Daily Archives: 11 April 2004

The Wider "War on Opium" in Early 19th-century China

David Bello, the author of several works on opium in Qing-dynasty China, has an interesting revisionist take on the Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-60) that results from looking at the whole expanding Chinese empire and not just at where that empire intersected with the expanding British empire.

The opium-smuggling trade that Britain pursued on the eastern seacoast of China has become the symbol of China’s century-long descent into political and social chaos. In the standard historical narratives of both China and Euro-America, opium is the primary medium through which the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) encountered the modern economic, social, and political institutions of the West. Consequently, opium and the Western powers’ advent on the Chinese coast have become almost inextricably linked. Opium, however, was not strictly a Sino-British problem geographically confined to southeastern China. It was, rather, a transimperial crisis that spread among an ethnically diverse populace and created regionally distinct problems of control for the Qing state.

Bello notes that opium was a problem for the whole Qing (Manchu) realm, at least as much on its expanding interior borders as in its coastal cities. (He has a book coming out in 2005 in the Harvard East Asian Monographs series under the title Opium and the Limits of Empire: The Opium Problem in the Chinese Interior, 1729-1850.)

The Manchu empire had been rapidly growing, especially under the reign of the Qianlong emperor (1736-95), during which China extended its control into Turkestan (part of which remains in Xinjiang), Burma, and Tibet. This imperial expansion was financed by transferring more money from farflung localities into central coffers, forcing cash-starved local and regional officials to seek alternative sources of income.

By the end of the 1830s at the latest, southwestern opium cultivation had become a part of the network of informal funding that had arisen since the 1720s to compensate for the diversion of revenue from locality to center.

In this manner, the state itself became addicted to opium, and this dependency was a primary reason for the failure of central government prohibition in many interior localities. From the state’s perspective, the opium problem ultimately concerned revenue, both in Qing China, which was spurred to action only by its conviction that drug consumption was responsible for a hemorrhage of silver abroad, and in British India, which also made a futile attempt to prohibit “illicit” production and trafficking in order to protect its own state monopoly. Opium, in the form of economic and political power, was as psychologically compelling to merchant-capitalists, bureaucrats, and politicians as it was physiologically compelling to drug consumers.

SOURCE: David Bello, “The Venomous Course of Southwestern Opium: Qing Prohibition in Yunnan, Sichuan, and Guizhou in the Early Nineteenth Century,” The Journal of Asian Studies 62:1109-1142.


  1. “In 1881 the inspector general of customs in Shanghai, Sir Robert Hart, reported that imperial consumption of native opium equaled that of foreign imports. Most of the reports on which he based this conclusion identified the southwest, particularly Sichuan, as the main source of native opium” (Bello, p. 1134, n. 24)
  2. Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, a geographer at CNRS argues in an article in Crime and International Justice 15 (1999), that opium production in today’s Golden Triangle in modern Burma, Laos, and Thailand dates no further back than to the end of the 18th century and that it only began to supply the worldwide market after elements of the Kuomintang took refuge in 1949-50. Since that time the opium industry in the Burma Triangle has only grown as various governments in the region, including Myanmar, have made efforts to reduce or eradicate opium production.

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