The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China

Here are some highlights from this book by Julia Lovell:

* The London Missionary Society had sent out their first man to south China, Robert Morrison, in 1807. Not long after his arrival, he had been asked whether he hoped to have any spiritual impact on the country: ‘No,’ he responded, ‘but I expect God will’.6 Thirty years later, he and his colleagues found themselves unable either to name or enumerate more than a handful of converts. Ill, depressed, stalled on the edge of the mainland, frustrated missionary observers of the 1830s spoke a pure dialect of imperialist paternalism: ‘China still proclaims her proud and unapproachable supremacy and disdainfully rejects all pretensions in any other nation to be considered as her equal. This feeling of contemptible vanity Christianity alone will effectually destroy. Where other means have failed, the gospel will triumph; this will fraternize the Chinese with the rest of mankind . . . [linking] them in sympathy with other portions of their species, and thus add to the triumphs it has achieved.’7 The missionaries became natural allies of the smugglers: when they first arrived on the coast of China, they docked among opium traders on the island of Lintin; they interpreted for them in exchange for passages up the coast, distributing tracts while the drug was taken onshore; and in the Chinese Repository, Canton’s leading English-language publication, they shared a forum for spreading their views on the urgent need to open China, by whatever means necessary. By the 1830s, merchants and missionaries alike favoured violence. ‘[W]hen an opponent supports his argument with physical force, [the Chinese] can be crouching, gentle, and even kind’, observed Karl Gützlaff, a stout Pomeranian missionary who would, during the Opium War, lead the British military occupation of parts of eastern China, running armies of Chinese spies and collaborators.8 The slightest provocation would do. In 1831, traders had written to the government in India, demanding a fleet of warships to avenge the Chinese authorities’ partial demolition of a front garden that the British had illegally requisitioned.

* In China today, the Opium War is the traumatic inauguration of the country’s modern history. History books, television documentaries and museums chorus a simple, received wisdom about the conflict, which goes something like this. In the early nineteenth century, unscrupulous British traders began forcing enormous quantities of Indian opium on Chinese consumers. When the Chinese government declared war on opium, in order to avert the moral, physical and financial disaster threatened by the empire’s growing drug habit, British warships bullied China out of tens of millions of dollars, and its economic and political independence. Gunboat diplomacy, opium and the first ‘Unequal Treaty’ of 1842 (followed by a second in 1860, concluding the ‘second Opium War’ begun in 1856) brought China – until the end of the eighteenth century, probably the richest and most powerful civilization in the world – to its knees, leaving its people slavish addicts, incapable of resisting subsequent waves of European, American and Japanese colonizers.23 This account of the Opium War is now one of the founding myths of Chinese nationalism: the first great call to arms against a bullying West; but also the start of China’s ‘century of humiliation’ (a useful pedagogical shorthand for everything that happened in China between 1842 and 1949) at the hands of imperialism.24 It marks the beginning of China’s struggle to free itself from ‘semi-colonial semi-feudalism’ (Mao’s own summary of the century of Chinese experience after 1842), and to ‘stand up’ (Mao again) as a strong modern nation – a battle that ends, naturally, with Communist triumph in 1949.

* Nine minutes. This grotesque discrepancy in military strength between the British and the Qing would be replayed again and again through the two years of the war.

* Qing China was after all no tribal power but one of the world’s great conquest empires.

How, exactly, could its armies have atrophied so drastically by 1840? The problems with the Qing military can be broken down into three main categories: materiel and defences; organization; and individual quality of troops.11

In all areas of equipment – weaponry, forts and most critically ships – the Qing equipment lagged behind that of the British.

* But why did the Qing fail to capitalize on their numerical superiority over the British? Theoretically, the dynasty commanded the largest standing army (800,000-strong) in the world at the time – 114 times more numerous than the 7,000-strong British force dispatched to China. In reality, however, most of these 800,000 soldiers were scattered through the empire, far too busy with domestic peace-keeping duties (suppressing bandits or rebels; carrying out disaster relief; guarding prisons; policing smugglers) to be spared for the quarrel with the British.

