Exploring All-Under-Heaven and the Unequal Empires of Qing and Company

Exploring All-Under-Heaven and the Unequal Empires of Qing and Company

Exploring All-Under-Heaven and the Unequal Empires of Qing and Company

by Ben Lotz


Introduction: Early Explorations of the Periphery by All-Under-Heaven

The first emperor of "All-Under-Heaven" (天下 i.e. China) sent out fleets in the 3rd century BCE in search of the immortals and the elixir of everlasting life. (Cf. Sima Qian p.72)
Only few official attempts to explore the West (or the rest of the world) were made by the Chinese Empire. Leaving aside the time of the Mongolian rule and their expansion from China to Eastern Europe during the middle ages, there appears to be no record of any Chinese official reaching Europe prior to the Chinese embassy to Russia around 1731. And there appears to be no record of any Chinese official reaching Western Europe prior to the 19th century, although some exceptional individuals such as Shen Fu-Tsung did. In addition to this, 3 other valiant advances need mentioning as serious explorations (cf. also Needham ch.7):

- A more earthbound mission by Zhang Qian around 130 BCE led to a foray into Central Asia, and trade via the famous silk-route.

- In 97 Kan Ying was despatched as ambassador to the Roman Empire, but was deceived by the Parthians in Mesopotamia and returned unsuccessfully.

- Under admiral Zheng He, in the early 15th century, Chinese fleets and expeditions reached as far as East Africa.

Apart from these, it can be argued that the official policy throughout the centuries was dominated by ideas of self-sufficiency and protectionism, and focused on the Middle-Kingdom/Zhongyuan (中原), the land between the Himalayan mountains the Mongolian steppe and the Pacific ocean, although at times the empire's influence and control reached deep into Indochina and Central Asia.

In the reverse direction, there were not very many official attempts made from Europe either --especially not from Western Europe-- until the 16th century. The Greek and Eastern-Roman world had probably known (about) and intermittently used the silk-route since Jason and the Argonauts went to bring back the golden fleece from the East. "The trade was at its height in the Han period, and again in the Tang period." (Watson p.19 and cf. p.129) There is evidence that the Romans and Byzantines traded through Egypt and Syria with the Far East. And indirect contact between Byzantium (which became the Western end-point of the silk-route) and China existed also by way of middlemen from Persia or Central Asia. Arab and Persian merchants had traded by sea with the port of Zayton/Satin/Quanzhou (泉州) since the middle ages; especially after the land-route had become too dangerous.

With the fall of the Byzantine Empire the silk-route no longer reached Europe. Seafarers and merchants from Southern Europe (notably Portugal, Spain, Venice, Genoa) subsequently started to explore sea-routes to East Asia. Of these, only the Portuguese managed to establish the first permanent (European) outpost in Macao in 1557.
However, this article aims to focus on British-Chinese relations, which only began about a century later.


Qing and Company -- Exploring All-Under-Heaven

Unequal Yet Concurrent
From the mid 17thcentury up to 1834, the main British-Chinese relations were dominated by the East India Company (EIC) acting on behalf of Britain and Qing officials acting on behalf of China. Ironically both entities were equally imperialistic, arrogant, stubborn and similar in many ways. Their life-cycle largely coincided (for over 200 years), and both came to ignominious and infamous ends; with the EIC starting-up and perishing about 40 years sooner than the Qing. Together they were to define and set the tone for British-Chinese relations. Although the EIC were sometimes upstaged by their informal competitors, and initial contacts between English traders and their Chinese counterparts were made in the 17th century under the remnants of the Ming dynasty along the South-East coast of China.

The Qing
The Qing had come from Manchuria, had overthrown the Ming dynasty in 1644, had a firm hold over "All-Under-Heaven" (China) by the end of the 17th century, and lasted until 1912. The Qing dynasty ruled with the help of a vast bureaucracy educated in authoritarian Confucian values, a largely mercantilist economy, and was at times relying on what has been described as police-state methods. The objective of the state in China was public tranquillity and order. (Cf. Montesquieu p.151 and p.309) And this led Montesquieu to conclude in 1748 that "La Chine est donc un etat despotique, dont le principe est la crainte." (Montesquieu p.124)
Its social order was understood to be "Feudal, as denoting arbitrary power, land-owners' privilege, the oppression of the peasantry, poor standards of justice, and in the last few centuries, an ossifying conservatism which impeded the advance of industry and technology." (Watson p.13)
Underneath the Qing bureaucracy though there was still considerable tension, especially in the more Daoist and culturally diverse South and South-Eastern regions of what is considered to be core China. It was there that most rebellions against the Qing occurred and started. And by coincidence or not, this South-Eastern coast - especially the area around the international port of Guangzhou (and Portuguese Macao) - was where China mainly came into contact with foreigners and international merchants.

