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The Opium Wars

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 12 April 2007

Melvyn Bragg discusses the Opium Wars, a series of conflicts in the 19th Century which had a profound effect on British Chinese relations for generations. Thomas De Quincey describes the pleasures of opium like this: “Thou hast the keys of Paradise, O just, subtle and mighty opium”. The Chinese had banned opium in its various forms several times, citing concern for public morals, but private British traders continued to smuggle large quantities of opium into China from India. In this way, the opium trade became a way of balancing a trade deficit brought about by Britain's own addiction...to Indian tea.

The Chinese protested against the flouting of the ban, even writing to Queen Victoria. But the British continued to trade, leading to a crackdown by Lin Tse-Hsu, a man appointed to be China's Opium Drugs Czar. He confiscated opium from the British traders and destroyed it. The British military response was severe, leading to the Nanking Treaty which opened up several of China's ports to foreign trade and gave Britain Hong Kong. The peace didn't last long and a Second Opium War followed. The Chinese fared little better in this conflict, which ended with another humiliating treaty.

So what were the main causes of the Opium Wars? What were the consequences for the Qing dynasty? And how did the punitive treaties affect future relations with Britain?

With Yangwen Zheng, Lecturer in Modern Chinese History at the University of Manchester; Lars Laamann, Research Fellow in Chinese History at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London; Xun Zhou, Research Fellow in History at SOAS, University of London

  • Further Reading

    Robert Bickers, Ritual & diplomacy: the Macartney mission to China, 1792-1794 (London: Wellsweep/British Association for Chinese Studies, 1992)

    W. E. Cheong, Mandarins and Merchants: Jardine Matheson, & Co. (London, Curzon Press, 1979)

    Robert Blake, Jardine Matheson: Traders of the Far East (Diane Pub. 1999)

    Keith McMahon, The Fall of the God of Money: Opium Smoking in nineteenth-century China (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002)

    Arthur Waley, The Opium War through Chinese Eyes (London: Allen and Unwin, 1958)

    James M. Polachek, The Inner Opium War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Council on East Asia Studies, 1992)

    Frank Dikotter, Lars Laamann and Xun Zhou, Narcotic culture: the social history of drugs in China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004)

    Hunt Janin, The India-China opium trade in the 19th century (Jefferson: McFarland, 1999)

    Marin Booth, Opium: A history (London: Pocket Books, 1997)

    Yangwen Zheng, The Social Life of Opium in China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)

  • .

    Carl A. Trocki, Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy: A Study of the Asian Opium Trade, 1750-1950 (London: Routledge, 1999)

    Peter Ward Fay, The Opium War, 1840-1842: Barbarians in the Celestial Empire in the early part of the nineteenth century and the war by which they forced her gates ajar (New York: Norton, 1976)

    Michael Greenberg, British trade and the opening of China 1800-42 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951)

    Brian Inglis, The Opium War (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1976)

    Tan Chung, China and the brave new world: A study of the origins of the Opium War (1840-42) (Durham, N.C : Carolina Academic Press, 1978)

    Frederic E. Wakeman, Strangers at the Gate: Social disorder in south China, 1839-1861 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997)

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