* During the Opium War, Qing politicians of the pro- and anti-war faction could agree on only one thing: that their army was hopeless. Travelling east from Canton to Zhejiang in 1841, Lin Zexu bluntly analysed the reasons for the army’s lack of interest in fighting the British. ‘The most coveted positions in the Guangdong garrisons were in the naval fleet, where one per cent of salaries was drawn from the grain and silver stipend, and the rest from opium-smugglers’ bribes. Once we banned opium, ninety-nine per cent of the navy’s income went up in smoke. How could we expect them to resist the English rebels?’20 ‘Our soldiers cheat everyone’, echoed Qiying, the emperor’s chief negotiator at the close of the war. ‘They refuse to pay full prices, gather in brothels and gambling dens, corrupt the sons of good families and handle stolen goods.’

* At pains to show themselves to be civilized, the British tried hard to inform their adversaries of their demands before they pulverized them in battle. Through July, the fleet made several unsuccessful attempts to deliver Lord Palmerston’s letter to the Chinese emperor at various points along the eastern coast.

* Everywhere the British went, they were dependent on local willingness to provide them with fresh food and water.

* Almost as soon as Yishan arrived in the city, he made the following diagnosis of the situation: ‘The trouble lies within, not without, because every merchant has got rich through the foreigners, and even the lowest orders make their livings from them. All the merchants and people who live near the coast are fluent in the foreigners’ language. The craftier of their number are spies, and know everything that is going on around the government offices, and are quick to pass it on.’ The going rate for information, he reported, was twenty dollars – for which locals were so avid that they regularly fabricated reports for the foreigners.

* It was perhaps the dismissal of Charles Elliot that marked the true turning point in this war: from here on, the campaign would be more about gunboats than diplomacy. True enough, back in the spring of 1839, Elliot had brayed as loudly as anyone for an instructive war that would ‘teach’ China to fall in line with civilized European trading norms. But once he’d got his war, he spent a curious amount of time avoiding it: calling regular pauses for talks, for trading, for elaborate negotiating banquets. Violence, he actually believed, was to be minimized at all costs. He was fighting, he argued, ‘a just and necessary war; but it is not to be forgotten that the acts of the Chinese authorities which made it so . . . [were] preceded by serious errors on the part of British subjects.’2

But with Elliot gone, so was any spirit of self-critical compromise. He was replaced by no-nonsense hardliners: professional men of the British army and navy who were there to do a military job – to subdue the Qing empire as expediently as possible – or by representatives of a chauvinistic new breed of rulers of British India. Gone was any sense that sympathy or familiarity with Qing customs or sensibilities might, in the long-term, more effectively open the empire to trade with Europe. No, the Chinese empire wanted blasting into line. ‘The body social of the Chinese’, one missionary expressed the sentiment well, ‘is too inert, too lifeless, for the whole body to be affected by a rap on the heel; it must be on the head.’3 It was, perhaps, with respect to China that the Victorians began wholeheartedly to embrace attributes that we now think of stereotypically Victorian: a strident patriotism that shouted about the civilizing missions of Christianity and Free Trade, while trampling over other political, economic and cultural visions. Sino-Western relations are still paying the price of the Opium War’s quick fix today.

* One cliff-face fort was taken by a single officer rushing up the hill and through its open gate, discharging every firearm he had on him at the forty or fifty soldiers he found there, ‘lolling and smoking [opium, presumably] between their guns.’10 Without hanging around long enough to notice his lack of reinforcements, the fort’s defenders rushed out of the opposite gate and back down the hill.

