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What Was the Role of the Opium War in the Fall of the Qing Dynasty?

3432 words (14 pages) Essay in History

18/05/20 History Reference this

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What significant role did the Opium war play to accelerate the fall of Qing dynasty?


The Opium war is considered as the start of the end of Qing dynasty and the era of unequal treaties. The Opium war of 1839-1842 and 1856-1860 between Qing dynasty – China and Britain is regarded as the divergence of western colonialism (capitalism) and feudalism. The First Opium war[1] was the result of long-term discontent between British merchants and Chinese society. The war ended with China defeated and the treaty of Nanjing being signed in August 29, 1842. The majority of Second Opium war[2] was between the United Kingdom and the French Empire against the Qing dynasty to improve trade and diplomatic relations further by signing treaties. In June of 1858, the first part of war ended as the treaty of Tianjin was signed with Britain, France, Russia and the united states of America. In 1859, there were 3 wars that occurred in Taku Forts as the Chinese were defeated.[3] At the end of these battles of 1960, the Anglo-French force looted and burned the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.[4] In October 18, 1960, the symbol of the end of Opium war – the Convention of Beijing[5] was signed. This essay will be investigating the consequences of the Opium war in Chinese society and how it accelerated the fall of Qing dynasty. The majority of sources used in this essay are based on secondary sources from websites. These websites include British, Chinese and U.S perspectives. The minor sources are from British or Chinese books or paintings.


The Opium war marked as the catalyst of the downfall of Qing dynasty. This essay will indicate the effect on society, economics and territory sovereignty of China. The consequence of the Opium war left an undeniable shift in Chinese national consciousness and evoked revolution. The financial curtailment from the Opium wars aggravated the tax burden on lower classes. Also, the unequal development in different industries increased the unemployment rate and caused the inflation of daily necessaries. Malnutrition spread across the whole country. Territorial sovereignty had been damaged with area around Hongkong ceded to the British.[6] Through demonstrating the aforementioned issues, this essay will determine the consequences of the Opium War and if they aggravated the downfall of Qing Dynasty.


The greater amount of imported opium lead to several serious issues. They included the general health of people, society structure with legal issues and shift in national consciousness. After 1832, the average annual import of opium was over 20,000 chests and the average import of opium even achieved over 40,000 chests in 1838.[7] As the consequence of the Opium War, the annual import climbed to 70,000 chests by 1858 (approximately 4550 tonnes) and the number continued to raised till 1879.[8] It lead to approximately around 30% of the population smoking opium. only 4-6% of the population were in peasants and part of the working class. The phenomenon of widespread smoking opium damaged people physically and spiritually in different classes. People found hard to distinguish reality and fantasy and mental also declined.

The Royal Family started smoking opium first and it led to the spread of used opium in the middle – lower class. Smoking opium made the middle – lower class feel that they have the same power as the Royal Family. As a further impact, people even lost labour capacity in lower peasant class which was a fatal threat to them. In the lower class, people needed to pay for high taxes to government as a consequence of the Opium War, and they could not afford opium addiction at all. However, smoking opium became the only way for them to relax. Their circumstances tended to worsen, and famine spread around the country due to the lack of labour capacity.

The phenomenon permeated through the bureaucratic system and deepened the corruption of the Qing dynasty. It was represented by local officers and small amounts of soldiers started about importing opium secretly and ignored the policies of banning opium from the Beijing court. The prohibition of opium conversely effected and promoted opium among the officers and soldiers.[9] As part of the treaties, the foreigners was exempt from Chinese law and their employee own the same rights. The actions in bureaucratic systems intensified the class contradictions between nobles and the lower class, especially the conflict between Han and Man ethnic group. Additionally, large amounts of the nobles and officers relied on opium to support their daily lives and smoking opium became a way to identify their society status. The nobles were only allowed to work in agriculture, military and politics. However, some of the nobles didn’t have jobs, therefore, the parasitical idea was formed; nobles lives from inherited fortunes and do no work. It caused rising discontent from middle – lower classes and slowly evoked revolutionary ideas.

The concepts of constitutional reform became gradually in middle – lower classes as the Opium War progressing. During the long-term rule of the Qing government, the peasants class experienced intense pressure from upper classes under absolutism. The Opium War evoked the idea of the peasants’ class to revolt against feudalism and imperialism. There were over 100 rebellions raised in 10 years after Opium War. The most famous and significant rebellion was the Taiping Rebellion[10](1851-1864) in southern China.

Taiping Rebellion was the most serious Chinese rebellion in the 19th century. It occurred across 17 provinces and over 20 million people were killed. 9 It caused a fatal collision between Qing government and peasants’ class. The leader of the rebellion was Hong Xiuquan, who affected by Christian missionaries and strongly believed he was the son of God.[11] The force ran like a cult and based on the Old Testament of Bible. However, despite the atrocities that occurred during the rebellions, people achieved greater gender equality, the institution of land reform, some limited democracy and modernisation. 9 The Taiping Rebellion itself helped to determine the respect of the peasants’ class, the beginnings of constitution reform and the fall of the Qing dynasty; Taiping Rebellion is regarded as the start of the democratic revolution in China and the peak of peasant egalitarianism.


