China experienced technological and industrial advancements earlier than most of the other countries. As such, many Western countries endeavored to trade with it. The problem was that the Chinese, under the Qing Dynasty, distrusted foreign merchants and often treated them with suspicion. They limited all Westerners to a single location in Guangzhou, also known as Canton. This essay investigates the reasons of why the Qing Dynasty court confined and restricted Western trade to Guangzhou. It also identifies the institutional assumptions that influenced the Qianlong and Britain’s view on their trading relations. Analysis indicates that the Qing Dynasty restricted foreign traders to Guangzhou so as to exercise control over them with ease and ensure Chinese people’s morals were not corrupted by foreigners. 

Limitation and Restriction of Western Trade to Guangzhou

During the 18th century, foreign traders, including those from Western countries such as Portugal, Britain and France, were restricted to carry out their activities at Guangzhou only. This was despite the fact that China was vast and could offer a wide market for their produce.

There was a myriad of reasons that necessitated the restrictions and limitations on the part of the Qing Dynasty. First, the Chinese generally distrusted foreigners. They did not allow them to enjoy the privileges and liberties of the natives lest they forget their place as sojourners. As such, all foreigners were to reside at specified and predetermined locations. For traders, Guangzhou was the designated place. Concentration of outlandish people at a specified place meant that the Qing officials could compel obedience from them more easily. 

Furthermore, the Westerners were perceived as troublemakers and morally perverted. Consequently, they were not allowed to bring their female counterparts or firearms with them. The Qing Dynasty emperor and officials were of the view that the Westerners were up to no good. Thus, even in their designated location, Guangzhou, they were not allowed to enter the city.  They were to operate only at the peripherals. Furthermore, the Chinese people believed that the Westerners had ‘strange customs’. As a result, the Qing officials perceived Westerners as perverts. They believed that their standards of morality, as developed by their wise leaders, were inherently superior to those of the Westerners. Allowing liberal interactions would have diluted these morals, which was unacceptable. Restricting them to a single location reduced contact between the natives and foreigners. 

Apart from the mentioned sociological reasons, the Qing Dynasty also limited Western trade to Guangzhou and Macao because they could easily be accessed by sea contrary to Peking, the capital and other cities they wanted to trade with.  Moreover, the Qing officials placed hongs at Guangzhou only. Hongs were the trading firms and establishments where foreigners could store their goods and, then, sell them. These facilities were absent in Ningpo, Chusan and Tientsin where the Britons wanted to extend their services to. Furthermore, Chinese interpreters were situated at Guangzhou. The foreigners were prohibited from learning the Chinese language. They were to communicate with the Qing officials through the interpreters, and since they were absent in other places, the Westerners had no choice but to trade at Guangzhou. Even if they had proceeded to Ningpo, Chusan and Tientsin, they would have had no hongs or interpreters to facilitate their trade with the locals. Crucially, the group of merchants, the cohong, with which the Westerners could trade with was also limited and was located at Guangzhou. 


Qianlong’s Institutional Assumptions

The Qianlong’s emperor had strong opinions and views on China’s relations with the British. They were influenced by several assumptions concerning the capabilities and balance of trade that the two countries had. Central among these beliefs was the one that the Qing Dynasty was self-sufficient. The Qianlong emperor was confident that the dynasty produced everything the residents needed and, thus, did not need to trade with the Western merchants. This was correct at the time as the Chinese produced everything from tea, silk, porcelain and textile to gunpowder. As the emperor stated in his reply to King George’s request, “Our celestial empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product in its borders.” In fact, the Qianlong emperor audaciously pointed out that they were actually doing the foreigners a favor by letting them trade with them. His views, therefore, were that the trading relationship between his dynasty and the foreigners was not mutually beneficial. The Qing Dynasty was experiencing unparalleled success and, understandably, it was hard for the emperor to envisage having advantages in any sense from trading with outlanders. The trading relationship was mostly meant to enable the foreigners to supply their needs, notably the Chinese tea.