That evening, the British troops camped out on the cliffs; the next day they simply entered the island’s abandoned city (one of the country’s richest ports), with little to do except resist the temptation of abandoned vats of rice liquor and to tut-tut at the rapacity of Chinese robbers, who had already thoroughly looted it (its bullion had been ingeniously smuggled out inside hollowed logs). How extraordinary, the captain of the Nemesis exclaimed, that the massive bombardment and occupation of the island should lead to a general collapse in law and order. The only protection that locals had to look for ‘from the violence and plundering of their own rabble,’ Captain Hall remarked, ‘was from the presence of our own troops’.11

In other words, it was an Opium War battle like any other. Inside the walled city, watching the disaster unfold on 26 August, Yan did the only thing that a man in that situation could reasonably have done. He burst into tears and ran away.

* There was little new about the way Yuqian prepared for a British assault: three miles of thick mud walls, up to sixty feet wide and thirteen feet high, were built along the exposed southern coast of the island. And once the hard work of construction had been done, and 5,600 soldiers and militia stationed there, Yuqian could indulge in the traditional pastime of giving hopeful names to his fortifications. Two gates set into the wall were dubbed ‘Stable Governance’ and ‘Long-term Peace’; a fort on top of a hill in the middle of the earthworks became ‘The Fort That Terrifies Those From Afar’.

* local populations who fell under British rule should be so ‘perfectly contented with their new rulers, every kind of excess or plunder being rigidly prohibited.’

* Until 1842, any official servant who implicitly (by ignoring imperial orders to ‘exterminate’ the foreigners) or explicitly (by pointing out the weaknesses of the Qing army and the strengths of the British) acknowledged British military superiority had risked, at best, dismissal and more likely interrogation and punishment (exile, and possibly death). As a result, Daoguang’s nervous servants had spent the last two years diligently deluding him about the nature of the British threat and demands. But the more misinformed the emperor was, the less likely a solution became. Daoguang’s furious impatience with those who failed to resolve the conflict in accordance with his expectations caused his most experienced, talented officials to view an imperial commission to the front line of the war with dread.

* The army was crushed by defeat, he now wrote to the emperor, and the costs of war were crippling. The British cannon were too fierce, their soldiers too expert at fighting on land and at sea; the Chinese people – scourged by Qing armies – were easily bribed into collaboration with the enemy.

* Despite the ambivalence that the conflict had generated before and during the Opium War, the fact of victory convinced many that Britain had been right: that the war had performed a necessary and relatively bloodless service to world civilization by opening China. And once expectations (of opportunities for trade, conversion and travel) had been inflated by the Treaty of Nanjing, merchants, missionaries and diplomats set about manoeuvring for yet more concessions and advantages – and if necessary, for a second war to achieve them. For others, though, the war remained an embarrassment, generating guilty repentance. The very term ‘Opium War’ – satirically coined through the debates of early 1840 to draw attention to the ‘misdeeds’ in China of the ‘disgraceful’ Whig government – expressed this bad conscience. To Victorian Britain – a nation that prided itself on its sense of Christian superiority over the non-Europeans that it conquered – the name brought discomfort. The British, it announced, had fought a war to push an addictive, illegal narcotic on the Chinese population. It was, one strand of opinion held, ‘the most disgraceful war in our history . . . we lost about 69 men, and killed between 20,000 and 25,000 Chinese. There is no honour to be gained in a war like that.’6 ‘No man’, a speech-maker declared in 1858, ‘with a spark of morality in his composition . . . has dared to justify that war.’7 During the Second World War, both the Nazis and the Japanese government would try to discredit the Allies by reminding their subject populations (including Chinese civilians, whom Japanese soldiers killed in their millions between 1937 and 1945) of Britain’s past aggression against China.

