A Discussion of the Political, Economic,
and Cultural Implications of the Opium War
Any attempt at an analysis of the issues surrounding such a symbolically-loaded event as the Opium War between Great Britain and the Chinese Empire in the mid-nineteenth century is an exercise inevitably complicated by the convergence of cross-cultural interests involved. This applies no less today than in the nineteenth century, for the past often serves the needs of the present, and the Opium War has recently become a useful device employed by the Chinese government to divert attention from their domestic policies by playing to the patriotic fervour of their people.
However, the Opium War, while having opium as its central point of contention, was – and is – about far more significant matters than the sale of drugs. The war marked a moment when global power shifted irrevocably from East to West, in a clash of cultures amid an atmosphere of ignorance and arrogance on both sides. To better understand the complex vortex of issues and ideology that is the Opium War, it would perhaps be useful to begin in the present, sifting through current revisions of the events of time to better illustrate the significance of the past.
The Opium War has been recently given new life by the historic handover of the British colony of Hong Kong back to China
sovereignty, for Hong Kong was originally ceded to the British under the Treaty of Nanjing which ended the first Opium War in 1842. To mark the occasion, the Communist Party has been going to great lengths to exploit the importance of the Opium War in Chinese history; even going so far as to memorialise a Chinese general’s horse that kicked an Englishman and starved to death rather than eat the poppies that are the source of opium (Economist 38). In Western eyes this may seem excessive – after all, the Opium War was only one of many small colonial wars that the Western imperial powers fought throughout the nineteenth century, and it did not, at least for Westerners, attain the same level of significance as, say, the Indian Mutiny. However, this illustrates the importance of perspective in history; for this minor war on the fringes of the British Indian Empire and the French sphere of influence in Indo-China was, undeniably, a pivotal moment in Chinese history.
On June 11, 1997, the most expensive Chinese movie ever made – “The Opium War” – premiered in Hong Kong. The outgoing British governor of Hong Kong was, significantly, not invited to the premiere; the reason being given that the film was intended “to be seen by Chinese first” (Economist 43). While it would be an error to interpret a movie as an historical text, it must be acknowledged that popular culture often shapes perceptions of history and that -with particular regard to the controversy surrounding the Opium War – perception has always been reality.
The (re)vision of the Opium War on film, in the eyes of director Xie Jin, “is not propaganda. It looks frankly. . .at China’s inept administration of the time” (Economist 43). However, it is not surprising that the current Communist Chinese orthodox version of the events of the War dominate the film. Nor is it unexpected to see Westerners being portrayed as drug traders; a depiction which, though superficially true, is anachronistic in that it does not take into account the fact that drugs have only been “controlled substances” in the West in the twentieth century. Of course, from a Chinese perspective it could be argued that their government officials who attempted to stamp out the opium trade and so “provoked” the war were more advanced than their Western counterparts in that they perceived the enormous damage the widespread use of narcotics can do to a society (Economist 43).
In short, the vision of the Opium War in China today is one of the Chinese as the “good guys” and the British as “the bad guys”. The official Chinese histories of the war also possess this skewed view of the events of the War. For example, in the Humen Museum display on the War, the heroic Chinese army is praised for “repulsing” the British invaders, while current Western histories view the War as a generally unequal conflict that was, for most of its duration, overwhelmingly in favour of the British. It has been argued that this attitude on the part of Chinese historians reflects the attitude of Chinese academics who, in the words of one who desired to remain anonymous, view an interest in historical fact as being an “undesirable pragmatism in historical study” (Economist 43).
Certainly this may be seen in the “Revelations of the Opium War” by Yao Jianguo, published on the 150th anniversary of the opening of the conflict in 1840. The interesting aspect of this article is the mingling of past and present; which seems to be indicative of the modern Chinese perception of the Opium War. In brief, Jianguo describes how the “aggression and oppression by imperialists and their running dogs” led to the “humiliating Treaty of Nanjing” whereby China was reduced “to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society” (Jianguo 7). However, the “Chinese people’s brave fighting spirit” led them to revolt against Western tyranny and, under “the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party,” brought about stupendous technological, social, and economic achievements.
Of course, while China faces “some difficulties” now, these “can be overcome completely through hard work” together with the people’s “patriotic spirit” (Jianguo 7).
