The Treaty of Nanjing – Glory or humiliation?

By Michelle Luk

Capt. John Platt, “The Signing and Sealing of the Treaty of Nanking in the State Cabin of H. M. S. Cornwallis, 29th August 1842”. Oil painting.

Background to the treaty

In the aftermath of the first Opium War, the British and the Chinese signed the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 as peace settlement. Both parties achieved agreement upon twelve unequal articles for which they mainly disadvantaged the Chinese. For instance, article seven on the treaty stated that China must pay a total of twenty one million dollars to cover the British’s lost income on opium trade and to be punished for the Chinese authority’s “violent and unjust” treatments towards the British subjects during the War (The London Gazette 3597). In addition, article four stated that Hong Kong Island is to be ceded to the British in perpetuity (The London Gazette 3597). The Treaty of Nanjing has been seen as humiliation to China and it is a less popular subject for discussion in Chinese historical literature; the Chinese account on the treaty is limited and scarce. On the contrary, there are a handful of British accounts on the treaty remain in circulation.

Voices from the Chinese and the British

Two texts are going to be introduced in this post: “A Military History of the Qing Dynasty” (Shengwu ji, 聖武記) by Wei Yuan (魏源) and “The Closing Events of the Campaign in China” by Capt. Granville G. Loch. Both authors have lived through the time of the Opium War and the texts present their personal views on the Treaty of Nanjing. The texts are valued for the time they were composed as well as for being the authors’ personal discourse. Wei and Loch’s reactions toward the Treaty of Nanjing vary; while Wei resents the British’s aggression and Emperor Douguang’s incapability in dealing with foreigner, Loch takes pride of the British’s victory over the Qing – the fallen Empire.

The Imperial Qing and resentments

A portrait of Wei Yuan (1794-1857)
A portrait of Wei Yuan (1794-1857) by Ye Yanlan

Wei Yuan (1794-1857) was a Chinese scholar from Hunan. He obtained the provincial degree (juren 舉人) in Imperial Examination and subsequently worked in the secretariat of several prominent statesmen, including Lin Zexu (林則徐) (Li 10). Wei was deeply concerned with the crisis China was facing in the 19th century. Shengwu ji has proposed measures to improve military capability to the Imperial Army, and it also contains Wei’s commentary on the Chinese authority in the Opium War.

The original copy of Shengwu ji (聖武記)
The original copy of Shengwu ji (聖武記)

In Shengwu ji, Wei expresses his concern about the rising resentment towards foreigners among the Chinese population during the Opium War, and questions Emperor Daoguang’s capability to rule. Humiliated, the Chinese feel bitter about the British aggressiveness towards China as well as Qing’s incapacity to fight against foreign aggressor. Anti-foreigner sentiment gains momentum among the Chinese; they cultivate antagonistic attitude towards foreigners and believe that the “barbarians” “look only for profit” (Fairbank 6). Wei records a military assault in Canton targeting at foreigners in his writing. In March 1841, China relaxes its measure on trade with America and opens up trade between two nations. However, the modification of the measure results to Canton leaders making “a night attack upon the factories, and killed several Americans by mistake” (Wei 74). The Canton leaders’ violent engagement is an overreaction to foreigners and shows their discomfort of the foreigners’ presence. Scholar even suggests that the Qing has long been depicted as a victim of Western power and imperialism, “one whose inability to cope with the challenges of the day…” (Larson 499). Larson’s statement justifies the predominant mentality of the Chinese. Instead of reflecting themselves upon the Imperial Qing’s military power, the Chinese pity themselves on being exploited by foreign power.

Wei’s text also includes details about the Emperor’s attitude towards the Treaty of Nanjing. When the Chinese is demanded to come to terms with the British’s requests of indemnity and opening up trading ports, the historian condemns Emperor Daoguang’s powerlessness in the face of the British. Wei angrily accuses that “…all our leaders now lost courage, and sent a reply that night (to the British), submitting to everything, and not alluding at all to the rule about opium being excluded from China” (Wei 67-68). The Emperor and his officials are feeble in the negotiation process. Some scholarships point out that the Chinese officials find the British’s demands “problematic” (Lovell 234) that they abandon and even displace the draft treaty after reading it (Lovell 234). This shows that the Chinese authority is reluctant in achieving agreements with the British: arrogance remains. As the diplomatic deadline draw closer and the British show impatience in the waiting of reply, the Chinese authority are left with no options but to accept all demands from the British. The acceptance of the treaty is a blow to the Chinese’s pride: the Manchu, once a conquering race, loses its title to the British after the Opium War. The Qing Empire and its shattered confidence become subjects of entertainment in the British party.

