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Opium Wars in China

Opium Wars

In the early 19th century, there was a big problem between Britain and China called the Opium War, or the First China War. It all started because the British were making a ton of money trading things like tea, silk, and porcelain from China. The issue was that the Chinese didn’t want to buy stuff from Britain; they only wanted silver. So, a whole bunch of silver was leaving Britain, and that’s what led to the conflict.


In the 19th century, there were two wars known as the Opium Wars involving China and Western powers. The first one took place from 1839 to 1842 and involved China and Britain. The second, also called the Arrow War or Anglo-French War in China, occurred from 1856 to 1860 and saw Britain and France teaming up against China.

History of Opium Wars

  • In the 1800s, there were two wars between China and the West, sparked by China’s efforts to stop the illegal opium trade.
  • The British East India Company had been smuggling opium into China, causing serious problems for Chinese society.
  • Lasted three years and ended with China’s defeat.
  • The Qing dynasty had to sign the Treaty of Nanking, granting significant concessions to Britain.
  • Concessions included opening five Chinese ports to British trade, giving Hong Kong to Britain, and paying a large indemnity.
  • Fought between China, Britain, and France, with China again facing defeat.
  • Resulted in the Treaty of Tianjin, providing even more concessions to Britain and France.
  • One significant concession was the legalization of the opium trade in China.
  • Weakened the Qing dynasty and allowed foreign influence into China.
  • Contributed to the rise of Chinese nationalism.
  • Ultimately played a role in the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

    Timeline of Opium Wars

    1820Foreign traders, primarily British, began illegally exporting opium from India to China, leading to addiction and social problems in China.
    1839The Chinese government seized and destroyed over 20,000 chests of opium owned by British merchants in Canton, sparking conflict.
    1840A British expeditionary force arrives in Hong Kong and proceeds to Canton, starting the First Opium War.
    1841British forces attacked and occupied Canton in May, leading to fighting in other areas. Qing forces were overpowered by the British.
    1842British forces captured Nanjing in August, ending the First Opium War. The Treaty of Nanjing was signed, requiring China to pay indemnity, cede Hong Kong Island, and open treaty ports for British trade.
    1843British Supplementary Treaty of the Bogue was signed, granting British citizens extraterritoriality and most-favored-nation status in China.
    1856Conflict escalates as Chinese officials board the British-registered ship Arrow, leading to British and French attacks on China.
    1857Allied British and French forces captured Canton and deposed the city’s governor.
    1858British and French troops reached Tianjin and forced China into peace negotiations. Treaties of Tianjin were signed, allowing foreign envoys to reside in Beijing, opening new ports to Western trade, and granting the right of foreign travel in the Chinese interior.
    1859British ships trying to validate the Tianjin treaties were refused passage through the Dagu forts, leading to more conflict and rejection of the treaties by the Qing government.
    1860British and French forces captured Beijing in October, and the emperor’s summer palace was burned. The Beijing Convention was signed, ending the Second Opium War. China accepted the terms of the treaties of Tianjin and ceded the southern portion of the Kowloon Peninsula to the British.

    First Opium War (1839-1842)

    • In the 18th century, there was a growing issue of foreign, mainly British, traders smuggling opium from India to China. By 1820, this illicit trade had surged, causing widespread addiction and significant social and economic problems in China.
    • In 1839, Chinese authorities seized and burned over 20,000 chests of opium (around 1,400 tonnes) that British traders had stored in Canton. Tensions escalated when a group of intoxicated British troops stabbed a Chinese peasant in July. The British government refused to hand over the accused soldiers to Chinese authorities, sparking the First Opium War between China and Britain.
    • In response to the conflict, British warships destroyed a Chinese blockade in the Pearl River estuary in Hong Kong. The British government then sent an army to China in 1840, reaching Hong Kong by June. After months of talks in Canton, the British navy attacked and occupied the city in May 1841.
    • Despite a strong Chinese counterattack in the spring of 1842, the British emerged victorious in subsequent battles against the weaker Qing armies. The conflict concluded in late August 1842 when the British captured Nanjing, putting an end to the First Opium War.

    Second Opium War (1856-1860)

    • In 1856, some trouble brewed in China when the British-operated ship had its Chinese crew detained. Seeing an opportunity, the British used military pressure to push China into opening up more trade opportunities with them. France hopped on board, claiming the killing of a French missionary in China as a reason to join the conflict.
    • Together, the British and French forces first took Guangzhou, and then moved on to Tianjin. They got the Chinese to agree to a bunch of requests in the Treaty of Tientsin in 1858, but the Chinese later changed their minds and didn’t sign the accords, sparking more conflicts.
    • Fast forward to 1860, British and French soldiers made their way to Beijing, battling their way in. Things got messy during negotiations, and the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing, a significant place for the Qing Dynasty, got looted and destroyed. The Chinese monarch booked it to Manchuria, leaving his brother to negotiate the Convention of Beijing.
    • In the end, China had to pay indemnities, ratify the Treaty of Tientsin, and give up the Kowloon Peninsula to Britain across the Taiwan Strait. This whole mess seriously weakened the Qing Dynasty, forcing them to rethink their dealings with the outside world and start modernizing their government, armed forces, and economy.