* Through the 1840s, the Chinese Repository estimated that profits from the opium trade would leap from $33.6 million to $42 million, between 1845 and 1847 alone.33 However loudly England’s politicians and merchants bellowed about the civilizing mission of Free Trade, the fact remained that into the 1850s and beyond, opium sales in China (produced under British monopoly in India) underwrote much of the British empire: they funded the Raj (by 1856, opium revenue represented almost 22 per cent of British India’s total revenue), they generated the silver for Britain to trade along the Indian Ocean, and in China they bought tea and silk.34 To some extent, they kept the world economy moving: after British bills bought American cotton, American traders used these bills to buy tea in Canton; the Cantonese then swapped them for Indian opium.35 Acknowledging the economic importance of its opium monopoly, in 1843 the British annexed a new slice of west India, the Sind, at least in part to hike up transit fees on opium grown outside British Bengal, thereby helping to make production of the drug beyond British-controlled territories unprofitable.36 Through the 1840s and 1850s, after Pottinger had failed to legalize opium in 1842, British politicians remained nervous of a repeat of the 1839 campaign against the drug (which would jeopardize British profit margins), and pestered (without result) the Qing government to lift the official prohibition on the trade.

* The anti-opium lobby’s disapproval took on a new racial dimension when it was directed against use of the drug in China (which had emerged, in recent decades, as undoubtedly the world’s biggest opium market). Over the course of the nineteenth century, as Asia and Africa had fallen before Western science and industry, theorists of the European empires had sought convincing explanations for their supremacy, fixing the world into racial types distinguished by immutable characteristics – with the whites clearly at the top, and the ‘yellows’ and ‘blacks’ below. The conspicuous popularity of the drug amongst the Chinese became a symptom of the moral weakness and torpor of this alien, inexplicable race. The campaign that fought the opium trade in China was, therefore, a contradictory creature. On the one hand, it betokened a special sympathy for China and guilt about the role of the West (and especially Britain) in foisting the drug on the population. On the other, it could not conceal a certain disgust for the Chinese themselves. The opium trade produced a rationale for the Christian presence in China, turning the country into a depraved mass of opium sots to be disciplined and improved by salvation-hungry missionaries. ‘I am profoundly convinced’, declared the founder of the China Inland Mission, ‘that the opium traffic is doing more evil in China in a week than Missions are doing good in a year.’20 In other words, the Western presence in China had first created a problem then provided the service to solve it – the opium trade both generated and justified the civilizing mission.

* Almost wherever Chinese communities went, they were accused of vice, violence and mutiny, of being a secretive, alien, xenophobic community that refused to integrate with Anglo-Saxon society. ‘Colonies of Chinese’ were ‘being founded in all the chief ports of the British Isles’, announced scaremongers. ‘An imported horde of underpaid Chinese starvelings’ threatened to take over ‘the great traditions of the British sea dog.’41 While suspicion and violence grew, relations inevitably deteriorated, neatly reinforcing earlier prejudices about the sinister exclusiveness of the Chinese. As police and judges began to assume that any violence in Chinese communities was Triad warfare, these communities tried to resolve disputes between themselves rather than throw themselves onto the unsympathetic mercies of the law courts. Meanwhile, Chinese immigrants who tried to assimilate – by learning English, by wearing European clothes, by marrying local women – were ridiculed, or suspected of trying to penetrate English society for invidious reasons.42 Respectable middle-class magazines spread dread further up the social scale. In ‘The Chinese in England: A Growing National Problem’ (an article distributed liberally around the Home Office), one hack journalist warned of ‘a vast and convulsive Armageddon to determine who is to be the master of the world, the white or yellow man.’

* In the first two decades of the twentieth century, British tabloid readers were transfixed by a string of sensational stories in which beautiful young British women were seduced (sometimes with fatal consequences) by Asiatic drug-peddlers. In 1918, a wealthy Shanghai dilettante called Brilliant Chang was implicated in the death by overdose of the cocaine-snorting darling of the London stage, Billie Carleton. Four years later, three sisters, Florence, Gwendoline and Rosetta Paul, were found in an opium stupor next to a dead Chinese man in the bedroom over a Cardiff laundry. ‘The features of the women were so yellow’, their discoverer reported, that for a time he ‘did not realise they were white girls.’

