To into how China’s economic interests drove it

To answer the question ‘How far were cultural differences to blame for the outbreak of the First Opium War?’ a range of primary and secondary sources were consulted including ‘Commissioner Lin and the Opium War’ which I chose for Hsin-Pao Chang’s insight into prejudices and suspicions of Britain’s and China’s cultural practises. Of particular importance from this cultural perspective was the work of Jack Gray who argues that it was cultural differences that led to the outbreak of the Opium War.Jack Gray’s book ‘Rebellions and Revolutions China from the 1800s to 2000’ was published in 2002. The publication date is recent and therefore valuable as Gray has had ample time to analyze sources such as letters, government documents, and Chinese economic records which only became available in the late 20th century. Gray is a historian who taught Modern Chinese History at the University of Hong Kong, and was a professor at the University of Glasgow where he ran the Centre of Modern Chinese Studies. He has written multiple books on China such as ‘China’s New Development Strategy’, published by Academic Press Inc, showing that he not only spent years researching the history of China, but also has been published by established publishers and therefore is a reliable source. A limitation of the source’s origin is his nationality, as he is trying to understand Chinese culture from a Western perspective, and at times focuses on the shortcomings of China, how it was opposed to trade, and how China failed to modernise sooner. The purpose of this source is to address the “nature of the response of the Chinese rulers to the West”. Such a purpose is valuable to this investigation because it addresses specific cultural differences from the perspective of the Chinese to the British. For this investigation, the limitation of its purpose is that Gray’s book is structured in a textbook style that features more secondary sources than primary. This is a limitation because secondary sources have already been interpreted by other historians and therefore could influence the argument that Gray is making. Such limits are balanced by Gray’s examples that illuminate the cultural differences of social, political, and economics, by including the reactionary standpoint of the Chinese to the British. In contrast, some historians argue that financial interest was the primary cause for the outbreak of the Opium War, including Ssu-yu Teng, John Fairbank, and Allan L. Folsom. These historians were chosen for their unique insight into how China’s economic interests drove it towards the outbreak of war. Critical to this financial perspective was the work of Jonathan D. Spence. Spence’s book ‘The Search For Modern China’, was published in 1990. A value of the origin is that Spence is fluent in Chinese, evident as his book features previously untranslated and unavailable sources. This is valuable because it enables Spence to include primary sources in his book that he has translated first-hand, which can be seen in his analysis of Chinese perspective. However, a limitation of Spence’s work is that he analyzes the events of the war through the lens of modern China. Additionally, Chinese is Spence’s second language, which could limit how he interprets the language. Spence’s western upbringing could limit his understanding of the Chinese language as many phrases in Chinese require a social and cultural context in order to fully understand their meaning. The sources purpose is to argue that the outbreak of the First Opium War resulted from clashing financial interests. This source is valuable to my research because it examines how frequently decisions were made based on the economic interests of both the British and Chinese. Controversy surrounding the cause of the Opium War fall under two general themes, the first being cultural differences, and the second being financial interest. Cultural differences between China and Britain extend to differing views of jurisdiction, legal systems, and prejudices and suspicions of each others societal norms. Alternatively, arguments based on financial interest suggest that the outbreak of War was rooted in Chinese desire for silver, British desire for Chinese goods, and incompatible trade practises. While financial interest was an important contributor, the evidence suggests that cultural differences were the primary cause for the outbreak of the war. Those that argue for cultural differences have highlighted the conflicting beliefs in jurisdictional authority. According to Gray, China’s isolationist policy was in direct conflict with Britain’s ideas of free trade, and expectations of immunity to China’s ‘penal code’. For example, Britain believed it was their right, in instances of crime involving British citizens, to an open trial with British representation. Counter to Western beliefs, the Chinese “…refused provisions to those who refused obedience to their laws whilst residing within their territory”. Consequently, Britain expressed the importance of introducing a British consulate into China, from which their citizens could seek council when accused of crimes. As evident in the death of a Chinese peasant, Lin Weihi, when a drunken brawl with British sailors sparked conflict as China claimed it was their right to apprehend all parties involved and no British persons were allowed to attend trial. The British deemed this to be an injustice as their sailors were likely to be convicted. Unable to defend themselves, this event confirmed “…that some place of refuge under British control was necessary”. The British push to claim territory escalated tensions as this ran counter to China’s isolationist policy. In addition to conflicting ideas of jurisdiction, further conflict was caused by differing conceptions of individual legal systems. According to Gray, the root cause of misunderstanding was that the Chinese believed anyone convicted of a crime was ‘guilty until proven innocent’, while the British believed that one was ‘innocent until proven guilty’. The British felt that Chinese legislation banning all Opium trade deprived them of their previous rights, as it was an abrupt enforcement of Chinese law. This feeling of injustice was evident in Palmerston’s letter written to the Emperor, stating that the injustice was not in “China’s right to forbid the import of opium” , but in the fact that this law was suddenly enforced “‘with the utmost vigour and severity'”. However, the Chinese considered this an exaggeration as Governor-General Ruan-Yuan had been trying to implement this law since 1821. Another example of these conflicting legal systems was Britain’s reluctance to be subjected to Chinese law due to China’s view that an individual was to be accountable for their group’s crimes, regardless of whether that individual had been involved. This condition “ran completely counter to Western concepts of justice”. Under British law, only those of who were proven to be