The Opium Wars: When China’s ‘century of shame’ began

Pain. Humiliation. Injustice. These are the words that Chinese generally associate with the two Opium Wars, which resulted in the infamous unequal treaties that ultimately gave Hong Kong to the British for 100 years. Historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao sheds light on this defining period of China’s history.
In 1842, the Chinese and British delegations consisting of the Chinese Minister of Revenue Keying, the viceroy of Liangjiang Yilibu, and the first governor of Hong Kong Henry Pottinger signed the Treaty of Nanjing — the first “unequal treaty” between China and a foreign country — on board HMS Cornwallis moored in Nanjing Harbour.
In 1842, the Chinese and British delegations consisting of the Chinese Minister of Revenue Keying, the viceroy of Liangjiang Yilibu, and the first governor of Hong Kong Henry Pottinger signed the Treaty of Nanjing — the first “unequal treaty” between China and a foreign country — on board HMS Cornwallis moored in Nanjing Harbour.

(All images courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao)

The first military conflict between modern China and the West was the First Opium War (1839-1842). The war marked the beginning of a historical chapter of humiliation for China at the hands of the West, and moulded the psyche of the Chinese people. Only by understanding the impact of this war on the Chinese people can one truly understand their world view and sense of mission.

Opium originated in Arabia, and was brought into China during the Tang dynasty by Turkish and Arab traders. At first, it was used only as medicine, but during the Ming dynasty, the practice of smoking opium mixed with tobacco was brought in from Nanyang (Southeast Asia). Opium imports to China increased as the Portuguese ventured east, and taxes were levied during the time of the Wanli Emperor. However, the damaging effects of opium on the body had drawn attention.

Late in the reign of the Qianlong Emperor during the Qing dynasty, the East India Company won exclusive rights to trade opium, and sold the drug aggressively. China’s silver flowed out of the country, and the people suffered while morale declined. In the imperial court, there was a movement to ban opium.

After the Opium Wars, Britain exported a lot of opium to China for handsome gains, which contributed to the wealth of its empire.

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Etching by 19th century British artist Thomas Allom showing the Dayuling Pass between Jiangxi and Guangdong, a key transport artery between Jiangnan and Lingnan where merchants passed and where the Gan River flowed. The beautiful scenery was mesmerising.
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Etching by 19th century British artist Thomas Allom showing a family burial ground at a high point of Xiamen port. Xiamen port was opened up early, and Portuguese and Dutch merchant ships stopped here to load and unload goods, making Xiamen one of the early cities in China to be westernised. Chinese people travelled from Xiamen to trade at various ports in Nanyang (Southeast Asia).
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Etching by 19th century British artist Thomas Allom, showing Huangpu Island (now Changzhou Island) at the lower course of the Pearl River in Guangdong. This was where British and French merchant ships came to trade in China, but trade issues led to friction and China engaged in armed conflict with Britain and France. Many incidents happened in Huangpu, and in 1884, following the Opium Wars, China and France signed the Treaty of Whampoa here, and China began to face maritime threats from the Western powers.
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Etching from The Illustrated London News, 8 December 1883, captioned “Sketches in China — On Board an Opium Hulk at Shanghai”. After Shanghai overtook Guangzhou as China’s largest trading port, the most imported product was opium. Large cargo boats stopped at the Huangpu River, and opium was traded. After the Opium Wars, Britain exported a lot of opium to China for handsome gains, which contributed to the wealth of its empire.

Incurring the ire of the British

In 1838, the Daoguang Emperor of the Qing dynasty ordered Lin Zexu, the viceroy of Huguang, to go to Guangdong province and enforce a ban on opium. Lin was bold, decisive, and dutiful — on arriving in Guangzhou, he ordered foreign traders to surrender their opium, declaring that the value of the opium would be compensated with tea leaves.

Subsequently, Lin destroyed 20,000 chests of opium at Humen, which angered the British merchants, who banked on a conflict between the British fleet and Chinese sailors. At the time, the British Empire was on the ascent to its peak. Since the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, industrial technology in Western Europe had progressed rapidly, and it led the world in maritime weapons building capabilities.

