British Imperialism in China

A legacy of Commerce, Addiction, and Gunboat diplomacy

By Tao He


The primary motive of British imperialism in China in the nineteenth century was economic. There was a high demand for Chinese tea, silk and porcelain in the British market. However, Britain did not possess sufficient silver to trade with the Qing Empire. Thus, a system of barter based on Indian opium was created to bridge this problem of payment.  The subsequent exponential increase of opium in China between 1790 and 1832 brought about a generation of addicts and social instability.  Clashes between the Qing government and British merchants ultimately escalated into the infamous Opium Wars. As a result, the British were given the island of Hong Kong and trading rights in the ports of Canton and Shanghai. Although British imperialism never politically took hold in mainland China, as it did in India or Africa, its cultural and political legacy is still evident today. Honk Kong remains a significant center of global finance and its government still functioned in much of the same ways as it did under British colonialism. Furthermore, the language of English and British culture highly impacted the society of Hong Kong and Southern China for over a century.

This Research Guide is divided into four main components. The first section is devoted to the definitions and qualifications of imperialism. This part mainly consists of print sources that focus on the political, economic and social mechanisms of imperialism. It provides scholarly perspectives and criticisms regarding its causes and effects. The second section consists of both print and interactive sources. This section focuses on the topic of British Imperialism in China from a British perspective. The sources include various political justifications and financial factors that influence Britain’s diplomatic decisions and imperialist tactics. The third section presents the Chinese perspective. The sources in this section explain the development of Chinese nationalism and the intricacies of international relations in the Qing court. The final section deals with the legacy of British imperialism in Hong Kong and southern China. The sources here examine the cultural and political footprint of the British in this region.

A Political Cartoon depicting the Open Door Policy


Chronology of Events

Year Event
1600 Founding of The East India Company. The Royal Charter of the Company was approved by Elizabeth I
1644 Manchurian Qing Dynasty established in China
1680 Recreational Opium/Tobacco mix first introduced to China by the Dutch
1720 British Parliament bans Asian textile Imports to increase domestic production
1720-1839 Chinese Tea as one of the primary Commodities in the British market
1729 First government prohibition on the distribution of Opium in China (Not heavily Enforced)
1760 British began to use Opium as a Cash Crop for both Chinese commodities and silver
1773 1000 Chests of Opium imported into China.
1813 Increased Opium addicts in the Chinese bureaucracy causes concern in the Qing Courts
1815 End of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain consolidates imperial power in Asia and Africa
1832 20,000 Chests of Opium Imported into China
1836 Qing Court formally prohibits all imports of Opium and attempts to close the ports of Canton and Shanghai
1839 Commissioner Lin Zexu openly burned 1.2 million kilograms of confiscated opium
1839-1842 First Opium War: Qing Empire Vs. Britain and its allies in France, United States, and Russia
1842 Treaty of Nanjing opened the ports of Canton and Shanghai. Hong Kong became a British colony
1856 Chinese seizure of British Vessel “The Arrow” in suspect of piracy
1858 Tientsin Treaties, negotiations between Chinese, British, French and American diplomats
1859 British and French diplomats were refused entry into Beijing
1860-1862 Second Opium War, Looting of the Qing Imperial palace in Beijing
1898-1901 Chinese anti-Foreign uprising, Boxer Rebellion
1900 John Hay’s “Open Door Policy” calls for equal trade rights amongst Europeans in China
1912 Official collapse of the Qing Empire and establishment of the Republic of China
1912 London Missionary Society establishes Hong Kong College of Medicine, which later became the University of Hong Kong. First western institute of higher education in Hong Kong
1997 Hong Kong returns as territory of the People’s Republic of China

Spense, Jonathan D. The Search For Modern China. New York W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 1999

Porter, Andrew. The Oxford History of the British Empire: Vol III: The Nineteenth Century. Oxford:Oxford University Press. 2001



Imperialism: Definition and Historical Context

  • Imperialism: The Idea and Reality of British and French Colonial Expansion

Winfried Baumgart devotes this study to defining the idea of European Imperialism. He split this broad concept into three separate and more manageable subcategories. First, he explains the political atmosphere of mid-ninteenth century Europe. He qualifies various preconditions that made eastern expansion possible. He highlights the significance of early trading port, naval developments, missionary activities, exploration, and technological advancements. Second he approaches the topic of imperialism from a nationalistic perspective. He explains social conception of nationalism and the “white man’s burden” to not only expand into foreign lands but also to culturally educate the natives. Furthermore, Baumgart also explains the competitive nature of nationalism amongst fellow European imperialist nations. The importance of political and economic dominance becomes a major issue between imperialist nations. His final subcategory is the economic theory behind this expansionist enterprise. In this part of the book, Baumgart discusses the application of capitalist and mercantilist economic theories in foreign markets. He analyses the economic policy of Protectionism which is significant for understanding the imperialist initiatives for the Opium War. This book serves as a strong introduction to the broad idea of Imperialism.

