The Wars of the Poppies; Leslie Marchant Sees the Opium Wars as a Philosophical Clash between Two Cultures and Two Notions of Government and Society

By Marchant, Leslie | History Today, May 2002 | Go to article overview

The Wars of the Poppies; Leslie Marchant Sees the Opium Wars as a Philosophical Clash between Two Cultures and Two Notions of Government and Society


Marchant, Leslie, History Today


THE ANGLO-CHINESE Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856-60, and the later Cold War that resulted in the 1876 Chefoo Convention, were doctrinal in origin. They involved, on the one side, a European power driven by a doctrine of action -- the belief that free trade and the internationalisation of commerce would create wealth for all nations, and the utopian idea that this would produce a new peaceful world order -- and, on the other, protectionist China under a literati which, in the light of `the Confucian Renaissance under the Manchus, discounted doctrinairism in the belief that this had caused the Ming dynasty to fall, valued reason and rejected the idea that trade could elevate human society. Merchants in Confucian China were viewed as limited people, ranked with the lower levels of society, self-seekers who put material gain above scholarship and the spiritual.

Ideological war was not new to the British. Edmund Burke had warned about this when the French revolutionary armies sought to replace monarchies with republics:

   We are in a war of a peculiar nature. It is not with an ordinary community 
   ... We are at war with a system which by its essence is inimical to all 
   other governments; and which makes peace or war as peace and war may best 
   contribute to their subversion. It is with an armed doctrine that we are at 
   war. 

The war lasting from 1793 to 1815 was fought largely to check the spread of Jacobin thought. Political liberals, anti-slavers, evangelical revivalists, believers in the family of nations promoted by the author of The Law of Nations, Emerich de Vattel (1714-67), anti-monopolists and free-traders all joined in the fray. The British struggle in China was a logical continuation of this ideological war, which persisted even after 1815.

The ground had been laid for the free trade movement in 1776 by the publication of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. Ten years later William Pitt laid the practical foundations with a commercial treaty with France abolishing protective duties. But the real change came in 1823 with William Huskisson's Reciprocity of Duties Bill, which relaxed the protectionist Navigation Acts.

Britain's approach to the world in general and Manchu China in particular was moulded by four outlooks that were the outcome of Enlightenment thought and discussion over the previous century.

First, the Industrial Revolution led people to believe that humanity could save itself and improve the human condition without relying on the grace of God. The idea that God helps those who help themselves is more evident in the practices of activists such as William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the religious Clapham Sect, and reformers such as Hannah More (1745-1833) and Robert Owen (1771-1858), than in written theory. In the same way, Confucian China had long believed that the development of human society depended on Man, and that divine intervention was not a factor.

Second, distinctive methods, both religious and secular, for this were seen to exist. The religious method was spiritual conversion, its popularity exemplified by the multiplication of Protestant Missionary Societies, starting with formation of the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792, and their expansion to China as part of the treaty system. Secular methods included the creation of a national system of education, the way for which had been paved by writers such as John Locke (1623-1704), Robert Owen and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). (This belief also lay at the core of Confucian civilisation.) Others saw progress effected by science, which had created such miracles in Britain. Yet others looked to legislation as a way to progress, as the French philosopher Claude Helvetius (1715-71) had advocated; this method included international treaty-making. Finally, thinkers influenced by physiocrats such as Francois Quesnay in France and British moral philosophers such as Adam Smith (1723-90) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) believed that commerce not only was an agent for national development, but also could create a new moral international order. …

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