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Etching by British artist Thomas Allom, showing the intensity of the Battle of the Bogue at Humen, where Lin Zexu burned British opium. After Lin was removed, his successor Qishan had no heart to fight, resulting in loose defences along the coast. The reinforced British army attacked Humen, and the Qing army lost heavily.
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Etching by 19th century British artist Thomas Allom, showing the Battle of Zhapu during the Opium Wars. Zhapu in Hangzhou Bay was where the British landed and faced fierce resistance from the defending troops, leading to far higher casualties than expected for the British. After regrouping in Zhapu, the British troops turned to attack Shanghai and Zhenjiang.

Some old imperialist countries that once possessed the most advanced technology and territorial dominance were overtaken during the Industrial Revolution, and seemed to have fallen into a stupor. With its ships and cannons, the British Empire easily defeated ancient civilisations in Central Asia and India, while China was just another sleeping lion that had yet to be awakened.

The seizure and destruction of opium by Chinese local officials stirred anger among the ruling party and opposition in Britain, who felt that it was an “act of aggression” by China against the British. Sentiments were running high and there were calls for war against China. During the parliamentary debates, some opposition members did not agree to fight for drugs and felt that protection should be granted to British citizens instead. However, amid a strong tide of protecting trade freedom, Parliament passed an act of war against China.

In 1840, the British government appointed Admiral George Elliot as commander to lead the navy eastward. Lin Zexu actively prepared and tightened defences, rebuilding batteries and acquiring and deploying warships to cover bases. In May, the British army declared a lockdown on Guangzhou port, before launching a northward offensive on Xiamen and Dinghai, right up to the mouth of the Bai River. Then, they asked to meet Qishan, the viceroy of Zhili, to get China to pay reparations and cede territory.

Where it all started for Hong Kong

After 200 years of peace, the Qing dynasty was like a clay pigeon in its first encounter with the advanced weapons of the British army. The Daoguang Emperor wavered and removed Lin Zexu as envoy, replacing him with Qishan, who merely kept up appearances but hid the facts.

The British then captured Hong Kong, and when the Qing court received the news, it appointed Yu Qian, the governor of Jiangsu, as envoy instead. Defences were set up at Zhejiang, and the war between China and Britain officially began.

By this time, British reinforcements had arrived. In July 1841, the British troops moved north and took Gulangyu and then Xiamen, followed by Dinghai, Zhenhai, and Ningbo. The Qing army was no match for them and suffered heavy casualties. By May 1842, British troops had captured Wusongkou, Shanghai, Jiangyin, and Zhenjiang, and were closing in on Nanjing.

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Etching by 19th century British artist Thomas Allom, showing British troops attacking Dinghai. The British army shifted its offensive from Xiamen to Dinghai, easily capturing it as it focused its troops there. The Qing army, which was still using so-called “cold weapons”, crumbled under the cannons of British ships.
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Etching by 19th century British artist Thomas Allom, showing the British army attacking Zhenjiangfu (镇江府). Zhenjiang was an important auxiliary hub in Nanjing, and the British army went up the Yangtze River by boat and captured the populous Zhenjiangfu, to force the Qing court to give in. This also led to the Treaty of Nanjing, the first unequal treaty for modern China.
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Etching by 19th century British artist Thomas Allom, showing the Zhoushan valley. Zhoushan is at the mouth of the Yangtze River, and the British planned it as a key hub in its trade with China. During the Opium War, the British army occupied Zhoushan and expanded into China along the Yangtze River. The British government prepared a detailed analysis of the situation in Zhoushan. The image shows the Qing troops defending Zhoushan and preparing to fight the British troops.

As the British threatened with their northward offensive, the Qing court was forced to sign China’s first unequal treaty — the Treaty of Nanjing, which included opening up five ports to trade, reparations for opium, and ceding Hong Kong, starting off a century of national shame.

The Second Opium War followed soon after. In 1854, the envoys of Britain, the US, and France went to Tianjin to engage in direct discussions with the Qing court. Britain wanted to have an ambassador stationed in Beijing, more ports opened up, freedom of travel within China, and amendments to taxes.

