Tea and Opium Culture

By Nico Meffe





While there was a growing culture of opium use in the Qing Dynasty leading up to the opium war, the British were all too willing to provide the supply to meet this demand in exchange for financial gain and tea.





Qing Opium Culture

The Lancet page 820

Letter to the Editor of The Lancet, March 1842
Letter to the Editor of The Lancet, March 1842

The Lancet page 822












This is a letter to the editor of The Lancet newspaper written February 26, 1842 from Surrey, England. It consists of extracts from the private journal of James Hill while he served as surgeon on a ship operating in the South China Sea. Upon being rescued from a typhoon, his crew was escorted to Canton under the protection of the Chinese Government. This occurred in October 1839 after the outbreak of the First Opium War, which had begun in March.

Hill describes the effects of opium consumption on a soldier and “head policeman” who are some of the personnel escorting his party. He describes in great detail the paraphernalia, and act of smoking opium.   All members of the Chinese party escorting Hill carried opium pipes, including a “head policeman.” Hill believes that opium use was almost universal amongst the male Chinese population, regardless of social class. He opines that the habits of smoking opium as practiced by the Chinese must have severe effects on a person’s constitution, even worse than those of alcohol. He believes that opium leads to an attitude of indifference and then an “early grave.” At the end of his Letter to the editor, Hill states that despite being told of extensive poppy cultivation in provinces of southern China, on his journey of nearly 600 miles he never saw a single poppy. Hill offers no reason for submitting this letter to the editor, which is presumably meant to describe the condition of opium consumption in the country. It is curious that he mentions the lack of poppy cultivation in China. Perhaps this is a way of suggesting that the opium must have been imported, without being so explicit.

The use of opium had a long history in China, however it reached its peak during the 19th century (Zheng 2). It had a long history in China as medicine (Zheng 2). It then entered the imperial court as an aphrodisiac used with consorts in the late 15th century and then trickled down through society as each class attempted to emulate the class above them (Zheng 5). By the 1830s it was beginning to become popular with the lowest classes of society (Zheng 6). This is when the elites began to distance themselves from the opium consumption in order to avoid being associated with a habit of the lower classes, the use by commoners indicated that it was no longer a signifier of status (Zheng 6). This provided the government with an impetus and ability to begin to more aggressively push for its expulsion from the empire, which would not have been politically viable if it was still a pastime generally practiced by elites (Zheng 6). Unfortunately just on the eve of the opium war opium had been transformed into a “social icon” and had permeated almost all sectors of society (Zheng 6). While there was great demand for opium in China by this time, as Hill points out in his letter to the editor, there was not much supply from within China. It took both endogenous and exogenous forces for opium to reach such a point of ubiquity (Zheng 9). To understand how this came about we must first look at the rise of another addictive commodity, tea, in Britain.

English Tea Pots and Cups c. 1740 - 1810 from Milwakee Art Gallery
English Tea Pots and Cups c. 1740 – 1810 from Milwakee Art Gallery


This image shows six teapots four teacups that were all used in England. The second teapot from the left was made in China circa 1760 and the second teacup from the right was made in China in 1740 (Milwakee Art Museum). The rest were all made in England with the earliest beginning in 1860 (Milwakee Art Museum). The most modern piece is the blue and white teacup and saucer in the middle that was created in Staffordshire, England in 1810 (Milwakee Art Museum). It is the only teacup with a handle, demonstrating a move away from Chinese style tea-ware towards convenient British methods (Milwakee Art Museum). The English-made porcelain was spurred due to the huge surge in the demand for tea that occurred in the 18th century. The variety and popularity of teapots and sets in 18th century England reflects the vast meteoric rise of popular of tea culture. The movement to away from ‘exotic’ Chinese style porcelains to English designed porcelain demonstrates the near completion of British tea culture appropriation.

The Rise of Tea Culture in Britain

Having existed in China since 2750 BCE, tea first appeared in England in the mid-seventeenth century (Kemasang 70). About a decade later, in the 1660s, it had was starting to become popular with the upper class (Kemasang 70). By the turn of the next century England was consuming 12 million pounds of tea each year (Holt 36-37). This allowed the duty to rise from 12.5% to 100% (Holt 37). Despite taxes and domestic opposition it had become popular amongst all classes in the 18th century and by the 1820s it was a staple for all English classes (Kemasang 71). Its rapid adoption is quite an anomaly and is even attributed to positive societal and economical changes (Kemasang 72-81).

Tea, Opium and Triangular Trade

This great demand for tea from Europe, particularly England resulted in a net trade surplus of about £150 million worth of silver by 1817 for the Qing Dynasty (Holt 37).  This trade deficit came about because the Qing were simply not as interested in British goods as the British were in Tea (Holt 37). Without anything to trade for tea the British were forced to pay in silver. In order to avoid continually running at a loss in their trade with the Qing, the British East India Company began importing opium into China (Holt 37). This created a triangular trade between England, China and India (Weimin 89).

The British exported cotton textiles to India, and used their control over India to export opium to China, who then exported tea to England (Weimin 96). This was extremely beneficial to the British and was very effective at reversing the flow of silver (Holt 37). By 1833 China was facing a net trade loss of £1.5 million to £2 million annually (Holt 64). The duty earned on opium made up one-eighth of British India’s gross revenue in 1832 (Holt 64). The prosperity brought to the British Empire from this triangular trade was great enough to prevent those who opposed it from gaining any substantial support (Holt 64-65). Even in the Qing Dynasty there were many who were making profits from middlemen, merchants, to corrupted officials (Holt 65). Despite the increasing concern within the Qing government, between1831 and 1839 the amount of opium imported went from 16 550 to 40 000 chests (Holt 65). It was clear that despite the harmful effects brought about to Qing society as described by Hill,  the British showed no signs of slowing  by the time the First Opium war broke out in 1839.


Decoratie Arts Gallery at the Milwakee Museum. “Tea Table Coffee Table.” Web. 15 Nov. 2014. <http://www.chipstone.org/html/SpecialProjects/TeaTables/12t.html>.

Hill, James. “Opium Smoking in China.” The Lancet 37.967 (March 1842): 820 -822. Web.

Holt, Edgar. The Opium Wars in China. Great Britain: Dufour Editions, 1964. Print.

Kamasang, A. R. T. “Tea – midwife and nurse to capitalism.” Race & Class 51.1 (2009): 69-83.

Weimin, Zhong. “The Roles of Tea and Opium in Early Economic Globalization: A Perspective on China’s Crisis in the 19th Century.” Frontiers of History in China 5.1 (2010): 86-105. Web.

Zheng, Yangwen. “The Social Life of Opium in China.” England: Cambridge Press, 2005. Print.


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