and mercurial by disposition, he cast about with ever-increasing urgency for a way to alleviate his land’s palpable decline. He eventually hit upon opium as the wellspring of all that ailed China. In truth, although China’s opium habit certainly wasn’t helping matters, it was far from the worst of the country’s problems. Its population had grown too quickly, to as many as 400 million people by now, and its agricultural infrastructure had not kept pace; the result was widespread rural poverty, accompanied by bouts of famine whenever a harvest was less than optimal. Even as opium imports had exploded, exports had declined, thanks to the scarcity of silver in the West and the realization by the British that their own colony of India could quench their thirst for tea more cost-effectively than China could; this deprived the Qing government of desperately needed revenue. The venerable Confucian examination system too had become more of an impediment than an aid for the state, having become so reliant on rote memorization that the officials it churned out were often little better than dogma-spouting automatons, utterly unsuited to the needs of a country that needed fresh thinking in order to compete on the world stage.

Nevertheless, Emperor Daoguang allowed himself to be convinced by his Confucian scholar officials that opium was the root cause of all of his empire’s ills. At the beginning of 1839, he sent the most strident among them, a man named Lin Zexu, to Guangzhou to end the opium trade for good, authorizing him to use whatever methods he deemed necessary. Lin Zexu instituted a crackdown on the consumption side of the ledger that went so far as to resuscitate an old Legalist trick from the days of the Qin dynasty: he divided suspected dealers and users of opium into groups of five, with each person in a group expected to spy on the other four and report any transgressions, on pain of being found as guilty as the original perpetrator of any crimes he failed to report. “All of you are equally involved in the stench of the opium trade,” Lin Zexu harangued the Guangzhou magistrates who had looked the other way for so long. “Truly I burn with shame for you.” He even sent a letter directly to Britain’s new Queen Victoria, explaining the harm opium was inflicting on China, and first asking, then warning her in vague but ominous terms to cease and desist: “Our Heavenly Court would not have won the allegiance of innumerable lands did it not wield superhuman power.”

But it was his edict of March 18, 1839, that sent shock waves across the British Empire: knowing full well where most of the foreign opium in the country was being dispensed from — to call the distribution hub that was the British dockside warehouses in Guangzhou an open secret would be an extreme understatement — he ordered the British traders to surrender all of the opium in their possession within three days. They couldn’t have complied even if they had wanted to: aware that Lin Zexu was probably coming for them, they had already emptied their warehouses of almost all of their precious supply, sending it away on ships to keep it safe while they waited for the crackdown to blow over.

Britain’s Chief Superintendent of the China Trade at the time was one Charles Elliot, a man with a tragic knack for getting himself enmeshed in practices he came to find morally untenable. Before coming to China, he had served as “Protector of Slaves” in the colony of British Guiana, where his up-close engagement with the reality of slavery on the ground had turned him into a staunch abolitionist. His title in China might almost as well have been “Protector of the Opium Trade” — and yet he had no fondness for it either. In correspondence within his own circle, he freely described his “deep detestation of the disgrace and sin of this forced traffic.” Yet he knew that he had no chance of stopping it, that if he tried he would just be replaced by a more pliable functionary, for the interests which profited from it were too powerful to be denied. In light of this truth, his preferred solution, for which he lobbied the Chinese government with some zeal, was to legalize the drug, thereby to legitimize away the stain of violence and skulduggery which inevitably accompanies the distribution of any illicit substance. (Like so many of his contemporaries, Elliot seems to have found it convenient to overlook the damage opium did to its users, regardless of whether the stuff happened to be legal or illegal.)

Elliot was in the Portuguese colony of Macau at the time that Lin Zexu demanded the surrender of the British opium. Rushing back to Guangzhou, he joined the Britons who resided in the compound there. After his three-day deadline expired without the surrender of any British opium, Lin Zexu, wary despite himself of starting a full-on armed conflict with British citizens, ordered the compound surrounded but did not try to breach it. Even the siege was porous; Lin Zexu made no serious attempt to starve the traders out. One of them would later wryly remember “too much food and too little exercise” as the only discomforts they suffered.

In the midst of this stalemate, on March 27, Elliot made a pair of moves that took absolutely everyone by surprise. First he told Lin Zexu that he would ensure that the British traders acceded to his demand, that they would in fact turn over all of their opium after all. And then he drafted a contract for the traders themselves to sign, in which they agreed to give their opium — more than 20,000 chests of it in all — to the British Crown in return for a promissory note for compensation at its full market value — about £2 million, a staggering sum of money in 1839. Naturally, the traders couldn’t sign quickly enough; the deal got them out of a tight spot with profits to spare.

What exactly Elliot was thinking when he made this unexpected move has long been a subject of historical debate. Chinese historians like to see him as a scheming villain who was already planning five steps ahead, while Western historians tend to see him as a basically well-meaning man unfortunately prone to snap judgments and flights of fancy, who was way over his head in this crisis. Either way, the results of his actions were the same. By buying all that opium off the private traders, he turned it into the property of the British government, and turned the question of its disposition into a conflict between nation-states; legally speaking, Lin Zexu might now just as well have been trying to seize a British warship. Did Elliot realize what he was doing? Did he have a plan of any sort, or was he improvising all along? He left no diary or autobiography behind, nor does he appear to have confided in anyone. The most charitable interpretation, which is by no means implausible, is that Elliot was hoping to end the opium trade in the same way that slavery was being ended throughout the British Empire: by compensating its perpetrators with government funds in order to minimize the political fallout.

As I already noted, most of the British opium had been sequestered away at sea or in other ports; calling it all back to Guangzhou for confiscation would take weeks. Lin Zexu accepted what he saw as the British capitulation gladly, but said that he would not lift the siege of the compound on the strength of Elliot’s promise alone: first the British must hand over at least 15,000 chests of opium. This insult to his honor as a British gentleman, combined with the inconvenience and discomfort of being cooped up in the Guangzhou compound for weeks to come, seems to have been the last straw for Elliot. Previously a voice for conciliation between the Chinese government and the British traders, he now wrote a blistering letter back to London that called for nothing less than war between their two nations: “The response to all these unjust violences should be made in the form of a swift and heavy blow, unprefaced by one word of written communication.” Emperor Daoguang must be made to humble himself before the British Crown; China “must be made to understand its obligations to the rest of the world.”

While Elliot was lobbying for war, Lin Zexu and the other Chinese authorities, totally unaware of the purchase of the traders’ opium by the British government, believed they had secured an important victory. In fact, they believed they were on the verge of ending the opium scourge for good. Their feelings of triumph swelled that much more after Elliot made good on his promise and delivered all of the contraband opium. Lin Zexu decided to commemorate his seeming victory by staging a Chinese equivalent to the Boston Tea Party, albeit on a far grander scale. For three weeks that June, he made a spectacle — a festival, even — out of the dumping into the sea of that fortune in British opium. (Never fear; it was first fermented in lime and salt to ensure no one could fish it out of the water and use it.) Lin Zexu gave a speech on the first day, in which he apologized to the sea for defiling it in this way. Then he wrote an optimistic letter back to Beijing: “I should judge from [the British] attitudes that they have the decency to feel heartily ashamed. Probably they will not dare to repeat the same [crimes].”

Alas, there is a thin line between optimism and naiveté, as Lin Zexu was about to learn. He might have sensed something was amiss when Elliot, now driven completely into the arms of the smugglers by his pique over recent developments, angrily tore up before the eyes of its courier a Chinese notice informing him that dealing in opium was to become a crime punishable by death, whether the perpetrator was a Chinese citizen or a foreigner.

Freed from their confinement six weeks after it had begun, the traders themselves remained thoroughly unchastened, thanks to their promised windfall on the British taxpayer’s dime. They moved the nerve center of their operation to their longstanding rear base of Hong Kong, where they were also joined by Elliot. The Chinese had never paid much attention to the island; what with its rugged landscape, its poor soil, and its nearly total lack of freshwater, it didn’t seem to them to be good for much of anything. But they had overlooked something which the British had not: the hardscrabble island possessed one of the best natural harbors in the world, large and deep and superbly sheltered from the unpredictable rages of the tempestuous Pacific. For this reason, it had by now eclipsed Nei Lingding as the smugglers’ principal base for unloading opium from their ocean-going clippers, after which it was shipped by boat and barge the last 75 miles (120 kilometers) up the Pearl River to the main distribution hub of Guangzhou. But, the smugglers realized, given the recent unpleasantness in that Chinese metropolis, there was no reason why Hong Kong itself couldn’t become their distribution hub.