The East India Company (EIC)
In 1600 Queen Elizabeth granted a royal charter to the EIC - which included the English monopoly for trading with India and East-Asia. Although in practice, the company experienced some competition from individual private ships and from the New EIC, which later merged with the (original) EIC. In addition to this, they faced competition from other foreign merchants, namely/especially: Muslims (from Arabia, Persia, and India), Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and later French, Danish, Swedish, Americans, Germans, Russians, and Japanese. By the 19th century, all of these would have had so-called factories or hongs on Chinese soil, which were foreign-owned entrepots, warehouses, and establishments for factors and merchants.

The EIC began its trade at first by commissioning occasional individual sea voyages to India and beyond. They entertained major factories or permanent bases overseas at first at Surat (in India) and Bantam (on Java), from whence they sent out further expeditions - including those to China.

The Emporium of Canton/Guangzhou
From early on the EIC had also been actively interested in establishing commercial relations with China. But several attempts to start trading at Canton/Guangzhou (广州) and Macao were rebuffed by the Chinese and Portuguese (local) authorities there.
By way of Taiwan, English traders managed to set up a factory at Amoy/Xiamen (厦门) (from 1676 to 1683) and at Chusan/Zhoushan (舟山) which is the harbour/island near of Ningpo/Ningbo (宁波) (in 1700). (Cf. Foster ch.33)


Canton v2

Image Source: Wikipedia


Guangzhou had - with the exception of Quanzhou - always been China's main port and emporium for international trade and transaction. In the 18th century it experienced a revival of that role; but a revival with a bitter aftertaste, as it became the battleground for foreign powers and later a symbol of humiliation.

The EIC had a factory in Guangzhou since the late 17th century at least on a temporary basis.

In 1757 an imperial edict forbade Europeans to use Amoy/Xiamen, Chusan/Zhoushan and Ningpo/Ningbo; and confined international trade to Canton/Guangzhou; for the purpose of better regulating the trade. In reverse, this paved the way for the EIC to set up a permanent factory in Canton/Guangzhou in 1762, which lasted until it was superseded and surpassed by the colony of HongKong. (Cf. Foster p.333)
Governor Lu clarified later during the Napier Affair in 1834 that foreigners "are permitted only to eat, sleep, buy and sell in the factories; they are not allowed to go out". And all interaction with China has to come via the Co-Hong merchants.



The Canton-System - Supercargoes, Co-Hong, and Hoppo
The Hoppo was the imperial commissioner of customs for Guangdong/Canton-Province, based in Guangzhou, and became thus the main representative of the Chinese state with an official function to interact with foreigners and merchants. (Cf. Morse ch.17, ch.56, ch.69)



Image Source: Wikipedia 


International trade was strictly regulated. The Co-Hong/Hong-Merchants were the only people licenced to trade with foreigners and foreigners were only allowed to trade with them. Their monopoly was basically the Chinese equivalent to the English monopoly held by the EIC. This became known as the Canton system. (Cf. Morse ch.38, ch.51, ch.53, ch.71, ch.85, ch.95, ch.102, ch.104, ch.105)
Up to the mid-18th century, the EIC sent out individual supercargoes, then a council of supercargoes, then set up a more permanent select committee of senior supercargoes (from 1786 to 1833) that would reside at Canton/Guangzhou and Macao. (Cf. Morse ch.6, ch.38)
Following the abolition of the trade monopoly of the EIC in 1833, the British government appointed a Superintendent of Trade (from 1834). The first of these was Lord Napier, who disrespected the established protocol and caused a major diplomatic impasse (died 1834); followed by Charles Elliott (1836-1841) and Henry Pottinger (1841-1843) who went on to become the first Governor of HongKong (1843-1844). At which point the Canton-System had been abolished by the Treaty of Nanking.
It is worth noting that China under the Qing dynasty was practising and applying the (economic) policies of mercantilism. The mercantile system is based on a country seeking international superiority by accumulating precious metals via trade/commerce (from other countries in exchange for exported products) and by exercising protectionism towards its own market (via customs, import taxes, and restrictions). "The key objective of trade, according to the mercantilists, was to obtain a favourable balance of trade, by which the value of one's exports should exceed the value of one's imports." (Johnston) Thus, as the trade was restricted to the licensed Co-Hong merchants and full tariffs were to be paid, the Canton-System was a clear expression of mercantilist protectionism. Despite that British and other European traders sought to avoid and abolish the Canton-System throughout, and the British accused the Qing officials of using unfair mercantilist policies, "One of the best examples of mercantilist trade policy during this time was the British Navigation Act of 1651." (Johnston) And Britain by and large retained its mercantilist protectionism towards imports until as late as 1823 when the Reciprocity of Duties Act was passed, and 1846 when the Corn-Laws (which restricted grain imports) were repealed. (Cf. Johnston)
As tempting as it is to explain the Chinese policies and reactions to the demands from the British traders merely regarding mercantilism, it would be wrong to ignore the impact of moral teachings from Confucianism to Legalism.


