China first opium war british gunboats Universal History Archive/Getty Images

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Drugs, Gunboats, and China’s Score to Settle

China’s decline from a self-absorbed great empire to an abject victim of global powers was one of the swiftest and most psychologically devastating in history, and it remains a driving force behind the country’s modernization. And all of it began with the Opium War.

The First Opium War (1839-1842) marks the official beginning of China’s so-called century of humiliation, a period in which the Celestial Empire lost a series of wars to technologically superior Western powers (including Japan). By the early nineteenth century, what was once the world’s largest economy had fallen woefully behind the West in terms of economic development and technological capabilities. 

During the Qing Empire, while the Industrial Revolution was transforming the United Kingdom into the world’s first global hegemon, China remained stuck in the agrarian age. Yet China’s Manchu rulers continued to consider their country the center of the world and label people from other countries “barbarians.” Then the British barbarians showed up at the door – first with opium irresistible to the dynasty’s subjects, then with gunboats for which the empire’s military was no match – and the obsolescence of Chinese rulers’ Sinocentric worldview became painfully clear.

China’s descent from a self-absorbed great empire to abject victim of global powers was one of the swiftest and most psychologically devastating in history. Seventy years after the opening salvos of the First Opium War, the Qing dynasty crumbled.

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