Imperialism in China: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

During the 1700s and 1800s, European powers attempted to take over control of China's leadership and its markets, exerting power from far away. Learn about the origins and legacy of imperialism over China in this lesson.

Bigger is Better

Can you imagine being in charge of the biggest country in the world? Perhaps you'd be rich and powerful, but every decision you make would affect millions and millions of people. Could you make the right calls to run a country?

It sounds like a daydream, but during the 1700s and 1800s, European powers competed to control China and its huge population in a practice known as imperialism because Europeans wanted China as part of their empires. This resulted in great wealth for Europe but great loss for the Chinese.

Map of China in the 1700s
Map of China

First Relations

For hundreds of years, Europeans and the Chinese traded goods on the Silk Road, creating lots of wealth in both parts of the world. However, about 500 years ago, the Silk Road was shut down, while sea trade began to pick up. By the 1700s, every powerful European country had lots of trading ships that could go all the way across the world and back. At this time, China was ruled by the Qing (pronounced ching) emperors, who didn't like outsiders.

Flag of Qing Dynasty in China
Qing flag

Even though China didn't like outsiders, outsiders really liked China. People in Europe really wanted Chinese products like silk, porcelain, and tea. So when European ships showed up to buy these products, the merchants quickly ran out of money to purchase them - they needed a product they could trade. The British came up with a solution: opium.

Opium Wars

Opium is a drug that leads to addiction, a dependence or a continual need for more. The British quickly found out that if they sold opium to China, they wouldn't need money to pay for goods, since they could trade drugs for tea or silk. Since the British could grow opium in their colony of India, they didn't need lots of silver and gold. They could trade opium directly without needing a huge amount of money.

Poppies, the plants used to make opium
Opium plants

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