The British Empire and conceit 

A portrait of Capt. Granville G. Loch (1813-1853) by Koseph Brown. National Portrait Gallery, London.
Koseph Brown. A portrait of Capt. Granville G. Loch (1813-1853). National Portrait Gallery, London.

Captain Granville G. Loch (1813-1853) was a British naval officer. He joined the naval force in 1832 and was promoted captain in 1841. Then Capt. Loch went to China as a volunteer and served as aide-de-champ to General Sir Hugh Gough (Matthew, Harrison 34: 207). Published in 1843, “The Closing Events of the Campaign in China” is Capt. Loch’s journal written during his time in China before and after the Opium War.

The title page of "The Closing Events of the Campaign in China"
The title page of “The Closing Events of the Campaign in China”

In comparison to Wei’s resentful tone in Shengwu ji, Capt. Loch’s attitude as cultivated in the journal is conceited. Loch’s account depicts the British party’s pride of their domination over China in the negotiation process. The British’s military intimidation before Qing’s assent to the draft treaty is not included in Loch’s account. However, Loch finds amusement in the scenario of the Qing’s humble surrender to the British. When the Qing officials present the British party Emperor Daoguang’s edict on the draft treaty, Loch ridicules the officials’ behaviour in the journal: “He carried the roll of yellow silk in both his hands, and proceeded – his eyes reverentially fixed upon it – with slow and solemn steps towards the table, and placed it in the hands of Whang with tenderness and forced resignation…I was greatly amused watching the anxious and horrified faces of the various Chinese…” (Loch 151). Here, the Chinese officials’ humbleness demonstrated at the ceremony enhances the British’s pride. Loch expresses his excitement about seeing the confidence-shattered Chinese. Although the journal is Loch’s private space for self-expression, his excitement about seeing the nervous Chinese officials is peculiar yet humiliating.

Loch’s arrogant attitude dominates his discourse. When he describes the signing of the Treaty on August 29, 1842, he describes that “It was a glorious spectacle for all who saw it…in the cabin of a British 74, the first treaty of China ever forced to make was signed by three of her highest nobles under England’s flag” (Loch 188). The elaborate description of the scene shows Loch’s good feeling in seeing the once glorious and powerful Qing Empire falls into disgrace after the Opium War. Loch damages the Qing Empire’s ego deliberately by projecting the image of the Qing officials signing the Unequal Treaty under the England’s flag. The British establishes its dominance by making the Chinese into a source of fun.

Although the Chinese and the British give each other the status of most favored nation in the Treaty, the tension between two Empires remain strained. Prejudice and mistrust the British and the Chinese hold against each other persist. The Opium War as well as the Treaty of Nanjing taunts the Qing Empire. As a result, the Empire becomes increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. At the same time, the rejoiced British exercises its influence in China more effortlessly.


Brown, Koseph. A portrait of Capt. Granville G. Loch (1813-1853). National Portrait Gallery, London. Web.

Fairbank, J. K.. “Chinese Diplomacy and the Treaty of Nanjing, 1842.” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Mar., 1940), pp. 1-30.

Larsen, Kirk W. “The Qing Empire (China), Imperialism, and the Modern World.” History Compass 9.6 (2011): 498-508. Web. 9 Nov. 2014

Li Hanwu. Wei Yuan zhuan = Wei Yuan: his life and thought. Changsha: Hunan daxue Publishing House, 1988. Print.

Loch, Granville G. The Closing Events of the Campaign in China: The Operations at the Yang-Tze Kiang; and the Treaty of Nanking. London: A. Spottiswoode. 1833. Web.

Lovell, Julia. The Opium War : Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China. London: Picador, 2011. Print.

Matthew, H C. G, and Brian Harrison. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: In Association with the British Academy: from the Earliest Times to the Year 2000, Vol. 34. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.

Platt, John. The Signing and Sealing of the Treaty of Nanking in the State Cabin of H. M. S. Cornwallis, 29th August 1842. Oil painting. Brown University Library. Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection. Web.

United Kingdom, The London Gazette. The London Gazette. Published by Authority. Tuesday, November 7, 1843. London: The Stationary Office, 1843. Web.

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

Wei, Yuan, and Edward H. Parker. Chinese Account of the Opium War: [translation]. Wilmington, Del: Scholarly Resources, 1972. Print.

叶衍兰 – 中國歷代名人畫像譜。 收《清代学者像传》第一集.


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