The Opium Wars

... resulted from the attempts of Britain and other Western powers to overturn China's isolationalist and exclusionary trade policy. Confucian China's attempts to exclude pernicious foreign ideas resulted in highly restricted trade. Prior to the 1830s, there was only one port open to Western merchants – Guangzhou (Canton) – and only one commodity that the Chinese would accept in trade – silver. British and American merchants, anxious to address what they perceived as a trade imbalance, determined to import the one product that the Chinese did not themselves have but which an ever–increasing number of them wanted: opium.

The First Opium War (1839–42) resulted from China's attempt to suppress the opium trade, which had led to widespread addiction in China and was causing serious social and economic disruption there. British traders were the primary source of the drug in China. The Second Opium War (1856–60 – also known as the Arrow War or the Anglo–French War in China) was the result of the desire of Britain and France to win additional commercial privileges in China, including the legalisation of the opium trade, as well as to gain more legal and territorial concessions in China. In each case the foreign powers were victorious and gained commercial privileges and legal and territorial concessions in China. The conflicts marked the start of the era of unequal treaties and other inroads on Qing sovereignty that helped weaken and ultimately topple the Qing dynasty, which had ruled China since 1644 and was replaced by a republic in the early 20th century.

© Haydn Thompson 2019