Attempts to Control the Opium Trade, 1810-11
Although opium had long been used in China, as elsewhere, for its
pain-killing medicinal purposes, it was only in the early
eighteenth century, consequent upon the increase in foreign trade with European
merchants that the evil effects of
its misuse came to the notice of officials. By 1729, the year in which the
emperor first place a ban on its
importation, only some 200 chests (each of about 130 pounds of the drug) were
coming in annually. At first the
lead in what was now to become an illegal trade was taken by the Portuguese, but
these were displaced by British
merchants in the latter stage of the eighteenth century, by which time well over
1,000 chests per annum were being
smuggled in. The reason for Britain's ascendancy was the gradual takeover of the
administration of India by the
British government and the activities of the British-owned East India Company in
advancing trade with China.
Many merchant ships, operating under the license of the E.I.C., increasingly
brought in illegal opium to sell to
local intermediaries at Canton, sometimes with the corrupt collusion of local
officials. Use of the drug spread
everywhere in China and, despite scores of imperial edicts since 1729, it proved
impossible to prevent its
smuggling. By the 1820s, over 10,000 chests per annum were brought in illegally.
Thus the problem was of long
standing and, as future events were to demonstrate, led to the Anglo-Chinese war
ITEM A: Decree of the Emperor - 1810
Opium has a very violent effect. When an addict smokes it, it rapidly makes him
excited and capable of doing anything he pleases. But before long, it kills
him. Opium is a
poison, undermining our good customs and morality. Its use is prohibited by
law. Now the
commoner, Yang, dares to bring it into the Forbidden City [i.e., Peking].
Indeed, he flouts the
law! He should be turned over to the Board of Punishment, and should be tried
However, recently the purchases and eaters of opium have become numerous.
merchants buy and sell it to gain profit. The customs house at the Ch'ung-wen
originally set up to supervise the collection of imports (it had no
responsibility with regard to
opium smuggling). If we confine our search for opium to the seaports, we fear
the search will not
be sufficiently thorough. We should also order the general commandant of the
police and police-
censors at the five gates to prohibit opium and to search for it at all gates.
If they capture any
violators, they should immediately punish them and should destroy the opium at
once. As to
Kwangtung and Fukien, the provinces from which opium comes, we order their
governors, and superintendents of the maritime customs to conduct a thorough
search for opium,
and cut off its supply. They should in no wise consider this order a dead
letter and allow opium
to be smuggled out!
ITEM B: Decree of the Emperor - 1811
Ch'ien Chieh memorialized that opium from the overseas countries has infiltrated
Interior and has caused so much harm that he petitions Us to prohibit it with
all severity. What he
memorialized is correct!
This item, opium, spreads deadly poison. Rascals and bandits indulge in it and
without it even for a second. They do not save their own earnings for food and
instead exchange their money for the pleasure of this narcotic. Not only do
they willingly bring
ruin upon their own lives, but they also persuade friends to follow their
example. There is no
doubt that opium will harm the morality of our people.
Previously, We decreed its prohibition, yet treacherous merchants still buy and
sell it. Its use is
widespread chiefly because the maritime customs have not uncovered it diligently
have tolerated the smuggling!
We order the superintendents of all maritime customs to enforce the strict
opium. The viceroys and governors of Kwangtung, Fukien, Chekiang, and Kiangsu,
to search for it carefully. Hereafter, if any ships bring in opium with other
goods, the merchants
should be immediately arrested and punished according to the law. If officers
or clerks have
accepted bribes from smugglers, they should be severely punished. If the
smugglers dare to
smuggle opium into the Interior and are discovered, then the officials are
ordered to question
thoroughly as to where the opium came from and from whom the smugglers bought
it. Since the
smugglers cannot pretend they bought it from an unknown ship, [then the dealer
of opium must
be discovered eventually]. The superintendent of maritime customs who failed to
contraband is to be punished. His subordinates and clerks are also to be
ITEM C: Memorial to the emperor of Sung-yun, Viceroy
of Liang-Kwang - 1811
. . . . However, opium is the greatest evil harming our Kwangtung [Canton]
people. It has
been strictly prohibited by the Imperial edict. This item comes from the ships
barbarians who smuggle it in, after which it spreads throughout the country. If
we wish to stop
the use of opium, we should cut off the supply. Your servant thereupon gave the
English merchants, mainly] oral instructions as follows:
When you people of various European countries trade in Kwangtung, you should
established rules and sell only useful commodities. Then you will not only gain
will also obtain the blessing of your God. Otherwise, you commit great wrong.
instance, the item of opium which no Chinese knows how to prepare. You brought
Kwangtung and prepared it by mixing it with tobacco. When people smoke it, they
incited to do all sorts of evil. When smoking becomes a habit, then they cannot
though they want to. Thus they bankrupt themselves and even lose their lives.
Reflect on this
matter--you build your fortune on the loss of the property and lives of others.
This action of
yours will certainly invoke the anger of Heaven, and eventually you will
punished by Heaven and suffer bankruptcy and other consequences worse even that
which befall the opium addicts. You should write to your country to cooperate
with us in
prohibiting this smuggling of a poisonous contraband. Then you may escape from
disaster [which Heaven will inflict on you]
The barbarians unanimously reported that they all knew that opium was a
contraband, and they
dared not ship it to China. However, the petty merchants of the country ships
[ships sailing under
the license of the British East India Company] frequently smuggled it in to gain
Now after Your Excellency has instructed us, We shall obey Your order and send
our countries to have them examine the cargoes, so that they may not violate the
and engage in the smuggling of contraband goods.
After they finished their speech, they looked rather ashamed and fearful. . . .
[Ref.: Lo-shu Fu, A Documentary Chronicle of Sino-Western relations, Vol.
1 (1966), pp. 380-83]