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British bombardment of Canton from the surrounding heights, May 1841

The Opium Wars were two wars in the mid-19th century involving China and the British Empire over the British trade of opium and China's sovereignty. The clashes included the First Opium War (1839–1842) and the Second Opium War (1856–1860). The wars and events between them weakened the Qing dynasty and forced China to trade with the other parts of the world.[1][2] The victorious British were successful in inducing an opioid crisis in China, which seriously undermined Chinese society[citation needed].

In 1820, China's economy was the largest in the world, according to British economist Angus Maddison.[3] Within a decade after the end of the Second Opium War, China's share of global GDP had fallen by half.[4] In another research paper published by Michael Cemblast of JP Morgan[citation needed] and updated by the World Economic Forum, similar conclusions were reached—i.e. China was the largest economy in the world for many centuries until the Opium Wars.[3] In China, the period between 1839 and 1949 is referred to as the Century of Humiliation.


First Opium WarEdit

The First Opium War, fought over opium trade,[4] financial reparations,[5] and diplomatic status,[6] began in 1839 and was concluded by the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. The treaty ceded the Hong Kong island to the United Kingdom in perpetuity, and it established five treaty ports at Shanghai, Canton, Ningpo (Ningbo), Foochow (Fuzhou), and Amoy. Another treaty the next year gave most favored nation status to the United Kingdom[citation needed] and added provisions for British extraterritoriality.[citation needed] Then France secured concessions on the same terms as the British, in treaties of 1843 and 1844.[citation needed]

In the late 18th century, the British East India Company started smuggling opium from India into China through various means and became the leading suppliers by 1773.[7] By 1787, the British were sending 4,000 chests - one chest weighed 170 lbs - of opium to China.[8] The Chinese Emperor passed many decrees/edicts against opium in 1729, 1799, 1814 and 1831, but the trade flourished.[9] Even some Americans entered the trade by bringing opium from Turkey into China. Some of the American opium traders included the great-grandfather of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and ancestors of US Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry.[10] By 1833, the number of chests of opium trafficked into China soared to 30,000.[8] According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the British sent the opium to their warehouses in the free trade region of Canton (Guangzhou), from where Chinese smugglers would take the opium into mainland China.[9] The opium trade resulted in 4-12 million Chinese addicts and devastated especially the large coastal Chinese cities.[8] In 1839, the emperor issued an edict ordering the seizure of all the opium in Canton, including that held by foreign governments.[citation needed] British traders alone lost 20,000 chests (1,300 metric tons) of opium, without compensation.[9]

Second Opium WarEdit

Depiction of the 1860 Battle of Taku Forts

During 1856–1860, British forces fought towards legalisation of the opium trade, to expand coolie trade[citation needed], to open all of China to British merchants, and to exempt foreign imports from internal transit duties[citation needed]. France joined the British. The war is also known as the "Arrow War"[citation needed], referring to the name of a vessel at the starting point of the conflict. The war resulted in the second group of treaty ports being set up; eventually, more than 80 treaty ports were established in China, involving many foreign powers. All foreign traders gained rights to travel within China[citation needed].


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