Opium Wars
(1839–1842)
   A conflict that opened China physically to political, economic, and social influences from the outside world and heralded the period of unequal treaties in which the Great Powers carved out spheres of influence to exploit the country’s markets and resources. By the late eighteenth century, Britain had established trading ties with China in the belief that it was a natural market for British manufactured wares. While Britain imported tea, silk, spices, and porcelain, a largely self-sufficient China demonstrated little interest in purchasing Western goods, which resulted in a deteriorating trade deficit for the British. British merchants found a product for which a Chinese demand existed, opium, and started a highly profitable but illicit trade. By the early 1800s, the large-scale trade in opium from British India had reversed the trade deficit and created widespread misery as millions of Chinese became addicted to the drug. In 1839, in an attempt to deal with social and economic dislocations caused the opium trade, the emperor issued 39 articles that imposed severe penalties, including death, for smoking and smuggling opium. A special commissioner, Lin Zexu, was dispatched to Guangzhou (Canton) to ensure that the regulations were enforced. Lin arrested thousands of addicts and demanded that foreign merchants surrender their inventory of opium. The British chief superintendent of trade in Canton, Captain Charles Elliot, was forced to turn over 20,283 chests of opium to Lin, who proceeded to destroy them publicly. Elliot, however, refused to hand over British sailors accused of killing a Chinese national, insisting on the right of extraterritoriality. The situation escalated when Lin ordered Canton completely closed to foreign trade. The British dispatched a naval force to China and hostilities commenced in November 1839. Chinese military forces were no match for the British and were forced to sue for peace. The Treaty of Nanjing of August 29, 1842, and the supplementary treaties of July and October 1843 concluded the First Opium War, and were the first of the so-called unequal treaties. Between them, the treaties provided that the ports of Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai be open to British trade and residence, as well as the cession of Hong Kong in perpetuity to Britain. A Second Opium War, the Arrow War, erupted in 1856.
   See also <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Beeching, Jack. The Opium Wars. London: Hutchinson, 1975;
    Tan, Chung. China and the Brave New World: A Study of the Origins of the Opium War, 1840–42. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1978;
    Waley, Arthur. The Opium War through Chinese Eyes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1968.
   ADRIAN U-JIN ANG

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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