    5 Causes of Opium War

    The five main causes of opium war are as follows:

    1. Siege of Foreign Opium Traders
    • In 1839, Emperor Daoguang, concerned about the growing opium problem in China, chose Lin Zexu to tackle the issue. Lin Zexu took action in March of that year by rounding up opium traffickers, getting users into treatment, and cracking down on opium pipes and dens in Canton.
    • Not stopping there, he turned his attention to Western traffickers, making them surrender their opium supplies. The opium that was confiscated and destroyed during this effort was actually worth more than what the British government had spent on its armed forces in the previous year.
    2. Chinese Resistance
    • In the past, using and selling opium was not allowed in China. However, despite this prohibition, there were smugglers who worked with the East India Company to bring large amounts of opium into China.
    • By 1835, the East India Company was supplying a staggering 3,064 million pounds of opium to China each year.
    • In 1833, the British government decided to end its control over the opium trade, leading to a significant increase in the amount of opium entering China. This resulted in the harmful substance spreading more freely and prices dropping for buyers.

            3. British Demands
            • The Chinese Emperor Qianlong (1711–1799) put stringent restrictions on international commerce. With the exception of a few towns, traders were not permitted to enter the empire.
            • All commerce had to pass via the Hong, a trade monopoly that taxed and controlled foreign trade.
            • The British were able to conduct only one port of commerce, Canton, by the 18th century.
            • China gave up a number of ports to foreign commerce following the Opium Wars.
            • The Tianjin Treaties were signed in June 1858 and opened up additional ports to trade with the West.
            4. British Economic Interests
            • In the 1800s, the East India Company (EIC) found itself struggling with debt and was on the lookout for new business opportunities in Asia. China, in particular, seemed like a promising partner for trade, offering the potential for a mutually beneficial exchange of goods.
            • To address this, a clever three-step plan was devised: Britain would send Indian cotton and British silver to China, and in return, they hoped to receive coveted Chinese products like tea, silk, and porcelain. The demand for these items in England was high, making this trade operation potentially very profitable.
            • However, there was a problem – a trade imbalance between the two nations. China wasn’t too keen on British goods, and this posed a challenge for the British. Even a special envoy from Britain, arriving in China with a ship full of impressive gifts like clocks, telescopes, and a carriage, failed to impress Emperor Qianlong. He wasn’t interested in any envoy, regardless of the treasures they brought.
            5. Opium and Tea
            • In the late 1700s, black tea became super popular in Britain, and families were loving this new drink.
            • By 1792, the Brits were importing tons of tea, literally tens of millions of pounds worth each year.
            • A big chunk, around 10%, of the government’s income was coming from import tariffs. That’s a pretty hefty chunk.
            • But here’s the catch: Britain was buying so much tea from China that it caused a massive trade deficit. They wanted tea so bad that they were spending way more than they were making.
            • The way trade worked with China, called the Canton system, was getting on the nerves of British traders and the government. Everything had to go through this one port called Canton, which is now known as Guangzhou. But the Brits were like, “Nah, we’re not cool with that anymore.”

            Impact of Opium Wars

            • The British, way stronger than the Chinese, easily won the first Opium War. They convinced China to sign the Treaty of Nanjing on August 29, 1842.
            • According to the treaty, China had to pay a hefty $21 million to the British and hand over Hong Kong. The British also secured the right to trade and live in five ports instead of just one.
            • Another war followed, leading to more concessions in the Treaties of Tianjin in 1858.
            • Despite the treaties, China wasn’t keen on following through. In response, the British captured Beijing, even going so far as to burn down the emperor’s summer palace.
            • Finally, in 1860, the Chinese reluctantly agreed to follow the 1858 treaties by signing the Beijing Convention.
            • The Opium Wars resulted in Western countries gaining significant influence in China. Moreover, these conflicts weakened China’s ruling system, contributing to uprisings such as the Taiping and Boxer rebellions.


            Opium Wars gained fame as the “unequal treaties” between China and Western powers because the Westerners got special treatment and made the Chinese give in to their demands. Interestingly, to control the foreigners, the Qing Government had actually agreed to the idea of extraterritoriality and most favored nation status in the early treaties. This marked a new chapter in China’s dealings with the world. Unlike before when China insisted on tribute from foreign nations to show respect for its culture and emperor, these treaties changed the game.

            Read Also: History of Russia and Ukraine

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