For much of its long history, China has reigned supreme in East Asia. The main threats to China were merely internal disputes that periodically split the country into several parts. In different historical periods, the territory of modern China was under the control of Vietnam, Mongolia, and Korea. China had periods of being closed and being opened to the Western world. During the XVIII century, the relationship between the Western world and China and, therefore, the Western opinion on China depended on the technological progress of both of them and on trade.
By the end of the XVIII century, during the reign of the Qing Empire, the trade with the outside world began to expand again. Chinese silk, porcelain, tea, and other products were in great demand in Europe, but the Chinese refused to buy anything from the Europeans. After some time, the Great Britain began to import opium to China and soon involved the local population in opium smoking, especially in the coastal areas. The import of opium increased steadily and became a true disaster for the country, which led to a series of the Opium Wars in the mid-XIX century. However, it took 20 years of difficult negotiations and the second “opium war” (1856-1860) for China to fully accept the demands of the Western powers. They included the opening of China’s foreign diplomatic missions, allowing foreigners to live and trade in specifically stated ports. Additionally, it allowed extraterritoriality of the citizens of the Western powers in China, freedom of navigation by foreign ships in China’s territorial waters, and involvement of foreign powers in the regulation of Chinese customs tariffs.
It is hard to say why the Chinese government changed its attitude to technical progress. The Ming authorities and Qing emperors were absolute and autocratic as compared to their predecessors. Before them, there had been frequent coups and regicides, bringing an element of “competition” to Chinese political market. Two great and enlightened despots Manchu Kangxi (1662-1722) and Qianlong (1736-1795), whose reigns were described as eras of peace and prosperity, showed interest in the pacification procedure and streamlined administration.
During the reign of the Ming and Manchu, the state hardly did anything for modern economic growth. Perhaps this view is an exaggeration because at the end of the XVII century the imperial court took the most active steps to revive the country. Economic expansion continued in the XVIII century. Growth in agricultural production was provided mainly through deforestation and development of the southern provinces, which occurred with the active support of the government. A natural consequence of the stability that the power of the enlightened Qing despots brought was the commercial expansion. However, the country lost its technical dynamism that had distinguished China during the previous dynasty. No other force in China could replace the government as the driving force of technological progress. That was because the technical changes in Europe were implemented by the individual in a decentralized, politically competitive environment.
As for Kangxi, with the completion of the conquest of China and the beginning of the restoration of industry, Kangxi gradually began to cancel previously introduced tax cuts starting from the beginning of the XVIII century. To ease hatred of the Chinese to foreigners, Kangxi ceased the practice of arbitrary seizures of land, homes, and property by the wealthy Manchus. To strengthen the alliance between the Manchu and Chinese authorities, Kangxi took the following actions. He developed an extensive cultural program to expand the participation of the Chinese gentry and landowners in the civil administration.
In the middle of the XVIII century, the Qing Empire was the largest and most powerful state in East Asia. “Closing” China was designed to prevent the strong anti-Manchu coalition from spreading abroad. Chinese merchants were not allowe to build big ships, steer foreign ships, communicate with “foreign barbarians,” and learn their languages. Regular entry of foreigners was banned and the arrival of merchants and diplomats was tightly controlled. The caravan trade with Russia through the Mongolian steppes was strictly regulated. The Qing Emperors saw the policy of isolating the country from the outside world as a means of self-preservation.
In the middle of the XVIII century, all foreign trade of China was concentrated in Canton (Guangzhou). It was the only port that allowed European ships to enter China. Suspicion of the Manchurian government against the southern provinces caused their exclusion from this trade despite continuous attempts of naval powers to open markets in those cities. The Manchurian government did not like the relationship between the Chinese nationals and foreigners. The Valley of the Yangtze River was the most troubled region of the empire as there the uprising of the sect of the White Lotus and many other rebellions started. Therefore, this region was forbidden to engage in any relationships with foreign merchants from whom the rebels could get help. The contact with other people increased the number of anti-Manchurians and their spread throughout the South. Canton itself as the center of foreign trade eventually became a stronghold of anti-Manchurian movement.