This none-too-subtle view of the Opium War is echoed by Hu Sheng, president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who declared in a conference presentation that the Opium War was originally about drug trading, but this eventually became a pretext for wholesale imperialist aggression. While there is nothing surprising about this “party line”, his presentation is interesting in that, at one point, he responds to a frequent Western criticism that the Chinese government of the time was insular and xenophobic:
Hu said that China’s resistance to aggression and suppression by the imperialists and rejection of the domination by their agents can by no means be considered “xenophobia,” because only thus could China have relations with the outside world as an independent nation, free from humiliation and control by others.
This response is as close to a dialogue as may be found in modern discussions of the Opium War from the perspectives of both East and West; with Western observers writing such depictions off as being anything from “slightly dubious” to a “not. . .very subtle – or indeed accurate – version of history” (Economist 43).
However, Hu Sheng’s choice of adjectives to describe the War is particularly interesting; it was an “humiliation.” This echoes Yao Jianguo’s above-noted perception of the Treaty of Nanjing as being “humiliating.” It is difficult to distinguish between involuntary expressions of patriotism and calculated propaganda on this issue, but there is a sense here that both historians truly perceive the War as a scar on their national pride. Discussions of “humiliation,” “national pride,” and “patriotism” are invariably imbued with high levels of emotion, which does not lend to rational debate or scholarly discussion.
However, many earlier accounts and reflections upon the Opium War – from both the Western and Chinese perspectives – are notably lacking in this heightened level of rhetoric which debars open discussion of the subject. Two writers on the subject – the Nationalist Chinese diplomat Tsiang Ting-Fu and the American Grover Clark – actually seem to occupy common ground regarding a number of the issues involved in the Opium War. One of these points of agreement is of particular interest to modern students of the conflict:
Clark: “Inevitably, war came.” (Clark 203)
Tsiang Ting-Fu: “Under these circumstances, war was unavoidable.” (Reader 135)
The sense one gets from reading both men’s accounts of the conflict is that it was driven, not so much by a desire to profit from the drug trade in opium, as by an almost unstoppable historical determinism. The British empire, backed up by technology of the Industrial Revolution and interested in expanding its commercial dominion in the East, would inevitably have come into conflict with the large Chinese empire. The point of contention seems to be irrelevant, in this view (which, notably, does not view the British as the predecessors of Columbian drug cartels!), for if the quarrel had not been sparked over opium it probably would have been over something else. The conclusion of the conflict would have been similarly disastrous for the Celestial Empire given the realities of its comparative weakness in military technology and the conservatism of its political system. To make clear some of these points, it would be useful to revisit the conflict itself.
From the perspective of the Chinese, the Opium War represented much more than a clash over the importation of opium. What was occurring was a fundamental shift in the Chinese perception of the world; a crisis of a new sort without any previous parallel in Chinese history. The British were not the “barbarians” that the Chinese had so skilfully been manipulating and fending off for centuries, and this was something that the government was unable to understand (China 57). Whereas in the West, governments had for centuries been making a distinction between foreign and domestic affairs, this was a conception entirely absent from Chinese thinking in the nineteenth century. For example, it is of enormous significance that Lin Ze-xu, the Imperial Commissioner whose confiscation of opium from British merchants in Canton sparked the war, and who later commanded the Imperial armies against the British, continually referred to the British in his diary as “rebels” (China 61). This suggests that what was occurring in the Opium Wars was something far larger than a struggle over the sale of drugs, or even a trade war. The sense here is that the War was in fact about a struggle for supremacy between two cultures, two perceptions of the world. If, as observed above, perceptions often define our realities, then it may be argued that the Opium War in fact represents the clash of two realities, a Western and an Asian; two solitudes previously separated and now coming into collision in a world shrunk by the power of Western technology.
This view has the virtue of explaining the astonishing ignorance, to say nothing of arrogance, with which both sides approached the conflict. This is particularly marked on the Chinese side. One official’s analysis, sent to the Emperor on the eve of the opening of hostilities in the Opium War, almost seems as if the writer were on another planet from the British. The “memorial” is of interest as it explains the eagerness with which the Imperial government marched to disaster in the War:
The English barbarians are an insignificant and detestable race. . . .the immense distance they have crossed will render the arrival of seasonable supplies impossible, and their soldiers, after a single defeat, being deprived of provisions, will become dispirited and lost. . . .Notwithstanding the riches of their government, the people are poor and unable to contribute to the expenses of an army at such a distance . . . . we have no cause to fear them . . . . we may open our batteries upon them, display the celestial terror, and exterminate them without the loss of a single life.