Baumgart, Winfried. Imperialism: The Idea and Reality of British and French Colonial Expansion,1880-1914. Oxford. Oxford University Press. 1982


  • The Economics of European Imperialism

Alan Hodgart gives a comprehensive evaluation of the economic forces of European Imperialism. This book approaches this topic form both a Marxist and anti-Marxist perspective. On the one hand, Marxists such as Lenin and Hobson, describes imperialism as a opportunistic extension of capitalism. The exportation of capital into foreign and less competitive markets was the driving force of all imperialistic ventures. The politics and ideologies were simply justifications of  this economic phenomenon. On the other hand, the anti-Marxists, represented by Joseph Schumpeter, argues that imperialism was a result of a objectless national affinity to expand. The author also signifies Weber’s idea of the Capitalist Spirit; that it is in the best interest of the powerful capitalist to continuously expand. Hodgart’s economic-based depiction of imperialism not only provides a deeper understanding of this period but also shows the complexity of the phenomenon; that European imperialism could be justified and criticized from many different perspectives.

Hodgart, Alan. The Economics of European Imperialism. New York. W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 1977

The British Perspective


Established in 1600, the East India Company was one of Britain’s most prominent imperialistic entities in Asia.
  • British Imperialism: 1688-2000

A 700 page  comprehensive history that covers the all the major colonial and imperialistic ventures since 1688. This source serves as a catalog of events; it documents all the figures, wars, treaties and embargoes from early colonialism to the decolonization after the second World War. This book is very similar to a typical history textbook. It is topical and event driven; it mainly focuses on painting a picture of the past rather than analyzing the conceptual forces such as nationalism or economic theories. Although the description of  each event is brief, it is an excellent starting point for understanding the historical significance of the period.

Cain, Peters. Hopkins, Tony. British Imperialism: 1688-2000, New Jersey. Pearson. 2001.

  • The Honorable Company: A history of the English East India Company

The East India Company was one of the important vessels of British Imperialism. It was controlled by wealthy merchants and was known for the trades in tea, porcelain, spices, salt and opium. During the British Colonial period in India the East India company even raised its own private military unit to protect its purely economic interest. This source covers the history of the company from  the establishment of its royal charter in 1600 to its collapse in the late nineteenth century. This book explains the commercial aspects of imperialism which exemplifies the theoretical economic factors associated with imperialism. More importantly, it narrows the scope of imperialism from the political and economic actions of a nation to the actions of a company in which the British government had no direct control. It also contains a comprehensive overview of the company’s tea and opium dealings with the Qing empire in China. It analyzes the events of the opium wars from a commercial perspective.

Keay, John. The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company. New York, Scribner Press. 1994

  • Punch Magazine


Political cartoons provide a satirical view of British imperialism.

“Punch was a Victorian weekly magazine that built up for itself a reputation for satire and savagely cutting commentary. Although in many ways a conservative magazine, they kept no sacred cows; anything and everything was available to be satirized and ridiculed. Reputations and careers were made and broken by the cartoons and articles depicted in this magazine. The fact that Punch was commenting on events as they happened has meant that it has provided historians with an invaluable source of contemporary values and ideas.”

Click here to visit site


Primary Sources

  • Life in the British Colony of Hong Kong

The following source is a description of the culture and lifestyle in the British Colony of Hong Kong in the 1930s. The author was half British and half French. The first portion of the book depicts the author’s childhood in Hong Kong and her interactions with Chinese locals as well as the European inhabitants. It serves as an anthropologic view on the class dynamics of this colony. The second half deals with the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II.

Jong, Yvonne Blackmore de. An Extraordinary Youth: Growing Up in British Hong Kong, Seattle, Create Space Ind. Publishing Platform. 2010.

