Take three mid-19th century Asian conflicts: one killed 20 million people, one killed well over 100,000 and a third killed 20,000. Which one, despite being barely noticed by the Chinese government at the time, is the most discussed today and has become emblematic of an historic clash between East and West?
The immensely deadly Taiping Rebellion between 1850 and 1864 and the vicious conflict between ‘Hakka’ and ‘Cantonese’ peoples between 1855 and 1867 are barely known outside China, despite their far bloodier impacts on human lives. We know vastly more about the ‘First Opium War’ of 1840 because it has played a totemic role in two political arenas: one in China and one in the UK. And in both places, the origins of the war have been obscured and distorted to suit political agendas.
In China, the ‘Opium War’ marks the beginning of what the Communist Party currently calls the “century of national humiliation” — a period of unrelenting misery that only ended in 1949 with the Party’s victory in the Chinese Civil War. It is a narrative that underpins both the Party’s right to rule China and its increasingly assertive foreign policy. In Britain, the narrative of the war has been a weapon wielded variously by Liberal critics of a Whig government, puritan campaigners against drugs, leftist opponents of British foreign policy and Twitter-users claiming that white people are inherently racist. All these critiques and narratives caricature the evidence.
In the comic-book version, the British Empire went to war in 1840 to force an illegal and immoral drug, opium, down the respiratory passages of the Chinese people, purely for its own ill-gotten ends. This narrative is oddly patronising. It assumes that the Chinese side were merely naïve dupes, hapless victims to imperial power. It is time to recognise that there were several protagonists in the First Opium War.
On one side were the British free-traders, men who wanted an end to Chinese restrictions on commerce, whether of cotton or opium. There was also an East India Company anxious to maintain its good relations with local officials, and a London government and its critics with their own agendas. On the other was an imperial court in Beijing split between reformers and a clique of Chinese conservative ‘scholar-officials’ intent on keeping foreign influence at bay. In the middle was an Asian financial problem triggered by a European war.
At the beginning of the 19th century, opium was seen in China as a cure-all for everything from stomach problems to plague. Although imports had been restricted and poppy cultivation banned in 1729, its medicinal use continued to be legal.When a cholera pandemic hit China in the 1820s there was a huge increase in demand for a drug believed to stop diarrhoea. Others procured it to reduce the symptoms of malaria. Regardless of imperial edict, poppy was being grown in the provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Shanxi, Guizhou, Zhejiang and Manchuria by the 1830s and the drug was being widely smoked.
This period was a time of crisis for the Qing Empire. Its population had more than doubled over the previous century while the area of land under cultivation had risen only by half. Unsustainable use of the land caused declines in soil fertility, increased erosion and downstream flooding. Food became more expensive, work became scarce, and corruption and mismanagement made things worse. Millions of peasants were already going hungry. Serious rebellions broke out in several provinces. And to cap it all, the Napoleonic wars triggered revolutions in the Spanish Americas that disrupted the flow of reliable silver coinage to Asia. The result was shortages of currency, deflation and economic depression.
Foreign traders had previously made fine profits from the silver trade. Because Chinese traders preferred silver pesos while people outside China preferred silver bullion, there was money to be made in arbitrage: exchanging one for the other. The economic historian Alexandra Irigoin has shown how it was the shortage of reliable coins in East Asia after 1828 that triggered a search for alternative trading goods and the free-traders’ turn towards opium.
The Chinese imperial court needed scapegoats for its failures, and it found them in opium and foreigners. As the American historian James Polachek discovered, documents from the period make clear that conservatives turned arguments over opium into weapons to weaken reformers. While some in the imperial court wanted to open up trade to relieve the economic crisis, others — notably a group of conservative intellectuals calling themselves the ‘Spring Purification Circle’ were trying to try to close it off from the outside world.
In May 1836, alarmed by the explosion of smuggling and corruption caused by the opium ban, the court had actually come close to legalising its import, but the proposal was blocked by the conservatives. The Spring Purification Circle then engineered the appointment of one of their own, an ambitious official called Lin Zexu, as Governor-General of Guangdong, the region where foreign trade — and opium smuggling — were concentrated. In Polachek’s words, “Lin was playing at the game of foreign policy essentially for domestic political purposes”.
The result of all these rival agendas was a local clash in Canton between groups with their own special interests that ultimately ignited a small war. In June 1839, in the middle of negotiations with the British trade superintendent, Governor Lin unilaterally destroyed 20,000 chests of opium As the sinologist Julia Lovell has pointed out, the superintendent — Charles Elliott — found himself in a situation where he felt obliged to defend British subjects even though they were engaged in a trade that he personally opposed. Until this point, the arguments had been over the merits and demerits of opium. Now they were over the freedoms of Britons overseas, the ‘right’ to trade and the honour of the country.
Back in London, an embattled Whig government was under pressure from Tories and Liberals in Parliament, from Chartists and rioting miners in the streets, and from insurrections in several colonies. There were already those in Britain seeking a ban on opium (a ban that would not be introduced until the First World War) and for them the trouble in the east was a useful addition to their arsenal of complaints about the drug. For its critics, the government’s decision to send a military force to China was, to quote William Gladstone, a “permanent disgrace”. The actual details of what triggered the conflict and whether the response was justified were less important than the moral certainty provided by taking a position on one side or the other.
It was in the interests of them all to vilify their opponents, whether at home or abroad. Depending on which version of the cartoon you are watching, Britain was either progressive and enlightened or evil and predatory; China was either backward and deserving of a bloody nose or noble and innocent. It is easy to see why the tired old narratives linger on: they still play useful purposes today.
It was only in the 20th century that the First Opium War was elevated to its present iconic status. In the 1900s, nationalists deliberately stoked feelings of ‘national humiliation’ to undermine the geriatric Qing Dynasty. In the 1940s, Communists extended the narrative into a ‘Century of National Humiliation’ to undermine their Nationalist rivals. And in the years since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, the Communist Party has carefully nurtured this narrative of historic humiliation through its ‘Patriotic Education Campaign’.
Under Xi Jinping’s rule, the campaign has been turbocharged. Xi invoked the Opium War when he launched his grand ‘China Dream’ vision in 2012, again at the most recent Party Congress in 2017; and on many occasions since. For the Party, the war is a defeat that keeps on delivering victory.
Successful as it has been for the Communist Party inside China, this narrative of resentment is achieving the opposite outside the country. China’s neighbours, and countries in the West, are increasingly wary of a regime that tries to mobilise anti-foreign sentiment to reinforce the idea of a nation ‘under siege’. The international Pew survey released this week suggests more than three quarters of people in South Korea and Japan have negative views of China. Concerns have soared to similar levels in France, Germany and Britain too. And it is hard to see how international opinion will shift in China’s favour if its leadership continues to base its right to rule on resentment over a 180-year-old war.
Bill Hayton is the author of ‘The Invention of China’, published this month by Yale University Press
 Frank Dikötter, Lars Laamann & Zhou Xun, ‘Narcotic Culture: A Social History of Drug Consumption in China’ in British Journal of Criminology, (2002) 42, 317–336  Joseph G. Alexander, ‘The Truth about the Opium War’, The North American Review, Sep., 1896, Vol. 163, No. 478, p382  Irigoin, Alejandra, ‘A Trojan Horse in Daoguang China? Explaining the Flows of Silver In and Out of China’, LSE Working Paper No. 173/13, London School of Economics, 2013  Polachek, James M., The Inner Opium War, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992  Polachek pp134-5