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Causes Of The Opium War Essay, Research Paper

Historians have christened the wars fought between China and Britain from 1839 to 1842 and from 1856 to 1860 as The Opium Wars ; however, the Opium Wars really were not about opium. Even President John Quincy Adams asserted, The seizure of a few thousand chests of opium smuggled into China by the British government was no more the cause of the Opium War than the throwing overboard of the tea in the Boston harbor was the cause of the North American Revolution (Chung, 1). In fact, one may argue that China s tributary mentality, the Canton System of Trade, and imperialistic aggression caused the so-called Opium Wars.

The Chinese name for China, Ch ung Kuo, meant Heavenly Middle Kingdom, or more accurately: Center of the World. The Chinese had developed a tributary mentality, a belief that China, as the Middle Kingdom, was the center of the civilized world and that all countries that desired relations with it must behave deferentially. Consequently, there was little room in China s world-view for the idea of independent equal nations. Moreover, China s foreign policy prior to and during the Ch ing Dynasty was dominated by a sense of innate superiority. In fact, when King George III dispatched Lord Macartney, Baron of Lissanoure, to China in 1793 to establish formal diplomatic relations between China and Britain, the Ch ien Lung Emperor refused to acknowledge England as an equal sovereign state. Lucien Pye argues, …it became apparent that Chinese and Englishmen saw the world completely differently (Pye, 105).

China s tributary mentality was also manifest in its attitude toward foreign trade. Immanuel Hsu states that the Chinese believed, that the bountiful Middle Kingdom had no need for things foreign…the benevolent emperor allowed trade as a mark of favor to foreigners…trade was not a right to be insisted upon, but a privilege that could be withdrawn by China for any misbehavior (Hsu, 142). Thus, the Chinese were willing to conduct trade with the west on China s terms, i.e., the Europeans had to admit their inferiority. This was a bitter pill for Great Britain, the champion of mercantilism and self-proclaimed Mistress of the Seas, to swallow.

The Canton System of Trade, which was an outgrowth of this tributary mentality, further antagonized the British. It may be argued that the Canton System of Trade was designed to stay the barbarians at the gates of China. Historically, revolution …was the strongest check on the ruler s conduct (Hsu, 46). Furthermore, revolution was often successful when external threats were coupled with internal dissension. The Canton System of Trade was developed amidst a period of high anti-Manchu sentiment in China. Consequently, the ruling Ch ing Dynasty, fearing collusion between barbaric foreigners and traitorous Han Chinese, decreed in 1759 that Canton would be the only port open to foreign trade (Hsu, 142).

Under the Canton System, commercial firms known as hongs were responsible for foreign trade and traders. The foreigners, in turn, were restricted by various regulations. For example, foreigners were prohibited from communicating with Chinese officials except through the proper channel of the Co-hong. Furthermore, foreigners were largely confined to their factories and kept outside the walls of Canton.

Trade in Canton was characterized by corruption and irregular exactions. In addition to the tariff on goods, mercantile vessels were subject to a variety of duties and levies upon arrival in Canton. These duties and levies …went into the pockets of the Hoppo (customs superintendent), the examining officers, the scribes, and the attendants which accounted for their irregularity (Hsu, 148). However, these irregular exactions were only one source of conflict between the Chinese and English in Canton; the Chinese system of justice was another.

Chinese notions about justice and punishment differed greatly from those of the West. There was no due process of law. Additionally, under Chinese law a defendant was guilty until proven innocent. Furthermore, the principle of a life for a life was adhered to in cases of homicide. Finally, the Chinese philosophy of collective responsibility contradicted the Western philosophy of individual responsibility. Chinese legal concepts and practices seemed strange and barbaric to foreigners in Canton. British dissatisfaction with the Chinese legal system was compounded by the Ch ing Dynasty s insistence that …foreigners committing crimes in China be tried in China be tried according to Chinese law (Hsu, 153).

Britain s grievances regarding China s tributary mentality and the Canton System of Trade were not the only causes of the Opium Wars. They merely served to fan the flames of imperialistic aggression that were already burning in the lion s heart. The advent of the Industrial Revolution in Europe resulted in vast quantities of surplus economic goods and capital. The British frantically explored and colonized less civilized countries in a mad dash to find new markets for their surplus goods and capital. These new markets had to possess vast populations capable of sustaining Britain s industrial machine.

In the contest to colonize the world, China represented the last prize in the Far East for European countries. The Opium War was merely the first step designed to open the China Market and its resources for exploitation.


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