A modern reader wonders if this official had ever met an Englishman. Indeed, the bureaucrat’s reference to the British as “barbarians” is not a mere ethnic slur. Rather, it signifies a whole range of attitudes towards foreigners that have their roots deep in China’s history and culture. For example, the advice of a writer from an earlier age in dealing with “barbarians” can be seen to inform the perspective of the above “memorial”:
The barbarians are like beasts, and not to be ruled on the same principles as Chinese. Were one to attempt controlling them by the great maxims of reason, it would tend to nothing by the greatest confusion. The ancient sovereigns well understood this, and accordingly ruled barbarians by misrule. To rule barbarians by misrule is the true and best way of ruling them.(Clark 195-96)
This passage is of interest for the fact that it appears to contradict the above-noted tendency on the part of the Imperial Chinese government to perceive no distinction between domestic and foreign affairs, and to see the British as “rebels”. However, it may be argued that this is only an apparent contradiction for the common point in both is the idea that the Chinese empire is destined to rule even “barbarians.” Moreover, it also expresses the conservatism that was at the heart of the Chinese government, when the writer observes how the key to correct political rule may be found in the governance of the past.
This level of ignorance, and lack of curiosity, was not matched by the British side. Like most successful merchants, the British paid great attention to the nature and prejudices of their customers. One British consular official was, astonishingly, aware of the Chinese perception of the British as both barbarians and rebels. The Chinese, he observed, largely
look on the late war as a rebellious irruption of a tribe of barbarians. . . .But the apathy with respect to foreign things generally, even of the higher and, in the Chinese sense of the word, educated classes. . .is to an European quite astonishing. . . .They are quite unable to draw conclusions as to the state of foreign countries, from an inspection of the articles produced or manufactured in them. . . .in his eyes, therefore, we are all barbarians. . . .
Clearly, this is not a mindset which can easily “open” itself to the perception of anything new. Its significance in terms of an analysis of the Opium War lies in the fact that the War may be interpreted as a sign of the necessity to change. The Chinese were confronted by a drug more potent than opium: modernity. In the face of this challenge, their system failed. As one scholar observes:
China changed only within her own tradition, meeting new challenges by turning to the past for time-tested solutions, and failure was blamed not on the system but on its administration. Confucianism remained throughout as a system of thought and of government. . . .but by this time the West brought weapons, machines, and ideas which could not be fitted into the Chinese universe or be dealt with by Chinese institutions without tearing at the roots of her most basic traditions.(Reader 139)
It has been argued that it was this scholasticism on the part of the scholar/bureaucrat class that was a major contributing factor to the Opium War, as well as to China’s defeat in that War and its subsequent inability to learn from this defeat and reform itself. Conservatism, an adherence to Confucian culture, and a lack of individual initiative were all characteristics of this class of government officials. In this Lin Ze-xu, the champion of Chinese resistance against the British in the Opium War, serves as a useful representative figure of the intelligent bureaucrat who is suppressed by the conservatism of his class.
As noted above, Lin was the Commissioner sent by the Emperor to Canton to suppress the opium trade. Although originally a hard-liner opposed to the British presence in China – it was his decision to close Canton to foreign trade that led to the British declaring war – Lin soon began to appreciate the fact that Western military technology far outclassed that of the Chinese army. He therefore began a program of buying Western armaments – by implication, a stunning admission of Chinese “inferiority” in this field – and more significantly commissioned a translation project of all Western periodicals that he could acquire. In one of the ironies of history, this work was compiled into the An Illustrated Gazetteer of the Maritime Countries (Hai-kuo T’u-chih) which was later translated by the Japanese as a contribution to their own Westernization reforms. Later, in exile, Lin wrote a letter to a friend in which he detailed the enormous technological and military superiority the British possessed over the Chinese, concluding pessimistically: “But alas, what was to be done, what was to be done?” Yet, even after Lin had been reinstated to power, he was careful never to make public his views on the need for reform. Recognising the power of the conservatives in the Imperial government, Lin protected his career at the expense of the state; and understandable, if not quite laudable, action (Reader 143-45).
