We tend to think of the “drug problem” as a modern phenomenon. But a century ago, illegal drugs brought an end an empire that had lasted for thousands of years.
In 1793, China was the home of a sophisticated culture and a rich history. Among other remarkable achievements, China invented movable type, kites, and gunpowder. They perfected porcelain, silk and tea production. 1793, however, was the beginning of the end of Imperial China.
Great Britain and other European nations, desiring her silk, tea and porcelain, wanted badly to trade with China. China, however, wanted nothing to do with Europe, and even refused to see European diplomats. Finally in 1793, a British diplomat was successful in reaching the Chinese court. He told the Chinese of the wonderful products of his country, convinced that once they really knew what Europe had to offer, they would quickly agree to engage in trade. China, however, was unmoved. In a letter to King George, the emperor said,
. . . As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures. . . Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce. But as the tea, silk and porcelain which the Celestial Empire produces, are absolute necessities to European nations and to yourselves, we have permitted, as a signal mark of favour, that foreign hongs [merchant firms] should be established at Canton, so that your wants might be supplied and your country thus participate in our beneficence.
They would sell Europe their silk, tea and porcelain, but would buy nothing in return.
Because Chinese goods were so sought-after in Europe, an imbalance of trade developed. European gold and silver went to China to import goods, but none returned because there was no possibility of export. This was unacceptable to the British and they desperately looked for a solution.
The solution to Britain’s problem was opium. Although opium had been used in China for medicinal purposes for a long time, it had not been used as a recreational drug. The British introduced opium to China in 1825, and soon, not surprisingly, Chinese began to be addicted to the drug. The emperor outlawed the possession, use, and trade in opium, but the profits were so immense, that an illegal trade quickly developed. The East India Company in India supplied all the opium the Chinese wanted and the Chinese government was unable to stop the smuggling. The balance of trade gradually reversed.