History Optional Paper-2 Solution – 1981: Q.5 (d)

Q.5 (d) Write a critical note on: Importance of the Opium War in the history of China.


Untill well into the nineteenth century China was almost closed to European. Having one of the oldest civilization, Chinese were proud of their culture and despised all foreigners as barbarians. But due to lack of contact with the outside world, Chinese civilization had stagnated.

Europe had wooed China for long to open up for trade but she refused, hence she had to be forced to satisfy European lust for trade. Britain took the lead. 

Before these opium Wars, only two Chinese ports were open to foreign traders. There was no demand for British goods in China. So the British had to pay back in gold and silver for importing Chinese tea, silk, jade and porcelain which led to huge trade deficit for Britain. Therefore, the British merchant started smuggling opium from India into China on a large scale, to cover up for their cost of importing Chinese goods. Thus, the illegal opium trade was not only profitable to British but it also did immense physical and moral damage to the Chinese. 

Chinese government, to save its people from drugs, made opium illegal but illicit trade continued. It increased sharply when, on the abolition of the monopoly of the East India Company’s Chinese trade, there was a rush of new competitor.

In 1839 the Chinese government confiscated and destroyed more than 20,000 chests of opium of British merchants. This, added to other harsh measures of China to extinguish the traffic, led to violence and then War between China and Britain, ending in victory of Britain. By Treaty of Nanking (1842), China ceded Hongkong to Britain and opened 5 ports for European trade. Opium question was left unsettled and smugling continued.

The first opium war revealed the weakness of China which emboldened greed of Europeans, resulting in more demands for privilege and then second war (1856-58) in which Britain was joined by France, defeating China again. In peace treaty, trade privileges were extended. The right of extra-territoriality which carried with it the exemption of the foreigners from the jurisdiction of the Chinese law was provided to Europeans. Christian missionaries were also allowed.

The war was a European demand for the legalisation of external trade and for the recognition of the equality of foreigners. This opened up China to European exploitation. Several other European powers and the USA secured from China the privilege of trading.

The Opium Wars marked the beginning of China’s century-long subjugation and servitude to foreign powers. The defeated Chinese were forced to legalize the importation of opium, accept unfair and unbalanced terms of foreign trade, open up China’s seaports and the Yangtze River to foreign commercial penetration under the so-called “treaty port” system, and exempt westerners from China’s local laws and national jurisdiction.The opium wars marked the imperialist domination of China.  So severely curtailed was China’s independence in that period that the Chinese still view the Opium Wars as a national disgrace.

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