How Did the Opium Wars Impact China?

The Opium Wars played a significant role in crippling the Qing Dynasty and China’s imperial system, as war and rebellion weakened its economy and governmental power.

Nov 5, 2023By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor

how did opium wars impact china


The powerful imperial Qing Dynasty was the longest and last ruling dynasty in China. The dynasty held power for more than 250 years and was mostly successful until an opium crisis and quarrels with the British weakened its economy and government. The First and Second Opium Wars are often considered the beginning of the end of the Qing Dynasty. After its fall, the structure of China’s economy, government, and relations with foreign powers would drastically change.


Hostilities That Triggered the Opium Wars

chinese opium boxes
Chinese opium boxes, 1883, via Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston


The First Opium War was one of the first major events that led to the fall of the Qing Dynasty empire. Prior to the start of the war in 1839, the Qing Dynasty had better control over its trade relations with foreign countries. It produced a wide range of luxury goods and tea, which were highly sought after. Their mastery in producing silk, tea, and porcelain allowed the Qing Dynasty to have a successful economy, making China one of the wealthiest countries. However, the smuggling of opium by British merchants caused the Qing Dynasty to lose control over its people and structured trade policies.


In the early 19th century, the opium trade became a huge problem for the Qing Dynasty. By the time the First Opium War began, millions of Chinese people were addicted to the substance. Opium was legally imported and traded in China prior to the 1820s. However, the large-scale addiction to opium raised concerns. The opium trade was negatively affecting the Qing Dynasty’s economy because the Chinese were using silver to pay for the opium. There was an imbalance in trade relations between China and Britain. China produced goods that were in high demand in Britain, specifically tea. However, British merchants had to use silver to pay for Chinese goods because Chinese merchants weren’t interested in the products that Britain had to offer.


first opium war ting hai chusan island lithograph
Lithograph of British forces invading the port of Ting-hai on Chusan island during the First Opium War by Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Harry Darell, courtesy of Day & Son, Ltd., 1852, via National Army Museum, London


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

The East India Company and British merchants turned to selling Indian opium to the Chinese in exchange for their goods to reduce the amount of silver leaving Britain. This caused the price of silver to go up, ultimately leading to higher tax payments in China. Opium bans that prohibited the use or importation of the substance were implemented in the 1820s and 1830s in an effort to put an end to the addiction crisis, but British merchants continued to bring opium into China illegally.


There was little change in the number of opium chests imported into China in the first two decades of the 19th century. When bans were put in place to stop the opium trade, the number of opium chests imported into the country skyrocketed from about 4,244 chests in 1821 to 18,956 chests by 1831. The number of opium chests imported more than doubled by the following decade.


The bans implemented to stop the opium crisis came too late. The Qing Dynasty had already lost significant control over its economy and people. After the First Opium War, China was forced to open up more of its trading ports to Britain and other foreign countries and had to pay reparations. The Qing Dynasty’s unsuccessful efforts in the Second Opium War further contributed to its inevitable downfall.


Impacts of the First Opium War

first opium war royal irish regiment fortress amoy
Lithograph of the 18th Royal Irish Regiment bombarding the Fortress of Amoy in the First Opium War by J H Lynch, published by William Spooner, circa 1841, via National Army Museum, London


Scotland-born British merchant William Jardine was a key figure in coordinating an action plan for Britain to wage the First Opium War against China. Along with his partner James Matheson, Jardine established Jardine & Matheson Co., which became a major importer of opium in China. Unhappy with the Qing Dynasty’s efforts to crack down on the illegal smuggling of opium, Jardine convinced British government officials and the public that war was necessary due to the damage the Chinese had caused with their restrictive trade policies and confiscation of thousands of chests of British opium.


By the mid-1830s, tensions between China and British merchants heightened. Chinese officials in charge of controlling drug trafficking at trading ports caused British merchants responsible for smuggling opium to be expelled from the nation. Special Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu was appointed by the Emperor to take control of the illegal opium trade. Zexu wrote a letter to Queen Victoria requesting her intervention to keep her subjects from conducting illegal activity on Chinese soil. However, the letter never reached Queen Victoria.