There was a great position inverse of economy between China and western countries after the Opium War. China was in closed economy conditions which based on agriculture and handicraft until the Opium war occupied. Also, the income of China was greatly relied on international market. The treaties which signed with different country enhanced the economy issues. British’s import and export trade with China expanded rapidly with Chinese trade deficit increase. Qing government had to place a greater taxes burden on middle – lower class for the cost of wars and indemnities to western countries. Qing government also needed to open 16 treaty port (5 ports for First opium war and 11 ports for Second opium war) in total. (Figure 1) The financial curtailment from aforementioned issues aggravated the fall of Qing dynasty and placed China on the verge of bankruptcy.

(Figure 1)

The peasants’ class was not only providing the indemnities for the treaties. The taxes were also including the daily expense of the Royal Family and military expense. However, the officers were secretly collected small amount of money from taxes for themselves. Additionally, the people who addiction of opium forced by addiction to buy opium with the money extorted from their fat and marrow. The total amount of export silver was 3576 tonnes during 1818-1854.[12] The export silver included the expense on opium, indemnities and other trades. The large amounts of outpouring silver caused the appreciation in the value of silver and depreciation in the value of copper in Chinese economic system. As the result of this circumstance, the taxes increased hiddenly up 6-7% presented by the ratio change between silver and copper coins.[13](Figure 2) The revolutionary idea was evoked as poverty level rising in peasant class and formed rebellions ultimately.

(Figure 2): the different silver exchange ratio in different part of China.

The coastal ports opened for trade with western countries led the unequal development in different industries and duties issue. As the ports opened, the export of silk and tea grew rapidly to satisfy the demand of international market. Tea export increased by over 500% and silk export climbed to 28 times the previous number of bales being shipped.[14] Many peasants began to plant tea or silk rather than grain and led the price of grain was skyrocketing. (Figure 3)

(Figure 3)

The grain price in different part of China in 1660-1849.

The growth in tea and silk also caused the shortage of silver and indirectly related to the depreciation of copper coin. The original Chinese financial system was based on agriculture and handicraft. However, the idea of mechanized was infused to different industries after the Opium War. It accelerated the unemployment rates in handicraft especially in the port cities. As the phenomenon of increasing unemployment occurred, the life style of workers and peasants fell dramatically and famine spread out in China. Additionally, the duty with western countries was changed dramatically after the Opium War. Although, the duty charged was 65% before the war and cut to 5% or even free in Hong Kong after the war.[15] The low duty could not afford the development of industry and commerce in China. But it still counted as a stable income for Qing dynasty which approximately over 30 tonnes of silver in 1844 – 1850 and doubled later.[16] The Opium war was somewhat developed the urban economy by destroyed the original financial system and idea of nationalism and liberalism. It indicated how weak the Qing dynasty was and the discredited image in society.

Territory sovereignty:

Opium war was regarded as the start of turning China into semi-colonial and semi-feudal country. The territory was ceded as part of consequence of the Opium War and caused a sequence 0f problems to weaken the Qing dynasty. In the Nanking Treaty[17], Hong Kong been ceded to British as a crown colony in 1841. In 1860, the colony extended to the Kowloon peninsula[18] and the Second Convention of Peking[19] turn the colony into 99 years lease in 1898. The cession of Hong Kong was the first cession of territory and intensified the contradiction between Western capitalism and Chinese nation. In the Second Opium War[20], Russia ceded the most land in northern China which the area was approximately 1.5-million-kilometre square.[21][22] (Figure 4) The Qing government hardly renewed, and the western countries owned more control of China. The loss of territory and sovereignty (Figure 5) with great amounts of wealth was developed and formed the semi-colony and semi-feudal society.

(Figure 5)

The blue, green and orange area is area ceded to Russia.

As the larger part of territory ceded, the more vulnerable and weaker the Qing government was. The central imperial authority of Qing dynasty decreased as it suffered the Opium War and led to the rise of revolting movements.


The consequence of the Opium War marked as the start of semi-colonial and semi-feudal society in China and led to the Qing dynasty wrecked. In other way, the Opium War portrayed as the enlightenment of nationalism and liberalism in society presented by the rising of the rebellions. For example, the Taiping Rebellion achieve the equal rights between gender, land reform and limited democracy. The collision between capitalism and feudalism devastated the original financial system and develop an urban market economy. The territory sovereignty issue enhanced the pressure from society and it even still effect China till today. Therefore, the Qing dynasty would fall much slower than reality if the Opium War didn’t occur. Also, reaction of Qing government for the Opium War made the society realized that the government was no long able to protect and support them.






[3]  China: Being a Military Report on the North-eastern Portions of the Provinces of Chih-li and Shan-tung, Nanjing and Its Approaches, Canton and Its Approaches: Together with an Account of the Chinese Civil, Naval and Military Administrations, and a Narrative of the Wars Between Great Britain and China. Government Central Branch Press. 1884. pp. 28–.

[4] Endacott, G. B.; Carroll, John M. (2005) [1962]. A biographical sketch-book of early Hong Kong. Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 978-962-209-742-1.



[7] “The International Relations of the Chinese Empire”, vol,1. p.238-240

[8]  “Global opium production”, The Economist, 24 June 2010, retrieved 29 October 2012







[15] the same as 16

[16] “Wuxu selected archives (series 7)”, Jiangsu people’s publishing house, 1983, p. 82


[18] Same as 4



[21]  Tzhou, Byron N (1990). China and international law: the boundary disputesGreenwood Publishing Group. p. 47. ISBN 978-0-275-93462-0.

[22] the same as 5

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