Tea, Silver, and War: How Things Were Before the Opium War

From the Lecture Series: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius P.h.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

In 1839, China and Britain fought a big war rooted in opium. Britain wanted to export opium to China in exchange for silver, and China did not want its people to get addicted to such a drug. But how did Britain get the idea and opportunity to export drugs? What was it like in China before the Opium War?

Old illustration of a Shanghai customhouse,
China played an active role in international trade and created Britain’s tea culture with its excessive export. (Image: Marzolino/Shutterstock)

The Opium War broke out in 1839 after a period of disappointment and reversal for the Chinese. It might look weird that one year after Britain abolished slavery, imposing drug import on another country led Britain to a new war. Before the Opium War, China had a glorious and then a disappointing time.

China at the Start of the Modern Period

China used to see itself as a central power of civilization, but in the 19th century, it felt humiliated by being forced to sign treaties that demonstrated its unequal status in international relations. In the 1430s, the voyages of Zheng He symbolized being the center of civilization, and in the 1800s, China felt subjected.

The European Imperialism was ruling with full force, destroying other nations instead of improving them. How did imperialism arrive in China? With the tea that had initially gone to Britain from China!

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The Tea Story

Around 1645, tea arrived in Britain from China, as an extremely fancy product that only the wealthiest people could afford. It took about a century before it became an unbelievably common drink in the whole society. The British were obsessed with tea, and the famous British afternoon tea ritual was born.

With the exotic Eastern drink, came along the exotic Eastern dishes required to serve the drink. In the case of tea, it was the beautifully designed and built Chinese porcelain – china. However, it was costly and only the elite could afford to buy imported china cups.

A sunny path through water through fog and time. Contrastive dramatic clouds. Sunrise.
Chinese tea was traded on the ships built exclusively for the purpose of trading tea. (Image: Sergey Voevodin/Shutterstock)

Substitutes for china were the Dutch Delftware and the English Wedgwood brand, founded in 1759. The founder of Wedgwood was Josiah Wedgwood, potter to the Queen, who also had an active role in the abolition of slavery. Now that drinking tea in porcelain cups was a common tradition for the British, they needed something to sweeten it with.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

American Sugar in British Cups of Chinese Tea

The sweetener that the British used for their imported tea came from the Americas. The global economy at work back then made once-luxury products today’s necessities. Sugar, cotton, tea, and coffee were such products.

The British East India Company was by far the leading trader in the market, leaving the Dutch East India Company and its earlier spice monopolies behind. The EIC built special ships for exporting tea and kept making a significant profit even when the tea price decreased. In the 1970s, China was exporting 23 million pounds of tea every year.

The British royal treasury set a 100-percent import duty on tea. The high taxes created a high tendency to smuggle, and even to revolt.

Learn more about 1600s and the British East India Company.

Trade Rules in China

Canton was China’s only open trading port. The EIC also traded tea through Canton. Foreign traders could stay at the port only during the five-month trading season every year. The Qing dynasty had its efficient ways of ruling over a 300-million nation.

In 1644, the Manchus from Manchuria conquered China and displaced the Ming dynasty, but could not change the civilization at all. Instead, they got absorbed in it and became ‘Chinese.’ Turkestan, Burma, Tibet, and Nepal were added to the territory under Manchu Qing’s reign. The limited foreign trade to the Portuguese station at Macau and to Canton, today’s Guangzhou. However, there was a problem in trade with China.

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The Chinese View of Trade

The Chinese saw international trade as a tribute from ‘lower’ nations to China and its emperor, known as the ‘Son of Heaven’. To get goods from China, one had to offer what China wanted. And there were only a few exotic goods, like clocks or music boxes, that interested China.

 an image of poppy heads
As China did not want what other countries offered, but other countries wanted tea, they had to find a substitute to export to China. They decided that opium was a good choice. (Image: Radovan1/Shutterstock)

The British requested a base in Beijing for permanent trade and sent some goods to impress the emperor: carriages, cannon, a hot-air balloon, and even some Wedgwood china pottery. However, China responded that their Celestial Empire lacked nothing, and the request was turned down. Thus, the EIC had to take Mexican silver to China in exchange for tea.

The British had to find a new way to trade, or maybe a new product. Eventually, opium, the ‘sleep bringer’, stepped into the scene.

Common Questions about the Opium War

Q: How was China before the Opium War?

Before the Opium War, China was actively participating in international trade of tea and porcelain. Everything was okay until the British decided to impose the import of opium.

Q: What led to the Opium War in China?

The Opium War rooted in tea trade. Before the Opium War, China had strong international trade, but Britain decided to increase profits as high as possible by exporting drugs to China. The Chinese people used opium, but the government did not want such a drug to be so commonly used. This mismatch of interests led to the war.

Q: The Opium War was between which countries?

The Opium War was between China and Britain, the two countries with a very strong trade background with each other before the war.

Q: What was China’s main export in the 1800s?

Before the Opium War, China exported oceans of tea to Britain through the British East India Company. The tea culture of Britain was formed through this vast export.

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