The emergence of trade between Europe, America, and China is a story of conflicting cultural values and political-economic agendas. During this period, tea came to represent more than just a beverage. For the British, tea was a commodity and a valued trade good. For the Americans, importing tea directly from its source was an act of independence. To the Chinese, tea was a symbol of cultural refinement and superiority.
In 1784, when the American ship, the Empress of China, sailed boldly into the Whampoa, official permission had not been granted for the visit. There had been no diplomatic meetings, and no treaties had been negotiated. Western merchants were offended when the court expected them to perform the elaborate ritual prostration known as kowtow, and the Chinese were insulted when they refused. To the West, trade was an economic right, but to the Chinese, trade was a privilege to be earned.
Referring to themselves as rulers of The Celestial Kingdom, Chinese emperors resisted trade with other nations. After all, they seemed to control the wares that the world desired - tea, silk, and porcelain. Ch'ien-lung Emperor, the fourth ruler of the Ch'ing dynasty, expressed this position unambiguously in a letter to King George III of England:
Our dynasty's majestic virtue has penetrated unto every
country under heaven, and kings of all nations have offered
their costly tribute by land and sea... We possess all things.
I... have no use for your country's manufactures. You, O King,
from afar have yearned after the blessings of our civilization...
But your... requests… completely fail to recognize the Throne's
principle to... exercise a pacifying control over barbarian
tribes, the world over... My capital is the hub and center
around which all quarters of the globe revolve.
Those gifts that European kings hoped would create a favorable relationship with China were interpreted as acknowledgement of their divine rule.
Intense pressure from the West in the ensuing years forced Chinese emperors to allow limited trade, but they were still able to impose strict regulations. In the distinctive practice known as the Canton system, European and American traders were permitted to work with a small group of dynasty-authorized merchants known as the Cohong. These men, called hongs, conducted their business as a precarious balance between Western capitalism and Chinese sovereignty. Hongs were personally responsible for each incoming ship's cargo and the goods bound for export. They were also accountable for each crewmember's conduct while in China, and they were punished for any transgressions.
A number of these hongs achieved great success from their trade associations. One of the most famous of these merchants was Wu Ping-chien, commonly known as Houqua. During his life, he amassed nearly $26,000,000 in wealth and lived in the most beautiful home in Canton. Yet, for all of his riches, Houqua was held in great disdain by the emperor and the aristocracy. Whenever the court desired, it could exact tribute from Houqua and the other merchants.
In the 1830s, the value of goods imported from China exceeded that of those exported, and Great Britain decided to demand increased trade rights. In the ensuing battle over the opium trade, the British occupied the port at Canton and waged war on imperial China. The treaties signed after the Opium Wars broke the hegemonic Canton system and opened wide Chinese markets to trade with the West. To capitalize on this free market, merchants in Europe and America looked for ways to transport goods from market to market as quickly as possible. As American ships from a peculiar new design set records for runs between America and China, tea merchants realized that the winds of trade had changed. The dawn of the clipper ship was on the horizon.
Tamarin, Alfred and Shirley Glubok. Voyaging to Cathay: Americans in the China Trade. New York: Viking Press, 1976.
Ukers, William F. All About Tea, Volume II. New York: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, 1935.
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