Paul A. Van Dyke
In 1684, China reopened its doors to trade with the outside world, which had a huge impact on the development of global commerce. Canton quickly emerged as one of the few ports in the world where everyone was welcomed and where everyone (except Japanese and Russians) had access to everything including tea, silk, and porcelain. Unlike other ports, individual traders in Canton could buy and sell the same high-quality products as those handled by the East India companies. As the Canton trade grew, international networks became more sophisticated; as more ships went to China, new forms of remittance such as Letters of Credit and Bills of Exchange became standard, which streamlined international finance; as more money flowed into Canton, more goods were distributed worldwide, which gave rise to globalization; as economies in both the eastern and western hemispheres became more integrated with the Chinese market, there was a parallel decline in the risks of conducting trade, which encouraged the advancement of private enterprise. One by one the large East India companies found it increasingly more difficult to compete and went broke.
However, the success of the Canton trade was also its weakness. Because the legal trade was so dependent on silver collected from opium sales, and because a decline in opium sales would likely lead to a decline in rice imports, only minimal efforts were made by local officials to stop the smuggling. Foreigners were eventually able to overcome the system with the outbreak of war in the late 1830s, but this happened because the system had already defeated itself.
Opium was used as a medicinal herb during the Tang-Song dynastic era, if not earlier, but this medicinal role was transformed during the Ming dynasty as it became an ingredient in aphrodisiacs produced for the Ming court. Small countries in South-Southeast Asia included opium in their tribute items to the Ming. Tribute missions were a form of trade as well as the best way to maintain foreign relations. Opium transformed again in the early Qing dynasty as Southeast Asian Chinese brought the habit of smoking opium mixed with tobacco back to the mainland. This was soon integrated in and promoted by the sex recreation industry in the mid-18th century, and the demand for opium grew rapidly in the early decades of the 19th century. By the 1850s, increasing supply fueled a level of consumption that neither repeated attempts at prohibition, nor two opium wars could stymie; it exploded into a consumer revolution. Opium became vital to the economy as all the polities since the late Qing taxed it to sustain themselves. It also became a symbol of China’s humiliation and anti-imperialist political platform. It has now come back to haunt the country despite the Mao era success in eradication.
Ronald C. Po
Tracing the social lives of tea, porcelain, and silk, it is discernible that the world had been living with commodities made in and exported from China for a fairly long period of time. Particularly, when tea slowly became more common in England during the 18th century, most Britons tended to purchase tea leaves planted in the Yangtze River Delta and the Fujian region. When Europeans first encountered Chinese porcelain, it was so fine, translucent, and superior to anything that they could possibly manufacture at the time. They thus concluded that it must be a magic substance and astonishingly called it “white gold.” The Western obsession about Chinese porcelain, in turn, encouraged Europeans to produce their own imitations in terms of both production processes and marketing strategies. When silkworm disease ruined European sericulture in the middle of the 19th century, Chinese silk, including silk textiles and spun and raw silks, fulfilled a need in a demanding Euro-American market. These examples, among many others, conceivably reveal that China has played a crucial role in the global history of the dissemination and consumption of commodities since the early modern period.
Unlike other parts of the non-European world, China was never fully colonized by the Western imperial powers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Instead, the Western powers built up a network of open ports, where foreigners could reside and trade under the protective shield of consular jurisdiction and gunboat diplomacy. Even though the treaty ports arguably played a limited role in transforming China’s domestic economy, they became emblematic of China’s and East Asia’s encounter with capitalist modernity, and they left an indelible legacy on Chinese domestic politics and foreign relations. With the notable exception of Beijing and some other cities, most major urban areas in China today are former treaty ports and many of them were the first to open for trade when the People’s Republic of China embarked on economic reform in 1978.