* In probably every decade since its invention, the Yellow Panic has featured in Western consciousness, regardless of the reality of China’s own political, social or economic capacity to pose a threat. In 1898, as Matthew Shiel created Yen How, the Qing empire was still reeling from a shocking defeat in Korea at the hands of its former cultural tributary, Japan. As Sax Rohmer began generating his Fu Manchu canon in the 1910s and 1920s, ethnic Chinese populations in London arguably possessed the hardest-working and generally least threatening social and political profile of any non-white British group. The 1932 movie of The Mask of Fu Manchu (in which the eponymous doctor screams for the destruction of the white race while trying to resurrect Genghis Khan by sacrificing a blonde white woman lashed to a stone altar) was filmed as China’s military energies were fully absorbed either in civil war, or in facing off the Japanese aggression that would culminate in the Second World War.

* In almost any trouble connected with China, the old fears resurface. A typical example is the hysteria in 2007 that spread the idea of China exporting ‘poison’ to the world through its faulty products: pet food, drugs, toothpaste, lead-painted toy trains. ‘Is China trying to poison Americans and their pets?’ asked one article.86 ‘The Chinese Poison Train is still out there,’ warned one American consumer association, ‘lurking on a container ship headed our way. Nobody knows when it will strike again.’87 At the same moment, China’s profit-hungry companies were busy poisoning far more Chinese consumers: around 300,000 babies were taken ill in 2008, the year that the scandal about milk-powder tainted with melamine belatedly broke. And after recalling around 21 million toys manufactured in China, Mattel publicly apologized to its manufacturing partners in China, admitting that the ‘vast majority of those products that were recalled were the result of a design flaw in Mattel’s design, not through a manufacturing flaw in China’s manufacturers.’88 China has also been fingered for polluting the world with its economic miracle (the so-called Green Peril) – when Western consumers have been the principal market for cheap Chinese manufactures while letting China’s own natural environment absorb most of the damage. The survival of the Yellow Peril school of thought on Sino-Western relations indicates the resilience of the self-justifying ideas and arguments that drove Britain towards war with China in the 1840s and 1850s: a Western fixation on the idea of unthinking Chinese xenophobia, and on China’s determination to wish the West ill.

The greatest credibility problem for the Yellow Peril is that, historically, it has developed in isolation from opinion and events in China itself. It has thrived on delusional stereotypes generated by Westerners uninterested in what the Chinese themselves have made of events such as the Opium War and their subsequent relations with European invaders – the subject of this book’s remaining chapters. As Sax Rohmer himself proudly told his biographer, ‘I made my name on Fu Manchu because I know nothing about the Chinese!’

* Like the Social Darwinist that he was, Yan was not particularly inclined to question the morality of the balance of power in this brave new world – to him, the foreign invasions that China had endured since 1840 were an inescapable phenomenon of nature. ‘If a people is dispirited and stupid . . . then the society will disintegrate, and when a society in disintegration encounters an aggressive, intelligent, patriotic people, it will be dominated at best, and at worst exterminated’.19 (‘The tides of the world are unstoppable’, agreed Guo Songtao.20) Instead, Yan believed that China must recognize its own flaws and remedy them with the ideas and culture of the West. ‘What are China’s principal troubles?’ he asked. ‘Are they not ignorance, poverty and weakness?’21 Why, he wanted to know, had China failed to pick itself up since the defeat of 1842? ‘The people’s intelligence is not up to the task, and their physical strength and morality are not advanced enough to carry it through.’ The West’s ‘expertise in machinery . . . their steam engines and weaponry’ were only ‘scratches on the surface . . . they are not the blood veins of strength.’ No: the West owed its global supremacy to the two principles of ‘truth in learning’ and ‘justice in politics’. In comparison, almost everything about Chinese tradition struck Yan as hopeless. ‘There are almost innumerable practices in the customs of China, from law and institutions, scholarship and learning, to the ways we eat and live, owing to which the people’s strength is enervated and the quality of the Chinese race debased.’22

If the struggle for survival depended on the cohesion of the group, the Chinese had to bond themselves into the same species of social and political unit that had worked so well for the West and for Japan: the nation. And to do this, the Chinese needed to discipline themselves. The Chinese body politic required a radical overhaul, to teach its constituents to ‘live together, communicate with and rely on each other, and establish laws and institutions, rites and rituals for that purpose . . . we must find a way to make everyone take the nation as his own.’