  • Spense Documentary Collection

  1. 6.1 Lord Maccartney’s Commission from Henry Dundas, 1792- This document was the a letter from Henry Dundas, a representative from the East India Company, written the Lord Macartney, a British Diplomat in China. This letter represents the early attitude of Europeans towards the Qing empire. The tone of this letter shows shows British dignity but also respects the authority of the Chinese. This attitude would change significantly after industrialization and and the Opium Wars.
  2. 7.5 Lord Palmerston’s Declaration of War (February 20, 1840)The formal response to the seizure and destruction of British opium by the Qing government. Lord Palmerston, the Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, informs the Qing Government of British intentions to protect its interests in China. This was the document that began not only the first Opium War, but also the first of many conflicts between Qing China and industrialized Western powers.

Spense, Jonathan D. Cheng,Pei-Kai. Lestz, Michael.  The Search For Modern China: A Documentary Collection. New York W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 1999

  • Destruction of the Old Summer Palace in 1860

During the Second Opium War in 1860, the allegiance of of European imperialist occupied the Chinese capital of Peking (Beijing).  The Old Summer Palace, the Qing Chinese equivalent of a national museum, was looted and subsequently burnt down. Various looted artifacts appear today in museums around the world.

The following is a link to some of these priceless items.

A French exhibition of the looted item from the Old Summer Palace in 1861


    The Chinese Prospective

    • The Opium War of 1839

    The Opium War of 1839 was the first large scale military conflicts between the Qing Empire and western imperial powers. With the official prohibition of opium in 1836 in China, the Qing government launched a campaign to confiscate all foreign imported opium in Canton. In 1839, commissioner Lin Zexu seized over a million kilograms of opium and burned them. The British Empire responded by sending in the military and initiating the first Opium War. The result of this war not only lead to China’s lost of Hong Kong Island, but also revealed the military weakness of the Qing government. Up to this point western imperialist powers have been wary of the Qing Empire, but after this conflict, China begins to experience a series of disadvantageous economic pressures form Britain and other European empires. In Peter Fey’s The Opium War, the author explains the economic intentions of the British Empire in China before 1839 and after 1842. He highlights the significance of the first Opium War, its legacy of further western aggression, and the subsequent Chinese movements of  military industrialization and self strengthening.

    Fay, Peter Ward. The Opium War: 1840-1842.Chapel Hill. The University of North Carolina Press. 1998

    • Letter to Queen Victoria from Lin Zexu

    The following is a translated letter from Commissioner Lin Zexu to Queen Victoria on the eve of the first Opium War in 1839. Although this letter never reached Queen Victoria, it nevertheless represented the views of Lin regarding both the Opium Trade in Canton and the broader idea of the free market. Lin approaches the topic of restricting opium in a respectful but assertive tone. He also addresses the problem of imperialism. “We [The Chinese] find your country [Britain] is sixty or seventy thousand li [about 4800 miles] from China Yet there are barbanan ships that strive to come here for trade for the purpose of making a great profit The wealth of China is used to profit the barbarians.” Though Lin does not fully understand the western concept of Imperialism, he is one of the earliest Chinese officials to recognize the “Barbarians” as a future threat to both Qing authority and Chinese society.

    Click Here to view the letter. <>

    • Legacies of the Opium Wars

    Lin Zexu is revered as a Chinese national hero for standing up against imperialist powers and burning over a million kilograms of illegal British opium. This statue sits in Humen, a battle site in the first Opium War, where the Opium War Museum is now located.

    • Jonathan D. Spence

    Jonathan D Spence is one of the most well known scholar in Chinese history.He served as Sterling Professor at Yale University from 1993 to 2007. His survey textbook, In Search for modern China, gives a comprehensive coverage of Chinese history from the early 1600s up to the present. His description of British Imperialism, the Opium Wars, and the Boxer Rebellion provides an overview from both the perspective of the Qing Empire and the Chinese nationalists. The bibliography of the textbook is an archive for reliable sources. Furthermore, as supplement to the textbook, Spence also compiled a collection of primary sources in hisDocumentary Collection.