It must be conceded that in terms of the cultural clash that underlay the Opium War the West, if not quite so ignorant as the Chinese, were just as – if not more – arrogant:
From this Western point of view, too, the laws of “infidel” countries meant nothing. China, for example, proscribed Christianity, and, after bitter experience, prohibited the importation of opium. But Catholic and Protestant missionaries worked strenuously to smuggle Christianity into China despite Chinese laws. . . .Most of the Western traders were equally ready and eager to smuggle opium into the country and to take the large profits that were to be made in the traffic.
As such, the Opium War is about much more than a drug trade. It is about two systems – each convinced of the others inferiority – neither of which sees any need to respect the other’s moral right to exist freely, and without interference. Seen in this light, it becomes clear why the British and the Chinese have long held differing interpretations of the War:
To the Chinese In its larger background, the war was a barbarous and completely unjustified attack on Chinese civilisation, they felt. More immediately, it was an opium war, pure and simple.To the British, on the other hand, the real cause of the war was Chinese arrogance, showing itself. . .especially in the determined and persistent refusal of the Chinese to deal with the British as anything but low inferiors. . . .The difficulties over opium, they maintained, were only a very minor and incidental part of the reason for fighting.
In the above two perspectives on the Opium War, both sides are to varying degrees correct. The Chinese may have been justified in interpreting the War as an attack on their civilisation, for in many respects that is exactly what it was. Similarly, there is no doubt that Chinese pretensions of superiority greatly angered the British (Clark 203). However, the ostensible issue at the heart of the dispute – opium – was not quite an “incidental” of the war.
However, the Westerners who sold opium in China were not the equivalent of modern “drug lords.” Indeed, a more accurate view is that the opium trade came into being to solve a problem for Western accountants.
Western traders had, for centuries, being suffering from a trade deficit with the Chinese empire. The demand for Chinese goods was such that the flow of Western silver and gold into China was a drain on Western civilisations from the time of the Romans. The British traders were faced with this same problem, which was aggravated by the insular Chinese lack of interest in Western manufactured goods. These merchants, unwilling or unable to keep funnelling silver to the East, hit upon the idea of smuggling opium into China from plantations in India. There was a large, and ready, market for the drug in China, and within a few years the British and American merchants were able, not only to balance their purchases of Chinese manufactures with opium, but were also taking silver out of China – in exchange for the opium – on top of their regular trade (China 54-5).
Given that for centuries the flow of silver had been to the East, few Westerners would be willing to accept on face value the argument sometimes proposed that several years of a reversal of the coinage flow was enough to bring the Chinese economy to it knees (China 55). However, it is obvious that there was a significant human cost to this trade:
Lin Ze-xu reckoned that there were 4 million opium smokers in China, while a British doctor in Canton set the figure at 12 million. Because of opium, business slowed down, the standard of living fell, and public services no longer worked smoothly.
Certainly this was an embarrassing plague of addiction which had the potential to severely damage the Chinese empire both morally as well as economically. Much as is the case with modern drug smugglers, and here the analogy does bear scrutiny, the smuggling of opium led to corruption among many government officials responsible for stamping out this trade; as well as promoting the rise of a “spin-off” criminal class to service the profitable networks of smuggling in Southern China.
However, while the opium trade clearly was not the minor “incidental” some in the West perceived it as, it also was – as we have seen above – far from being the main issue at stake in the Opium War of 1840-42. Rather, it may be interpreted at the blasting cap which set off the dynamite of the clash of cultures and civilisations which was at the heart of the War. A common arrogance, fuelled on the Chinese side by thousands of years of civilisation, and on the British by their new technology based on the Industrial Revolution, led the two empires to war. It was, as noted above, probably inevitable given the expansion of British power and the wealth of the Chinese market. The modern revisiting of the War is informed by this conflict, which led to decades of Chinese subjugation at the hands of the West. Thus, it remains an issue of great sensitivity and relevance in China, whereas it has long since been consigned to the closet of history in the West.
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