By the spring of 1839, Zexu resorted to quarantining British merchants and other foreign communities and confiscated more than 20,000 chests of opium. British merchants sought reparations for their confiscated opium from Parliament, but British government officials thought that if anyone were to pay reparations for the destroyed opium chests, it should be the Chinese government.


opium war canton trading port china
Oil painting of the Canton River and trading port, circa 1840, via National Army Museum, London


Jardine managed to conjure up support for a war. He met with Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston to suggest a number of conditions that Britain should demand in the result of victory. In March 1840, Parliament voted on sending British naval forces to China, and a vote of 271 to 262 secured the decision. The First Opium War ended in a British victory, with death tolls of Chinese troops exceeding 20,000 and about 500 for the British. In August 1842, the war concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, which reflected many of the conditions that Jardine had introduced to Lord Palmerston.


opium wars british vessels attacking chinese war ships
Aquatint of British vessels attacking Chinese warships during the First Opium War by E Duncan, 1843, via National Army Museum, London


Prior to the First Opium War, foreign merchants were only allowed to trade with Chinese officials called Hong merchants, who enforced trading rules and regulations. Foreign merchants were only allowed to access the trading port of Canton, or modern-day Guangzhou. The treaty forced China to open up additional ports to foreign trade, including Shanghai, Ningpo, Amoy, and Foochow. China also ceded the island of Hong Kong to Britain and was forced to pay reparations for the destroyed opium chests and the war. The terms of the Treaty of Nanking ultimately compromised China’s restrictive approach to Western trade relations.


Conditions of the Second Opium War

first opium war treaty nanking
Bilingual pages in the Treaty of Nanking that ended the First Opium War courtesy of Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library, via Visualizing Cultures, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Despite coming to an agreement following the First Opium War, China was still hostile toward Britain due to its losses. Britain was also growing more dissatisfied with the Qing Dynasty’s lack of adherence to the new regulations set forth by the Treaty of Nanking. As a result, Britain sent troops to the cities of Guangzhou and Tianjin to initiate an attack in 1856. The Second Opium War was an important conflict for the Qing Dynasty to win because a loss would mean additional loss of trading ports and more exposure to Western Imperialism. However, Chinese forces were no match for British troops, which were also aided by the French.


In the midst of the Second Opium War, other foreign powers sought the same concessions that Britain had victoriously claimed following the first war. France, Russia, and the US met with Chinese officials in Tianjin to sign a series of treaties in 1858, which granted them the same concessions that Britain was allowed. These series of agreements became known as the Unequal Treaties because they forced China to enter into an open trade system, which contributed to China’s animosity toward Western powers.


While struggling to maintain what regulations and port cities China still had full control over, the Qing Dynasty was also attempting to suppress social unrest that resulted in the Taiping Rebellion of 1850. By this time, the Qing Dynasty had found itself in a state of extreme disorder. The Second Opium War ended in a loss for the Qing Dynasty in 1859, with amendments to the Treaty of Nanking and the ratification of additional agreements negotiated between China and the Western powers.


Social Unrest & Rebellion Under the Qing Dynasty

qing dynasty chinese revolution illustration
Illustration of a battle scene during the Chinese Revolution of 1911, via Chinese Language Institute


The Qing Dynasty was founded by semi-nomadic peoples called the Manchus, who managed to unseat the previously reigning Ming Dynasty from the throne. Similarly to their overthrow of the Ming Dynasty, the Qing Dynasty would be weakened by social unrest and rebellion due to its unsatisfied and enraged citizens. The Taiping Rebellion was a 14-year-long uprising that greatly hindered the Qing Dynasty’s ability to not only revive from its losses in the First and Second Opium Wars but also gain control over its people who were suffering due to the empire’s economic instability.


