The Power of Opium

The Power of Opium

China's economic superiority was waning. Britain had found a product to change the balance of trade: opium, grown on the hillsides of newly conquered India. The British invested massively in the manufacture and distribution of the drug, trading it for China's tea.

Opium was already eating away at China's social fabric. Britain's commercial muscle made the damage worse.

The British shipped opium to the Chinese coast and up its rivers, penetrating almost every artery of the country. The stability of Chinese society was threatened and in 1839 the emperor appointed Lin Tse-hs to stop the trade.

Lin wrote to Queen Victoria, but when his appeal to the better nature of the British went nowhere, he tried to paralyze the trade.

He took 350 British merchants into custody and ordered them to deposit more than 20,000 chests of opium near the Temple of the Three Buddhas. Thousands of balls of compressed opium were taken away, thrown into trenches, mixed with lime and flushed into the Pearl River delta.

The British would respect nothing but force and the ensuing war led China to defeat and Britain to shame. In Parliament, William Gladstone criticized the government: "A war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know."


The Chinese craved opium. It induced stupor smoothly, and foreign opium worked better than China's home-grown variety, bringing a more rapid and deeper oblivion. No one knew why: according to rumor, the foreigners mixed it with human flesh or corpses of crows.

From Transworld Publishers, Ltd.

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