The dispute between Chinese mandarins and British merchants in the 19th century

Consequences for their todays bilateral trade and political relations

Essay, 2018

19 Pages


Why could a dispute between Chinese mandarins and British merchants not be resolved before 1839

It has to be noted that, in recent decades, there is a decline in interest in clarifying the East-West problem, creating a system of well-arranged historical description of the emergence and development of commercial organizations, the most prosperous of all known to humanity and controlled by a group of London merchants. All aspects of its activities deserve careful study: the beginning of establishing links between England and the East, the creation of an empire, the policy of neo-colonialism, maritime trade with China, as well as the causes and consequences of opium wars. The growth and volume of trade relations between England and the East overshadowed the period of the long and difficult struggle of the East India Company for the establishment of these relations. Therefore, a thorough, detailed, and comprehensive study of the processes and origins of the development of bilateral trade and political relations between advanced then capitalist England and feudal China is one of the most important and relevant tasks in understanding the historical experience accumulated by mankind, above all, political and social experience.

The beginning of the history of China is "lost" in ancient times, and information about the first permanent relations with Europe dates back to 1520, when the Spaniards first founded their trading posts in the Chinese city of Ningbo. In 1522, the Portuguese founded the famous Macao colony on the peninsula at the mouth of Si-Kiang or the Pearl River. Together with the establishment of trade relations with Europe, missionaries, mainly Jesuits, began to penetrate into China to spread Christian propaganda. Despite the invasion of the Manjour into the Chinese empire in 1644 and the change of the ruling dynasty, trade relations were increasingly and more revived, and, in 1662, the British and French founded a trading post in Canton, with the permission of the Chinese government. Simultaneously with the establishment of trading posts in Canton, as a result of the freedom of religion declared in China, Christianity began to penetrate into the people.1 However, from the 18th century, there has been a dramatic change in both domestic and foreign policy of China. The Chinese, who adopted Christianity, began to be subjected to the most severe persecution, and trade with Europeans began to be oppressed in every possible way. Such a dramatic change in policy can be explained by the influence that Europeans had on the Chinese people and the fear of the government for maintaining the order that established in the empire during centuries.2

If the Western European states that conducted expansionary policies, as a rule, encouraged intra-and inter-civilizational contacts, stimulated the export of finished products, China adhered to isolationist or insufficiently active foreign economic policies. Even the rulers of the Ming dynasty imposed a prohibition on maritime trade since 1436 (and this is after the enormous achievements of Chinese naval commanders). Considerable obstacles to the expansion of foreign economic relations also existed during the Qing dynasty, which feared the 'leakage' of various Chinese products, including weapons, to other countries and were hardly fully aware that the empire, despite all its economic successes, from the 18th century, increasingly more technically lagged behind the leading European powers. In the Qing Empire, foreign trade quota did not exceed 1-2%.3 In the end, the Chinese policy of isolation could not but lead to the strategic vulnerability of the country in the face of the European threat, when, starting from the 16th century, Europe was actively expanding its way of life, its values, its culture.

The need for expansion into China was dictated by the very logic of economic development. Capitalism of that period (and, in fact, of any period) needed a permanent expansion of the markets. By 30-40th of the 19th century, Europe was completely 'pioneered' and divided, the United States and South America were included in the trade turnover, the British were 'reclaiming' India with all might. The fate of China was predetermined: Europe set out to open China, force it to abandon the policy of isolationism, and tap the huge Chinese markets.

Qing China entered the 19th century being a rich and completely closed from the Europeans power. The Chinese economy had sufficient resources to create everything the population needed, from food to luxury items, domestically without importing. At the same time, the products manufactured in the Celestial Empire, flooded the European markets. At this point, the main colonial empires formed in the west, the largest of which, of course, was Great Britain. European states that were experiencing an industrial boom were interested in finding new countries to export their goods. Densely populated China represented potentially excellent market, which could have been used by Western merchants; however, Europeans were considered in China "white barbarians" and the purchase of goods from them opposed the official ideology of state. At the same time, one of the main features of world capitalist development was direction towards the development of the international trade system which, naturally, meant the gradual destruction of Chinese isolationist policy.4

Until the second half of the 19th century, trade with Europeans was conducted only through the port of Guangzhou. Foreign merchants were forbidden to leave their trading post. Only thirteen Chinese trading companies had the right to conclude transactions with representatives of other states; moreover, their activity was strictly controlled by the imperial official. The Chinese who informed the foreigner any information about the country or, especially, those who taught the foreigner the Chinese language, were severely punished.5

However, such a policy brought negative results: it prevented China’s participation in the industrial revolution that had begun, doomed it to technological and military backwardness and, ultimately, to helplessness in front of external aggression. The first form of imperialist aggression against China was the opium trade.

Pursuing a policy of autarky, the Chinese government refused to acquire imported goods and minimized foreign trade relations, limiting them to the southern city of Guangzhou (Canton, as the Europeans called it). At the same time, foreigners were allowed to conduct business only through Chinese merchants-intermediaries who had licenses.

