The Legacy of Western Imperialism and Reinstating China’s Former Glory

The 21st century has seen China’s economic rise to “great-power” status, thereby allowing Western nations fearing that it intends to challenge the global balance of influence. While realist thinkers such as John J. Mearsheimer suggest, “war is inevitable”[1]due to the increasingly antagonistic behaviour between USA and China, liberal John Ikenberry state that US hostility would be “foolish and dangerous”[2]. Although China’s seemingly incompatible behaviour has been criticized extensively by Western leaders who suggest they does not want to integrate into the international order, in order to understand contemporary China’s behaviour, one must understand the national psyche and how history has perpetuated the popular nationalistic opinion that the Chinese people have been victims of Western Imperialism. In fact, the making of modern-day China stems from over 150 years ago, during their “century of humiliation”[3] following on from the Opium Wars, thus explaining the distrust of the Western powers in the current international order. The potential for Chinese antagonism originates from the willingness to avenge their predecessors and regain there past national glory.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, French print, author unknown.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, French print, author unknown.

The Opium Wars have remained etched into Chinese psyche and as Eric Gordon observed, “opium brought great riches to our merchants and sowed the seeds of two bloody wars as well as helping to create the country’s national pride of today.”[4] The on-going resentment towards Western imperialism is epitomized by the country’s “Patriotic Education Program”, which closely studies this episode of Chinese history emphasising the injustice of the imperialists solidifying the “victimization” syndrome, which many nationalists still feel.[5] The Opium trade in China began as Great Britain annexed Bengal thereby allowing the British East India Company to gain a monopoly of the production and export of Indian opium. Although opium importing into china was virtually banned, opium reached the Chinese coasts hidden aboard British ships, to be given to native merchants for further distribution. As a result, between 1730 and 1773, the opium imports into China increased from 15 tonnes to 75 tonnes respectively. By 1810, when the empire issued a decree further enforcing the ban of the importing of opium, the rampant demand made their prohibition useless. The exponential growth of opium usage reached its peak in the 1820s, when the British were importing approximately 900 tonnes annually.

In 1839, Chinese scholar and Qing Dynasty official, Lin Zexu published a letter addressed to Queen Victoria questioning the moral reasoning of the British government citing their importing opium into China as a purely lucrative action. Furthermore, Chinese troops began boarding British ships in international waters outside Chinese jurisdiction and destroying the opium aboard. This was seen as an insult to the crown and therefore in June 1840, when the British learned fully of what was occurring in the Canton region, a powerful fleet arrived on Chinese shores. The origin of the First Opium War was severely attacked by William Gladstone, who wondered if there had ever been “a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace.”[6] Nevertheless, the fleet took Canton then sailing up the Yangtze seizing the tax barges thus slashing the revenue of the Imperial court in Beijing to just a fraction of what it had been. The Qing dynasty was no match for British superiority as their bombardments killed up to 25000 Chinese while the British sustained only a few dozen casualties.[7] As a result, they surrendered and the Treaty of Nanking or “unequal treaty”[8] was drawn up, concluding the First Opium War, which included the opening of 4 ports for Great Britain and ceding Hong Kong to Queen Victoria. When these terms of the treaties were not adhered to through the British flag being insulted, the Second Opium War ensued. Britain now called upon France, USA and Russia to aid their fight the Chinese, and the Anglo-French invasion of China resulted in the burning of the Summer Palaces, which were considered fundamental symbols of the Qing dynasty.

China was opened up to significant foreign trade and the considerable increase in currency usage damaged the Chinese economy almost spiralling into recession. China’s dependency on foreign trade increased resulting in intellectuals “realiz[ing] that they must try to understand western culture, especially if they were to beat the West”[9]. This war was seen as the event that opened up China to a century of humiliation and exploitation at the hands of Western imperialists, a view, which is still commonly accepted. The resentment towards the West still remains resolute underlying China’s current international behaviour. Even in 2011, when the National Museum of China was opened in Tiananmen Square, the dishonour of a history over 150 years ago took centre stage. The shame still shapes China’s relations today and drives China’s often isolationist foreign policies, as the government would never want any dependencies on the West again. Such behaviour suggests that although Sino-US relations will never be indestructible due to the fragile foundations of the bilateral relations, but shall remain amiable due to the mutual advantages of maintaining peace and agreeable negotiations.

[1] Mearsheimer, John; “China’s Unpeaceful Rise”, Current History, April 2006, Research Library, p. 160. (Last accessed: 24th May 2011)

[2] Ikenberry, John; “The Rise of China and the Future of the West: Can the liberal system survive?” Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2008


[4] Eric Gordon’s Review of Julia Lovell’s “First Opium War” book in the Independent’s Camden New Journal

[5] BBC History, “The Humiliations of the Opium Wars”, (Last accessed: 26th December 2013)

[6] Vallely, Paul; “1841: A window on Victorian Britain”, The Independent, 25th April 2006.

[7] BBC History, Ibid.

[8] BBC History, ”The opium wars: when Britain made war on China”, (Last accessed: 27th December 2013)

[9] Lasting Effects of the Opium Wars, (Last accessed: 27th December 2013)

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