The Chinese Superiority Complex is Broken: The Opium War

“The smuggling of Opium into China was by the 1830s, a source of huge profits, played a criminal role in the financing of British rule in India and was underpinning of British trade throughout the East.”[1] The British required the opium trade in order to survive financially from the colonization of India. Great Britain had turned the colonization of India into a triangular trade route with China in order to make it profitable.[2] This is because, as John Newsinger writes, “the smuggling of opium turned a large British trading deficit with China into a substantial surplus, paying for British tea imports from China, for the export of British manufactured goods to India and for a substantial proportion of British administrative costs for India”.[3] Therefore, it is no wonder that the British had a heavy interest in the survival of the opium trade.
The Chinese responded to the opium trade by attempting to tighten up security measures because opium was an illegal substance in China. China was forced to respond to not only maintain the illegality of the product, but the country was also being “drained of silver to pay for the opium, its administrators were also being corrupted by foreigners, and the extent of addiction (estimates of the number of addicts go as high as 12 million) was seen as a threat to both state and society”.[4] The restrictions were required since the main source of government taxes, silver, was leaving in massive amounts from the country due to the opium trade. Therefore, the Chinese began to limit trade with Great Britain in order to slow the flow of silver from the country. These trade restrictions would result in the ignition of the Opium War between Great Britain and China. China would enter the conflicts because they believed that they could easily defeat their opponents militarily. Ultimately, the Opium war would result in this superiority complex being broken by Great Britain. In order to fully understand how China’s superiority complex was broken, the actions and the re-actions of both China and Great Britain must be fully investigated. The actions and reactions of China and Great Britain are especially important when we investigate the initial ban on opium, the Opium War, and the Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing).
The Canton trade system, developed by the Chinese, is an example of the Chinese superiority complex the Chinese Emperor gave Chinese Hong Merchants.[5] Canton was designated as the place where the foreign traders would make their transactions with the Hong Merchants. Most of the ships that traded at Canton originated from the U.S.A., France, Holland, Sweden, and Great Britain. However, Great Britain had the majority of the trade overall.[6] The Chinese used Canton in order to keep the amount of foreign influence within China to a minimum. In fact, China was so worried by the threat of foreign influences in Chinese society, which the Chinese officials only allowed foreign trade to occur in Canton for four months each year before sending the foreign traders back to Macao.[7] China thought that they could maintain the possible forces of outside European influences by limiting the European powers to the coast and by not letting foreign traders come inland. Therefore, the Chinese thought they were superior to European powers because the Chinese were able to keep the European traders to the coastal areas. However, the Opium wars would break China’s control over foreign influence and allow the British to officially colonize China.
The British wanted to further trade with China. As Glenn Melancon writes in his article, ‘Honour in Opium? The British Declaration of War on China, 1839-1840’, British officials, merchants, and industrialists, [were] all trying to brake down the Chinese government’s restrictions on European trade…[they] wanted to open China as a market for Britain’s new industrial goods”.[8] The British wanted to basically colonize China for their own economic purposes. Britain wanted to colonize China because there was a heavy demand for Chinese tea and spice imports. Also, China would become a new market for finished British products as the process of industrialization of Britain intensified. However, China was reluctant to negotiate with Great Britain to open up the country to foreign trade in fear of the spread of foreign ideologies would cause a serious uprising. Therefore, Great Britain would require an excuse to engage China in negotiations over trade. The conflict over the banning of opium was what Britain required.
The Chinese were especially worried about ‘the drain theory’ because it slowly turned China into a semi-colony of Great Britain. ‘The drain theory’, as Tan Chung writes in his article “Nineteenth Century China Revisited: The Opium War (1840-42) and Sino-British Contradictions”, benefits Great Britain because “the triangular trade with opium as its lynchpin was not only consolidating the Indian colony, but was also converting China into a ‘semi-colony’”.[9] Great Britain required the opium trade to remain intact, as mentioned before, in order to ensure a trade deficit did not occur. India’s anti-colonial scholar, Dadabhi Naoroji, supported the ‘drain theory’ and called the theory “a sin on England’s head and a curse on India”.[10] Narojoi supported his negative comments towards ‘the drain theory’ by saying “because India cannot fill up the remorseless drain, so China must be dragged in to make it up, even though it be by being ‘poisoned’….all the profits of opium go the same way of the drain to England”.[11] IN other words China had been ‘poisoned’ into being a ‘semi-colony’ via the opium trade. The Chinese were worried about the opium trade considering the trade was mainly done in silver Taels. Therefore, China had to stop the flow of opium from entering into China and to slow the flow of their currency leaving the country for Great Britain thereby removing the ‘lynchpin’ of ‘the drain theory’.
The Chinese government needed to stop the outflow of silver by ending the opium trade. The outflow of silver had to be stopped because by “1835, over sixteen thousand chests of Bengali and Malwa opium with a dollar value of $17,388,622 were imported illegally into China”.[12] This amount of silver leaving the country forced the currency exchange ratio to inflate immensely. As Tan Chung notes, “Silver, a component of China’s bi-metal currency rapidly changed its exchange ratio with copper, the other component, from the standard of 1:1,000 (1 tael of silver equivalent to 1,000 copper cash) to 1:2,000 and above”.[13] In 1838, the Emperor Duaoguang appointed Commissioner Lin Zexu (Tse-Hsu) to go to Canton to bring about the end of the opium trade after the original Governor General had already failed. Lin Zexu, a former Governor General himself, arrived in Canton on the 10th of March 1839 [14] and began spreading propaganda saying that Opium was illegal.[15] As Glenn Melancon writes, Commissioner Lin also:
demanded, that the European merchants hand over all of their opium and cease trading it. When the Europeans refused, on 19 March the hoppo, the administrator of the Canton customs, quarantined the foreign community by surrounding their factories with troops.[16]
The situation was becoming tense. The Chinese felt if they could contain the Europeans to their factories and thereby end the opium trade, the Chinese could also end the spread of ‘negative’ European influences and maintain the superiority of the Chinese state.
The British responded by attempting to defuse the situation by handing over the opium. However, the hand over occurs in a ‘shady’ fashion. Glenn Melancon explains the opium handover in his article “Honour in Opium? The British Declaration of War on China 1839-1840”:
On the 24th [of March 1839], [the head of the British trade commission at Canton, Captain Charles] Elliot arrived at Canton from Macao, and announced that he had come to protect British interests. The British merchants agreed to put 20,283 chests of opium, valued at £2 million, into his care, after he told them that he needed the opium for the ‘service of the British government’ and pledged that the government would compensate them for any loss. Assuming Elliot meant to safeguard the opium from the Chinese, the merchants agreed. To their astonishment, however, he announced to the Chinese his willingness to hand over the British ‘property’.[17]
The British merchants were infuriated by the appearance of trickery that the British government had done to them. The merchants demanded, according to Elliot’s promise, to be compensated for the seized opium.
The British foreign office and the treasury, according to Melancon, responded to the merchants with:

H[er] M[ajesty’s] Gov[ernmen]t have no funds at their disposal out of which any compensation could be made to the owners of the opium which was surrendered to Capt. Elliot, in conformity with his public notice dated Canton March 27, 1839…the sanction of Parliament would be necessary before any such claims against HMGt, founded upon Capt. Elliot’s notice, could be recognized and paid…further, it is not the intention of HMGt to submit to Parliament for the payment of such claims.
The response only further infuriated the British merchants who continued to demand compensation for the seized opium. The government responded to the merchant’s demands by declaring war on China on October 1st, 1839. The Chinese superiority complex would come under attack from Europe’s best naval force, the British navy.
The British government figured they could easily win a naval war against China. The government’s view was supported by Lord Macartney, the first British Ambassador to China who “wrote during his China sojourn in 1793-1794:
[A] couple of English frigates would be an overmatch for the whole navel force of their Empire, that in half a summer they could totally destroy all the navigation of the coasts and reduce the inhabitants of the maritime provinces…to absolute famine.
Therefore, if Macartney was correct in his assumption that China should fall without much resistance, the Chinese superiority complex could also easily fall allowing European influences into the country.
Viscount Palmerston, the British foreign secretary, agreed with Macartney’s assumption. Palmerston’s proposed, in the cabinet meeting held on the 1st of October 1839, to send “a small squadron of one line of battle ship, two frigates, and some small armed vessels with two or three steamers”.[19] The foreign secretary figured the contingent could easily “blockade the whole coast of China from the river of Pekin [sic] down to the Canton coast”.[20] Thomas, Macaulay, the Secretary of State for War, supported Palmerston’s naval plan. The war was on and the British naval forces would test China’s superiority complex.
The Chinese were no match for the superior naval forces of the British. As John Newsinger noted, “the British had an overwhelming technological superiority that turned every battle into a one sided massacre”.[21] The result of the war was that the British had captured several sections of China. The superiority of China had been tested and vanquished.
The result of the war was the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. The treaty, signed by both China and Great Britain, resulted in: Hong Kong being ceded to the British; China paid the costs of the war and the seized opium; that there would be no “further interference with the [opium] trade”[22] on behalf of the Chinese; the end of the Canton trade system; and the establishment of several trade ports along the Chinese coast. The Treaty of Nanking basically left China without the right to limit or exclude foreign trade and, therefore, limit foreign influences to just the Canton area. Therefore, the result of the Treaty of Nanking was that the Chinese finally knew that there was a country that was far superior to them militarily and on some levels, politically.
China would eventually enter similar trade negotiations with France and the United States. The treaty with France allowed the French to establish Catholic missionaries that would further influence in the recruitment of new members of the Roman Catholic Church. This is especially significant considering the fact that before the Catholic Church entered under the treaty, the Qing (Ching) state often put down rebellions and often outlawed religious groups in order to ensure the complete superiority of the Emperor. The United States, however added the ‘most favoured nation’ clause. The ‘most favoured nation clause’ was a clause in the treaty that stipulated that any further rights given to other countries in future or past contracts would also be given to the United States. The clause is significant because the clause would allow the United States to gain similar rights that British, French, and the other European countries would negotiate with China in the past or in the future.
The treaties that China signed with Great Britain, France, the United States, and other countries resulted in China loosing control over what influences her government would allow into the country. Also, the treaties disrupted the traditional trade routes to Canton because of the several new ports being created along the coast. Therefore, since the trade had become so spread out amongst the coastal ports, unemployment rose significantly in Canton because a large number of barge pullers and other transportation workers were no longer required.[23] Also, as a result of the treaties, China had evolved from relatively ‘closed’ county into more of a colony of Great Britain. This is because the opium trade could continue on being the ‘lynchpin’ in ‘the drain theory. Therefore, as a result of the treaties China had her superiority complex broken by Great Britain in the Treaty of Nanking and further diminished in the ensuing treaties with the other foreign countries.