In 1856, the combined army of Britain and France took Guangzhou and sent troops northward to capture the cities at the mouth of the Yangtze River, then deployed military vessels to capture Dagu/Taku port. The military conflict was aimed directly at China’s capital Beijing. During the peace talks, China had the British envoy killed, and in retaliation the British-French troops attacked Beijing and sacked the Old Summer Palace or Yuanmingyuan (圆明园), creating a cultural calamity as it went up in flames.

British merchants, backed by the military might of the British Empire, played the role of a legal, armed drug trafficking syndicate that used guns and cannons to overcome a Chinese government that prohibited opium, and forced the Chinese government to compensate the British merchants in full for their losses, and open the doors to opium for these British merchants.

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Etching from French publication Le Monde illustré in 1860, showing the British and French troops entering Beijing through Anding Gate. After the Battle of Palikao, the Xianfeng Emperor escaped with his concubines, trusted advisors, and retinue from the Old Summer Palace to Rehe, leaving his younger brother Prince Kung/Yixin to handle affairs. The allied army entered and sacked the Old Summer Palace, then issued a final diplomatic note calling for the Anding area to be opened up. The Qing court returned British envoy Harry Parkes to the allied army, while the officials remaining in Beijing opened the Anding Gate.
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Etching from French publication Le Monde illustré in 1860, showing the British and French troops attacking the Dagu/Taku Fort. The Qing army suffered heavy losses and Chinese general Leshan was killed in the battle. The allied army landed in Beitang and pushed to Xinhe. Qing general Sengge Rinchen (Senggelinqin) led troops in response but was thoroughly defeated and had to retreat to Dagu. But the allied army captured Dagu, and the Qing troops retreated further to Zhangjiawan, about five li from Tongzhou. Tianjin was next to fall.
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Etching by a 19th century British artist, showing British ships bombarding Guangzhou. As the envoy Lin Zexu had strictly prohibited opium in Guangdong and burned British merchants’ opium, the British government decided to send ships east to bombard Guangzhou. However, as Lin Zexu had prepared tight defences, the British ships turned to attack Xiamen and Dinghai.
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Etching by a 19th century British artist of the Opium Wars. The British East India Company faced blocks to its opium sales in China and mobilised the army, while the Qing troops tried to smooth things over by removing Lin Zexu who had done well in protecting Chinese territory, leading to an irreversible situation.
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Etching from French publication Le Monde illustré, showing the terrible Battle of Palikao. Under the fierce bombardment of the British and French troops, the Qing army suffered heavy casualties, with bodies strewn everywhere amid hellish thick smoke rising sky-high. Beijing lost its surrounding defences during the battle, and the British and French troops were able to enter the city.
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An 18th century European depiction of a scene outside Beijing’s front gate. The original etching was created by an Italian Jesuit priest, recording the grand city walls of Beijing during the early Qing dynasty. Many artists in Europe produced similar images, sparking strong yearnings for China among Europeans.

Nightmares of humiliation

In this Second Opium War, the British and French did not need a large army to claim an easy victory and seize Beijing, the capital of the Chinese Empire. In October 1860, China signed the Convention of Peking with Britain and France. China was made to apologise and allow embassies to be established in Beijing, pay reparations of eight million taels of silver, open up Tianjin, and cede Kowloon to the British.

This is the gist of what happened during the two Opium Wars, of which China and Britain have very different interpretations. Britain calls it a “trade war” because it feels it was a war against China triggered by China violating the rules of normal trade. It intentionally plays down the fact that the product that caused the conflict was a drug called opium. It also hides the fundamental truth that British merchants, backed by the military might of the British Empire, played the role of a legal, armed drug trafficking syndicate that used guns and cannons to overcome a Chinese government that prohibited opium, and forced the Chinese government to compensate the British merchants in full for their losses, and open the doors to opium for these British merchants.

Having foreign ambassadors stationed in Beijing and allowing freedom of travel within China would have done no harm to China, but the Qing court refused. Opium was imported tax-free and hurt the Chinese people, but the Qing court accepted the situation. There was no limit to the bullying by the British and French, while the inept Qing court ruined China.