So, by mid-summer, their opium was fanning out across China as efficiently as ever. The Chinese huffed and puffed at the presence of the British squatters on their sovereign territory, and even tried to set up a half-hearted blockade on one or two occasions, but their navy wasn’t what it had been during the time of Zheng He, and they were justifiably leery of starting a war with the greatest naval power of this new age. By the end of 1839, the mercurial Emperor Daoguang had largely lost interest in his opium crackdown; he was willing to settle for having forced the trade out of Guangzhou, was ready to go off in search of other easy scapegoats for China’s decline. Little did he know that the question of a war over opium was already out of his hands.

For the British government back in London was facing a problem: it didn’t actually have the £2 million which Charles Elliot had inexplicably promised to the opium smugglers. He had dramatically exceeded his vested powers in making the offer in the first place — but, now that he had, there seemed to be no good alternatives. The Whig administration of Prime Minister William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, was extremely unpopular, hanging onto 10 Downing Street by a thread. If the government refused to pay the indemnity, the traders, many of them well-connected men, were bound to create a massive scandal in the press. But if it attempted to borrow or otherwise raise the money, the opposition in Parliament would have a field day with what it would depict as equally scandalous financial profligacy, for the purpose of bailing out what was at the end of the day a criminal enterprise. At last, Lord Palmerston, Lord Melbourne’s unusually influential foreign secretary, thought once again about Elliot’s letter demanding war with China, which he had dismissed out of hand as the ravings of an unhinged hothead upon first receiving it. But now, he was ready to reconsider. Why not make China pay the indemnity by force? He began planning a war.

Word of those plans, and of the larger dilemmas that had prompted them, soon leaked into the public sphere, igniting a swirling controversy that went on for months. Enraged over Lords Melbourne and Palmerston’s failure to consult them before taking the country to war over a debt they didn’t want to pay, the opposition in Parliament introduced a motion of censure that, if it passed, would almost certainly bring down their government. The motion was debated on the floor of the House of Commons over three heated, exhausting days and nights in April of 1840. Many members roundly condemned this mooted war in the cause of Britain’s right to run drugs into foreign countries; it was they who gave the proposed conflict the derisive name of “the Opium War” under which it would go down in history. Among the most articulate of them was a young member named William Gladstone, who would go on to become one of the most important British leaders of the nineteenth century.

A war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know and I have not read of. Under the auspices of the noble Lord, [our] flag is hoisted to protect an infamous contraband traffic, and if it were never to be hoisted except as it is now hoisted on the coast of China, we should recoil from its sight with horror, and should never again feel our hearts thrill, as they now thrill with emotion, when it floats proudly and magnificently on the breeze.

But the advocates of war had concocted a neat rhetorical trick of their own, as described by Julia Lovell: “The quarrel with China was no longer about Britain’s economic greed, or drug smuggling: it was about China’s contempt for national dignity — contempt that Britain was honour-bound to avenge through military action.” In the end, it was just enough to keep Lord Melbourne’s government and its war alive. The House of Commons opted against censure — and thus effectively in favor of the war — by a tally of 271 to 262, thanks to Lord Melbourne’s ministers being allowed to vote in their own favor.

A Royal Navy fleet consisting of sixteen modern men-of-war, four steamers to keep them supplied, and 27 troop transports carrying 4000 soldiers assembled off Hong Kong in June of 1840. Without issuing an ultimatum or any other form of written preamble to war, part of the fleet set up a blockade of Guangzhou while the larger part sailed up the Chinese coast more than half of the distance between Hong Kong and Beijing, to launch in early July an attack on the island of Zhoushan that came as a complete surprise to the Chinese. It took the British all of ten minutes to silence the handful of 239-year-old cannons that protected the island’s principal city of Dinghai and assume control.

The British waited until August 10 to formally inform the Chinese that their two countries were now at war. Emperor Daoguang, knowing full well that he was in no position to fight a naval war with Britain, blamed Lin Zexu for provoking the Westerners. He stripped him of his post and sentenced him to exile in the far west of his empire, raging that “nothing has been accomplished, but many troubles have been created” by the opium crackdown. Then he sent other representatives to negotiate a hasty ceasefire before the British could sail further up the coast to threaten Beijing itself.