The merchants wanted to maintain a monopoly, the government wanted to keep the aliens in one port, and the officials of Canton wanted to continue receiving large bribes. In the XVIII century, ambassadors and foreign traders unsuccessfully fought against such an alliance. Canton had a monopoly as the only way to the outside world. The main export products were silk and tea, produced in the Yangzi Valley. Tea and silk were exported in increasing numbers because at that time China supplied these products not only to Europe but also to America, which paid in silver. The attempts to sell any European products in the Chinese Empire had not been successful for a long time. The English East India Company, obliged under the statutes to export a certain amount of English wool and fabrics, discovered that these products were sold in China at a price that did not even allow to cover the costs of production and transportation. Only in 1827, goods from Manchester were first sold at a profit in China. By the end of the XVIII century, foreigners had found an opportunity to sell fur and sandalwood, imported from Canada and the South Sea Islands. However, negligible imports could not outweigh exports of tea and silk; therefore, the balance was still in favor of China. “External barbarians” got tea and silk and provided a constant flow of silver to the treasury. This situation made taxation, seizure, and corruption easy and profitable.
The situation had remained the same until Western importers found the “right” product for China, opium. It was only in the middle of the XIX century. In the XVIII century, China did not need anything from what the Europeans could offer. Emperor Qianlong, answering to the Embassy of Lord McCartney said, “Celestial Empire possesses all things in abundance and within the borders does not lack anything. Therefore, there is no need in exchange of things of barbarians to our things here.” However, Qianlong missed one important fact. Both the emperor and influential Manchurian or Chinese officials did not know and did not want to know about the distant European peoples, “living at the edge of the world.” They regarded science and culture of the Western world unworthy of Chinese scientists’ attention. Pedantic Manchurian Empire authorities ignored any other knowledge and refused to believe that foreigners could give them anything of value. The Manchus not only despised the Western civilization but also forced its subjects to be ignorant too. Trade in Canton had countless prohibitions designed to minimize contact with foreigners and limit their sphere of influence to trade only. The reasons for such suspicion and prejudice were, no doubt, brutality and aggressiveness of the first Portuguese sailors and their followers. However, the Manchurian government showed itself unable or unwilling to understand that foreign traders had changed. The scandalous behavior of the sailors gave officials the right to set strict limits to all foreigners, regardless of their status. Foreigners were forbidden to leave the trading port, enter the city and even play sports in the surrounding area. If ships came in late summer, traders had to leave Canton and spend the winter in Macau. Women were not allowed to come to Canton. It was strictly forbidden to learn Chinese; those who taught the Chinese language were severely punished. However, some foreigners were still able to master it, and subsequently, the ban lost its effectiveness. In Canton, the whole trade was in the hands of a few merchants. For their privileges, the trading houses paid huge amounts of money. They were responsible for all the actions of foreigners, and officials fined them at every opportunity. All of the authorities’ efforts were aimed at preventing its subjects from learning something about other civilizations and cultures. Conversion to Christianity, emigration or even a trip to a foreign ship were prohibited. Since foreigners were not allowed to learn Cantonese, which the Manchurian and Chinese officials from other provinces did not understand, trade had to be conducted in a mixed language known as “pidgin English,” in which the British and Portuguese words connected according to the grammar of the Canton dialect. This language was equally comprehensible neither to the inhabitants of Canton nor to foreigners unless they specifically studied its peculiar vocabulary. Despite all these difficulties, the Chinese merchants and foreigners had huge trading profits.
During the XVIII century, the entire trade with China was almost exclusively conducted by the East India Company leading maritime nations. The British company, owing to its strong position in India and naval superiority of England in the eastern seas, soon began to play the leading role in Chinese trade. The French, Dutch, Danes, and Swedes lost in the trading fight. England was virtually the only power to trade with China. Its monopoly would be complete if it had not entered the competition with the United States. The Americans opened trade with China for all people, who dared to conduct such business. Different status of British and American traders was reflected in the different attitudes of the two nations to the Manchurian government and its requirements.
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The Americans thought all the troubles and misfortunes, which plagued their countrymen in distant lands, were personal problems of traders only, being outside the jurisdiction of the government or nation as a whole. They often did not represent anybody’s interests but their own and had no significant influence in the Congress. The British looked at it from a completely different point of view. For them, the British company in China represented the Crown and nation, and, therefore, had appropriate respect.
In summary, the establishment of the Manchu Qing Dynasty in China introduced the policy of isolation of the country. Contacts with foreigners were not only prohibited but even called dangerous by the Chinese authorities. It was a protest against the destruction of ancient traditions, invasion of China, and achievements of European civilization. During the XVIII century, foreign trade was banned in all ports except for Guangzhou. Even here, the Europeans were not allowed to settle within the city limits. They were forbidden to learn the Chinese language. It was impossible to move to the offshore islands and plow new land there; violators returned to the mainland and their houses were burnt. The Western World thought that China was a closed country, unfriendly to foreigners. China speculated on trade and was not interested in what Western people could bring to it.