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Defining Chinese Commodities in the Early Modern Era: A Historical and Conceptual Analysis  

Ronald C. Po

China gradually became a major political and economic power, starting from the second half of the 20th century. Today, it is an export factory that manufactures almost every imaginable product, from brass buttons and footware to computer chips and motor vehicles. While one could argue that the label “Made in China” seems to be visible and recognizable everywhere in the 21st century, this is not a recent phenomenon. A few centuries prior to the 1970s, China was already tightly connected to the global market. During the early modern era, the ideas, customs, and habits of Chinese culture were already steadily spreading across the globe through the consumption of a series of highly desirable Chinese items. Although historians have studied the global impact of a wide range of goods exported from China since the Ming dynasty, if not earlier, it remains necessary to obtain a more conceptual definition of the term “Chinese commodity” in studies of consumption and material culture. According to one definition, a “Chinese commodity” is a good that originated in and/or was manufactured in China. Yet at the same time, the idea of Chinese commodities has occasionally said more about how the non-Chinese in a foreign market imagined and conceptualized Chinese culture than the actual cultural meaning that was supposed to be connected to China. In other words, this is a multifaceted concept that requires further elaboration since it offers promising perceptions from which to explore and reflect on the interlacing of China and the world, while some of these correlations continue to generate a certain degree of social impact on our physical surroundings and imagination even to the present day.


The Opium Trade  

Amar Farooqui

For more than a hundred years, from the end of the 18th century to the eve of the First World War, opium was the main commodity exported from India to China. During most of this period, it was the second largest source of revenue, after land revenue, for the British Indian Empire. The article was sold for narcotic use in the Chinese market. Opium was produced in Gangetic eastern and northern India, and the central Indian plateau region of Malwa. The produce of the former zone was a monopoly of the colonial state. The production, processing, and sale of the drug was directly controlled by the government. Malwa was entirely under princely rule. Princely states were administered indirectly, had a measure of autonomy, and were subject to the overall authority of the British. Indirect rule made it difficult for the colonial government to regulate the opium trade of central and western India effectively. It pursued a different policy with regard to the opium produce of Malwa, permitting transit of the commodity for export from Bombay on the payment of a duty. The worldwide campaign against the opium trade that gathered momentum in the late 19th century contributed to the decline of the trade. Between the first decade of the 20th century and the end of the First World War, the British withdrew from the trade. International agreements for drug control led to rigorous imposition of restrictions on production and sale, terminating official involvement in the export of opium other than that for medical use. This brought to an end the career of Indian opium as a major colonial commodity.


Opium in China  

Yangwen Zheng

Opium was used as a medicinal herb during the Tang-Song dynastic era, if not earlier, but this medicinal role was transformed during the Ming dynasty as it became an ingredient in aphrodisiacs produced for the Ming court. Small countries in South-Southeast Asia included opium in their tribute items to the Ming. Tribute missions were a form of trade as well as the best way to maintain foreign relations. Opium transformed again in the early Qing dynasty as Southeast Asian Chinese brought the habit of smoking opium mixed with tobacco back to the mainland. This was soon integrated in and promoted by the sex recreation industry in the mid-18th century, and the demand for opium grew rapidly in the early decades of the 19th century. By the 1850s, increasing supply fueled a level of consumption that neither repeated attempts at prohibition, nor two opium wars could stymie; it exploded into a consumer revolution. Opium became vital to the economy as all the polities since the late Qing taxed it to sustain themselves. It also became a symbol of China’s humiliation and anti-imperialist political platform. It has now come back to haunt the country despite the Mao era success in eradication.


Monetary Flows and Currency Management in Ming-Qing China  

Arturo Giráldez

In 1571, colonists from the viceroyalty of New Spain founded Manila as capital of the Philippines and established a line of navigation between its port, Cavite, and the Mexican city of Acapulco. Their ships linked the rich mines of the viceroyalties of Perú and New Spain with the Ming and Qing Chinese empires, inaugurating a global economy based on silver from Latin America, and, to a lesser extent, Japan. The Chinese adopted silver as money in response to the high inflation of paper notes as a result of imperial expenditures. Merchants in the southern maritime provinces initiated the inflow of silver in the 15th century, and the central government soon began commuting taxes in grain to payments in silver. The purchasing power of silver in China rose precipitously relative to that of Europe and Japan, stimulating European and Japanese appetites to trade with the Chinese empire. The global silver economy could be divided in three periods: (a) the Potosí–Japan Silver Cycle (1540–1640), when Japanese and Peruvian (modern Bolivia) mines were the main producers of silver. The cycle ended with the equalization of the relative global prices of silver and gold about 1640; (b) a shorter Mexican Silver Cycle (1700–1750), when México was the main producer of silver; followed by (c) the Tea and Opium Cycle, initiated by the Battle of Plassey in 1757 that led to the British control of Bengal, the Opium War (1839–1842), and the presence of foreign powers in Chinese territories. Silver continued its journey into China but the high-profit markets were generated by Chinese tea and opium from India. These trade cycles are the origin of the modern globalized economy.


Parsi Traders in Western India, 1600–1900  

Lakshmi Subramanian

The Parsi community enjoyed a special status in western India as enterprising traders, who were quick to appreciate the advantages of the British connection especially in driving a huge trade in the Indian Ocean and specifically with China from roughly the latter half of the 18th century. Arriving in India as asylum seekers, the community quickly adapted to the host society by adopting the local language (Gujarati) and by deploying their commercial and manufacturing skills in consolidating their social location in the region. They were mindful of the ruling powers and developed over time important strategies of working closely with local interests, so much so that they acquired a foothold in landed and commercial society. It was in the late 17th and 18th centuries that they forged important links with European traders and trading companies, working as brokers for procurement of textiles and in the process acquiring a very close understanding of foreign markets. This was an important resource that enabled the community to play a major role on the emerging proto-colonial trade of western India, largely channeled through Bombay. The late 18th and 19th centuries saw the community produce major players and merchants of renown who amassed considerable wealth from the trade in raw cotton and opium with China and invested that wealth in philanthropy and subsequently in entrepreneurship. The community was primarily located in Bombay and western India, although their ventures took them as far as Calcutta and Canton. More recently there has been a considerable volume of scholarship on the community, emphasizing its origins, its histories and self-representation, and its use of the English colonial law in defining its own status and streamlining its customs.