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Tea, Silver, Opium and War: From Commercial Expansion to Military Invasion

  • Zhuang Guotu (a1)


Sino-Western relations in the eighteenth century mainly found their expression in a particular mode of commercial transactions in Canton. The structure of the Western trade with China was based on silver and colonial products from India and the Malay archipelago, like silver, cotton, pepper, lead. These commodities were exchanged for Chinese tea, silk and porcelain by the mediation of the so-called Hong trades. As long as the trade structure was kept in balance the Westerners were able to make large profits and commercial relations remained the same. When the trade structure fell out balance through, for instance, a shortage of silver or the prohibition of opium smuggling, the Western powers resorted to force. The discontinuation of the traditional Sino-Western trade because of an imbalance in the trade structure eventually did not lead to the decline of trade, but to military conquest: the Opium War in 1840. This War enabled the Westerners, headed by the English, to revamp the structure of their trade with China on their own terms and forced the Chinese government into acceptance. Since then the process of the Western expansion into China was characterised by commercial expansion, military show of force and political control. In this essay I would like to analyze how the traditional structure of Sino-Western trade lost its equilibrium and to study the changing character of European expansion into China as a result of this imbalance during the period of 1740-1840.



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1 Pritchard, Earl H., The Crucial Years of Early AngloChinese, 1750–1800 (Washington 1936) 163.

2 Morse, H.B., The Chronicles of the East India Company Trading to China 1635–1834 (Oxford 1926) I, 144.

3 Morse, , Chronicles, 1, 148.

4 260The total cargo of the ship Susanna was invoiced at 54,000 taels of silver. The 1,565 piculs of tea carried along were valued at least at 45,000 taels. See ibidem, 157. Chaudhuri, K.N., The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company (Cambridge 1978) 538.

5 In the years 1765–1774 the average total value of the exports from China by the EIC was 1,508,107 taels of silver annually, while the tea value was 1,071,570 taels. In 1885–1894 the total value was 4,231,107 taels at an annual average, and the tea value was 3,617,337 taels. Pritchard, , Crucial Years, 395396.

6 Greenberg, Michael, British Trade and the Opening of China 1800–42 (Cambridge 1951) 3.

7 Sargent, A.J., Anglo-Chinese Commerce and Diplomacy (Oxford 1907) 51.

8 Pritchard, , Crucial Years, 163.

9 Greenberg, , British Trade and China, 3.

10 C.J.A. Jörg divided the goods shipped from Canton into six groups, the sixth group comprising the ballasts like lead, iron, sappanwood and tin. These goods were not produced in China. Jörg, , Porcelain and the Dutch China Trade (The Hague 1982) 217.

11 Glamann, Kristóf, Dutch-Asiatic Trade (The Hague 1958) 215.

12 de Hullu, J., ‘Over den Chinaschen handel der Oostindische Compagnie in de eerste dertig jaar van de 18e eeuw’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde van Nederlandsch Indiër (1917) 4243.

13 Morse, , Chronicles, 1, 95.

14 Ibidem, 204.

15 From the early years up to the 1830s, the price of tea in Canton fluctuated between 23–26 taels of silver per picul. Here I take 24.5 taels as the average price in this period. The figures of tea quantity and total value of exports were cited from: Dulles, Foster Rhea, The Old China Trade (New York 1970) 210.

16 Pitkin, Timothy, A Statistical View of the Commerce of the United States of America (Hartford 1816) 301.

17 Dulles, , Old China Trade, 118.

18 Xiangao, Yao ed., Zhong-guo Jin-dai Dui-wai Mao-yi Shi Zhi-liao 1840–1895 (Sources of the History of Foreign Trade of Modern China, 1840–95) (Peking 1962) I, 258.

19 Greenberg, , British Trade and China, 5, cited from Robert Hart, These from the Land ofSinim (London 1901).

20 Qjng Shi Lu (QSL, the Documental Chronicle of the Qing Court), Qianlong reign, ch. 603.

21 Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nations (New York 1937) 188.

22 The Ming Emperor even dispatched eunuchs to the province to promote the search for silver mines in the late sixteenth century. Xie, Zhang, Dong Xi Yang Kao (Notes on the trade with the Eastern and Western Oceans) (Peking 1981) 155.

23 According to my calculation, all the silver flowing into China in the late Ming period (1567–1643) probably amounted to 350,000,000 silver dollars. Most silver came from Japan: about 250,000,000 dollars, while some 75,000,000 dollars came from Spanish America via Manila; the Portuguese probably carried 33,500,000 dollars from Europe to China. Guotu, Zhuang, ‘Lun Ming-ji Hai-wai Zhong-guo Si-chou Mao-yi’ (The Overseas Trade in Chinese Silk in the late Ming Period, 15671643), in Zhong-guo yu Hai-shang Si-chou ZM-lu (China and the Maritime Silk Route), a collection of the papers presented to the International Seminar on China and the Maritime Routes of the Silk Route in Quanzhou, organized by UNESCO, 1991, 36–48.