involved, were subject to punishment. These opposing legal systems provided the initial misunderstanding, as each country refused to accept each other’s laws, resulting in perceived mutual disrespect and setting the stage for war. China and Britain had such limited understandings of each other’s cultures, that they quickly developed prejudices and suspicions of each other’s societal norms. Chang argues these stark differences resulted in mutual distrust and drove China and Britain closer to war. Folsom citing the work of R.K. Newman argues that Britain was so ignorant of China and its people that the British couldn’t differentiate between an opium addict and a common citizen , and that this was the result of “xenophobic reactions to Chinese communities” by foreigners . Furthermore, following their defeat, the Manchu bannermen killed themselves, their wives, and children, which shocked the British as this was “…outside the European code of warfare”. The British could not comprehend that in the eyes of their opponent, the war was China’s “defence of civilisation”. To Britain, the war was “…an armed protest with strictly limited objectives”, thus showing differences in the significance of cultural identity between the countries. Ignorance of one another’s cultures, and quickly evolving prejudices and suspicions laid the framework for the outbreak of war. Other historians suggest it was financial interest, rather than cultural differences which led to war. Spence, for example, argues that the export of opium into China was an economic conflict for both countries. On the British side, financial gain was the trading of Chinese goods, which by 1800 saw “…the East India Company buying over 23 million pounds of Chinese tea” . However, China’s self-sufficiency meant it did not require the importation of British goods. This resulted in a lack of opportunity for the British to trade anything but silver with the Chinese which caused the British to turn to the export of opium. The argument that Britain acted with the intent to inflict harm by pushing opium on China is ludicrous as it was the result of a genuine cash-flow problem. This imbalance is illustrated in the political cartoon depicting British troops holding weapons at China’s emperor, insisting the purchase of opium, captioned “We want you to poison yourself completely, because we need a lot of tea in order to digest our beefsteaks” . This demonstrates Britain’s reliance on opium as an export in order to fulfill their need for Chinese goods. Lin Zexu, an official to the Qing, was unaware of Britain’s silver shortage and how this created the exchange problem. Lin considered British intent to trade opium with China to be the result of “barbarians” who were purely smuggling opium to “…cause the spread of the poison to all provinces”. However, British dependence on Chinese goods created the need to export opium which clashed with China’s self sufficiency, causing a war of individual financial gain. Chinese financial interest outweighed the importance of national pride. While it is generally accepted that Britain’s involvement in the Opium war was spurred by economic gain, Folsom citing the work of Historian Shijie Guan argues that China objected to the import of opium not for moral reasons, but because it negatively impacted their economy. Seven years prior to the war, Lin was quoted to say that “If people grew opium themselves, the money they made would stay in China…”. Lin’s statement illuminates China’s interest in economic security rather than the welfare of the nation itself . China was discovered in 1825 to have spent so much Chinese silver for “Western opium that the National economy was being damaged” . The priorities of government officials are also evident in their willingness to accept bribes, as “after trial and sentencing, a great many punishments could be commuted for cash”. There were also numerous cases where foreign ships killed Chinese civilians, and Chinese authorities were  “…content to accept cash payments in restitution”. China entered into conflict with Britain because opium was damaging to their economy, not because of a moral objection. In conclusion, while financial interest was a contributing factor, cultural differences were the primary reason for the outbreak of the Opium War. It is clear that Britain and China both acted in their own financial interest, however the escalation to war can only be explained through inherently different, and conflicting cultures. China and Britain differed in jurisdictional authority, legal systems, and societal norms, proving that “…a truly objective view illustrates that it was more of a war of cultures”. This investigation highlighted for me two key challenges faced by historians; the  limitations of primary source interpretation and translatability. Primary source interpretation is a particular challenge to historians. For example, the primary source that I interpreted was a political cartoon, which included a caption alongside the picture itself, however did not include a specific intended message by the illustrator, and therefore I had to interpret its meaning myself. This was challenging because my interpretation of a primary source could differ entirely from the message that it was intended to convey and therefore my interpretation could be an inaccurate representation. Due to the different ways in which historians can interpret primary sources, secondary sources must also be studied alongside letters, government records, and oral histories in order to develop a fuller picture of the event in question. While Folsom’s incorporation of various secondary sources gives multiple perspectives and valuable insight, this reliance on secondary sources limits his objectivity when discussing intentions. Reading multiple sources and accounts of an event is a very time intensive process which limits the amount of sources I could work with. The challenge of language barriers affects non-native historians from understanding native texts. As my essay topic was on both the British and the Chinese involvement in the war, and as I am unable to speak Chinese to an advanced level that would enable me to read Chinese sources, I had to rely on other historians’ translations. For example, a source I used in this investigation was LinZe Xu’s letter to Queen Victoria. As the original letter was in Chinese I was unable to read the primary source, which meant that I had to rely on the translation of the letter by Ssu-Yu Teng and John Fairbank. Anytime a document is translated, it impacts the original meaning based on the translators understanding of that language. In particular, Chinese to English translations are very challenging, since there are several phrases in Chinese that have no direct English translation because the concept or phrase does not exist in English. Therefore the English translation of this source may have differed from LinZe Xu original intention.


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