    1. 7.1 Memorial of Legalizing opium (June 10, 1836)This document is a request from a Qing court official, Xu Naiji, to the Emperor for the legalization of opium. In 1836 opium trade was prohibited but not strictly enforced. In southern regions of Canton, where British influence is strong, opium smuggling was very common. The Portuguese colony of Macao serves as the primary smuggling port for Indian opium. As a result silver, the official Qing currency, experienced severe inflation. Xu argues that since prohibition was ineffective, legalization and a government monopoly of opium may be a better alternative in solving the social crisis of addiction and economic crisis of inflation.
    2. 7.2 Memorial on Banning Opium (October 1836)This document presents a different angle in the broader Chinese perspective. Zhu Zun was a member of the Board of Rites who pushed for complete prohibition of opium. Zhu represents the conservative view and believes that the Qing empire could easily overcome the foreigners. He exemplifies the adverse economic effects of opium in various regions and pushed for government action in enforcing the ban
    3. 7.3 Imperial Edict of 1836– The official edict of the Daoguang Emperor that demanded higher levels of restriction of opium trade in southern China. The Emperor agrees with Zhu’s view and appointed Deng Tingzhen, the governer-general of Canton, to carry out the new prohibition laws.
    4. 9.3 Prince Gong on the Tongwen College: Three Memorials 1861, 1865, 1866-After the Opium War, the Qing Empire learned that its military strength was far weaker than that of European Imperialists. Thus China began a period of self self strengthening and reform. Prince Gong was the most active reformer in the Qing government. This document represents his efforts to promote the Tongwen College, a facility that focused on Western Studies including language, government and technology. This document also serves as evidence of  China’s awareness and reaction to European threats.
    5. 9.4  Zongli Yamen Document on Unequal Treaties, 1878- The Zongli Yamen was a makeshift department of foreign affairs established by Prince Gong to deal with the demands and aggression of Imperialist powers. The following documents were critiques and interpretations of various foreign treaties that the Qing Empire was forced to sign. These documents show the desperate efforts of reformers like Price Gong to mediate between Western Imperialists and the Conservatives lead by Empress Dowager Cixi.
    6. 9.8 Chinese Anti-Foreignism, 1892- This document was a pamphlet circulating in Canton. In the late nineteenth century, Canton was under the influence of Britain. Along with the merchants and imperialists came a new wave of religious advocates and missionaries. This pamphlet ridicules Christianity as religion and spreads disturbing and untrue stereotypes about white foreigners. This document serves as a Chinese counterpart to the British perspective of “native barbarian” in China, India and Africa.
    7. 10.5 Boxer Memoirs: Oral Accounts of the Boxer Rebellion- The Boxer rebellion in 1900 was a bottom-up, disorganized rebellion from Han nationalists against both the weak Manchu Qing regime and foreign imperialism. These two accounts recall the events of the rebellion in explicit detail and shows the anti-foreign social mood of  the Chinese in the turn of the century.

    Spense, Jonathan D. Cheng,Pei-Kai. Lestz, Michael.  The Search For Modern China: A Documentary Collection. New York W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 1999

    Lasting Legacies of British Imperialism


    British/Hong Kong Passport prior to 1997

    • Historical Memory of 19th century Imperialism

    The following website is a part of the Hoover Archives that covers 19th century European Imperialism in Asia. Since it is a “.gov” page, it somewhat represents the political memory of that period. This source represents a politically American point of view on events such as the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. This website is worth investigating because it deals with the political memory of imperialism from the angle of a nation that participated but mostly remained on the sidelines. It depicts this period of imperialism in retrospect and could be contrasted with the various primary sources to gain a more stronger understanding of the era.

    Click Here for Link



    • Hong Kong’s Development

    The following source covers the history of Hong Kong from its colonization in 1839 to its return to China in 1997. This book explains the strategic economic position of Hong Kong in relation to imperial global commerce. It also focuses on the social adaptations of ethnic Hong Kong citizens. This source serve as a comprehensive analysis on the political, economic and social development of this island with respect to global changes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

    Tsang, Steve. A Modern History of Hong Kong. London. I. B. Tauris. 2007

    • A  Problematic Hybrid Culture

    Because the island of Hong Kong have been under British political and cultural influence for over a century, its return to China faces a dilemma of culture. This book explains the complexities of such conflicts. First, the most obvious cultural conflict was communication. For the last century, Hong Kong have been using a bilingual system. The citizens mostly spoke Cantonese, but the official written language was English. This creates an internal language barrier because the official language of Chinese is mandarin. Another cultural conflict is the nature of the justice system. Hong Kong have adopted the Western system of trial by jury, but the Communist government tries criminals without a jury. This book discusses the negotiations of these dilemmas between Hong Kong and China. Due the such issues, the Communist government is currently implementing a policy for Hong Kong to politically function as it did under British control for 50 more years.

    Abbas, Ackbar. Hong Kong: Culture and Politics of Disappearance. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press. 1998


    Hong Kong in 1900
    Modern Hong Kong