Title

Bending the Rules: How Canton Became the Success it Was not Meant to Be

Date of Award

5-2005

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

History

First Advisor

Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox

Abstract

Much has been written on the First Opium War (1839-42), which forced open the trade ports of the Chinese Celestial Kingdom. However, relatively little research has been done that looks more closely at what factors enabled the illegal opium trade in Canton to not only thrive but to grow tenfold between 1800 and 1839, in spite of all the trade restrictions that were in place. These restrictions were designed to make communications and trade between the Chinese and the Western merchants difficult at best. In essence, the rules were intended to minimize Chinese exposure to “uncivilized” Westerners while still allowing the foreign devils to purchase Chinese merchandise on the Celestial Empire’s terms. Yet in most accounts of this crisis, it does not appear that much thought has been given to just how the foreign community in Canton and their Chinese colleagues managed to turn what should have been a desolate trade post into such a successful port. This thesis looks into how, in spite of the failures of Western diplomats to secure better trade concessions for the foreign devils in any mission prior to 1840 and despite the severe restrictions that were placed on Western traders, the merchants in Canton were able to succeed. It argues that the success of the foreign traders and the opium trade can largely be attributed to the restricted trade environment at Canton, in which foreign traders and their Chinese counterparts came to know one another more than open and free trade relations would have allowed. Hence, they were able to build both the trust and friendship that was needed to risk breaking many of the rules regulating both trade and social interactions between the foreigners and the Chinese.

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