The Qianlong emperor was also sure that the Chinese, as a nation, were superior to the foreigners. He believed that their customs were superior. While rebuffing the request of King George III to have an embassy in China, the emperor cited the acquisition of Chinese customs as one of the reasons why the Britons wanted to settle in the country. He pointed out that even if the Britons had been attracted to China’s civilization, they could not possibly have copied it back to their state due to their contrasting laws and customs. The perceived superiority of the Chinese customs was demonstrated by their demand to perform the tekou by foreign visitors. This involved the visitor lying prostrate on the ground when addressing the emperor as a sign of respect. The emissary sent by King George III, Lord Macartney refused to comply instead opting to bend a knee to express his consideration. The emperor, as adequately demonstrated in his letter, viewed the Britons and other foreigners by extension, as savages and barbarians not worth of being treated as equals. As such, it was his belief that the outlanders should have been handled with utmost suspicion. Consequently, they were to be restricted to Guangzhou where their movements and operations could easily be monitored and controlled

The Qianlong emperor also assumed that a restricted business environment is apt especially where Britain is involved. As such, the Britons, just like the French, Portuguese and Germans, were confined to Guangzhou. They were allowed to trade with a few selected merchants, the cohong, who operated as a monopoly. All products had to be sold through these traders who also acted as regulators being able to prohibit the sale of undesirable goods such as opium. The British were especially feared because, as Sir Henry Dundas points out, they had spread their influence over India via trade dealings. The Britons had gone to India to trade but ultimately made India their colony. Sir Dundas is, however, quick to state that there were some extenuating circumstances that led to their colonization of the country the prime one being the failure of the Indians to protect the British traders. All the same, the Qianlong emperor was cautious regarding the Britons lest they disregarded Chinese’ hospitality and colonized them. As it would turn out later, his fears were reasonable as the Britons fought against, defeated them and even forced them to cede Hong Kong. 

British Institutional Assumptions

The British people’s assumptions could not have been much different from those of the Chinese. The Britons were of the view that for there to be peace and economic growth, countries ought to have cooperated with one another in a friendly manner. They were astonished by the apathy and coldness their traders experienced. They detested being treated as minnows and demanded equality. King George III and Sir Henry Dundas, especially, were of the opinion that the two countries could benefit immensely from a courteous mutual relationship. Sir Dundas, representing the King of England, offered the Chinese an opportunity to set up an embassy in London if they let Britain set theirs in Beijing. The British, therefore, assumed that diplomatic representation was the best form of international relations. The Qianlong emperor did not share these sentiments and declined their request.

The British also believed that no country was self-sufficient. However, when they reached China with the gifts that they had taken with them, they found that the Chinese produced most of those products. At the time, the British had pottery and silk as their best products. At the same time, China produced silk and even had porcelain craft in place of pottery. Thus, the British were wrong to have assumed that no country could possibly have everything they needed. Later on, the British experienced a breakthrough in China through opium trade.

The British also assumed that the Chinese were backward people. As such, they felt that it was their duty to liberate and civilize them. The Britons were especially aggrieved with the Chinese limiting trade system that did not allow them to carry out their activities on the vast Chinese market. The British traders fancied a free market with perfect competition where demand and supply were regulated through the corresponding forces interacting. Such a system was in place in India and in other colonies where the Britons traded. The British reckoned it would improve the volume of trade and relations between the two nations. The Qianlong emperor, however, was of the view that monopoly was the best market structure since he could safeguard the interests of the Chinese through it.


In conclusion, it is clear that the Qing Dynasty court preferred to limit and restrict Western trade to Guangzhou because it was apprehensive of their potential negative influences. The Qianlong emperor was reluctant to engage with the Britons refusing them a chance to set up an embassy because he assumed that China was self-sufficient since the population produced everything they could possibly require. The Britons, on the other hand, were of the view that a diplomatic relationship and a perfectly competitive market were what the two territories required for a successful business environment. Ultimately, the use of force, starting with the opium war of 1839 to 1842, proved to be the amicable solution that these two countries needed.



Related essays