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.

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.          

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