The Downfall of Imperial China
tend to think of the "drug problem" as a modern phenomenon.
But a century ago, illegal drugs brought an end an empire that had
lasted for thousands
1793, China was the home of a sophisticated culture and a rich history.
Among other remarkable achievements, China invented movable type,
kites, and gunpowder. They perfected porcelain, silk and tea production.
1793, however, was the beginning of the end of Imperial China.
Britain and other European nations, desiring her silk, tea and porcelain,
wanted badly to trade with China. China, however, wanted nothing
to do with Europe, and even refused to see European diplomats. Finally
in 1793, a British diplomat was successful in reaching the Chinese
court. He told the Chinese of the wonderful products of his country,
convinced that once they really knew what Europe had to offer, they
would quickly agree to engage in trade. China, however, was unmoved.
In a letter to King George, the emperor said,
. . As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things.
I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have
no use for your country's manufactures. . . Our Celestial Empire
possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product
within its own borders. There was therefore no need to import the
manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.
But as the tea, silk and porcelain which the Celestial Empire produces,
are absolute necessities to European nations and to yourselves,
we have permitted, as a signal mark of favour, that foreign hongs
[merchant firms] should be established at Canton, so that your wants
might be supplied and your country thus participate in our beneficence.
would sell Europe their silk, tea and porcelain, but would buy nothing
Chinese goods were so sought-after in Europe, an imbalance of trade
developed. European gold and silver went to China to import goods,
but none returned because there was no possibility of export. This
was unacceptable to the British and they desperately looked for
solution to Britain's problem was opium. Although opium had been
used in China for medicinal purposes for a long time, it had not
been used as a recreational drug. The British introduced opium to
China in 1825, and soon, not surprisingly, Chinese began to be addicted
to the drug. The emperor outlawed the possession, use, and trade
in opium, but the profits were so immense,
that an illegal trade quickly developed. The East India Company
in India supplied all the opium the Chinese wanted and the Chinese
government was unable to stop the smuggling. The balance of trade
1839 the Emperor ordered Commissioner Lin Tse-Hsu to put a stop
to the opium trade. Lin wrote to Queen Victoria, appealing to the
British sense of justice and compassion:
have heard that in your own country opium is prohibited with the
utmost strictness and severity:---this is a strong proof that you
know full well how hurtful it is to mankind. Since then you do not
permit it to injure your own country, you ought not to have the
injurious drug transferred to another country, and above all others,
how much less to the Inner Land! Of the products which China exports
to your foreign countries, there is not one which is not beneficial
to mankind in some shape or other. There are those which serve for
food, those which are useful, and those which are calculated for
re-sale; but all are beneficial. Has China (we should like to ask)
ever yet sent forth a noxious article from its soil?
received no reply. Left on his own to solve the problem, Lin ordered
the destruction of a large supply of opium stored on Chinese soil.
(The Chinese had allowed the British one port in which they could
trade with China).
British were outraged, and the first Opium War began. Faced with
British industrial weaponry, it was no contest, and Britain easily
defeated the Chinese. As part of the settlement of the war, China
was forced to agree to open up new ports for trade, and to surrender
the island of Hong Kong. A second Opium War was launched by Britain
in 1856, forcing more concessions on the Chinese. Among other humiliations,
the Chinese government was no longer able to hold foreigners accountable
under Chinese law for crimes committed in China. The proud Central
Kingdom had lost the ability to control trade and foreign nationals
within its own borders.
ever-weakening Chinese government also lost the support of its own
people, whom it could no longer protect. By 1911, the empire was
dead and a republic was born in China.
Part of The
Decline of Imperial China exhibit
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