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Etching from French publication Le Monde illustré in 1860, showing the victorious British and French troops leaving Beijing amid rain. After the exchange of treaties between China, Britain and France, the Qing court issued an edict asking provinces to stop sending troops to Beijing. Three days later, the allied troops also pulled out of Beijing, and the following spring, they exited Jinzhou, Tianjin, Dinghai, and Guangzhou.
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Etching from French publication Le Monde illustré in 1864, showing Prince Kung/Yixin meeting the representatives of the British and French allied troops at the Ministry of Rites, where the Qing court was forced to sign the Treaty of Beijing. The Chinese and British exchanged copies of the treaty in the decorated hall of the Ministry of Rites. Lord Elgin arrived in a gold-topped sedan carried by 16 men, and was welcomed by Prince Kung along with onlookers. This was repeated with the French the following day.
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Etching from French publication L’Univers illustré in 1860, showing the crowded Wangfujing Street. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the only Westerners who came to China were missionaries who moved within the palace and most Chinese had never met Caucasians. The battle with the British and French troops marked the first time that a Western army had entered Beijing, which was a huge shock to the people in Beijing.
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Etching from French publication Le Monde illustré in 1860, showing British and French officers in the crowded streets of Beijing. The British and French media presented a detailed picture of Beijing for the first time during the war, while the allied troops’ sacking of the Old Summer Palace led to the loss of numerous Chinese treasures after they were brought overseas.
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Etching from French publication Le Monde illustré in 1860, showing Qing troops sending the first tranche of reparations to Tianjin as China was forced to pay a large amount of war compensation. The intellectuals in the Qing court were “woken up” by the British and French troops, so that when Prince Kung took over governance during the time of the Tongzhi Emperor, he joined with Han generals Zuo Zongtang and Li Hongzhang — who quelled the Boxer Rebellion — to start a movement to strengthen China based on Western modernisation and mechanisation, starting the Tongzhi Restoration.
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Etching from The Illustrated London News in 1861, showing the Qing army sending part of the war reparations to the allied army headquarters in Tianjin, following the signing of the Treaty of Beijing. The fact is, modern assessments of this historical event have it that the intentions of Britain and France were just to increase contact with China and expand commercial interests, which is what countries do today; success or failure depends on how it is handled. If the Qing court had handled the initial negotiations properly, the war would have been avoided. Having foreign ambassadors stationed in Beijing and allowing freedom of travel within China would have done no harm to China, but the Qing court refused. Opium was imported tax-free and hurt the Chinese people, but the Qing court accepted the situation. There was no limit to the bullying by the British and French, while the inept Qing court ruined China.

Perhaps to Britain or the entire Western world, this is just a blip in 19th century global colonialism. The 1986 Hollywood movie Tai-Pan tells the story of 19th century British merchants who sell opium in Guangzhou and meet with roadblocks from the Chinese government. In the movie, the British merchants are portrayed positively, while the Chinese officials who want to stop opium sales are shown as unreasonable and ignorant. As for the historical hero Lin Zexu, he comes across as ugly and bizarre as the fictional villian Fu Manchu. The movie was released in the 1980s, which is not so long ago, and it catered mostly to how Western audiences saw China.

For the Chinese, the lessons of the Opium Wars run heavy and deep, as they opened a chapter of endless humiliation. Over the century that followed, Western imperialist countries took advantage of the conflicts between the various groups and minorities within China, sent troops to occupy China’s land, grabbed China’s resources, and obstructed China’s progress, all in the name of various justifications. Subsequently, the rise of Japanese imperialism also led to Japan joining the ranks of those who bullied China.

It was not until the first half of the 20th century, when the power tussle among Western imperialist countries ignited two world wars, that China found a strategic opportunity to unify and expel enemies and rise again, becoming one of the four victors of World War II, along with the US, Britain, and the Soviet Union.

The Opium Wars had such a profound impact on the psyche of the Chinese people. Every young Chinese student knows of this humiliating chapter in history, and understands how Western countries cited “protecting freedom of trade” to justify forcing the Chinese to import and consume opium. Today, Chinese people are extremely disgusted at how the West pressured China and violated its rights, and have sworn never to allow such humiliation to happen again.

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