The Opium Trade Between England & China Essay Examples

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: China, Opium, England, Business, Commerce, Trade, Letter, Europe

Pages: 5

Words: 1375

Published: 2021/01/21

Commissioner Lin implored for the Opium trade to be halted because Opium harmed Chinese society as a whole by reducing their productivity level as a result of addiction an escalating mortality rates. Official diplomatic ties between England and China commenced in 1793 when Lord McCartney led a British delegation to China in order to converse with the Chinese emperor. The result of that meeting was an increase in commercial trade, although commercial relations between the two countries soured when the British replaced paying in monetary currency with payment in kind, most notably, in opium. The Chinese Empire under the Qing dynasty faced a litany of problems both within without due to simmering antagonism fomented by military defeats at the hands of European powers. These humiliating losses forced the Chinese to begrudgingly sign humiliating treaties that contained provisions that profoundly undermined Chinese sovereignty while also carving out different spheres of influence that result in the exploitation of the Chinese economy. Tensions between the Chinese and the British culminated in the Opium War caused by the opium trade itself. At the outset of his letter, Lin writes to Queen Victoria that “if there is profit, then he shares it with peoples of the world; if there is harm, then he removes it on behalf of the world.” Thus, Lin lets it be known at the beginning that he viewed the Opium trade as adversely impacting the Chinese society and economy. Lin persuaded the Chinese as well foreigners that Opium was a nefarious drug and a “poison” that profoundly harmed both human health and, from a sociological vantage point, society at large because it was a social ill that threatened to dismantle the ruling dynasty as well as the structure of Chinese society itself by decreasing productivity. Lin penned a letter to England’s monarch Queen Victoria to garner her support for halting the opium trade and flow across porous national borders by appealing to her sense of religiosity. He conveys an overt aversion towards Opium, which is evident in his vivid descriptions of the opium as a drug itself and how it threatens the natural order as a good that threatened the moral fabric upon which China was constructed upon.
Moreover, Lin outlines the punishments that he thinks captured opium peddlers should receive due to the nefarious, immoral nature of their actions that posed a serious threat to China: the death penalty. The language Lin uses to describe opium users and addicts as “barbarians,” a term that the British often use to refer to certain peoples that is imbued with imperial and moralistic underpinnings. Lin underscores the benefits of stopping the flow of opium, as he asserts to the queen: “you will enjoy a long life and be rewarded with a multitude of children and grandchildren.” As such, Lin constructs opium users as primitive, backwards, uncivilized, and wholly Other as a rhetorical means to convince the queen to heed his inquiries. Lin thus appeals to the religiosity of the British and the colonial discourses about the religious mission of European colonial powers to “civilize” non-western parts of the world. In order to fulfill their mission, the British must not encourage barbaric behavior, which opium use encourages. By couching this letter from a religious and moral standpoint, Lin rhetorically appeals to European sensibilities in order to make his case.
While china was in turmoil, Britain, Lin opined, was earning over three times the profit by importing Chinese goods and then exporting the goods to other countries for enhanced prices. Opium, however had handicapped the Chinese by disrupting economic productivity, premature death, and addition. The Chinese Empire under the Qing dynasty faced a litany of problems both within without due to simmering antagonism fomented by military defeats at the hands of European powers. These humiliating losses forced the Chinese to begrudgingly sign humiliating treaties that contained provisions that profoundly undermined Chinese autonomy and sovereignty while also carving out different spheres of influence in China and paved the way for the Chinese economy to be severely exploited. While they faced pressures from military threats abroad, the Qing dynasty also faced internal dissension and disorder, which the Taiping rebellion typifies. Lin laments that “the wealth of china is use to profit the barbarians. That is to say, the great profit made by the barbarians is all taken from the rightful share of China. By what right do they then in return use the poisonous drug to injure the Chinese people?” Lin uses such language to underscore the immorality that inheres the Opium trade. Beyond articulating just a moral argument, Lin ends his letter by weaving together a moral and an economic contention for eradicating the opium trade. Even without the opium trade, Lin argues, England would still enjoy a “triple profit” due to the fact that countries purchase goods for high prices. As such, Lin calls upon the morals of England stating that since England still enjoys high profits without the opium, England should do so in a morally just way that is not “injurious” to the Chinese people.
