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Letters About the Opium War Trade

Until the mid-1800s, China, once considered one of the largest and most powerful kingdoms, faced significant challenges due to the Opium War. It was so wealthy that the European powers were desperate to access Chinese silk, porcelain, and tea, widely considered the best quality products. However, the problem was that the ruling Qing Dynasty adopted an isolationist policy that limited trade to only a handful of ports. This was due to the Qing Empire having little need for European products.

The only product they seemed interested in was silver. However, the British eventually found another product that the Chinese people wanted, opium. This would later lead to the Opium War and open the floodgates to Chinese trade. However, for the Chinese, this would mark their end as a global power as they underwent the Century of Humiliation. The sudden change is best reflected in the letters written at the time that give a grim picture of the situation.

The Ravages of the Opium Trade

Although China was happy to trade with silver during the earlier parts of the 1800s Opium War, this left European nations at a disadvantage as they traded at a deficit. This was unacceptable for the British East India Trading Company and they were desperate for a new product to rebalance trade.

They found this product after their conquest of India where they began growing poppies to make opium, something that many Chinese were eager to buy for recreational uses. Although illegal, the Qing Dynasty initially tolerated this trade as they also profited from the increased trade.

However, problems emerged when Opium usage spread to surrounding provinces and became an opioid epidemic. As the situation worsened, the ruling Daoguang Emperor passed stricter measures to restrict and control the trade of Opium War. Among these was the appointment of a famous officer named Lin Zexu who was famous for being stern, intelligent, and incorruptible to deal with the Opium merchants in Canton.

He began his campaign by confiscating Opium stocks and throwing them into the Pearl River, while also forcing addicts to go to rehabilitation centers. However, he knew the merchants were only a part of the problem and if he was to end this trade, he would need to convince the British monarchy to help him. That is why he wrote a letter to Queen Victoria, appealing to her to make her merchants obey the laws of China and called out the hypocrisy of them selling addictive opioids to other countries when they have banned them in Britain.

“We find your country is sixty or seventy thousand li [three li make one mile, ordinarily] from China Yet there are barbarian ships that strive to come here for trade to make a great profit. The wealth of China is used to profit the barbarians. That is to say, the great profit made by barbarians is all taken from the rightful share of China. By what right do they then in return use the poisonous drug to injure the Chinese people? Even though the barbarians may not necessarily intend to do us harm, yet in coveting profit to an extreme, they have no regard for injuring others.

Let us ask, where is your conscience? I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden by your country; that is because the harm caused by opium war is clearly understood. Since it is not permitted to harm your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries — how much less to China! Of all that China exports to foreign countries, there is not a single thing that is not beneficial to people: they are of benefit when eaten, or of benefit when used, or of benefit when resold: all are beneficial. Is there a single article from China that has done any harm to foreign countries?”

-Lin Zexu, Qing Dynasty Official.

Effects of the Opium War on Historical Artifacts

In February 1860 Opium War, British and French forces led by Elgin and Gros entered China with troops to fight against the Qing Dynasty. They invaded Beijing after the Qing emperor fled to Chengde. During this invasion, they ransacked the Old Summer Palace, taking valuable jewelry and burning it down. One of the items they stole were the famous bronze animal heads from the palace.

On October 7 Opium War, the French army entered the Old Summer Palace and started looting. British troops arrived later and also joined in taking away the most valuable treasures. Among these were twelve bronze animal head statues, all of which were taken out of China. Later, on October 18, British soldiers set fire to the Old Summer Palace, which burned for three days and destroyed the palace and nearby royal buildings.

As of December 2020 Opium War, seven out of the twelve bronze animal head statues have been located and returned to China. The whereabouts of the remaining five statues are still unknown.

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