24 Hansheng, Chüan, Song-Ming fian Bai-yin Gou-mai Li de Bian-dong Ji-qi Yuan-yin (The Fluctuation of the Purchasing Power of Silver from Song to Ming and its Causes), Xin YaJournal (Hong Kong), 8/1, 157186.

25 Crosby, H.A.Kernan, Forbes John Devereux and Wilkins, Ruth S., Chinese Export Silver 1785 to 1885 (Boston 1975) 22.

26 Morse, , Chronicles, 1, 21, 307.

27 Sargent, , Commerce and Diplomacy, 49.

28 This table shows the proportion of silver in the stock, here I only selected the figures of ships stocks which could be known both things of the value of the goods and bullion. The rate of conversion £1=3 taels; 1 dollar = 0.72 tael.

29 Sargent, , Commerce and Diplomacy, 49.

30 Pritchard, , Cruaal Years, 394, 396, 399.

31 Glamann, , Dutch-Asiatic Trade, 69.

32 Ibidem, 69.

33 Jörg, , Porcelain, 27.

34 Glamann, , Dutch-Asiatic Trade, 243.

35 Jörg, , Porcelain, 35.

36 Guotu, Zhuang, ‘Shi-ba Shi-ji Zhong-he Hai-Shang Cha-ye Hao-yi’ (Sino-Dutch Tea Trade in the 18th Century), Hai-jiao Shi Yan-jiu (Studies on the Chinese Maritime History) 1 (1992) 56.

37 Jörg, , Porcelain, 197201. According to Dermigny, the number of Dutch ships was 128. Dermigny, Louis, La Chine et l'Occident. Le Commerce à Canton au XVIIIe Siecle, 1732–1833 (Paris 1964) II, 522–523.

38 Jörg, , Porcelain, 196197. According to Dermigny, this figure was 83. Dermigny, , Canton, 521522.

39 Glamann, , Dutch-Asiatic Trade, 46.

40 Value of goods bought from China and exports of bullion from Europe to Asia by the Dutch (in f 1,000)

41 Morse, Chronicles, Vol. 2.

42 In the second half of the eighteenth century, the continental ships were larger than before, but the proportion of silver in the value of the cargos to China was lower than before.

43 The total value of the merchandise and bullion exported by the United States to China in 1805–1944 were differently calculated. Morse cited the calculations from K.S. Latourette, ‘The History of Early Relations between the U.S. and China 1784–1844’, Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences 28 (1927) Cheong in his Mandarins and Merchants cited the same source. Dulles made an almost similar calculation as that of Latourette. Yan-ping Hao made use of the U.S. Senate Executive Document 31, 19th Congress, 1st Session.

44 This figure did not include the silver brought by the Dutch, Danes and other continental Europeans after the beginning of the 19th century. Since then, their ships still carried some silver to Canton but the amount must have been quite small, because they almost abandoned the China trade and only a few ships from these countries came to Canton. Moreover, most of them made use of the facilities of the English bill service and did not need to carry as much silver as before.

45 Brading, D.A., ‘Mexican Silver-Mining in the Eighteenth Century: The Revival of Zacatecas’, The American Historical Review 50/4 (1970) 66.

46 Kobata, A., ‘The Production and Uses of Gold and Silver in Sixteenth-Seventeenth Century Japan’, Economic History Review, Second Series, 18/2 (1965) 247.

47 Wilson, Charles, ‘Trade, Society and the State’, in: Rich, E.E. and Wilson, C.H. eds., The Economy of Expanding Europe in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Cambridge 1967) 511.

48 Cheong, W.E., ‘Trade and Finance in China’, Business History 12/1 (1965) 40.

49 Ibidem.

50 Egypt provides the earliest records of the use and properties of poppy. In Sumerian ideograms of 6,000 years ago the poppy is referred to as the plant of joy. It probably came from Egypt. Scott, J.M., The White Poppy: A History of Opium (London 1969) 5.

51 Kui, Li, Ya-pian Shi-lue (Information on Opium) (Peking 1932) I, 2.

52 Shizhen, Li, Ben-Cao Gang-mu (Compendium of Materia Medica) XXIII, 24–25.

53 Lo-Shu, Fu, A Documentary Chronicle of Sino-Westem Relations, 1644–1820 (Tucson 1966) 518, n. 84.

54 Chinese Repository (Canton April 1837) V, 546. Morse, H.B., The International Relations of the Chinese Empire (Shanghai 1910) I, 173.

