An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

The Opium Trade

Mar 20, 2020 © Ulrich Theobald

The Opium Trade

Opium, the prepared latex from the buds of poppy (Papaver somniferum, Ch. yapian 鴉片) and originating in Western Asia, was known in China since the Tang period 唐 (618-907), but it was originally (and later, too) used only as material medica. The drug was also called afurong 阿芙蓉 ("Hibiscus") or wuxiang 烏香 "black fragrance". Smoking of opium (therefore called yan 煙 or 菸) was known in China, and particularly in Formosa (Taiwan), since the early 17th century.

Eigenschaften, Konsumption und gesundheitliche Folgen

The EIC decided to promote the cultivation of opium in their possessions in Patna (north India) and Bengal (eastern India) in the 1770s and to challenge the Portuguese who produced opium in Malwa in central India. The competition between the two players substantially lowered the price of opium and thus increased the demand for the poison. Up to 1818, all goods were running through Macao, with an annual amount of 4,000 chests à 140 pounds (c. 253 tons; Wakeman 1978: 172).

The Qing government had forbidden the import of opium as early as 1729. In 1796, the prohibition was confirmed, and in order to circumvent it, the EIC sold the Bengal opium at public auctions to the private English, who carried out the trade with China. Governor-general Ruan Yuan 阮元 (1764-1849, in office 1817-1826) cracked down on the opium traffic in 1820, and arrested Chinese dealers. They confessed how local officials were involved into the golden business. The traders, British and American alike, therefore moved their depot to the Island of Lintin (Ch. Lingding Dao 伶仃島), a move allowing to increase the annual opium import to 18,760 chests (c. 1,189 tons; Wakeman 1978: 172) annually. In 1836, it was 1,820 tons (Wakeman 1978: 178). The opium was stored in hulks of old ships, from where it was exchanged to Chinese wholesale dealers (yaokou 窰口) which had bought beforehand certificates from country traders. The wholesale dealers made use of fast lighters called palong 扒龍 "scrambling dragons" or kuaixie 快蟹 "fast crabs" and sold the commodity to individual drug dealers, many of them belonging to mafia-like Triad organisations. Some opium dealers like William Jardine (Ch. Weilian Zhadian 威廉•渣甸, 1784-1843), one of the founders of Jardine Matheson & Co., even sold opium at the coast of Fujian and Zhejiang.

The EIC furthermore agreed to ship Malwa opium through Calcutta, and was thus able to stabilize prices. At the eve of the First Opium War, the value of opium sold to China amounted to 18 million silver dollars annually (Wakeman 1978: 172), making it the most valuable single commodity of the world.

At the eve of the First Opium War there might have been about 12 million opium smokers in China, half a century later it was between 1 and 3 per cent of the population (Wakeman 1978: 178). It was spread in all parts of society, from workers and soldiers to state officials and the gentry, and equally among men and women. Apart from the physiological and mental problem, the widespread opium addiction was an impediment for economic development, not just because of the decrease of labour output. The authorities were alarmed at the velocity by which silver money left China as a result of the purchase of opium.

The export of silver money by the purchase of opium was on the one hand a question of the trade balance, and on the other hand a problem for the bimetallic monetary system of China. It consisted of two independent currencies, namely silver ingots (known as sycee), and copper cash, with a nominal exchange rate of 1 : 1,000 (see Qing-period money). A drain of silver decreased the value of copper cash, but the latter was the common currency of the folks, while the taxes they had to pay were accounted in silver. This constellation led to a real (yet not nominal) increase in taxes. The situation was aggravated by the decline in copper production in the mines and smelters of Yunnan which caused the mint authorities to cast lighter – and thus cheaper – cash coins, which had accordingly a smaller purchasing power.

The "outflow of silver" was quite probably only a reason to explain the disappearance of silver from circulation. Gresham's Law says that "bad money" (devalued copper cash) drives "good money" (dear silver) out of the market. People possessing silver might hide it or dig it, but it did not necessarily leave the country because of opium (Gelber 2006: 3-4). The "outflow of silver" was not a matter of fact, but the perception of the scholar-bureaucrats in China of what happened on the money market (Burger 2015; Lin 2015).

In moral terms, the smuggling of opium contraband involved so many different actors of the local economy and administration that virtually the whole society was infested with corruption. All mercantile elements of the south-eastern coast were closely linked with criminal groups.

In 1830 the Daoguang Emperor ordered to arrest smugglers and prohibited the cultivation of poppy in China. For this purpose, the village self-defence (baojia 保甲) groups were to be reinforced. Yet a few years later, the outcome of the suppression policy was rather mediocre.

Xu Naiji 許乃濟 (1777-1839), Vice Minister of the Court of Imperial Sacrifices (taichangsi shaoqing 太常寺少卿), therefore suggested in 1836 to suspend the prohibition of opium trade. He was supported by some officials who argued that legalisation would help to increase state revenue and lower the degree of corruption. Yet the Emperor was on the side of the moralists and continued, quite sucessfully, his crackdown policy in 1837. The success perhaps urged hardliners like Huang Juezi 黃爵滋 (1793-1853), Minister of the Court of State Ceremonial (honglusi qing 鴻臚寺卿), to advocate the death penalty even for consumers, and not just for smugglers. Another voice in the Chinese opium debate was that of Lin Zexu 林則徐 (1785-1850, in office 1837-1839), governor-general of Hu-Guang 胡廣 (Hubei and Hunan), who had no experience with Westerners, but had successfully brought down the opium problem in the provinces under his jurisdiction. Belonging to the new-text school of thinkers, he was convinced that the present age was in need of different methods than the past, for instance, the use of Western tools to fight the Western "barbarians". He was also the first who had a psychological view of the drug problem and appealed to think of healing the addicts in sanatoriums. Yet Lin was also aware that the epicentre of the problem was Canton, and in this place, Chinese and foreign smugglers should be punished in the same way.

Export of tea 1660s two pounds, 1780s 15 million pounds, 1830 thirty million (Gelber 2006: 5). Opium legal in GB (consumed in the shape of laudanum), import in that age 200,000 pound p.a. (Gelber 2006: 4) opium releaves from stress, caused by social disturbances silver spent on tea, does not leave the country no statistics available theories of silver outflow only in heads people hoard or bury silver Greenberg 1969: 221, 1800-1801, some 4570 chests of opium1 were shipped to China. 1820-1821, the total was much the same: 4244 chests. 1830-1831 that had suddenly more than quadrupled, to 18,956 chests and, by 1838-1839, on 40,200 chests Gelber: Still less did it stop Chinese citizens, merchants, gangs and hordes of officials from ignoring the prohibitions and smuggling it into the country. Even sen-ior officials in charge of coastal protection grew very rich indeed from smuggling, or smugglers’ kickbacks. In the later 1830s the emperor’s most senior advisers debated whether it would be better to enforce the opium prohibitions or to legalize, regulate and tax the trade. Not until 1838-39 did the emperor finally opt for enforcement and send the admirable Commissioner Lin to Canton to see to it. Within sixteen years of the Treaty of Nanjing, China had abolished the opium import restrictions, not least because they had become irrelevant. By 1860, and much more so by 1900, the Chinese were growing at home many times as much opium as the British, or anyone else, could import. What is more, they kept on doing it, in increasing quantities and virtually throughout all the wars and revolutions of the twentieth century missionaries miseries
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