As payment for tea, silk, and porcelain sold to the West, the Chinese demanded silver. This did not suit either the English merchants, or the British government, who feared a leakage of precious metals from the country. In search of goods that could cause mass demand in China, the British stopped on opium produced in Bengal under the patronage of the East India Company. It was assumed that as the number of drug-addicted Chinese increased, the trade balance would change in favor of the UK. These expectations were fully met.

For the political realities of Europe of the 19th century, the colonization of the countries of Asia and Africa was quite an ordinary part of the general international geopolitics. Britain in those years was the leader of international trade, but even the conquest of India and the consolidation of its status as a British colony did not stop the appetites of the British authorities and entrepreneurs.

During the first half of the 19th century, fundamental changes took place in the relations between England and China. Having turned into the first industrial, commercial, and colonial power of the world, Great Britain, while continuing to strengthen and expand its position in Asia, turned to open aggression against the feudal Qing Empire, which had entered a period of decline. Under the onslaught of the British, the Qing lost their suzerainty over Nepal and Burma. In a situation of change in the balance of power not in favor of China, the complete ignorance and inability of the Manchu government circles to control multinational China were evident. They tried to preserve their despotic domination through the conservation of backward feudal relations and the isolation of the Chinese people from the impact of advanced political ideas and world economic progress. At the same time, the Qing rulers continued to display arrogance and disrespect for foreign countries.6

The arbitrariness of Qing officials reached frightening proportions, which, undoubtedly, slowed down the development of international trade even more. Extremely unprofitable trade relations, undoubtedly, were the cause of discontent of European entrepreneurs. The problem of unequal trade with China became particularly acute for the Britain: the ever-increasing demand for Chinese goods increased the trade turnover with the Qing Empire and, as a result, increased the outflow of silver from the country, which could, according to British economists of the time, become a threat to the monetary system of Britain and a drive for the strongest economic crisis.7

Intensive trade under this scheme led to the depletion of the British treasury, endangering the welfare of the Bank of England, which carried out its settlements, mainly, in silver. All attempts to blandish the Chinese emperors with gifts were not crowned with success. The situation is well summarized by the words of Emperor Qianlong, which he said in 1793 to Lord Macartney, Ambassador of George III: "We do not need anyone. Go back to your country. Take your gifts!"8

An important point should be noted: the activity of the British in the Qing Empire was not from the very beginning military and force. It is necessary to refute the allegation of the sudden intervention of Britain in China. There have been many attempts of a diplomatic settlement of relations between China and England.

In particular, in 1793, a mission was sent under the leadership of the aforementioned Lord George Macartney, sent by the East India Company, but protecting the interests of the government. The main objectives and proposals of the mission were constituted of the following points:9

- Exchange of diplomatic missions: England creates a permanent embassy in Beijing, and the Qing Empire creates such in London.
- In addition to Guangzhou, several more ports should be opened for trade with foreigners.
- China establishes uniform tariffs and publishes them (the main idea of this request was to protect merchants from bureaucratic arbitrariness).
- The Qing government was asked to allocate some island off the Chinese coast, which could be turned into the center of English trade in China.

As one can see, the wishes expressed by the British side, practically, did not assume any damage to the Qing Empire; they were fully justified and relevant. Moreover, the development of foreign trade would ensure turnover, which could stimulate the country's economy. The Qing government, however, did not accept a single request from the English missionaries, explaining its refusal by the "lack of need for foreign trade."10 Undoubtedly, such a decision could also take place, all the more given the fact that China’s economy was entirely focused on local production.

Britain sent missions more than once to resolve the issue of "discovering" China - for example, a mission led by Lord Amherst in 1818 and a mission led by Lord W. Napier in 1834. Both missions failed because British diplomats were not even allowed to visit the Huandi court.11


1 Richard von Glahn, The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2016), 255-348.

2 Jerome Ch'en, China and the West: Society and Culture 1815-1937 (Hutchinson, 1979), 62-74.

3 Richard von Glahn, The Economic History of China 349-370.

4 Carl Trocki, Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy: A Study of the Asian Opium Trade 1750-1950 (Asia's Transformations) (Routledge, 1999), 4-8.

5 Jerome Ch'en, China and the West: 76-82.

6 Charles River Editors. The Opium Wars: The History and Legacy of the 19th Century Conflicts between Britain and China (Charles River Editors, 2018), 16-20.

7 Alain Pichon, China Trade and Empire: Jardine, Matheson & Co. and the Origins of British Rule in Hong Kong, 1827-1843 (Records of Social and Economic History) (British Academy, 2006).

8 Tan Chung, China and the Brave New World: A Study of the Origins of the Opium War 1840-42 (Allied Publishers, New Delhi, 1978): 46.

9 John King Fairbank, Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast (Harvard University Press, 1953), 96-110.

10 Ibid: 108.

11 John D. Wong, Global Trade in the Nineteenth Century: The House of Houqua and the Canton System (Cambridge University Press, 2016), 18-32.

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The dispute between Chinese mandarins and British merchants in the 19th century
Consequences for their todays bilateral trade and political relations
Columbia Southern University
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
opium wars, colonian trade, China, British Empire
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Nadiia Kudriashova (Author), 2018, The dispute between Chinese mandarins and British merchants in the 19th century, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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