Duly pacified, the British sailed back down to Guangzhou instead, where the two sides reconvened late that fall to come to a formal settlement. Despite all his earlier overreaching, Charles Elliot was still entrusted with leadership of the British delegation. Lord Palmerston gave him firm instructions to take a maximalist stance and not to budge from it. He must strike while the iron was hot — while China lay prostrate at the feet of a British fleet that had been assembled and sent there at no insignificant political and economic expense. “We ought to settle all our matters,” Lord Palmerston wrote, “now that we have on the coast a force which is sufficient to compel concession to all we ask.” Elliot should demand that the Chinese pay not only for the opium they had destroyed but for the full cost of the war on the British side. He should demand that they end the loathed Canton System of trade for Britain at least, opening up all of their ports to as many British ships and people as wished to visit them or live in them. He should demand that the island of Hong Kong be ceded to Britain in its entirety, to become a Crown possession forevermore in much the same way that Macau belonged to Portugal. And he should demand that all British citizens in China be made exempt from Chinese laws, should be accountable only to those of their homeland; this policy of “extraterritoriality” would have the effect of making the British importation of opium into China legally unstoppable, whatever laws regarding the drug the Chinese chose to retain for their own citizens.

But now Charles Elliot, that perpetual wild card in British-Chinese relations, threw a spanner into the works yet again. Suffering what seems for all the world to have been a sudden attack of conscience, he decided that such naked bullying was contrary to “the character and dignity of England.” He negotiated instead a milder treaty that did little more than restore the pre-war status quo. The Chinese agreed to pay for the seized opium, but not for Britain’s recent war effort, and to give Britain the right to use Hong Kong as a port, but not to take over the island entirely.

Lord Palmerston was livid when he learned that Elliot had gone freelancing yet again. In a letter, he accused his superintendent in China of treating his instructions from Whitehall as so much “wastepaper,” of deciding matters of vital national importance “according to your own fancy.” He ordered Elliot to come home at once, and tore up the peace treaty which the Chinese had negotiated in good faith with him as Her Majesty’s appointed representative. Then he sent yet more forces to prosecute his interrupted war; among them was the HMS Nemesis, the pride of the Royal Navy, a brand-new steam-augmented ironclad frigate which the Chinese, who had no weapon that could so much as scratch it, would soon be calling “the Devil Ship.”

The war that now got underway for real proved about as one-sided as any conflict can be. Between August of 1841 and August of 1842, the British roamed unchecked up and down the coastline of Southern Inner China, laying waste wherever and whenever they chose. Ironically given that it was the Chinese who had invented gunpowder, some of the defenders the British encountered were equipped only with bows and arrows. The Chinese navy was almost as primitive in comparison to that of the British, being a ragtag assemblage of coast-hugging junks that were perpetually on the verge of capsizing in even a moderately choppy sea. Yet even with all the technological advantages that belonged to the British, it is hard to understand on the face of it how the Chinese could have lost so completely and so quickly; the Chinese army had no less than 116 times as many soldiers in arms as Britain had deployed for the war. The logical strategy for China would have been to abandon the coastal regions, mass its forces inland, counterattack with huge numerical advantages in places where the booming cannons of the British ships didn’t happen to be at the time, and then melt back into the interior if necessary. Faced with the prospect of a long, costly war with a rickety ethical foundation, a British Empire with plenty of other hot spots to worry about elsewhere in the world may very well have proved willing to settle for a mutually face-saving compromise in fairly short order.

As it was, though, China never mustered this or any other coherent strategy for the conflict, preferring instead to fight a series of hopeless one-off battles for their port cities, at enormous loss of life to their own side and virtually none to their enemies. Many of the British combatants felt sickened by the slaughters they were ordered to instigate — by seas “quite blackened with floating corpses” and city walls “bespattered with brains.” One officer admitted that “many most barbarous things occurred, a disgrace to our men”; an admiral begged to be allowed to cease prosecuting attacks on the coastline, at least for a while, because “our visitations are so calamitous to the wretched inhabitants.”

