But let's step back in time for a second and examine the events that led to such a position. The famous Macartney Mission of 1792-94 was to be the kickoff for British trade with China. The British Crown sent Earl George Macartney in full ambassadorial regalia to the court of the Chinese empire to approach emperor Qianlong (reigned 1736-1796) about setting up trade relations between what was then perhaps the most powerful nation of the Western world and the most powerful nation of the eastern hemisphere. Arriving onboard the HMS Lion at the port of Tianjin in the first week of August 1793, Macartney proceeded overland to Beijing and Rehe (Jehol, today called Chengde), the summer residence of the Manchu emperor's court.
What happened then has been recorded many times and has been the subject of innumerable articles and books. Suffice it to say that Macartney's mission was largely perceived as a failure, and the British ambassador was treated with much suspicion and subjected by the Chinese officials to court rituals befitting a tributary expedition bringing presents from, say, a fiefdom in inner Asia. The Chinese empire, calling itself the "Middle Kingdom," had little use for British interests in their markets and continued to pursue its so-called closed door policy, in essence not allowing any foreign power to have independent dealings on its territory.
The Wason Collection provides access to the entire Macartney mission papers in their original form, including Macartney's diary, the logbook of the HMS Lion, cartographic materials drafted at the time, and various other titles related to this important event. Charles Wason purchased the Macartney mission manuscripts around 1913, and they have been part of the Wason Collection ever since.
The story does not end there. The East India Trading Company, a British merchant's organization established in 1600 to cope with the Dutch-Portuguese monopoly on international trade in lucrative spices and other "exotic" commodities, had started in as early as 1773 to export opium illegally from India to China. In 1839, with more and more opium being smuggled into the country, the Chinese court sent a special commissioner by the name of Lin Zexu to the port city of Canton (now Guangzhou) with strict orders to suppress the traffic. Upon arrival, Lin issued public statements, some of them printed in the journal Canton Register, demanding that all opium be surrendered by the British. He then ordered all the chests containing the drug -- 20,291 of them, valued at 2 million pounds sterling in 1880, which was an enormous amount of revenue at that time -- to be placed in specially excavated trenches filled with lime and then seawater, destroying the drug completely.
This Chinese equivalent of the Boston Tea Party, as one might call it, resulted in a war between Britain and China, commonly known as the Opium War (1840 to 1842). A second war, sometimes referred to as the Second Opium War, took place between Allied forces -- again led by the British -- and China between 1857 and 1860.
In what is still today called the Unequal Treaties, China had to surrender territory in the south and was forced to open up five port cities as entry points for foreign merchants. (See also The Abolitionist.) An officer of the 98th Regiment on board the ship HMS Belleisle gave a rather intimate account of the signing of the treaty that ended the first Opium War on August 29, 1842. According to this treaty, the territory in the south of course was Hong Kong, only handed back to China in 1997, fully 155 years after the first treaty was signed, while the five ports would allow the free influx of imported goods, mainly opium. It is estimated that by 1867, almost 70,000 chests of the drug were imported (this time "legally") and that in 1879-80 the value of the imported opium was worth close to 13 million pounds sterling (W. J. Moore, The Other Side of the Opium Question, London 1882).
Through the execution of the Unequal Treaties, the previously closed door to China's markets was forced wide open. One of the consequences of the Western powers' establishing a strong presence in the East was that many major Chinese cities became hybrid in their architecture, such as the famous Bund in Shanghai. In addition, by being granted extraterritorial status, residents of foreign nationality enjoyed immunity from the Chinese legal system.