6-1: A Faltering Empire

Destroying_Chinese_war_junks,_by_E._Duncan_(1843)A Chinese warship is destroyed by the more advanced British navy. This technology gap allowed the British navy to operate with impunity in Chinese territorial waters. 

A Faltering Empire

Part 1 of 2: Read the following background information and then determine whether or not the actions taken by both China and Britain during the course of their 40 year trading relationship is justified or not. For each action state JUSTIFIED or NOT JUSTIFIED and give an explanation for your response. 


Background Information: Since the days of the Silk Road European merchants have sought to trade in China.  Following the age of exploration and the discovery of an all-water route to Asia, European trade expanded exponentially.  First the Portuguese won an important concession from the Chinese gaining the right to trade at the port city of Macao.  Soon the British won the right to establish a trade settlement at the nearby Chinese city of Canton.  No matter where the Europeans traded the exchange was the same, Europeans silver for Chinese commodities such as silk, porcelain and tea.  The “China trade” created a HUGE trade imbalance for England and the other European nations were forced to empty their treasuries of silver to acquire the premium Chinese goods. In order to offset this trade imbalance Britain started shipping opium to China in the hopes of getting the Chinese addicted and thus replacing the current system (in which Europeans paid in silver) to a new system (in which Europeans can pay in Opium).


Major Actions of Britain and China during their 40 year trading relationship

  1. 1793– Britain requests the opening of a formal trade agreement with China. The Chinese agree to allow British merchants to trade at the port city of Canton. The Chinese also insist that all goods be paid for with European silver.
  2. 1799—British merchants unhappy with the amounts of silver they are forced to pay in exchange for Chinese goods, begin introducing opium into the Chinese market as a substitute for silver.
  3. 1810—The Chinese government officially bans the importation of opium into China, citing that “Opium has a harm. Opium is a poison, undermining our good customs and morality”.
  4. 1811-1839British merchants continue to smuggle opium into China at Canton along with at other port cities not officially open to British trade. British merchants are able to do this because of the growing demand for opium and due to the superior sailing abilities of the British ships.
  5. 1839—Citing the British disregard for Chinese law, China’s trade commissioner Lin issues the following decree to European merchants: “It is known that foreign vessels come to China and have gained large profits from trade. Are you grateful for these profits?  If you are, you must know that in seeking profits for yourselves you are doing harm to others. Why do you bring opium into our land when it is illegal to bring it into yours?….The following law is enacted…whoever deals in opium or whoever establishes houses for smoking it shall instantly suffer the death penalty”.
  6. 1839British traders continue to smuggle in tens of thousands of chests full of opium. Commissioner Lin surrounds the British settlement at Canton and demands the surrender of all the opium in the settlement or risk imprisonment or death. The mostly unarmed traders in the settlement surrender 30,000 chests full of opium which is destroyed by the Chinese. The traders are allowed to re- turn to the European settlement at Macao.
  7. 1839-1842—The First Opium War:  Britain sends a fleet of advanced ships to defeat the Chinese and to force the Chinese to pay an indemnity for the lost trade goods and to grant new trade concessions.

Part 2 of 2: Read the following excerpts of the Treaty of Nanjing which ended the Opium War and answer the questions that follow.


The Treaty  of Nanjing

This treaty is an agreement of peace between the warring nations of Great Britain and China officially ending the “Opium Wars”.

Article II His Majesty the Emperor of China agrees that British citizens shall be allowed to live without being bothered or restrained by Chinese law and instead will live under the laws of Great Britain in the Chinese cities of Canton, Amoy, Foochowfu, Ningpo and Shanghai. [This effective gave British citizens extraterritorial rights]

Article III It being obviously necessary that British ships should have a port where they may dock and refit their vessels. His Majesty the Emperor of China gives up to Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain the island of Hong Kong to be possessed forever by her Britannic Majesty, her heirs and successors. The island of Hong Kong will be governed by the laws of the British Empire.

Article VI The government of Great Britain having been obliged to send out an expedition to demand and obtain payment for the violent and unjust actions of the Chinese authorities toward British citizens and property, the Emperor of China agrees to pay [an indemnity of] the sum of twelve million pounds (dollars) to make up for those expenses.




  1. Define Indemnity
  2. Define Extraterritorial Rights
  3. What was the primary result of the Opium Wars?
  4. Why do you think the Treaty of Nanjing was called an “unequal treaty”?