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Opium Wars

History >> Ancient China

What were the Opium Wars?

The Opium Wars were two minor wars fought between China and Great Britain (primarily) over the opium trade in China. They took place during the middle of the 1800s near the end of the Qing Dynasty. Some historians consider the Opium Wars to be the start of the modern era in China.

What caused the wars?

During the end of the Qing Dynasty, China exported many goods to European countries including tea, silk, and porcelain. At the same time, China didn't import many goods. China mostly kept to itself and only allowed foreign traders to trade through certain ports.

In order to create a new market in China, British traders with the British East India Company started to import opium into China. Opium is a very addictive drug and was illegal in China. However, as more and more Chinese became addicted to opium, British traders began to make a lot of money selling opium to China.

The Chinese government didn't want opium in China. Too many people were becoming addicted to the drug. In 1839, they decided to put an end to the illegal opium trade. They first sent a letter to the British government asking them to stop the traders. When the traders continued to sell the drug, the Chinese seized over 20,000 chests of opium from British traders. Soon, fighting broke out between the two sides and the First Opium War began.

First Opium War

The First Opium War lasted over three years from March 18, 1839 to August 29, 1842. The British Navy moved in and easily defeated the outdated Chinese Naval forces. They took control of the trade port Canton and reopened the opium trade. They then moved to occupy several cities along the coast of China and blockaded the Grand Canal. By 1842, the Chinese saw that they were losing the war and were ready to negotiate.


After winning the war, the British forced the Chinese to sign the Treaty of Nanking. The treaty reestablished trade between the countries and opened up five trade ports to Britain. It also forced China to pay $21 million in reparations and gave Britain control of the city of Hong Kong.

Second Opium War

The Second Opium War lasted from 1856 to 1860. The French joined the British in this war against China. The war began when the British placed additional demands on the Chinese including legalizing the opium trade and opening all of China for trade with British companies. When the Chinese government refused, tensions increased between the two countries.

Fighting began when the Chinese seized a British pirate ship called Arrow. The British said the Chinese had no right to seize the ship and used the incident for an excuse to attack Canton. The French soon joined in the fighting when a French missionary was executed by Chinese authorities.

The British once again took control of Canton. Fighting continued on and off for the next four years. In 1860, British and French forces approached Beijing and defeated the Qing army.


At the Convention of Peking in 1860, the Chinese agreed to sign a treaty with Britain and France. The treaty legalized the opium trade, established freedom of religion in China, forced China to pay France and Britain reparations, and opened a new trade port.

Interesting Facts about the Opium Wars Activities

For more information on the civilization of Ancient China:

Timeline of Ancient China
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Silk Road
The Great Wall
Forbidden City
Terracotta Army
The Grand Canal
Battle of Red Cliffs
Opium Wars
Inventions of Ancient China
Glossary and Terms

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Period of Disunion
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Zheng He
Emperors of China

Works Cited

History >> Ancient China

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