Exploiting and Extracting from All-Under-Heaven

The Opium Trade and War
Since the 17th century, the East India Company (EIC) had bought tea in China and paid the Chinese in silver. On their return journeys from China, with the tea, they also carried porcelain and chinaware; first as ballast, and soon as similarly precious merchandise. Tea, though, remained by far the most profitable commodity. (Keay p.452)
When after the Regulation Act of 1773 and the India Act of 1784, the EIC had to relinquish some of their enormous powers which they had gained in India, they sought to increase their operations in China.
Despite the vast military/territorial conquests (in India), it seems to be proven now that: "Throughout the period 1784-1834, the Company's territorial branch was indebted to its commercial branch" (Philips p.303).

By 1800 the EIC was mainly trading with China. (Cf. Parkinson) And instead of paying the Chinese merchants in silver, they increasingly supplied them with cheap opium from their Indian plantations through intermediaries in exchange for Chinese products such as tea, porcelain, silk, etc., despite that this was illegal. And opium trade is described as "'probably the largest commerce of the time in any single commodity'. From small shipments by tortuous routes in the 18th century, the export of Indian opium direct to China was by the 1820s showing profits high enough both to stifle any moral scruples felt by the British and to negate the prohibitions frequently invoked by the Chinese. In British India 1/7th of total revenue now derived from the Company's continued monopoly over the manufacture and sale of Indian opium. And given that by 1828 the receipts from opium sales alone were sufficient to pay for the entire Tea investment, at home that 1/10th of English revenues that derived from the duty on tea imports was also directly provided by opium." (Keay p.454f)
It can, therefore, be said with sadness and certainty that the EIC were running, organising and profiteering from drug dealing and smuggling on a scale that was not even surpassed in the 1970s or 1980s. And the British government were not just tacitly tolerating or condoning the largest drug-trafficking operation in history, but were massively profiteering from its revenue, and were actively protecting it militarily and forced it upon the Chinese Empire in the subsequent Opium-Wars.

Opium is a debilitating addictive drug. As the population became addicted to opium in large numbers, the consequences of this drug-trafficking were disastrous for the Chinese state and population in at least 4 different ways:
1. the people became addicted and unhealthy;
2. they were no longer able to work and produce as much as before, but needed to find additional money/silver to pay for the drug;
3. they were no longer fit to fight as soldiers for the state;
4. the state trade deficit depleted the state treasury, and the authorities lost valuable revenue due to smuggling and lower productivity.
Hence it is hardly surprising that Qing officials like Lin Zexu saw the English as: "treacherous barbarians who manufacture opium, smuggle it for sale and deceive our foolish people, to injure their bodies and derive profit therefrom". (Kerr p.103)

In 1813 the EIC lost all monopolies except for those on the trade to China and the manufacture of opium in India. Subsequently, the opium trade grew dramatically from about 1820. This was made possible notwithstanding the imperial ban on the import of opium and the death-penalty for Chinese smugglers, in some part due to incompetent or corrupt local officials. But from the 1830s the catastrophic consequences became too obvious to be ignored. And in 1838 the emperor appointed Lin Zexu as imperial commissioner, who has had success in suppressing the drug trade in other places.
After formal reprimands of merchants and officials, in March 1839 he successfully confiscated over 1200 tons of opium. He destroyed it without compensation, by mixing it with quicklime and later flushing the remains out into the sea; and composed an ode of apology to the god of the sea for defiling his ocean with opium.
In revenge, war ensued as the British then massacred a local Chinese garrison and attacked Guangzhou. Lin was replaced. Gunboats of the EIC engaged and provided artillery cover, and the British took various areas of the coast from Macao to Nanjing. This gunboat diplomacy led to the first of a series of unequal treaties that gave Europeans access to China but didn't give the Chinese anything in return.

