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What Were the Opium Wars?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Opium Wars were a series of skirmishes between China and several Western nations, most notably England. These wars are sometimes also referred to collectively as the Anglo-Chinese War. The end result of the Opium Wars was the forcible opening of China to trade, and the lasting humiliation of the Chinese government and Chinese people. Many students of Chinese history have suggested that the events of the Opium Wars smoldered in the Chinese consciousness for decades, laying the groundwork for the numerous violent rebellions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

These wars were rooted in a desire to trade in China. China had been engaged in trade with the West since the 1600s, with Westerners primarily using silver to pay for silk, spices, tea, porcelain, and a variety of other Chinese goods. Many Western nations were accustomed to bargaining with goods, rather than money, and they began to chafe at Chinese demands for silver in lieu of trade goods.

When Great Britain seized control of India, it also acquired a monopoly on India's opium production, and British merchants came up with a brilliant solution to the Chinese trade problem. By smuggling opium into China, merchants could acquire a steady source of Chinese silver which could be used in trade, by creating a market for the highly addictive narcotic. The Chinese government, understandably, didn't think as much of this idea as the British did, and many government officials began protesting the growing opium trade, and attempting to enforce China's strict anti-drug laws.

In 1839, the Chinese government appointed Commissioner Lin Zexu to supervise the Chinese port of Guangzhou. Zexu took a strict anti-opium stance, even writing a letter to Queen Victoria to declare his intentions to put a stop to the opium trade. He confiscated and destroyed huge volumes of opium, giving the British an excuse to start the First Opium War. The British claimed that he had engaged in property destruction, and they hammered coastal Chinese towns with gunships and soldiers. Finally, the Chinese government was forced to cede defeat, and the British forced them into the Treaty of Nanjing, gaining the territory of Hong Kong along with very favorable trade terms in 1843.

13 years later, the Second Opium War was triggered by a Chinese-led search and seizure of a British ship which had been suspected of smuggling. The British used military force again, accompanied by nations which wanted a slice of the lucrative trade in China like France and the United States. In 1860, the Chinese were obliged to sign a second treaty, the Treaty of Tianjin, opening more ports to European trade, providing free passage for European merchants in China, and obliging China to pay reparations to the nations involved in the Second Opium War.

The Opium Wars are often used as a clear example of European imperialism in China. Like many nations in Asia, China was forced to open its borders to trade against its will, and to offer very favorable terms of trade to its European “partners.” The “Unequal Treaties,” as the treaties which ended the Opium Wars are known, provided numerous very lucrative contracts, ports, and terms to European signatories, and forced China to considerably compromise its legal system. Ultimately, the Chinese population rebelled, and the Opium Wars could be considered a major contributing factor in the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the last royal dynasty in China.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Sporkasia — On Jun 22, 2014

@Animandel - I agree that when you know the opium wars history it shines a different light on the countries of Great Britain and China. It is sad to think how the British government was actually supporting the sell of opium, and its goal was to get as many Chinese people addicted to the drug as possible. British generals were more like drug dealers and drug suppliers than military officers.

I think when you take a close look at history you can find why most leaders and countries do the things they do in the present. Even when hundreds of years have passed, some events have become so ingrained in the culture of people that the events still influence the way people act and the decisions they make.

By Animandel — On Jun 22, 2014

I always thought the opium wars in China were like the United States' version of war on drugs. I thought the Chinese government was making money off the sell of opium to other countries. Wow, I had it totally backward. After reading this article, I can understand why China does not trust other countries and why they are so strict about what items other countries can bring into China.

By Feryll — On Jun 21, 2014

Before reading this article, I didn't know that the British gained control of Hong Kong because of the opium wars in China. I have always wondered how Hong Kong got to be a part of the United Kingdom. Now, I can understand why China wanted the country back, and why the British felt like they should give it back. However, I do feel bad for the people of Hong Kong who were against falling back under the control of a communist country.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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