Law and ban of opium in China

By Violet Ding 

Opium was considered as very effective medicine in Europe before the Opium War (Booth 65). And almost every person in Britain had ever tried it (Booth 74). Thus, there were no explicit bans or laws about regulations of opium, until 1912, the International Opium Convention signed (The International Opium Convention 187). However, China had an opposite view about opium. They thought it had seriously affected their nation’s health. Therefore, many specific provisions were carried out in China during Qing dynasty against opium. But, the British still tried to violate these rules and displayed arrogant attitude towards China. This had directly involved in the international conflict and the opium war.

Anti-drug Campaign in the Qing Empire

Here are some important statutes set by Qing government about opium during Jia Qing and Dao Feng eras. Jia Qing (1796-1820): at first, Qing government thought opium was just a small issue; they implemented an “Outer Prohibition”, which only prohibited import opium around Guangzhou area (Jingshang). And in the 4th, 12nd, and 14th years of Jia Qing era, Qing government had emphasized on forbidding the trade of opium (Jingshang). But, since opium issue was more and more serious during Late Jia Qing, the Qing government realized that this was not only a small case. Thus in the 18th year of Jia Qing (1813), they officially enacted an “Inner Prohibition” law about punishment of the opium drudgers and planters (Yu 25-27). However, because of the generous benefits of trading opium, this policy was not very efficient. Thus, in the 20th of Jia Qing era, they promulgate a Forbidding of Opium Policy (查禁鸦片烟条规), which can be summarized into two main points (Jingshang). The first one was: for the Portuguese cargo ships entering Macau, Qing officials need to check if there was opium. Once discovered opium, they could never trade with China (Jingshang). The second was details about penalization of unconstitutionality and rewards for the elitist in against opium (Jingshang). The British played a trick, since they thought this new rule would also applied to them, but at this time, Qing imperial court had not explicitly order to check the British ships (Jingshang). Thus, the captains of the British East India Company (BEIC) were commanded to refuse the inspection by Qing officials (Morse 238). Until two years later, when the Wabash issue happened, Qing government decided to check the British ships (Jingshang). But because of the BEIC strongly opposed to this decision and threaten to start a war, Qing had to give up finally (Jingshang).


During Daoguang period, the ban on opium became the most important issue in China. In the third year of Daoguang era (1823), an new statutes about deregulation of Opium was executed (失察鸦片烟条例), which stressed the punishment of officials who did not obey the rules (Li 68). Because, though Qing had put forward many policies about prohibition of opium, many officials did not execute them but make profits through opium or smoke opium (Zheng 56-70). In the year 1839, Qing promulgated another law, which strictly ban on the opium(钦定严禁鸦片烟条例) (Li 69). This was regarded as the most thoroughly laws in the Qing history. The same year, Daoguang appointed Lin Zexu to implement this law. And in the “Commissioner Lin: Letter to Queen Victoria, 1839”, he pointed out one policy in the new law:

“Any foreigner or foreigners bringing opium to the Central Land, with design to sell the same, the principals shall most assuredly be decapitated, and the accessories strangled; and all property (found on board the same ship) shall be confiscated. The space of a year and a half is granted, within the which, if any one bringing opium by mistake, shall voluntarily step forward and deliver it up, he shall be absolved from all consequences of his crime.” (Lin 116-118)

Edward Duncan. “NEMESIS Destroying the Chinese War Junks in Anson’s Bay, Jan 7th 1841.” Oil painting. 1843.

Actually, the British companies knew opium was prohibited in China (Rowe 231-252). Thus, they hired many country merchants in order to avoid the legal sanctions (Perdue). And also they bribed the Qing officials into connivance (Li 68). This had forced Qing punished many officials and executed rules about deregulations (Li 68). When Qing ordered some British opium sellers to leave China, many of them refused or just stop not far from China (Jingshang). When Qing asked them to provide letter of assurance about not trade opium, the BEIC also strongly opposed to it and threatened the other companies not provide this letter by cancelling their licenses in Britain (Morse 17). When Qing commanded them never trade opium with China, they even menaced Qing by the war (Jingshang). The Chinese people really suffered a lot from opium; it was no longer a “magic medicine”, but the poison (Zheng 56-70, 71-86). However, they never stopped illegal behavior in China, but earned money based on Chinese people’s health without any shame (Rowe 231-252). This was unbearable for China as an independent country and had raised the indignation of Chinese people (Tappan 197). And they thought they were the victims of British opium trade (Waley 23). After Lin Zexue sent the letter to Queen Victoria, they still played an arrogant attitude, but regardless of the laws in China (Rowe 231-252). Thus, the first opium war happened unavoidably.


Booth, Martin. Opium: A History. London: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Print.

Duncan, Edward. “NEMESIS Destroying the Chinese War Junks in Anson’s Bay, Jan 7th 1841.” National Maritime Museum. Web. Nov 4, 2014. <>.

League of Nations Treaty Series. The International Opium Convention, signed at The Hague, January 23, 1912, and subsequent relative papers. No. 222. – International Opium Convention Signed at the Hague January 23, 1912. Netherlands: The League of Nations, 1922. Web. Nov 14, 2014. <>.

Lin, Zexu, “Commissioner Lin: Letter to Queen Victoria, 1839,” Modern Asia and Africa, Readings in World History Vol. 9. Ed. William H. McNeil and Mitsuko Iriye, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Web. Nov 14, 2014. <>.

Morse, Hosea B. The Chronicles of the East India Company: Trading to China 1635-1834. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926. Print.

Rowe, William T. China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012. Print.

Tappan, Eva March, eds. “The People of Canton: Against the English, 1842″ in China, Japan, and the Islands of the Pacific, I of The World’s Story: A History of the World in Story, Song, and Art. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914. Web. Nov 14, 2014. <>.

Waley, Arthur. The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes. London: Allen & Unwin, 1958. Print.

Yu, De’en. The history of Chinese Phohibition Of Cigarettes (中国禁烟法令变迁史). Shanghai: Zhonghua Shuju, 1934. Print.

Jingshang, Yuzheng eds. “About Opium Issues During Jia Qing and Dao Guang Eras: Introduction” (关于清代嘉庆、道光年间的鸦片问题). 1985. Web. Nov 14, 2014. <>.

Zheng, Yangwen. The Social Life of Opium in China. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.


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