The Treaty of Nanking/Nanjing from (29th August) 1842
The Treaty stipulated that China should pay a large ransom for the withdrawal of British forces, and cede HongKong, and give the British (most-favoured-nation status and) access to 5 important ports, and release and pardon Chinese drug-smugglers or collaborators or anyone who had supported the British.
The 5 treaty ports were: Canton/Guangzhou, Shanghai, Amoy/Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo.
The treaty was signed by Pottinger an employee of the EIC who acted on behalf of the British crown as Plenipotentiary and Superintendent of Trade, and Qijing a (reputedly corrupt) Qing official and distant relative of the emperor acted on behalf of the Chinese Qing dynasty.


Epilogue and Concluding Comparisons

Rebellions and Concessions
The Qing rule was in chaos and decline from that point on; although managed to hold on to formal control till 1912 when the 7-year-old boy emperor abdicated.
The swiftness and ease with which the British overpowered the Qing-garrisons (in the first opium war) did not just decimate the Qing armies, but hugely damage and destroy their reputation for invincibility; and thus opened the door for later rebellions such as the millennialist Christian-Daoist Taipings in the heartland of China and the Muslim Khanate of Kashgar in the West. After 14 years, and millions of dead, and vast destruction of the Chinese heartland, and only with substantial help from European troops notably the British, the Qing were able to defeat the Taiping's Heavenly Kingdom in 1864 and quell the Muslim uprisings.
Among the British who were sent to restore the Qing's authority, was the adventurer Major Gordon (who first became known as Chinese Gordon, and later fell as General Gordon Pasha in the storm of Khartoum). (Cf. Gordon)
Further concessions had to be made to foreign powers up to the end of the empire. Most of the countries that had factories became local colonial powers. After the second Opium War (also called Lorcha-War) opium was legalised.
Soon internal conflict between modernisers and traditionalists dominated politics. And the government was forced to make opportunistic shifting alliances, at times against the foreign powers, at times with them, e.g. to quell the Taipings and later the Boxer Rebellion.
The various rebellions against the Qing were the first time that British and Chinese imperial forces were officially fighting together.

The End of the East India Company (EIC)
In 1833 the EIC lost the monopoly on the China trade. But its experienced administrators and employees still provided expertise and advice to the British government and were thus preferably recruited and tasked with related duties.
In 1848 the EIC adventurer and spy Robert Fortune disguised himself as Chinese and managed to trick the Chinese into giving him thousands of high-quality tea plants which he shipped to Darjeeling in India where the company was able to start its own large-scale, high-quality tea-plantation/production; thus by-passing and entering into competition with China over the production of tea.
Following the Indian Mutiny in 1857-1858, the EIC also lost its role as managing agency for the British government and its armed forces were integrated into the British Army.
And finally in 1873, after the EIC Stock Redemption Act, it ceased to exist.
In the 21st century, an Indian business person bought the brand name.

Wielding power by accident or design?
It can be argued, that what made the EIC unique, famous and infamous, was not that it operated as a company and used its own security forces to protect its property, but the extent to which it used military force to secure and gain trade, to invade foreign countries and expand its privileges and possessions. (Cf. Parkinson p.2)
Nevertheless, The company's role may not have been quite so unique as some scholars may want us to believe. After all, in some ways the EIC bore the resemblance to religious orders of crusaders such as the Templars (e.g. after simply replacing religion with commerce and the pope with the queen). They had been founded to provide safe passage to pilgrims but had gone on to conquer large territories in Palestine as well as to control fiefs and wealth in Europe and had established a rudimentary international banking system that made profits from providing financial services and facilitating commerce. Equally, the 21st century already has its own examples of unbelievably powerful companies with mercenary forces that are superior to that of many a country.
What was unique so far, was that a registered trading company would become the de-facto sovereign ruler over India and millions of people; with the right to levy an army and impose taxes.
And yet it seems that one thing simply led to another. As a commercial enterprise the EIC set up bases/factories, then recruited security forces to protect these, then got involved in local politics to secure their trading rights and factories, then used their security forces like armies to defeat European and local competitors, as well as hostile kingdoms, and thus the company conquered first Bengal then most of the rest of India --almost by accident. And this made them politically responsible for a large number of people, without having any interest in the lives of these people --except for the taxes and the labour that they could demand from them.
While the raising of revenue marked the EIC's business-model for India, in China they had pursued quite different activities.