The Taiping Rebellion was led by Hong Xiuquan, who had visions to create a utopian society he referred to as the Kingdom of Heavenly Peace. Xiuquan had wished for a better life for peasants, which helped him conjure up support and encouraged millions of peasants to join his movement. At the start of the rebellion in 1850, less than 30,000 Taipings were involved in the movement. However, these numbers grew to more than three million rebels by 1853.


Taiping rebels successfully captured Nanking and managed to hold back the Qing Dynasty from suppressing the rebellion until 1864. It’s estimated that at least 20 million people died as a result of the rebellion, making it one of the bloodiest civil wars in history. Qing Dynasty forces eventually suppressed the rebellion and regained control, but the costs of the rebellion far outweighed the Qing’s victory. Along with tens of millions of lives lost, the Qing Dynasty was left with a significant amount of farmland destroyed and at the mercy of Britain and France, who lent their military support in suppressing the rebellion.


qing dynasty chinese boxer rebellion rebel
Member of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists or “Boxers” with a flag and spear, 1900, via US National Archives and Records Administration Catalog


The Qing Dynasty was hit with another rebellion in late 1899, known as the Boxer Rebellion. Members of the Chinese secret society called the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, or Yihetuan, were responsible for starting the uprising. The group became known as the Boxers by Westerners due to their practice of martial arts. The rebellion wasn’t directed towards the Qing Dynasty but rather foreigners in China. However, it would still have a major impact on the dynasty because several groups of foreigners ultimately succeeded in crushing the rebellion, leading to more reparations.


More than 50,000 Boxers invaded Beijing in an attempt to expel or execute foreigners. A military coalition to put down the Boxer Rebellion formed the Eight-Nation Alliance, which consisted of forces from the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. Qing Empress Dowager Cixi was forced to choose a side in the rebellion and decided to support the Boxers. This was seen as a formal declaration of war, which put her in danger of the Eight-Nation Alliance military coalition.


The empress fled Beijing to Xi’an to seek refuge, and the rebellion ended in 1901 with the defeat of the Boxers. Once the Eight-Nation Alliance crushed the rebellion, Empress Dowager Cixi signed the Boxer Protocol, which forced the Qing Dynasty to take responsibility for the reparations. The agreement also forced the Qing Dynasty to execute Chinese government officials who provided aid to the Boxers, and foreign troops were placed in the nation’s capital of Beijing.


The Impact of the Opium Wars & the Fall of the Qing Dynasty

qing dynasty empire map
Map of the Qing Dynasty prior to the Opium Wars, via Chinese Language Institute


By the turn of the 20th century, the once-powerful empire of the Qing Dynasty was tainted with an opium addiction crisis, numerous war reparations, economic instability, and social unrest. Constant disruption caused the empire to lose a significant amount of its power to Western Imperialism and over its people who once supported the dynasty. The Chinese Revolution of 1911, or the Xinhai Revolution, was the final revolt that would officially end the Qing Dynasty’s reign.


The successful overthrow of the Qing Dynasty by revolutionaries in the war removed the imperial system that China had maintained for more than 2,000 years. The Republic of China was established, but full acceptance of the new government wouldn’t come until the Chinese Revolution of 1949 led by Mao Zedong. The 1949 revolution established the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong.


The First and Second Opium Wars are key pieces of China’s history because they sparked a series of disruptions that altered the Qing Dynasty’s economy and the structure of its imperial power. The Qing Dynasty never fully recovered from the repercussions of the Opium Wars. The conflicts caused social unrest due to the empire’s crippling economy. The millions of deaths resulting from the wars and rebellions put further stress on the Qing Dynasty to piece its nation back together. Six-year-old Emperor Puyi was forced to abdicate the throne in early 1912. In the decades that followed, China would temporarily lose its diplomatic relations with the US and territories that the Qing Dynasty had acquired and be subject to more political turmoil.

Author Image

By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.