Decline, Fall, and
Aftermath of the Qing
It was a cruel coincidence of history that Qing dynastic decline coincided precisely with the early Industrial Revolution and the rise of aggressive western European powers competing for world domination through two major enterprises: trade and warfare. Spain and Portugal had first dominated the Asia trade in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Dutch dominated the trade in the seventeenth century, and Britain emerged as by far the dominant European power in the eighteenth century. As western European countries competed during these years in trade and warfare, they began to enslave millions of Africans and to conquer and colonize much of the New World, Africa, and India. The Qing court remained largely ignorant of these processes.
In the late eighteenth century, British traders came to feel increasingly frustrated with problems in the China trade. The British had grown very fond of Chinese silks, porcelains, and tea and were losing millions of ounces of silver annually to the China trade. Merchants ranked very low in the Confucian value system, and the Qing government saw international trade not as a way to generate new wealth but as a privilege granted to less-developed “barbarians” in exchange for their paying respects to the Son of Heaven and his court. British merchants were allowed to trade only at the southeastern seaport of Guangzhou (known in the West as Canton), where they were confined to a few warehouses and allowed to reside only temporarily to load and unload their ships.
In frustration, the British government sent two official missions to the Qing court in Beijing, in 1793 and 1816, to seek the opening of new trading ports to British merchants and to request that an official envoy from the British government be allowed to reside in Beijing. Both of these missions ended in complete frustration. In 1793, the Qianlong Emperor dismissed every British request as ridiculous, warning that British merchants would be expelled if they tried to come ashore anywhere other