* China in the third millennium possesses (as it did in the nineteenth century) about as many reasons to fall apart as it does to stick together: banks riddled with bad loans, the challenges of finding employment and pensions for a massive, rapidly ageing workforce, severe social inequality (which, according to Chinese estimates, reached potentially destabilizing levels as early as 1994), government corruption (at the end of 2009, a Chinese newspaper directly blamed the country’s rash of mass incidents on officials ‘blindly pursuing profit’ through ‘expropriating land and demolishing houses’), environmental degradation.

* For 170 years, the Opium War and its afterlives have cast a shadow over Sino-Western relations, both sides tampering with the historical record for their own purposes. Influential nineteenth-century Britons worked hard to fabricate a virtuous casus belli out of an elementary problem of trade deficit: to reinvent the war as a clash of civilizations triggered by the ‘unnaturally’ isolationist Chinese. Joining this blame game, twentieth-century Chinese nation-builders in turn transformed it into the cause of all their country’s troubles: into a black imperialist scheme to enslave a united, heroically resisting China. The reality of the war itself, by contrast, illuminated deep fault lines in the messily multi-ethnic Qing empire, as China’s rulers struggled unsuccessfully to rally its officials, soldiers and subjects against a foreign enemy.

The West’s public stance of self-justification over the war overlaid a moral guilt that has subsequently fanned further fears of, and tensions with, the Chinese state and people. Opium became a symbol both of Western malfeasance and of a sinister Chinese pollution, generating irrational clouds of Yellow Peril suspicion that arguably still haunt our media coverage. In China, meanwhile, opium, defeat and imperialism have manufactured an unstable combination of self-pity, self-loathing and pragmatic admiration for the West that continue to coexist uneasily in Chinese patriots.

Whether Western nations such as Britain have attacked the Chinese for their arrogance in refusing to pay them enough attention or respect, lambasted themselves for what they did or obsessed paranoically about Chinese retribution, one misconception has remained constant: that the West is central to China’s calculations and actions. But both back in the nineteenth century and now, China’s rulers have been primarily preoccupied with domestic affairs, rather than foreign relations. This refusal to look at matters from the perspective of the Chinese state’s own prerogatives helped drive Britain towards war in the nineteenth century, and risks pushing relations towards confrontation in the early twenty-first.

In 1839, the Qing court was too distracted by fears of social unrest to come up voluntarily with a pragmatic response to Western trade demands; Britain interpreted this political paralysis as inveterate xenophobia. In 2010, the situation did not look so very different, with the government infuriating Western states over its rejection of climate-change legislation that might slow growth, its harsh stance on social control and its aversion to compromise on international-trade issues, such as strengthening the yuan relative to the dollar (thereby making exported Chinese manufactures more expensive, foreign imports less so). ‘The current leadership’, China-watcher Jonathan Fenby observed in January 2010, ‘just want to get to retirement without the country collapsing. And their caution sometimes leads them into conflict with the West. Take the question of revaluing the yuan. There’d be plenty of advantages: less danger of a trade war with the US, cheaper imports. But they’re nervous of jeopardizing economic growth or looking like they were capitulating to the West – the public outcry in China might be too great.’57 For the noisy anti-Western nationalism that the state has programmatically engineered since the 1920s (and with renewed energies after 1989) regularly threatens to mutate into anti-government dissidence.

From the age of opium-traders to the Internet, China and the West have been infuriating and misunderstanding each other, despite ever-increasing opportunities for contact, study and mutual sympathy. Ten years into the twenty-first century, the nineteenth is still with us.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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