The actions and the reactions of both China and Great Britain over the events preceding, during and after the Opium War resulted in the superiority complex of China being broken. As a result of the Opium War China realized that they could be beaten militarily by, what the Chinese termed, ‘barbarians’. Also, China realized that as a result of the Treaty of Nanking and the ensuing treaties with the other foreign countries.
The Opium War would ultimately result in the superiority complex of China being broken. This was because China had become the ‘semi-colony’ that was part of ‘the drain theory’, and thus was at the whim of Great Britain the other foreign powers that it had tried to contain at Canton. Overall, the consequences of the Opium War would allow the British to continue their triangular trade route with China and India as well as remain profitable because of the huge profits from the opium trade.
Primary Sources
Pei-Kai Cheng, et al. eds. “7.1-7.4 Memorials, Edicts, and Laws on Opium.” The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection. New York: W.W. Norton and Sons, 1999: 110-123.
Secondary Sources
Chung, Tan. “Nineteenth Century China Revisited: The Opium War (1840-42) and Sino-British Contradictions.” China Report 14, no. 2 (1978): 25-47.
Davis, Sir. John Francis. China, During the War. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Inc., 1972.
Ganguli, B.N. “Dadabhai Naoroji and the Mechanism of ‘External Drain’” The Indian Economic and History Review 2, no 2 (1965): 85-102.
Guan, Shijie. “Chartism and the First Opium War.” History Workshop Journal 24 (1987): 17-31.
Melancon, Glenn. “Honour in Opium? The British Declaration of War on China, 1839-1840.” International History Review 21 (1999): 855-874.
Mitra, Ashok and Tan Chung. “On the Opium War.” China Report 14, no. 2 (1978): 25-47.
Munn, Christopher. “The Chusan Episode: Britain’s Occupation of a Chinese Island, 1840-46.” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 25, no. 1 (1997): 82-112.
Newsinger, John. “Britain’s Opium Wars.” Monthly Review 49, no. 5 (1997): 35-42.
Polachek, James M. The Inner Opium War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Stanley, Timothy. “The Opium War and the West.” University of Ottawa. Ottawa, 19 October 2000.
Waley, Arthur. The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1968.

[1] John Newsinger “Britain’s Opium Wars.” Monthly Review 49, no. 5 (1997): 35.

[2]The British ships would offload their British manufactured goods in India and then load up Indian opium, then in China the ships would offload the opium and load Chinese tea before heading back to Great Britain.

[3]Newsinger 36.

[4]Newsinger 37.

[5]Timothy Stanley “The Opium War and the West.” University of Ottawa. Ottawa, 19 October 2000.

[6]Stanley “The Opium War and the West.”

[7]Macao, an island located South-West of Canton, was captured by the Portuguese and was used as a trading area by European countries year round while the countries waited for the trading season to open in Canton.

[8]Glenn Melancon. “Honour in Opium? The British Declaration of War on China, 1839-1840.” International History Review 21 (1999): 855.

[9] Tan Chung “Nineteenth Century China Revisited: The Opium War (1840-42) and Sino-British Contradictions.” China Report 14, no. 2 (1978): 38.

[10]B.N. Ganguli “Dadabhai Naoroji and the Mechanism of ‘External Drain.’” The Indian Economic and History Review 2, no 2 (1965): 101.

[11]Ibid., 101.

[12] Pei-Kai Cheng, et al. eds. “7.1-7.4 Memorials, Edicts, and Laws on Opium.” The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection. (New York: W.W. Norton and Sons, 1999): 110.

[13]Chung 39.

[14]Melancon 859.

[15]Stanley “The Opium War and the West.”

[16]Melancon 859.

[17]Ibid., 859.

[18]Melancon 871.

[19]Melancon 869.

[20] Ibid., 869.

[21]Newsinger 38.

[22] Ibid., 40.

[23]Stanley “The Opium War and the West.”