55 Pritchard, , Crucial Years, 143.

56 Morse, , Chronicles, II, 95, 110, 118, 135.

57 Nathan Allen, M.D., Opium Trade (Lowell 1853) 12.

58 Pritchard, , Crucial Years, 217218.

59 Chinese Repository, (February 1837) III, 234.

60 Allen, , Opium Trade, 10.

61 Trocki, Carl A., Opium and Empire: Chinese Society in Colonial Singapore, 1800–1910 (Ithaca 1990) 5153.

62 Chinese Repository (April 1837) V, 546–547.

63 Fairbank, John King, Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: the Opening of the Treaty Ports 1842–1854 (Cambridge, Mass. 1953) 64.

64 Sargent, , Commerce and Diplomacy, 53.

65 Chinese Repository (April 1837) V, 547.

66 Morse, , The International Relations of the Chinese Empire, I, 238.

67 Dulles, , Old China Trade, 115.

68 Morse, , The International Relations of the Chinese Empire, 1, 238.

69 Dennett, Tyler, Americans in Eastern Asia: A Critical Study of United States' Policy in the Nineteenth Century (New York 1922) 115.

70 Dulles, , Old China Trade, 147.

71 Dennett, , Americans in Eastern Asia, 115, 120.

72 Morse, , Chronicles, III, 339.

73 Dulles, , Old China Trade, 148.

74 In 1818–1833 the primary merchandise imported into China by the English were metals such as tin and lead, woolens such as broadcloth, long ells, carnets shipped by the EIC and raw cotton shipped by the country merchants from India. The other merchandises altogether amounted to no more than 5% of the total value.

75 Before 1773 opium shipped into China was no more than 200 chests annually, while in the last decade of the 18th century, the opium shipped to China was no more 2,000 chests on average per annum.

76 An American opium trader estimated that in 1827–30 the Americans shipped about 1,200–1,400 chests of opium to China annually, which was valued at $ 600,000–700,000. Dinyi, Li, Zhong-mei Zao-ai Guan-xi Shi (The History of the Early Sino-American Relation) (Taipei 1960) 9798.

77 Dulles, , Old China Trade, 147.

78 Morse, , Chronicles, III, 54–56.

79 After the lifting of the maritime prohibition in 1567, the Ming government established a maritime tax office in Haicheng in Fujian Province, and decreed the listing of taxes levied on imports. The tax rate on opium (a-pian) was 2 taels for per 100 jin (1 jin = 0.5 kilogram). Xie, Zhang, Dong-xi Yang-kao, ch. 7.

80 When the Qing government lifted the maritime prohibition and established maritime customs, opium was still listed in the medical category of imports and taxed. Chou-ban Yi-wu Shi-mo (The documental chronicle of foreign affairs), Daoguang reign, ch. 4, 1.

81 According to the edict, the opium traders should be subject to the same penalties as those who bought the contraband. The responsible local authorities who failed to discover the trade and transportion of opium were to be punished according to the regulations. According to Qing-chao Xu Wen-xia Tong-kao (taxes, No. 23) this edict was issued in 1727, according to Guangxu Ta-Qing Hui-dian Shi-li (ch. 828, laws), in 1729.

82 Daoguang-chao Wai-jiao Shi-liao (Diplomatic records of the Daoguang reign), ch. 4, 50.

83 Dingyuan, Nan, Lu-zhou Chu-ji (The first collections of Luzhou) (1880) ch. 2, 16.

84 QSl, Daoguang reign, ch. 227, 4.

85 Ibidem, ch. 240, 1–2.

86 China's Society of History ed. Ya-pian Zhan-zhen (Sources of the Opium War) (Shanghai 1954) I, 505.

87 Zhongping, Yan, Selections, 34.

88 Ibidem, 37.

89 The memorials of the censors Naiji, Xu and Xijue, Huang, Chou-ban Yi-wu Shi-mo (The Documental Chronicle of Foreign Affairs), Daoguang reign (18211850), ch. 1, 2; ch. 2, 5.

90 Zezu, Lin, Huguang Cuo-gao (Collection of Memorials from Huguang Province), ch. 5, 1112, in: Lin Wen-zhong Gong Zhen-shu (Collection of the Official Articles written by Lin Zexu).

91 Fairbank, , Trade and Diplomacy, I, 74.

92 Commentary of the noted tea-drinker Gladstone. Lowe, Peter, Britain in the Far East: A Survey from 1819 to the Present (London 1981) 14.

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Tea, Silver, Opium and War: From Commercial Expansion to Military Invasion

  • Zhuang Guotu (a1)


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