Unlike previous visitors to China, the English who came for trade in the 19th century were not in a position to pay tribute to China. Britain was just undergoing an industrial revolution and in great need to open up markets around the world. Its advocacy of free trade clashed with the Chinese imperial system that emphasized self-sufficiency and feared the influence of robust international commerce and trade on the Chinese culture and society. As early as 1600, China limited trade with foreign countries to only the city of Canton, called the Canton System. There developed a class of Chinese merchants that specialized in trade between foreign merchants and Chinese merchants outside of Canton. They were called the compradors.
When Lord McCartney, envoy to King George III of England came to China seeking free trade in 1793, Emperor Qian Long treated him as yet another envoy from a country seeking to be a tributary state to China. Emperor Qian Long’s ignorance of England contrasted with the English familiarity with international navigation. Clashes between the two were almost inevitable. When Emperor Qian Long’s ministers asked Lord McCartney to kowtow to the emperor following the style of Chinese imperial ministers kneeling and touching the ground with one’s forehead), Lord McCartney curtsied, saying that was what he did to his king. This was just one of the few cultural clashes between the two. Lord McCartney brought many goods to China, mostly industrial machine made products, as a way to befriend the Chinese emperor and to show to the latter England’s recent developments, but Emperor Qian Long took the presents to be tributary goods. Emperor Qian Long turned down McCartney’s request for trade, not knowing that half a century later, China was going to pay heavily for it, with money and territorial concessions.
The First Opium War (1839-42)
In 1839, China and Europe clashed in a war over opium. The Chinese destruction of British opium, grown in India, (c.f. our drug war today) led to British government retaliation and declaration of war on China. Historically, Britain bought Chinese tea, silk, and Chinaware, but China, a self-sufficient economy as Emperor Qian Long (also spelled Chien Lung) alleged in 1793, bought little from Britain. Finally, Britain found a niche in the Chinese market: opium, which caused many Chinese, from the emperor's son to the pauper, to be addicted, leading to the Chinese banning of opium in 1839 and the First Opium War (1839-42).
After China was defeated by Britain in the war, China was required to do many things, including the following:
Pay Britain twenty-one million dollars.
Open five southern Chinese ports to Britain for trade.
Allow Britain one-sided most-favored nation status (which meant British goods in China would be subject to low tariffs while Chinese goods would be subject to high tariffs in Britain).