David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.
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.
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.
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 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.
By this point, the Chinese decided they had to do something. They announced that opium could no longer be brought into the country and tried to close down two big port cities, even burning millions of pounds of captured opium. The British realized they couldn't get a trade advantage without this drug, and they went to war with China to keep the ports open and the opium coming in. Great Britain quickly won the conflict named the First Opium War in 1842. The Treaty of Nanjing kept the Chinese ports open and also gave the British control of the city of Hong Kong.
Finally, some Chinese had had enough. A group rose up against the emperor and foreign powers in a fight called the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, but they failed because the Europeans had much better weapons. While the rebellion didn't succeed, it weakened the Chinese emperor's government, and eventually the last emperor was forced out of power. However, foreign nations still had authority over parts of China until 1949, when Communists took control of the country.
Europeans wanted to trade with China, but China didn't always feel the same way. Great Britain and other European countries extended their influence in China through the practice of imperialism and by bringing opium into China, which led to addiction. While China tried to fight back, they failed each time.
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