Unwilling or unable to make the hard decisions, Emperor Daoguang dithered for months while his death toll mounted, hoping for a miraculous deliverance from some quarter or other. The British, perfectly aware that their ultimate victory depended on the unwillingness of the Chinese to commit to an extended total war, did not attempt to take Beijing — for the fall of the capital, they realized, might very well be the spur the emperor needed to commit to driving out the foreign invaders at any cost. Finally, in August of 1842, not long after the British had conquered and all but razed the storied and prosperous metropolis of Nanjing, first capital of the Ming dynasty, Emperor Daogung stopped dithering and sued for peace.

It was a different British government which presented the surrender terms in Nanjing on August 29, 1842; Lord Melbourne’s long-tottering Whig administration had collapsed at last the previous autumn, to be replaced by a Conservative government under Robert Peel. The Conservatives had opposed the war before the fact, but had afterward allowed the British military to finish what it had started. Now, they were almost as implacable in their demands of China as Lord Palmerston had been. China was to pay for the lost opium that had started it all as well as the entirety of the British war effort; was to open Guangzhou and four other Southern Inner Chinese cities to unrestricted British trade and residency (among them was Shanghai, a jewel at the mouth of the Yangtze River that would soon eclipse Guangzhou to become one of the busiest ports in the world); and was to give Hong Kong outright to Britain. Emperor Daogung had no choice but to agree to it all.

As negotiations were wrapping up, the lead British representative had the cheek to blame the moral weakness of Chinese opium smokers and lax Chinese law enforcement for all the recent troubles: “If your people are virtuous, they will desist from the evil practice; and if your officers are incorruptible and obey their orders, no opium can enter your country. The discouragement of the poppy in our territories rests principally with you.” This was rich coming after a war that Britain had fought to prevent China from “discouraging” opium smuggling in just the manner that was now being superciliously suggested. And it was hypocritical in the present tense as well: the other rules Britain had put in place proactively ensured that the opium trade would continue, on a grander scale than ever.

For months and even years after the Treaty of Nanjing was finalized, placards popped up in Guangzhou denouncing this accommodation with barbarians. They were steeped in the xenophobic rhetoric the Chinese had been applying to those who lived outside their real or metaphorical walls for millennia. In this case, however, the rhetoric seems almost justified in light of the suffering the barbarians had so recently visited upon them.

The injuries, deceits, cruel deeds, and evil acts of the English resident barbarians are as innumerable as the hairs of the head. Now they plot to coerce our high authorities. They have long wished to enter the city, and our superiors, from the depths of their virtue and the greatness of their benevolence, have given in and issued a proclamation granting permission to enter the city. They have not considered that the English barbarians, born and raised in noxious regions beyond the boundaries of civilization, having the hearts of wolves, the visages of tigers, and the cunning of foxes, plan to take possession of our province, and only desire to enter the walls so that they may spy out the land. Now, having received a proclamation allowing their entrance, they will not only exercise violence and usurpation, but will insult and injure the people to an unspeakable degree.

Whether the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy or not, Guangzhou would indeed be plagued for decades to come with street violence between native Chinese and Westerners.

For their part — and perhaps to their credit — the British had trouble mustering the cheek to celebrate their shabby victory too lustily. This blatant trampling on another nation’s sovereign right to make its own laws and control its own trade was just too hard to justify with vague platitudes about national honor and complaints about Chinese “insolence.” The political establishment and the press back home greeted the end of the war with the bare minimum of patriotic bromides, then moved on.

In China, however, the anger and hostility that ooze from those Guangzhou placards never entirely went away. Many Han Chinese came to blame their Manchu government almost as much as the British themselves for their humiliation; how could a bunch of foreigners like the Qing be expected to keep the Middle Kingdom safe? Their indignation ate deeper into the social fabric of China than the demon drug opium ever did during the twilight of the Qing dynasty, making it that much harder for the country to unite in the face of later challenges from the West.

For no amount of raging by the citizenry of China could change the fundamental balance of power. The West was on the ascendant, China on the descendant; this if nothing else the Opium War had clarified for all of the world. Things would get much, much worse for China before they got better.

(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

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2 Comments for "Chapter 14: The Opium War"

  • Leo Vellés

    Another super interesting chapter, Jimmy.
    ” part of the fleet set up a blockade of Guangzhou while the the larger part sailed up the Chinese coast…”.
    There is a double “the” un that sentencie

    Reply
    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks!

      Reply

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