The Power and Will of the Emperor
In the West political theory had focused on customs and derived the power of the Chinese emperor from the concepts of filial-piety and patriarchal-authority.
Montesquieu --who had mainly read the reports from missionaries and traders as well as early translations of Chinese classics-- remarks on the established institutions and customs: "... si vous retranchez les ceremonies qui expriment le respect que l'on a pour [l'autorite paternelle], vous affoiblissez le respect pour les magistrats ... ce rapport d'amour qui est entre le prince et les sujets se perdra aussi peu a peu. Retranchez une de ces pratiques, et vous ebranlez l'etat." (Montesquieu p.310)
(If Lord Napier only had read Montesquieu he would have understood that what he attempted could have been interpreted as treason.)
This in turn --it is argued-- led to unhealthy rigidity; thus "c'est a la Chine que les manieres sont indestructibles." (Montesquieu p.304) And, "A false idea of harmony led to a fear of change and stiffened into rigidity." (Galbraith p.123)
This is accompanied by a somewhat milder variation and by benign intentions: "Les legislateurs de la Chine avoient pour principal objet de faire vivre leur peuple tranquille. Ils voulurent que les hommes se respectassent beaucoup; que chacun sentit a tous les instants qu'il devoit beaucoup aux autres." (Montesquieu p.306)

It has also been observed that: "In ancient Chinese theory only one independent legitimate power is recognised, that of the Chinese emperor, to whom all nations on earth owe submission, whether they acknowledge it or not." (Watson p.21 and cf. Zhu) However, in Qing times, others point out that the so-called tributary system (by which the Chinese emperor as ruler over all-under-heaven is entitled to tribute from all other people) was not absolute and e.g. did not apply to relations with Russia or with Japan - both of which were held on rather equal terms. (Cf. Britannica) This notwithstanding, within China the claim was absolute.

In the Middle-Kingdom, the political theory had focused on advising the emperor. Because - in the interior - the Chinese political system was (at least theoretically) extremely monolithic on account of its centralised bureaucracy and totally dependent on the emperor. This appears to be linked to an underlying universalist sentiment, that just like all nature can be traced back to the one Dao, so all politics ought to be back-traceable to one source.
The emperor was this origin/fountain of all political opinion and action. Therefore Chinese political theory had evolved around giving advice to him. Albeit that every dogma/advice seems to have been counterbalanced (and mitigated) by one or more others. So when Han Fei Zi advises that: "The Dao of the Lord of men regards tranquillity and humility as treasures." (Han ch.5) (--for treasures read desirable objectives--), he soon enough also warns that tranquillity and humility must not turn into rigidity/inflexibility, as: "he who wants to settle the people's disorder but hesitates to change their traditions, can not hope to banish the people's disorder... While time is moving on, if laws do not shift accordingly, there will be misrule" (Han ch.54)
Thus one might ask: Why the stubborn pursuit of mercantilism? The answer lies most likely in the way that the Ming dynasty faltered and was overthrown. The Ming rulers ran out of silver, and couldn't pay their troops; who then rebelled and brought the Qing to power. The Qing emperors were acutely aware of that, and tried their best to prevent this from happening to them. Thus they limited trade to mercantilist protectionism and sought to maximise silver imports.
Self-reliance was another factor. Over 2 millennia prior to the fall of the Qing, Han Fei Zi had also warned: "Who has to rely on foreign powers' abstention from disturbing his state before he can maintain his own independence, will see his state dismembered." (Han ch.54)

The emperors were simply longing for stability; but in a time of capitalism and international anarchy, where the one with the biggest guns (or gunboats) triumphs, this, unfortunately, is not achievable.

The imperial will, objective, and reasoning are shown in the famous response of the emperor to the British embassy of Lord Macartney in 1793: "The Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is, therefore, no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own products." (Macartney)
It reflects the longing for simplicity as expressed in the Daoist ideal: "Thus the sage rules by stilling minds and opening hearts, by filling bellies and strengthening bones. He shows people how to be simple and live without desires, to be content and not look for other ways. With the people so pure who could trick them? What clever ideas could lead them astray?" (Lao verse3) However, as we now know, the answer to the second-last question must be British freemarketeers; and to the last: The anarchy of the free market.

Empires can relate to the outside world in the following ways, i.e. through war, trade, cultural integration, transfer of technology.
• The emperors were not longing for war, but it was forced upon them.
• The emperors were not seeking a trade, but it was forced upon them (by smuggling and war).
• The emperors did not seek cultural integration with the West/rest of the world, but it became inevitable.
• The emperors did not want new technologies because they knew it would destabilise their society.
If power is defined by the capacity to make somebody do something that they would otherwise not want to do, then the Qing emperors were powerless in the face of British ambition and freemarketeers.




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