With trade politics thickening the air like an April snowstorm, you might be intrigued to know a bit about China’s past history with exports and imports. As in, we should be very careful.
We all know China’s civilization is one of the world’s oldest with historical records dating back at least to 2000 BCE when the Xia dynasty began. Legendary emperors introduced natural medicines including ephedrine, cannabis, and tea—the latter being the crux of a trade matter that would come back to haunt Westerners today.
Over 3000 years passed as the country went through various changes in leadership and cultural developments but here’s the important thing—they stayed within their borders. With all their advancements, they seemed content for all those centuries to keep to themselves.
Just because the Chinese did not use their advancing sophistication in efforts at world conquest did not meant they didn’t trade. Bits of Chinese silk have been found in Egypt from around 1000 BCE. The famous Silk Road, established around 200 BCE, accommodated the trade of Chinese silks, herbs and spices, and cultural ideas ranging from Buddhism to use of horses. Only with the Mongol invasions in the early 13th century were the Chinese forced to deal with outside forces.
The Chinese bounced back with the founding of the Song dynasty, considered the high point of classical Chinese civilization.
The Song economy, facilitated by technology advancement, had reached a level of sophistication probably unseen in world history before its time. The population soared to over 100 million and the living standards of common people improved tremendously due to improvements in rice cultivation and the wide availability of coal for production. The capital cities of Kaifeng and subsequently Hangzhou were both the most populous cities in the world for their time, and encouraged vibrant civil societies unmatched by previous Chinese dynasties. Although land trading routes to the far west were blocked by nomadic empires, there were extensive maritime trade with neighboring states, which facilitated the use of Song coinage as the de facto currency of exchange. Giant wooden vessels equipped with compasses traveled throughout the China Seas and northern Indian Ocean. The concept of insurance was practiced by merchants to hedge the risks of such long-haul maritime shipments. With prosperous economic activities, the historically first use of paper currency emerged in the western city of Chengdu, as a supplement to the existing copper coins.
The Song dynasty was considered to be the golden age of great advancements in science and technology of China …Inventions such as the hydro-mechanical astronomical clock, the first continuous and endless power-transmitting chain, woodblock printing and paper money were all invented during the Song dynasty.
China’s military and imperial ambitions did eventually lead to imperialistic ambition. By the 1400s, Chinese colonialization in foreign lands extended to Japan and Vietnam. That was small potatoes compared to the Europeans who had begun far-flung expeditions to virtually every corner of the earth. In fact, by 1500 a strong isolationist fervor developed in China. When contacted by Western powers such as Portugal in 1520 and the Dutch in 1622, the Chinese vigorously repelled any and all attempts at collaboration.
Meanwhile, the West had begun to thirst for all things exotic including spices from Indonesia and India and especially tea, silk, and porcelain from China. Despite rich colonial profits from Caribbean sugar and tobacco to American cotton, African ivory, and Mexican silver, imperial appetites were insatiable. Just like today, the West—especially the fanatical tea-drinking British—suffered a terrible trade imbalance with China. China didn’t have much interest in the woolens and other commodities offered in trade by Britain and insisted on silver payment for its tea. By the late 17th and early 18th century, Britain faced a monetary crisis over its trade with China.
And here’s where it becomes very instructive as to our current trade situation with China, “we” meaning Americans, that peculiar offshoot of the British Empire who fired its first shot over the king’s helm by dumping, yes, you’ve heard this before, crates of tea overboard in Boston Harbor. British efforts to shore up its finances meant hiking taxes on tea, and the colonists weren’t having it.
Meanwhile, among its other conquests of empire around the world, British invasion of India brought them local merchants dealing an ancient and powerful substance known as opium. Clever Brits thought to import opium to China in the belief that it could balance its trade debts from tea. It didn’t take long for Chinese authorities to recognize the threat to their social order posed by widespread opium use. In 1780, the Qing government issued an edict against opium and other restrictions soon followed.
… Qing dynasty Qianlong Emperor wrote to King George III in response to the MaCartney Mission’s request for trade in 1793: “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.” Tea also had to be paid in silver bullion, and critics of the tea trade at this time would point to the damage caused to Britain’s wealth by this loss of bullion. As a way to generate the silver needed as payment for tea, Britain began exporting opium from the traditional growing regions of British India (in present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan) into China. Although opium use in China had a long history, the British importation of opium, which began in the late 18th century, increased fivefold between 1821 and 1837, and usage of the drug became more widespread across Chinese society. The Qing government attitude towards opium, which was often ambivalent, hardened due to the social problems created by drug use, and took serious measures to curtail importation of opium in 1838–39. Tea by now had become an important source of tax revenue for the British Empire and the banning of the opium trade and thus the creation of funding issues for tea importers was one of the main causes of the First Opium War.
Delicate business, trade. By the early 1800s, Americans also began importing opium to China as a blend of opium and Turkish tobacco. The resulting competition between America and Britain brought opium prices down resulting in easier access for the average Chinese resident. By 1838, Britain alone imported more than 1,400 tons of opium to China. It was estimated that 27% of adult male Chinese were addicted.
China’s emperor wrote an impassioned letter to Queen Victoria, explaining the harms of opium use and questioning Britain’s “moral judgement.” Sources say the queen never received the missive, but it probably wouldn’t have made much difference. The economics of trade meant that the nation’s leaders bowed to commercial interests.
Under the new law in 1839, Chinese began boarding British ships and confiscating opium. In one raid alone, authorities destroyed over 1,200 tons of opium on a public beach. Outraged, British importers demanded the assistance of British military. Matters devolved as Chinese banned British ships from taking supplies or water at Chinese ports and various skirmishes ensued, leading to debate in British parliament. The House of Lords (which included owners of most of the ships and trading companies) wanted war with China. The House of Commons, more sympathetic to the problems caused by opium, wanted the opium trade to stop.
No extra points for guessing who won. In a military buildup of British ships and personnel beginning mid-1840 and supplemented by Indian dragoons by 1841, Western powers with their heavily armed gunships and superior technology sailed up the Pearl River and destroyed less-well-armed Chinese vessels and troops. The British blockaded Chinese ports up and down the coast. In July 1842, British warships steamed up the Yangtze River to Canton where they destroyed Chinese forts protecting the city. Ultimately, China had no choice but to surrender and accept terms including stiff fines payable in silver and British control over Hong Kong and Singapore, initiating what the Chinese called “The Century of Humiliation.”
Meanwhile, the East India Trading Company [British] sent Scottish botanist Robert Fortune to sneak into China to steal tea plants and a few Chinese men who knew how to grow it. Vast tea plantations in India were the result. Under British control until 1947, India’s tea crops bypassed China’s, thus ending the need to trade with China for the tea supply.
I don’t think I need to belabor the point. It seems the Chinese have learned their lessons well.
Quoted passages pulled from Wikipedia articles:
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