Written on behalf of the Chinese emperor Dauoguang in which Lin gave Queen Victoria an ultimatum—thereby underscoring how serious and adamant the emperor was regarding the sale and consumption of opium regardless of the price that must be paid—to accentuate the severity of the situation in China. 1839 represents the apex of opium addiction under the auspices of the Qing Dynasty in China. This epistle is written within the genre of memorial letter writing in order to convey China’s concerted efforts to peacefully resolve the opium dilemma that threatened Chinese society in a diplomatic and moral manner. Lin praises the Chinese emperor both for the revered leader’s benevolence and for his graciousness, a tactic deployed by Lin in order to discursively elevate the Chinese emperor as worthy of having his wishes heeded by the British. Ultimately, it is clear that Lin believed that the British who endorsed the Opium trade were “careful of their own lives, but careless of the lives of other people, indifferent ingreed for the harm [done] to others. Such conduct” Lin decried, was quite “repugnant to human feeling, and at variance with the Way of Heaven.” Lin thus implored the queen to ban the Opium trade because of its nefarious affects on humanity. He inverted the traditional narrative articulated by westerners regarding non-westerners and subaltern peoples in order to frame his letter from a moral perspective.
Conversely, it is unequivocal that Lord Palmerston argues that the Opium trade should continue because of the principle of free trade that has governed global commerce for centuries. Using tactical language, Palmerston justifies any bellicose activity against China for violating free trade precepts. As such, it is clear that Pamerston’s letter does not have a specific agenda other than to trap China rhetorically and linguistically. Indeed, Palmerston indirectly acknowledges the fact that they knew about the nefarious consequences spawned by opium and the opium trade. However, Palmerston blames China for sustaining Opium trade for so long, thereby deflecting the onus onto the Chinese and the Chinese government. Palmerstone writes that “if the Chinese Governments says it did not know of these things, if it says that it knew indeed that the Law was violated by Foreigners who brought in Opium, but did not know that the Law was violated by its own Officers who assisted in the importation, and received fixed sums of money for permitting it.” Palmerston thus discursively frames the Chinese themselves as the criminals who allow opium in for profit even when it is illegal to do so. Thus, rather than blaming the British, Palmerston articulates an argument that seeks to exacerbate internal problems in China. The British, Palmerston notes, were simply exercising their right to free trade, which had existed between the Chinese and British for a over a century.
The war merely functioned as a public mechanism through sheer and brutal force deployed by the British army to reify British superiority, a sentiment that undergirded a Eurocentric view of the world and, in Palmerston’s eyes, was already implicitly materializing. Indeed, European countries often turned to bellicosity rather than diplomacy because war as a hyper-masculine activity was conducted in order to restore national virility and validate Europe’s global superiority and stature over countries in the East such as China. Palmerston justifies such militaristic actions by asserting that the Chinese had violated free trade principles while also besmirching British honor by destroying the chests of opium. Palmerston thus frames the actions of the Chinese as breaking laws that have regulated Sino-British commercial trade for over a hundred centuries, stating that “the Queen of England desires that Her Subjects who may go into Foreign Countries should obey the Laws of those Countrieson the other hand, Her Majesty cannot permit that her Subjects residing abroad should be treated with violence, and be exposed to insult and injustice; and when wrong is done to them, Her Majesty will see that they obtain redress.” Palmerston emphasizes that the Chinese must redress the ignominy and insults waged against British merchants when the Chinese government purposely broke the laws governing British presence in China for trading purposes. Thus, Palmerston is most concerned about which of Britain’s major interests that include imperial prestige, trade revenues, or legal jurisdiction in their sphere of influence in China would supersede certain Chinese laws that ultimately necessitate the use of force for total compliance.
Primary sources from the time period unequivocally reveal the power relations between the Chinese and the West offer a window into why the Chinese have historically been antagonistic and cynical towards western powers. While Lin conveys trepidation over the threat that opium had to dismantle an already fledgling Chinese society and to foster dependence on British power, Lord Palmerston’s letter—while clearly reflects a Eurocentric perspective-- was intended to justify British military engagement and imperialistic presence. These clear-cut differences in content and tone reveal how China and Britain conceived of the world in starkly disparate ways.


Bentley, Jerry and Herb Ziegler. Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past. United States: McGraw & Hill, 2006.
Palmerston. Letter to the Chinese emperor. 1840.
Zexu, Lin. Letter sent by the commissioner is addressed to Queen Victoria.

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