Opium Wars

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For the 1967 conflict between marooned elements of the Chinese Nationalist Party and the Kingdom of Laos, see 1967 Opium War.
For other uses, see Opium Wars (disambiguation).
British bombardment of Canton from the surrounding heights, May 1841

The Opium Wars is a collective term for two wars in the mid-19th century involving Anglo-Chinese disputes over British trade in China and China's sovereignty. The disputes included the First Opium War (1839–1842) and the Second Opium War (1856–1860). The wars and events between them weakened the Qing dynasty and reduced China's separation from the rest of the world.[1][2] Although the two wars are collectively referred as the Opium Wars, some historians argue that they were quite different. China endured disasters and events before, during, and after the two wars, including the Taiping Rebellion, and the importance and relationship of the two wars should not be overstated.


China, inward-facing, had little demand for foreign goods, while European nations sought them, and so China had a very favorable trade balance, accumulating silver bullion. Opium reversed the trend. The Chinese briefly sought to stop Britain from illegally importing and selling opium in the country, while Britain sought to legalize its opium trade and to liberalize other trade. For Britain, its balance of trade would be more favourable if Chinese payments for smuggled opium, provided from India and Turkey by British and other merchants, were boosted.

Increased smuggling led to China having a negative trade balance in the 1830s, and the government took actions to halt or reduce it. France, and to a minor extent the U.S., joined the second war, defeating China in a manner of speaking. China agreed to a treaty to open ports to foreign trade, if for no other reason than to remove the foreigners from addressing the dynasty, which was thought to reflect poorly on its prestige, or mandate during the less prosperous era.[3][4]

The two segments of warfare it refers are:

First Opium War[edit]

Main article: First Opium War

The First Opium War, during 1839–1842, was concluded by the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. The treaty ceded the island of Hong Kong to the United Kingdom in perpetuity, and it established five treaty ports at Shanghai, Canton, Ningpo, Fuchow, and Amoy. Another treaty the next year gave most favoured nation status to the United Kingdom and added provisions for British extraterritoriality. Then the United States and France secured concessions on the same terms as the British, in treaties of 1843 and 1844.

Second Opium War[edit]

Main article: Second Opium War
A depiction of the 1860 Battle of Taku Forts

During 1856–1860, British forces fought towards legalization of the opium trade, to expand coolie trade, to open all of China to British merchants, and to exempt foreign imports from internal transit duties. France joined the British; the U.S. had a minor involvement uncoordinated with the major efforts of the U.K. and France. The war is also known as the "Arrow War", referring to the name of a vessel at the starting point of the conflict. The Arrow War resulted in a second group of treaty ports being set up; eventually more than 80 treaty ports were established in China, involving many foreign powers. All foreign traders gained rights to travel within China.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Taylor Wallbank; Bailkey; Jewsbury;Lewis; Hackett (1992). ""A Short History of the Opium Wars" (from: Civilizations Past And Present, Chapter 29: South And East Asia, 1815-1914)". 
  2. ^ Kenneth Pletcher. "Chinese history: Opium Wars". Encyclopedia Britannica. 
  3. ^ The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China
  4. ^ Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom