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  • Opium and the Origins of Treason in Modern China:The View from Fujian*

In early March of 1839, a Chinese opium broker known to his British suppliers as Shik Po was on the lam. The Qing authorities in the region were on high alert, as the entire southeast coast was experiencing the height of the world's first war on drugs. Shik sought out protection from his British partners, hiding on the Jardine-Matheson opium ship the Lady Hayes while it was anchored in Shenhu Bay, just offshore from his hometown of Yakou village in Jinjiang county, Fujian.1 As Captain John Rees and Shik Po watched from the deck of the Lady Hayes, Qing troops once again descended on the secluded bay, setting fire to boats and houses in the village. Yakou was home to some of the most active and aggressive opium brokers on the coast, and local authorities had repeatedly attacked the village during the late 1830s, burning the infrastructure of the opium trade to the ground, only to see it rebuilt in the morning. [End Page 155]

A decade earlier, there had been no British ships anchored offshore in Fujian. The opium trade prior to 1832 — at least that portion of the trade that involved the transfer of opium from British to Chinese hands — had been conducted almost exclusively within the Pearl River Delta, where Fujianese and Cantonese junks would load up on the drug for delivery to other parts of the empire. But by 1839, the year the British launched an all-out attack on the Qing empire in what came to be known as the "Opium War," there were nearly a dozen British ships permanently anchored in strategic bays along the Fujian coast, importing tens of thousands of chests of opium directly into Fujian and exporting jaw-dropping quantities of treasure. This article explains what happened to cause such a dramatic explosion in the Fujianese opium trade, by focusing on the local story of Shenhu Bay and the networks created by entrepreneurs like Shik Po and John Rees.

This article also pushes beyond an explanation of how the trade expanded, to illustrate the way in which Chinese opium traders like Shik Po came to personify treason during the rise of modern Chinese nationalism. Nationalist historians and politicians in China have long demonized those other Chinese who worked with the British leading up to, during, and after the Opium War. But writing off the history of these people as mere traitors yields too flat a narrative; it obscures both the individual and the wider context. The evidence presented in this article takes us deeper into the world of the 1830s opium trader. It shows that the Sino-British conflict, the opium trade at its heart, and the accusations of treason against the Chinese participants in the opium trade were all structured by a much older conflict on the southeast Chinese coast. The coastal lineages who operated the trade were part of a countercultural tradition in late imperial China, the inheritors of a maritime alternative to the agrarian ideal. Opium traders and their enemies transformed the long-strained relationship between coastal people and the Qing state into an empire-wide crisis.

The two decades surrounding the Opium War are often cited as a formative moment in the crystallization of modern Chinese nationalism. As Gang Zhao and William Rowe both argue, influential mid-nineteenth-century "proto-nationalist" scholar-officials Wei Yuan and Wang Liu began to show increasing preference for the terms "Zhongguo" (usually translated as "China") and "guojia" (the nation) over "Da Qing" (or the Qing Empire).2 This development in usage is important to Rowe and [End Page 156] opium and the origins of treason in modern china 157 Zhao as a harbinger of the rise of modern nationalism, when influential Han Chinese officials took ownership over the multinational imperium created by the Manchu Qing court, and closed ranks against attacks from separatists in the northwest and Europeans on the southeast coast. This article suggests that the popular epithets "yanhai jianmin" (treacherous coastal people) and "hanjian" (traitor, or more specifically, Han traitor), which government officials commonly applied to the coastal Fujianese during this period, are also symbolic of this transition. This moment in the 1830s was when the "treacherous coastal population" and the "treacherous merchants" (jianshang) among them became true hanjian, traitors. And these were not the mere nuisance hanjian of the Guizhou frontier — ethnic Han migrant adventurers who lived among the Miao and other highlanders. These people in Fujian would be remembered as having done something more nefarious, more dangerous, and more modern. Treason itself was not invented in the 1830s or on the southeast coast. Rather, the claim in this article is that this was the moment when a specific form of treason that became crucial to the development of modern Chinese nationalism emerged out of a cluster of older phenomena.

The opium trade in 1830s Fujian is therefore an ideal site to begin a study of how people classified by the state as "criminals" played important roles in the making of the modern world. To the Qing, Shik Po and John Rees were just that: an underclass of lawbreakers and uncultured maritime riff-raff. They were criminals, without a doubt. But these marginal "bad apples" were important historical agents, building something that would change history. Together, British and Fujianese merchants constructed transnational networks to operate an illegal drug trade, which itself would become the core issue in a Sino-British conflict that would have extraordinarily wide-ranging ramifications. Drug smugglers, out of an unwillingness to obey restrictions on the commodities they traded in or the people they traded with, helped precipitate the clash of empires known popularly as the Opium War. They structured the context for a century of treaties between China and the nations of Western Europe, the United States, and later, Japan. The "criminals" responsible for the expansion of the opium trade played a leading role in transforming both the rhetoric of Chinese nationalism, and the social order itself.

The evidence presented in this article is primarily about the people who facilitated the opium trade during this period. I hope to direct our attention to some of the underappreciated reasons why the opium trade [End Page 157] expanded so rapidly in the 1830s. David Bello, focusing on the spread of opium in the interior, has given us a rich state-centered approach to the failure of opium prohibition policies within the context of Han expansion into the southwest and northwest. Joyce Madancy, another scholar of prohibition, shows how opium galvanized patriotic Fujianese elites to organize against the trade, and thereby establish "an avenue for extending direct administrative control over local society."3 The Fujianese studied by Madancy were inspired by a hatred of opium to dream of building a stronger China, though as she acknowledges, "the drug did indeed overpower those dreams."4 This article is informed by both of these studies of prohibition policies and institutions, but redirects our attention to the lives and actions of the people whose vested interest in the drug trade became the chief obstacle to the success of reformers and prohibitionists.

This article also builds on recent social and cultural histories of the drug trade by highlighting the role of "criminal brokers" — intermediary figures who connected the foreign drug to the inland consumer. Zheng Yangwen has used opium as a prism with which to better understand such diverse topics as court culture, medical science, elite moralism, women's private lives, and consumption practices in general.5 Frank Dikötter, Lars Laamann, and Zhou Xun also focus on the culture of drug consumption, arguing that the drug trade in China should be understood first and foremost as a product of consumer demand.6 Research into the lives and networks of opium traders themselves should help open up new connections between these cultural analyses of consumer demand and the political and economic history of global imperialism. As Carl Trocki convincingly demonstrates, opium revenues made British rule in India and Singapore viable, and kept the British Empire financially solvent.7 The evidence in this article enables us to incorporate the history of some of the other people profiting from the opium trade. For, as Zheng Yangwen has pointed out, though "foreign smugglers only delivered opium to the Chinese coast… Chinese smugglers carried opium to the four corners of the empire."8 In other words, a not-unsubstantial [End Page 158] segment of the Chinese population benefitted immensely from the opium trade. This article explores this phenomenon, and examines how Fujianese brokers and intermediaries responded to consumer demand by repurposing the structures of global imperialism to suit their own ends.

Fujianese Lineages and the Rise of the Yakou Shi

The rise of the opium trade was facilitated by the most important social institution on the southeast coast during the late imperial period: the lineage. No mere family or clan, some of the more powerful individual territorial lineages in Fujian could have tens of thousands of members, complex corporate structures, and internal class divisions. Fujian's lineages had important political functions, merging with official systems of taxation, corvée labor (lijia), and social order (baojia); as well as cultural functions, hiring teachers, promoting candidates for examination, conducting religious ritual, and maintaining a system of traditional cultural values.9 The territorial lineage, as Zheng Zhenman argues, "provided the model that underlay all other organizations within late imperial Chinese society. Political factions, secret societies, native-place associations and guilds, as well as local militias and joint stock investment corporations, were all constructed out of, or according to the principles of, lineage organization."10 The Shi (Shik) lineage of Yakou village in Jinjiang county is ideally situated to examine how the emergence of powerful lineage organizations along the coast during the late-seventeenth century came to structure the opium trade in later years.

The lineage structure of society in Fujian predated the Ming-Qing transition, but the Yakou Shi and other great lineages emerged even stronger from the violence and chaos of the seventeenth century. When the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) collapsed in the early seventeenth century, Fujian was home to one of the last holdouts against the invading Manchus and what came to be called the Great Qing imperial house (1644–1911). In Taiwan and a few ports on the Fujian coast, sea lord Zheng Zhilong and his son Zheng Chenggong (also known as Koxinga, or Guoxingye) and grandson Zheng Jing set up a bureaucratic state nominally dedicated to reviving the Ming.11 In order to capture the Fujian coastline, the [End Page 159] Qing needed to cut off the Zheng organization from mainland support, but Fujian's maritime lineages largely supported the Zheng regime and continued to carry on in association with the Zheng rebels. Frustrated, the Qing consolidators determined in 1662 to forcibly move the entire coastal population inland. In one of the most traumatic campaigns of early modern warfare, Qing administrators in Fujian (and parts of Guangdong and Zhejiang) banned maritime trade as well as physical residence along the entire Fujian coast. In Fujian's Jinjiang county, the new state forced residents to abandon at least 110 settlements (including Yakou village), totaling 1,252 acres of cultivated land in a land-poor county.12 The consequences were devastating, as Zheng Zhenman and others have shown.13 The scorched-earth policy moved untold numbers of impoverished coastal residents away from their only source of income, and dismantled local economic and social structures.

The repeal of the evacuation policy encouraged the dominance of powerful territorial lineages, as people needed allies in the scramble to occupy the newly re-opened coastal districts and organized themselves according to lineage principles. A central figure in the repeal of the evacuation policy was a local naval commander and the head of the Shi lineage of Yakou village, Shi Lang (1621–96). Shi, like many coastal Fujianese, had fought with Zheng Chenggong against the Qing. But the two men quarreled while in Taiwan, and Shi defected to the Qing. He was eventually given the post of naval commander-in-chief (shuishi tidu) and placed in command of the Qing naval assault on the Zheng forces. After helping the Qing to defeat the Zheng rebels and conquer Fujian, Shi Lang and numerous other Fujianese officials pressed the Kangxi emperor for benevolence towards the people of the Fujian coast.14 Shi's native village of Yakou was among those that the Qing had evacuated, and he gave a humanitarian case that ultimately proved convincing to the Kangxi [End Page 160] emperor. In 1684, Kangxi lifted the ban on maritime trade, abandoned the destructive policy of coastal evacuation, and eased land scarcity and food shortage by allowing settlement of Taiwan. People with connections to powerful men like Shi Lang had an obvious advantage, and accordingly the Yakou Shi were able to (re)claim a choice piece of territory, enjoying a privileged status in the region into the twentieth century.

Powerful lineages like the Yakou Shi became the dominant power brokers in the region, and as such were treated warily by the Qing state. By 1740, the Yakou Shi were notorious for their size and strength and the illegal activity of many lineage members. Fujian-Zhejiang Governor-general Depei reported multiple times that year on his attempts to deal with the powerful lineage. The Shi lineage at Yakou had "10,000 healthy and strong young men," he wrote. "They can gather at the sound of a whistle to engage in armed struggle, to resist arrest and refuse to pay the grain tax, to smuggle and sell private salt, and to rob and plunder merchant ships.… The local authorities are afraid of them and therefore conceal their crimes. Nobody dares to say a thing."15 As Harry Lamley argues, lineages in the region had developed a systematized "feud industry," as chronic feuding (xiedou) encouraged the development of a professional mercenary class among the otherwise "indigent inhabitants" of the region.16 Governor-general Depei, attempting to root out the sources of feuding, summoned ten of the Shi lineage elders to Fuzhou and chastised them, recommending to his superiors in Beijing that a greater government presence ought to be established near Yakou. He failed to curb the growth of the Yakou Shi lineage in size and influence.

By the 1830s, the Yakou Shi had the prototypical set-up for a powerful southern Fujianese lineage with maritime interests. They dominated the inner shoreline of Shenhu Bay, an inlet approximately four miles across and strategically situated between the large ports of Xiamen and Quanzhou. The bay is big enough to provide shelter in rough seas, but small enough to defend effectively. And with mountains at their back, the Shi could retreat from the coastline in times of trouble. The position along the coast was also strategic. With Xiamen twenty-five miles to the south and Quanzhou fifteen to the north, the Shi were far enough away from the seats of local officialdom to avoid constant and direct surveillance, [End Page 161] yet close enough to the ports to feed off commerce. On top of their geographical advantage, the Yakou Shi lineage had the requisite finances, boats, storage space, processing capacity, and connections to move quickly in the early 1830s when British opium firms first began to express interest in bringing the trade up the coast from Guangdong.

The Yakou Shi were far from unique. The entire region was dominated by similarly positioned lineages with strong numbers, official connections, diversified business interests, boats, weapons, and money. Many of these groups, like the Shi, were formulated out of (often fictive) kinship claims during the chaotic years after the coastal evacuation was lifted. By the time the opium trade came to Fujian, several of these groups even boasted small coastal fortresses complete with well-stocked batteries to defend their small anchorages and jetties.17 [End Page 162]

Map 1. China's Southeast Coast The Expansion of the Fujian Offshore Trading Network, 1832–39
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Map 1.

China's Southeast Coast The Expansion of the Fujian Offshore Trading Network, 1832–39

While the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong province was the original center of the opium trade in China, the trade branched out along the Fujian coast after 1832, drawing increased attention to the region from the Qing court. Within the British community in China, a full restructuring of British trade in Guangzhou during 1834 brought about new competition between British opium traders and an impetus for firms like Jardine-Matheson and Dent & Company to explore new markets.18 There was also a large Fujianese presence within the Pearl River Delta merchant and labor communities. This confluence of factors — as well as the geographic proximity of Fujian to the Pearl River Delta — made Fujian a logical first stop for the British firms interested in venturing north along the coast for new markets.

The Fujian offshore opium trade was modeled after the way that the opium trade was conducted in the Pearl River Delta, known as the "Lintin system." The smuggling trade at the small island of Lintin (Lingding) was conducted by the Cohong — the firms granted brokerage and tax-farming rights for foreign trade in Guangzhou — who had arranged a simple and effective opium smuggling mechanism for transactions between local firms and British importers. Buyers would go to the money shops on streets like Lianxing Jie in Guangzhou to make payment, then take a receipt out to a foreign receiving ship anchored near Lintin to receive their opium. For an extra charge, they could arrange armed escort. Buyers had come from every coastal province, and local officials singled out southern Fujianese brokers in their reports as having a large stake in the trade.19

In 1832 the British merchants and Fujianese brokers of the Pearl River Delta brought the Lintin offshore receiving ship system to the coastline of southern Fujian. Networks of Fujianese merchants in Guangzhou had been bringing substantial amounts of opium up to Fujian in smaller sailboats for decades, increasing as the trade expanded. By 1832, the Fujianese were purchasing so much opium that transporting the drug to Fujian in larger, well-armed British ships would substantially decrease [End Page 163] logistical costs. Southern Fujianese migrants had a strong presence in the foreign trade networks of the Pearl River Delta, not just as petty traders and boatmen, but as leaders of some of the most prominent Hongs. Their numbers included the wealthiest and most famous of the Hong merchants, Howqua (Wu Bingjian), close partner to William Jardine, Samuel Russell, and other western merchants. Arranging for southern Fujianese to come on board and act as translators, pilots, and middlemen for a northbound trip would not have been a complicated matter. There was no shortage of Fujianese in the Pearl River Delta looking for work, most of whom could boast hometown or lineage connections to coastal Fujianese brokers, and many of whom could speak enough pidgin to land the job.

The changing structure of British trade in Guangzhou also increased momentum to expand the Lintin system northwards into Fujian. The British East India Company's (BEIC) monopoly over the China trade was set to dissolve in 1834, which opened the door for private firms to compete with one another for the business of their Chinese partners. During 1832-33, in the months leading up to the end of the monopoly, Jardine-Matheson and Dent & Company entered into a fierce competition for the business of the Cantonese opium buyers. Finding additional brokers and expanding the market became economic common sense, from their position. As such, the leadership of both firms together with several other influential British merchants in Guangzhou decided in early 1832 to jointly fund the exploratory voyage of a ship called the Lord Amherst.20 They discovered that the northern Fujianese port of Fuzhou — originally targeted as a tea market closer to the area of cultivation than Guangzhou — was well-defended and difficult to navigate. In contrast, the Zhangzhou-Quanzhou littoral in southern Fujian was full of eager traders located in conveniently secluded bays. And while trade in the provincial capital of Fuzhou was closely regulated and largely limited to tea, governance in southern Fujian was inherently more loose, and the local brokerage firms were wealthy and diversified.

The 1832 Lord Amherst expedition laid the groundwork for the next decade of opium trading in Fujian. The ship's officers were charged with [End Page 164] establishing connections with local brokers and with finding government officials who might be willing to do business. Thomas Rees, older brother of Jardine-Matheson's John Rees, was in charge of the sailing and mapping. His maps become a central tool for opium traders and the British navy in the years to come, and Rees himself remained on the coast aboard the Amherst (and other ships) as captain until the end of the decade, selling tens of thousands of chests of opium for Dent & Company in Quanzhou, Shenhu Bay, and other Fujianese ports.21 Hugh Hamilton Lindsay was the leader of the expedition, and the head translator was the enigmatic Prussian missionary and doctor, Charles Gützlaff. Lindsay, in the event that he was unable to bribe or otherwise come to terms with local Chinese officials along the way, was to deny any connection to the British East India Company, and instead offer a cover story of being blown off course by winds en route to Japan. Lindsay wrote that this alibi, "though true in some respects, yet certainly gives no clue for the Chinese to trace the ship."22 They anchored in both Xiamen and Fuzhou before heading up to Zhejiang and the Yangzi Delta, repeatedly using the alibi in stand-offs with local officials along the way.

The Amherst voyage in retrospect was a preview of some of the key fault lines that would structure the Opium War and subsequent treaties. The Chinese officials who handled the crisis were concerned foremost with stopping the foreigners from interacting with local people along the coast. British accounts of the voyage stress the "friendliness" of these same coastal Chinese people towards the foreign visitors, and ruminate on the incompetence and arrogance of officials who would stand in the way of free trade. From the Qing perspective, it is clear that the Chinese officials saw the voyage as a portent of great bureaucratic nuisance and as a threat to their careers. They took a hard line against any people who might try to communicate with the foreigners. Officials issued constant warnings along the coast to keep locals away from the foreign ships, and even arrested and punished a crew of fishermen who paddled too close [End Page 165] to the Amherst.23 But what they were most worried about, to the point of obsession, was Gützlaff's collection of books. These were mainly Christian tracts and one informational pamphlet on the English nation, translated in Siam and handed out along the journey. The books were the central focus of several anxious memorials written by the Fujian authorities on the visit of the Amherst voyagers to Fuzhou.24 The presence of mysterious and potentially explosive books on board the Amherst underscored the basic need to keep a volatile coastal population insulated from potentially dangerous foreigners.

Jardine, Dent, and their Fujianese partners set up an efficient opium delivery system almost immediately following the Lord Amherst voyage. The British merchants had determined to establish themselves in the southern Fujianese markets in advance of the dissolution of the BEIC monopoly. For his part, William Jardine sent John Rees, William MacKay, and James Innes north on the Colonel Young, John Biggar, and Jamesina, all large and well-armed ships. Within months of these exploratory voyages, Jardine had set up what was called the "receiving ship" system, which would remain in place for over two decades. Faster ships like the Sylph would transport opium up from the Pearl River Delta to larger, often older and not terribly sea-worthy vessels, which would remain at the main anchorages in and around Xiamen and Quanzhou. Beginning in 1832, wrote Quanzhou Prefect Shen Ruhan, "they come and go, sometimes hiding and sometimes in plain sight, and we have been unable to stop them." Shen knew all of the pertinent details: "Two smaller lorchas built in a similar way to the big ships and capable of carrying one thousand catties often bring up opium from Guangdong, transfer it to the big ships, and carry the silver from the big ships back down without waiting around."25

Local middlemen were crucial to the success of these early British opium voyages up the Fujian coast. After Jardine hired Charles Gützlaff as an interpreter for one of the early opium voyages into Fujian, Gützlaff in September of 1833 sat down with representatives from three major Fujianese merchant houses.26 One of these houses was Sanquan Mao, [End Page 166] represented by a certain "Mr. Yabe," who appears as a central figure in the Fujian trade within the Jardine-Matheson records. We meet him again in 1834, in a letter of Gützlaff's wherein Yabe "sighs under the wrath of the Mandarins and does not dare to come on board."27 When he reappears in 1839, he is still being hunted: "They are trying to seize Mr. Yabe," wrote John Rees, "I believe he is safe and I think they merely want to squeeze him."28 Yabe is one of the few windows into the world of these middlemen that British sources offer, and these sources indicate clearly and repeatedly that Yabe was a known person to the Qing authorities. Among the middlemen to be found in the British archives, Yabe's ability to survive by buying government protection is representative. His story suggests that "squeeze" was the obvious course of action for local officials, in most circumstances, when dealing with wealthy opium brokers.

The Qing officials who were determined to root out the opium problem went to great pains to find and blame middlemen like Yabe: local troublemakers who had "enticed" the British ships to come up to the Fujian coast from the Pearl River Delta. The British ships themselves were out of reach: their weaponry was generally superior and their boats faster than those in the local Qing navy, but also because Rees and others often moved locations when Qing boats were coming, informed by their Chinese contacts on shore.29 So for Qing officials in the region who were dedicated to fighting the rise of the opium trade, the area where they could potentially make a difference was in punishing those Chinese who were working with the British to expand into Fujian. A man named Wang Lüe was the original culprit, and Fujianese officials repeatedly used his case to preface memorials on the offshore opium trade for the remainder of the decade.30 According to Wang's testimony, the Jinjiang county native had originally gone to live with his father in Macao during the summer of 1825.31 His father had registered a boat in Macao and worked as a [End Page 167] middleman, arranging trips to the opium ships at Lintin for northbound coastal junks. Growing up in this environment, Wang became fluent in the "foreign tongue" and made contacts within the foreign and domestic merchant communities. In 1831, Wang arranged for another Jinjiang native named Lin Yin to bring up over ten chests of opium on an armed foreign vessel Wang had hired in Macao. Between this time and his arrest, Wang stationed himself on British ships regularly skirting the Fujian coast, brokering sales worth thousands of Spanish silver dollars to the merchants of southern Fujianese ports like Shenhu Bay. Wang's case stood out from those of other people caught selling opium because he could be blamed for the foreign ships in Fujian; he spoke the foreign language and facilitated interactions between foreigners and coastal people.

Shenhu Bay, Yakou Village: A Case Study of the Fujianese Coastal Drug Market

The two stories told thus far — the history of Fujian's powerful lineages, and the story of how the Lintin system migrated north into Fujian — converge in Shenhu Bay, where the great Shi lineage of Yakou village and their British counterparts John and Thomas Rees came together to establish one of the most prolific opium brokerage systems in the history of the drug trade. In their prosecution of Wang Lüe, Qing officials in Fujian had attempted to signal to Beijing that the arrival of British opium ships in Fujian was not a systemic problem; rather, it was the unfortunate consequence of the actions of a single treacherous merchant. Focusing here on the story of the Yakou Shi's involvement in the opium trade shows how a group of people took advantage of the movement of the trade north, and also how the Qing state continued to pursue the line that incidents of British opium trading in Fujian were isolated problems — the actions of a few nefarious "treacherous merchants" and "treacherous coastal people" — but certainly not indicative of a major socio-economic transformation.

The Wang Lüe case loomed in the mind of Fujian and Zhejiang Governor-general Zhong Xiang in December of 1836, when local officers again reported sightings of foreign ships off the coast of southern Fujian. Zhong put all coastal officials on high alert, expressing fear "that the treacherous coastal people will collude with the foreigners to sell opium, [End Page 168] defying the prohibition and inducing other evils."32 Two months later, the combined troops of the regional circuit intendant, the Fujian navy, and the Jinjiang county magistrate descended on Yakou village. They burned houses and boats, confiscated guns and chests full of opium and money, and arrested hundreds of people. Among the prisoners, authorities identified a man named Shi Hou (or Monkey Shi) as the great mastermind of the Shenhu Bay opium trade, and wrote a memorial deeming him personally responsible for the arrival of foreign opium wholesalers "Big and Little Li" on the Fujian coast. Like Wang Lüe before him, Shi Hou was sentenced to strangulation without delay, albeit several months after he had already died in jail.

The governor-general's report on the Yakou raid of early 1837 made Shi Hou a second scapegoat for the movement of British opium merchants up to Fujian from the Pearl River Delta, following in the ignominious footsteps of Wang Lüe. According to the narrative presented by the Fujianese officials, when Shi Hou and his relation Shi Shubao (still at large as of 1840) entered into the opium game in 1832, they were business partners in a lawful enterprise. The two kinsmen had travelled in late 1832 to the Chaozhou region of eastern Guangdong province to sell cloth, with another lineage member (Shi Gui) hired on as a porter. A longtime acquaintance in Chaozhou, Cantonese middleman Wang Mazhi, told them of the money that could be made in bringing opium from Macao to Fujian, and offered to help them procure the drug. They agreed. Shi Gui was promoted from porter to distributor, and was dispatched by Shi Hou to return to the Fujian coast and sell the first forty-eight bricks of raw opium.33 Shi Hou managed investment and brokerage, and Shi Shubao travelled to Macao in order to become fluent in English and establish a personal relationship with the local opium dealers, the "Macao-born foreigners Big and Little Li." Over the next few years the Shis made regular trips to Macao to purchase a chest or two of opium, whereupon Shi Hou and Shi Gui would bring it back to Fujian for distribution.

Shi Hou and Shi Shubao purportedly devised their scheme to lure British ships north into Fujian during the autumn of 1835, after deciding it was "inconvenient" to continue transporting opium to Fujian in the previous roundabout way. According to their testimony, the two men [End Page 169] "decided to entice" the foreigners Big and Little Li into bringing a large cargo of opium in a foreign vessel to the Shi lineage center of Yakou in Shenhu Bay. Shi Hou testified that he and Shi Shubao invested $1,600 each to purchase a total of 6 chests and 27 bricks (at a low rate of $480 per chest).34 But this was clearly only a fraction of the opium brought to Fujian by Big and Little Li on this pioneering trip up the coast. After Big and Little Li's arrival in Fujian, fellow Shi lineage member Shi Saiguang (a degree-holder with the rank of student of the Imperial College, or jiansheng) paid Shi Hou and Shi Shubao over $600 to act as intermediary in his own purchase of opium from the foreigners, at the rate of $10/ chest.35 In other words, Shi Saiguang alone facilitated the purchase of 60 chests of opium off the ship during the same visit. The wholesale price should have been over $30,000. Beyond this one piece of evidence that there was large-scale brokerage taking place in Yakou, however, the final word in the Qing memorial on the case was that other purchases from Big and Little Li's ships during the autumn and winter of 1835-36 totaled only twenty-seven chests.

The opium market that British and Chinese merchants were operating on the Fujian coast was of course much, much larger than the Qing officials knew or were willing to admit. Big and Little Li, also known as Thomas and John Rees, could sell twenty-seven chests of opium in Shenhu Bay on a slow afternoon. The Jardine-Matheson company records show opium sales by British merchants in Shenhu Bay during this period to far exceed the amounts to which Shi Hou testified, and British vessels had been operating in Shenhu Bay for at least a year (and probably longer) before Shi Hou supposedly enticed them to come. Captain Jauncey of the Jardine-Matheson barque Austen reported selling 320 chests of Malwa opium at $610/chest in just one day while stationed in Shenhu Bay during August of 1835, several months before Shi Hou supposedly lured Big and Little Li up from Macao.36 Thomas and John Rees were not brought up to Fujian together by Shi Hou or anyone else, and they worked for rival firms. Both men had been operating out of not just Shenhu but a handful [End Page 170] of ports in southern Fujian. Neither Rees brother was known to keep to exclusive rights with one broker, which this Shi Hou had supposedly managed. They were not led to Fujian together by Shi Hou or Shi Shubao.

The offshore market that the Shi lineage and Rees brothers operated was dependent on securing protection against government interference. That is a fact that is obviously not mentioned overtly in Qing documents about the case, but there are clues nonetheless. As discussed above, the Chinese memorial stated that Shi Hou charged other local buyers a $10 fee per chest to act as an intermediary with the foreign ships. British opium merchants in southern Fujian also discussed a $10 fee at great length, but they generally understood it as a bribe that was being funneled to the local authorities. In one such letter, Captain Jauncey reports that a man with an official "chop" was put on board the ships to receive payment and certify that the fee had been paid for each chest.37 Some of the British merchants were suspicious that the money was actually a brokerage fee, and suggested that the Yakou brokers had claimed it was a bribe to the local mandarins in order to dupe the British into giving them a monopoly over access to the foreign ships.38 Captain John Rees, on the other hand, believed that the fee was genuinely being used to bribe local officials. He suggested that by not paying the fee the British were putting the brokers in danger, who "have been in the habit of paying a sum" to local authorities. Rees also noted that he intended to get around the uncertainty by going on shore to pay the relevant official directly.39

The matter of the ten-dollar fee in Shenhu Bay was part of a broader pattern of corruption and bribery developing between the British opium ship captains, the coastal lineages, and the civil and military authorities. During May and June of 1836, for instance, Rees went into negotiations with an official in Shenhu Bay known in the Jardine sources as "Lou Toa" (laoda, local parlance for "elder brother" or "the big man"). In May, Rees reported having negotiated with his brother to fix prices for the bay and subsequently combine together to offer the official an annual fee of $20,000 in order to secure the trade and also "not to allow strangers to trade."40 Dent and Jardine captains were apparently in direct negotiation [End Page 171] with local authorities on the coast. A month later Rees reported that the Lou Toa had "sent off to say he cannot accept less than $24,000 fees for accommodation for both ships. For this sum he says he can protect the trade in case strange ships should come in.… He is certainly authorized to treat with us by the authorities at Chinchew [Quanzhou]."41 As John Fairbank wrote in his classic work Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast, "the connivance of Chinese officials in the opium trade was a sine qua non without which the traffic could not have gone on. On the coast of China, as everywhere else in the country, all things are known — a smuggling trade could be kept out of sight, but it could not be kept secret. Official protection was therefore essential to it."42

Reading the Chinese and British documents together, it seems clear that the major arrests that took place in Yakou during early 1837 happened as a result of the failure of local brokers to make good on their traditional New Year's bribe to the local government. Rees notes on January 2 that trade was stopped in Shenhu Bay for five days "in consequence of a party having cheated the Mandarines out of their customary fees." Then on January 15 a group of government officials descended on Yakou village for the purpose of "recovering their fees," and again stopped all boats from coming out for a period of three days. On the 21st Rees lamented that trade was completely stopped in Shenhu Bay due to the fact that "the Mandarines are about collecting their fees prior to the New Year and I believe are squeezing the brokers that we deal with rather hard." It was the Chinese New Year, a traditional time for the settling of debts and bribes, and not coincidentally the period during which Shi Hou and his compatriots were arrested. A month later, after sending a Chinese employee ashore to reconnoiter the situation, Rees reports that a new official stationed near Yakou "had burnt several houses and destroyed some boats… in consequence of the brokers not coming to terms with him. They have not paid the Mandarines 1/3 of their fees, and several of the brokers have absconded."43

The British and Chinese sources complement each other such as to provide some texture to our knowledge of the culture of corruption on [End Page 172] the Fujian coast. Take, for instance, Rees' conjecture that the raid on Yakou had happened as a result of an unpaid kickback during Chinese New Year. Patterns and practices of corruption are hard to pin down, and such hints help to lend structure to the shadowy subtleties of bribery and protection. Both sets of documents also feature the practice of somebody charging $10 fees for every chest sold. In the Qing report, the practice is coded as a brokerage fee that captured suspect Shi Hou was charging other Chinese merchants for access to the foreign ships. Such a brokerage fee would not have been out of place, but the British opium captains give convincing evidence that the fee was actually part of a government protection scheme. Opium sales resumed in Shenhu Bay for several years after the 1837 raids, and the practice of attaching a fee to the sales continued on and off. As John Rees wrote in 1838, "most of the business which has been conducted in Chimmo [Shenhu] bay has been carried on by the parties which traded with us two years ago. We do not pay the $10 fee but give the mandarins of the station a present now and then."44 The evidence suggests that protection was arranged at a high level, with British opium ship captains and lineage elders or high-volume brokers arranging deals with local magistrates or naval commanders. Moreover, the top British and Chinese opium merchants competed with each other to be in charge of bribing the government, the British worrying that if they trusted it to their Chinese partners the "fees" might be embezzled by the brokers themselves.

Finally, the sources on this case help enhance our knowledge of Chinese legal culture and the Daoguang emperor's war on drugs. The 1837 arrests captured people who were either involved in (or living adjacent to) the opium trade, but were unlikely to have been the ringleaders. As Melissa Macauley argues, most people who ended up getting arrested and sentenced to death during the Qing's war on drugs were "small time crooks," while "the vast majority of smugglers, sellers, and smokers — especially the wealthy and more interconnected among them — were surely paying off the officials and their functionaries in the form of gifts and bribes."45 The information about the opium trade in the memorial was quite basic and could easily have come not from the captured suspects, but from complicit or merely knowledgeable officials. [End Page 173] The most plausible reading of the case suggests that it originated when an official was stiffed on his usual kickback. If this is correct, a crackdown like that of early 1837 would have allowed the corrupt official to display diligence in attacking the opium problem while taking revenge on a syndicate with a backlog of unpaid bribes.

Map 2. The Coastal Opium Network in Southern FujianThe Zhangzhou-Quanzhou Offshore Opium Network
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Map 2.

The Coastal Opium Network in Southern Fujian46

The Zhangzhou-Quanzhou Offshore Opium Network

[End Page 174] The Yakou Shi were ultimately just one of many coastal lineages involved in the trade. Dozens of coastal lineages along the Zhangzhou-Quanzhou coastline in southern Fujian during the 1830s were able to marshal the boats, people, and money necessary to make it big in the opium trade. Indeed, the region became China's second most important opium market during the 1830s. The scale of the network is evident from the records of an 1840 investigation by imperially dispatched censors Huang Juezi and Qi Junzao. The two censors wrote a detailed report, giving the locations of large lineages known to collude with foreigners in the smuggling of opium on the Jinjiang county coastline. In addition to the notorious lineage villages of Yakou (Shi lineage), Shenhu (Chen lineage), and Chenkang (Ding lineage), the report lists the villages of Dong'an (Wu lineage), Shitou (Cai lineage), Xicen, Xibian (Lin lineage), Xibian, Shuitou (Wang lineage), Liandai (Lin lineage), Cendou, Yongyi, and Gaoxi (Gao lineage) as places where large territorial lineages made a living colluding with foreigners in the smuggling of opium.47 This small slice is indicative of a much larger reality: Tongan, Longxi, Hui'an, and the other coastal counties each had their own cadre of lineages, ship-owners, and smugglers.

These lineage-based opium traders were importing a stunning amount of the drug, close to half of the total imports into China. In August of 1835, Jardine-Matheson's Captain MacKay reported that the firm's average monthly sales in the three chief markets of southern Fujian were: Xiamen 300-500 chests, Shenhu Bay 200-250 chests, Quanzhou 200-250 chests.48 A chest of Bengal opium — from Patna or Benares — usually ran between $600-800 in Spanish silver dollars. Based on Jardine-Matheson reports on the competition, opium sales by Dent &Co in these ports can be safely assumed to be of a similar quantity and made at similar prices. By this reckoning, the Jardine and Dent firms accounted for between 1,000-1,800 chests of opium per month in Fujian at about $800,000-$1,260,000: somewhere between 12,000-21,600 chests per year for an annual sum of $9,600,000-15,120,000.49 This is a huge proportion of the total imports into China (somewhere between 46 and 82 percent), [End Page 175] which between April 1835 and March 1836 was 26,200 chests.50 The range is admittedly broad, but it represents the realm of possibility in a trade that changed dramatically from month to month, and year to year. Additionally, these figures do not take into account opium imported by the occasional Parsee and American ship that also ventured up to Fujian, nor for quantities of the drug brought on Fujianese junks from Singapore, Macao, and Chaozhou.51

From an economic and marketing perspective, coastal southern Fujian was an ideal place for an offshore contraband market in opium, because of the possibilities for distribution and re-export. Rees and others could unload far more product than the local market demanded, thanks to the mercantile networks and shipping capacity of the region's lineage-merchants. Quanzhou dealers had monopolized most sales to districts in inland Fujian, and people situated in various locations along the coast specialized in brokering deals for the drug to be shipped up through Fuzhou to supply the highland districts up the river Min. But the vast majority of opium that hit the Fujian shoreline was split into smaller consignments and re-exported to markets across China and maritime Asia. As Quanzhou Prefect Shen Ruhan reported, "as for the opium smuggled into Taiwan, Ningbo, Shanghai, Shandong, and Tianjin, most comes from the fishing and merchant vessels of Hui'an and Jinjiang counties [in southern Fujian]."52 Many of the brokers in Shenhu Bay and Quanzhou ran a triangular trade route between Fujian, Taiwan, and Ningbo (in Zhejiang province to the north), carrying opium from Fujian, sugar and rice from Taiwan, and cotton from Zhejiang.

From the perspective of Qing administrators, "local customs" was the principal reason why the Fujianese were so heavily engaged in opium trafficking. Quanzhou Prefect Shen Ruhan calls the opium smugglers of southern Fujian "fearless thugs" (wangming zhi tu).53 Censor Du Yanshi, a Quanzhou native with a low opinion of his native region, writes repeatedly that the people are "cunning and fierce" (diaohan) and must be controlled by fearsome authorities sent from the central government. [End Page 176] Lineage braves kill and kidnap each other, and people, feeling that "government is useless," do not dare submit petitions for justice. The pirates of Jinjiang county, Du writes, assemble each night to "filch like rats and snatch like dogs." And when pirates are captured off the coast of other provinces, the ship and crew are inevitably native to southern Fujian. Meanwhile rapacious clerks and runners — the native staff of centrally appointed officials — "work their way into positions of trust in order to deceive officials and chew the commoners into bits."54 Orthodox Chinese views of the social order do not have a place for maritime traders, and Chinese statecraft saw coastal residents who engaged in smuggling and piracy as treasonous abettors of outside raiders and agitators. Perhaps this reads today like a mere stereotype, but to a Qing administrator it was relevant information that people in southern Fujian had a bad reputation. At a minimum, from a bureaucratic perspective the villainous nature of the local population excused the inability of local authorities to rein in malefactors, given that the coastal Fujianese were all members of a marginal and predictably depraved social group.

Within the details of what officials like Du Yanshi considered under the heading of "local customs" are also several legitimate reasons why opium smuggling became so important in 1830s maritime Fujian. There was a strong tradition of piracy and smuggling in the region. The only economic security blanket for the lower classes in this land-poor maritime region was the sea. The most prosperous years of the Qing Empire — the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries — were experienced in the South China Sea as a "golden age of piracy," when staggeringly huge fleets of piratical junks raided the coastline and controlled shipping lanes, led by charismatic chieftains like Cai Qian and Zheng Yi.55 Piracy never went away, but its attractiveness as an occupation decreased substantially in the 1820s-30s with aggressive Qing anti-piracy campaigns and the rise of British naval supremacy in the region. Opportunities to pillage the coastal trade declined, and the chances of making a quick dollar smuggling opium multiplied exponentially. A pirate has to be able to fence goods to be successful, and a smuggler has to know how to fight to stay viable. When the British arrived in coastal Fujian, the region was flush with ship owners and boatmen hungry for action and schooled in law breaking. [End Page 177]

The lineage-business nexus within Fujianese "local customs" was also a central component in the rise of opium smuggling along the coast. In southern Fujian, the leaders of the great lineages lived dual lives. They acted out Confucian norms and produced scholar-officials, professing affiliation to the "agrarian ideal," writes historian Dahpon Ho. But they were also known to "pour their resources into great trading ships, legal or not (mostly not)."56 For centuries they had been sending sons and nephews to Siam, Batavia, Manila, Taiwan, and Ryukyu with or without the state's permission in order to secure financial security for the lineage. Lineage was first and foremost a way for people to band together to acquire land and resources, and defend their interests writ large. Even in the parts of Fujian without strong lineage formations, usually inland, brotherhood organizations (Heaven-Earth Society, Small Sword Society, and so forth) aligned themselves according to lineage rules and rites. But lineages, like governments and corporations, rise and fall with the times. As Zheng Zhenman argues, Fujian's lineages commonly went through development cycles under the influence of historical and geographic factors: the status of a lineage — its size, wealth, and internal structure — was never static.57 Opium smuggling in the 1830s was a means by which groups like the Yakou Shi could swiftly enhance their wealth and influence, so long as they were comfortable with the danger to life and reputation that was involved with operating a known opium smuggling depot.

Lineage feuds (xiedou) were also endemic in the region, and Qing officials perceived a connection between the opium trade and the chronic feuding among lineages. Opium had become a crucial financial tool in the intense inter-lineage competition across Fujian. Tong'an county (situated on the coast between Jinjiang county and Xiamen) was by far the worst county for feuds, listed by Huang Juezi as having eight notorious lineages whose fighting resulted in a total of 283 deaths and over 800 houses destroyed during the late 1830s.58 These Tong'an lineages invested a great deal of money and technology into feuding, and several went so far as to erect illegal cannon fortifications (paotai) outside of villages and along prominent roads. Jinjiang county had its own share of feuding lineages, [End Page 178] including the Qianpu village Xue lineage, the Cizao Wu, and the Shishi Xu and Cai.59 The Cai of Shishi village (located only seven miles from Yakou) is also listed as a prominent opium smuggling lineage in Huang's earlier memorial on the opium trade.60

The provincial government and military were genuinely unable to prevent lineages like the Yakou Shi from taking up the opium trade. Since its formation in the seventeenth century, the Qing's Fujian navy and inland garrisons had been locked in perpetual struggle with an unending wave of pirate confederacies, secret-society uprisings, and lineage feuds. When faced with such problems in the 1830s, the government's boats were in poor shape and ammunition costs had made training impossible.61 Fujian's maritime defense simply could not cope with the challenge, given the modest funding it was able to secure. In this circumstance, the approach of a well-armed British opium ship was an ominous event for a commander in the Fujian navy. It could have seemed hardly worth the lives of soldiers or the shame of defeat to put up resistance against a trade that many local people supported, possibly including friends and kin of the officers and crew. A few military officers did believe it was worth the risk, and either tried to chase the British ships out of port (less common), or returned to shore to conduct raids on villages known to harbor smugglers (more common).62 But the British ships would just depart and return soon after, and the raids on shore did not dismantle the structures that made the opium trade work. Most commanders and local officials simply turned the other way, often after soliciting a tax, gift, or cumshaw.63 Sometimes local brokers onshore would even write letters to the British opium captains requesting that the British ships evacuate the coast for a few days, based on information from connections in the government of a coming visit by patrol boats.64 [End Page 179]

The local civil and military administration was not merely revenue-starved, but also of suspect loyalty. There was an independent streak among Fujian's coastal administrators, dating back to the enigmatic Yakou Shi lineage patriarch, Shi Lang. Shi and many of his successors in the Fujian navy were locals, which was unusual in the provinces of China proper but more common in this part of the frontier. Locals also held positions of power within the Fujian maritime customs and played important roles in the policing of trade.65 In fact, Shi Lang's own son Shi Shibiao was also appointed to the position of naval commander-in-chief (shuishi tidu) in 1712.66 The office of the Fujian naval commander-in-chief is a quintessential example of the type of post in Fujian that served two masters. He was in essence a middleman between the seagoing merchant houses of Fujian and the Qing government. He represented the state, but his men were local, and the money that kept his ships afloat was local.67 During the early nineteenth century, the fleet became increasingly supplemented with confiscated pirate boats, and crewed by former pirates.68 Quanzhou native Zhang Ran, for example, rose to the position of commander (canjiang) in the Fujian navy after having been captured as a pirate, continuing in the grand tradition of how the Qing state coopted Zhang Bao and the great pirate confederations of the Jiaqing era (1796–1820).69 The Xiamen navy was therefore a local institution, reliant on the support of prominent merchants and staffed by the class of laboring boatmen who would otherwise be doing work that the state considered to be piracy and smuggling.

It is ultimately just inconceivable that such a high-volume trade should take place for six years without some element of government connivance. The stereotype that corruption was a part of "local customs" also has [End Page 180] a basis in reality, and this too helped bring the Lintin receiving ship system north to Fujian.70 As previously discussed, most of the Jardine and Dent captains in Shenhu Bay believed the $10 fee they were paying on every chest was going to a government official. Censor Du Yanshi accused several officials as well as government office clerks and runners of aiding and profiting off of the opium trade. Xiamen, where Jardine-Matheson reported its highest sales, was also the seat of the Xinghua-Quanzhou-Yongchun circuit intendant (Xing-Quan-Yong dao) and the Fujian admiral (shuishi tidu). Jinmen (Quemoy), the dumbbell-shaped island just seawards from the island of Xiamen, was the site of a massive naval garrison and the home base for ships patrolling the coasts of Fujian, Taiwan, and eastern Guangdong. A Fujian sub-statute required the navy to maintain 266 warships at all times.71 There was a dense network of customs checkpoints in the Zhangzhou-Quanzhou region, including three at the mouth of the inlet into Shenhu Bay. Poor-quality boats and insufficient ammunition notwithstanding, it is not as if the Qing state had relinquished any attempt to maintain surveillance and control over that coastline. Still the smugglers continued to prevail.

Treacherous, Treasonous, Debased

Drug smuggling is an intriguing subset within the phenomenon of smuggling. Philip Thai, in his recent dissertation on smuggling in early twentieth-century China, argues that "smuggling shares crime's general definitional elasticity, but the boundaries of that definition were dependent less on prevailing standards of morality and more on political calculations."72 This observation — which is about smuggling in general, and not drugs per se — explains why states decide to make certain commodities illegal, or tax certain items more heavily than others. By stripping smuggling of its moral implications it also encourages us to see from the perspective of the smuggler and his community. Smugglers made certain commodities cheaper and helped people get access to otherwise difficult-to-obtain but sought-after items. Thus they sometimes became positive figures within local standards of morality, even attaining the [End Page 181] status of local heroes. Drug smuggling fits uneasily into this discussion, because of the deleterious effects that drug use can have on a person's health. Nonetheless, because opium use was so normalized in China during the mid-nineteenth century, and because of the opportunistic way that governments approached drug revenues during this period, Thai's observation holds: the boundaries of opium's legality in late-Qing and Republican China were defined out of political calculations more often than moral convictions.

But opium smuggling in China during the late Qing and Republic was nonetheless intimately connected to a specific kind of morality, one that was generated by the imperatives of nationalist ideology. Fujian's opium traders — especially those smugglers who helped British merchants bring opium into China during the 1830s, and later, those who collaborated with the Japanese during the 1930s — have been singled out as hanjian [or Han traitors] by nationalist activists and historians in China, from the mid-nineteenth century up to the present day. Examples of this are almost too numerous to cite. A search of the Wanfang China Online Journals database of contemporary Mainland Chinese academic journals for the terms "yapian" [opium] and "hanjian" [Han traitor] results in about two dozen articles, most of which use terms like "hanjian" and "jianmin" (treacherous or debased people) as descriptors for Chinese opium traders during the 1830s, evincing an explicitly nationalist view of the past.73 Hou Huhu, for example, offers a compelling argument for how the Qing state's ineptitude may have forced coastal dwellers into more cozy relationships with the British. But Hou also adopts the language of the Qing state in describing those costal residents as hanjian and jianmin, indicating that despite whatever sympathy we might develop out of understanding the structural factors that helped cause these people to decide to work with the British, still the only appropriate way to refer to them is as traitors.74 Similarly, He Jingchun refers to opium traders as "traitors" and "unfilial subjects" who "did not stand by the Qing government" and thus helped the British invaders defeat the Qing. Opium smugglers — whatever else [End Page 182] we may find out about their lives and the decisions they made — cannot be excused for having helped weaken the nation, in a social-Darwinist global competition to create a wealthy and powerful nation-state.

Focusing on Chinese opium traders and the words that Qing officials and later nationalists used to describe them enables us to situate the Qing's response to the opium problem within a longer history of state-society conflict on the southeast coast. Fujianese attitudes towards the central state ranged from apathetic, to opportunistic, to downright antagonistic. These attitudes were dangerous to the Qing, and the particular insolence of the Fujianese is easily identified in Qing discussions of the coastal population during the lead-up to the Opium War in the 1830s. For example, the prevalent usage of the term jieji (aiding and abetting, usually in the form of supplying water and rice) indicates a deep anxiety among Qing officials about the relationships developing between the coastal Fujianese and foreign visitors to the coast. The primary concern of the Qing state in Fujian when dealing with the offshore opium trade during the 1830s was in identifying and prosecuting the people who facilitated interactions between foreigners and local Chinese. The dangerous nature of the drug was an important component of Qing sensitivity about maritime Fujianese connections with the British, but the degree of alarm that Fujianese officials voiced about Gützlaff's Bibles indicates that the Qing crackdown on the Fujianese opium network came out of multiple anxieties, and not just a straightforward desire to stop people from importing opium. That officials referred to the coastal Chinese facilitators as jianmin — treacherous or debased people — supports the notion that a central feature of Qing maritime policy was the goal of limiting relationships between Chinese people and the outside world.

British merchants admired the southern Fujianese because they were successful and tenacious merchants: the same reason that many Qing administrators disdained them. "In no part of the world," reads an 1838 British essay on the virtues of people from Quanzhou, "is the maxim of some political economists, that the riches of a country are the population, so strongly proved as there."75 The land is too crowded and barren for agriculture; if people were going to inhabit the place, they would not be able to live up to the Confucian agrarian ideal. The alternative was [End Page 183] entering the maritime economy, or in the words of the Canton Register, "pouring forth their colonists in defiance to the laws of their country, with all the disadvantages of being born under a despotic government, and having nothing to boast of but unconquerable industry and perseverance." The Canton Register goes on to suggest that, because of the mercantile acumen and business networks present among the southern Fujianese, "it might be desirable" that they "should form the link between the flowery natives and outside barbarians."76 They did form this link, much to the dismay of Qing officials. As a result, the coastal Fujianese became known to Chinese statebuilders as jianmin: an untrustworthy, marginal category of people who were inherently treacherous, treasonous, and debased.

Who were these people who learned foreign languages, travelled on foreign-owned ships, traded silver for opium, and brought rice, water, and other provisions to the foreign ships illegally anchored offshore? Qing officials called them yanhai jianmin (treacherous people of the coast), jianshang (treacherous merchants), and maiyan jianmin (opium-buying treacherous people). As the conflict with the British grew closer, they also became known as hanjian (Han traitors). But at the heart of it all, they may have also been seen by statebuilders as carrying the taint of genuine jianmin: people of formerly debased status who continued to carry the stigma of caste society. The position of this population on a maritime borderland enabled Qing administrators to rhetorically differentiate between an undesirable, tainted population, and the neidi liangmin (inland good people, or commoners).77 Naturally, the drug trade, the feuding, the piracy and corruption that flourished across coastal and inland Fujian were the work of "treacherous coastal people" and not "inland commoners."

The particular economic and geographic resonances that the jian label took on in Fujian during the 1830s have roots in the mid-Qing and earlier. In a survey of Qing memorials to the Grand Secretariat and Grand Council from the eighteenth century I found that Qing officials used the term hanjian (traitor to the Han, or just traitor) almost exclusively when referring to Han people engaged in illicit interactions with non-Han [End Page 184] people (often Qing subjects, but occasionally foreign). A majority of these cases occurred in the southwestern borderland, featuring Han migrants to the Guizhou, Guangxi, and Yunnan highlands who found themselves on the wrong side of Qing statebuilding.78 This history reveals a powerful ethnic dimension within the genealogy of the Chinese word for traitor — hanjian, or "treacherous Han." It also indicates a continuity in Qing official discourse, which cast hanjian in Fujian and Guangdong in the 1830s (defined as such for their collusion with the British) as a similar phenomenon to the hanjian of years past who had sided with Miao and other non-Han peoples in other corners of the empire.

The genealogy of hanjian converged with another term — jianshang (treacherous merchant) — in Fujian and Guangdong during the height of the opium crisis. Prior to the rapid growth of the opium trade of the early nineteenth century, Qing officials most commonly applied the epithet jianshang to describe salt smugglers on the southeast coast, grain hoarders and price manipulators in North China, illegal exporters of silk to Ryukyu and Southeast Asia, and currency debasers across China.79 Officials also used jianshang to describe people who consorted with Zheng Chenggong's rebels in Fujian and Taiwan during the late seventeenth century, and the term resurfaced in the region in the Jiaqing era, when coastal administrators in Fujian used the term to describe locals who were aiding and abetting rebels and pirates offshore.80 Ten years after the Opium War a Grand Secretariat memorial applied the jianshang label to someone who was hoarding and illegally selling coal.81 People became jianshang when their economic activity was perceived to have a negative effect on state security, including evasion of an especially lucrative tax such as in the case of salt. The people of coastal Fujian were therefore hanjian, because they were engaged in illicit contact with non-Han people on a borderland, and jianshang, because they had created an imbalance of trade and were exporting silver into foreign territory.

But they were also jianmin, a term that linked them to a debased status group from an older, pre-Qing caste system. By using jianmin as part of [End Page 185] a four-character compound to describe the people of coastal southern Fujian, the Qing state was casting them as irredeemable.82 The term denotes what historian Matthew Sommer has called a "legal fiction," an imaginary grid system into which officials could situate the population. This particular legal fiction was a distinction between debased people and good (or common) people, which derived from the basic myth of a caste society. As Sommer puts it, the myth was that "fixed status boundaries separated stable populations who were fundamentally different from one another in terms of ancestry, occupation, and morality."83 Among the people that the early Qing state legally defined as "debased" were not just actors and prostitutes, but also ethnic groups like the Dan who lived on boats in the rivers and ports of coastal Guangdong. As Sommer argues, the Qing state stigmatized the Dan due to "their failure to conform to the traditional valorized division of labor."84 But then, during the early Qing, the category of jianmin (debased person) changed from a legal status applied to whole groups of people akin to slavery or servitude, to an indicator of "moral stigma or pollution" (while liangmin, conversely, began to indicate "good" rather than "common.").85 In late-Qing Guangdong, as Helen Siu and David Faure argue, the Dan became less of a fixed ethnicity than a way for established locals to "marginalize newcomers to the region and deny them settlement rights."86 I see a similar process at play with the usage of jianmin by Qing administrators to describe the coastal lineages of Fujian. The Qing officials were instinctively recalling categories left over from the mid-imperial caste system in order to mentally and legally situate an untrustworthy group of people living in a borderland. They were also condemning the Fujianese for their open dismissal of the agrarian ideal, as they had condemned the Dan ethnicity for violating Confucian gender norms.

The application of these terms to Fujianese opium traders in the 1830s fits into a larger narrative about southern Fujian's ambiguous identity within the idea of "China." The people of coastal Fujian treated state [End Page 186] orthodoxy with the same business acumen that they might train on any other resource pool. They picked and chose. Take the lineage organization of society for example: coastal southern Fujian's lineages were (and are) much larger, on the whole, than lineage groups in most other places in China. Family was the central organizing principle of Neo-Confucian state orthodoxy in China. It harmonized the needs of ordinary people with the demands of the state, creating a hierarchy that could be extended neatly from the individual family unit to the local political unit to the empire writ large, from father, to magistrate, to emperor. The ideal family within this system was rural and agrarian, multiple generations of cultivators who might create enough surplus to send a particularly bright child to school in order to, with luck, enter the civil service.

The lineages that occupied coastal southern Fujian were a unique offshoot of this ideal type. In many ways, Fujian's lineages were more like modern corporations than typical Qing family units. They had multiple generations living together, performing the memorial and sacrificial rituals demanded by Confucian ancestor worship, and they did sponsor some of their sons' and nephews' attempts to join the ranks of scholar-officialdom. But far more of these sons and nephews were packed onto ships bound for ports from Tianjin to Batavia, and the vast productive energy of the surname group was occupied along a diversified range of mercantile concerns (including some agricultural production). Meanwhile, a council of lineage elders managed affairs for Fujian's lineages. The social and economic power structures generated by the lineage system complicated the basis of the relationship between family and state, muddying up the otherwise clean jurisdictional boundaries between father, magistrate, and emperor. They were also so big that there were deep intra-lineage divisions, and indeed, intra-lineage feuding was rampant.

Qing officials assigned to Fujian from elsewhere in the realm were aware of the unorthodox size and structure of lineage organization along the coast. Chinese archives contain volumes upon volumes of government reports on lineage feuding in Fujian, dating back to the Ming. Officials knew that these families were different from what they were supposed to be, and that most of the people who (often illegally) left Fujian for foreign shores were members of these families. But Qing officials also knew that the population in Fujian could not survive without maritime trade, in particular the import of rice from Taiwan and Southeast Asia that was [End Page 187] often conducted illegally. The costs and responsibilities associated with maintaining social control in this difficult region could also be handed off to lineage elders, and officials were usually happy to do so. And as noted earlier, the coastal defense network was largely funded by local merchants. The Qing needed coastal Fujian's lineages, but they didn't have to like them.

What compelled Qing officials like Du Yanshi and Huang Juezi to take action in the 1830s was the opium trade, which connected these untrustworthy lineages to an even more untrustworthy group of people: Europeans. The Qing state and the Han Chinese and Manchu people who administered it were not inherently xenophobic or anti-trade, but it would be a mistake to dismiss or gloss over xenophobic policies out of a fear of being seen to implicitly endorse the outdated interpretations of an earlier generation of historians who have been (rightly) criticized as apologists for British imperialism in China. As Gang Zhao argues, "according to Fairbank, Chinese concerns that maritime traders might cooperate with foreigners in possible rebellions pushed Qing rulers to establish the Canton system in order to separate China from the outside world. Looking at actual policies related to Chinese private trade, however, casts doubt on this view."87 Zhao's focus on Chinese private maritime trade led him to conclude that "it is no exaggeration to portray Qing maritime policy as open."88 My sources have led me to a different point of emphasis. As the Yakou Shi case and other similar cases plainly illustrate, the primary concern of the Qing state in Fujian when dealing with the offshore opium trade was in identifying and prosecuting the people who facilitated interactions between foreigners and local Chinese. That officials referred to these facilitators as traitors only further supports the notion that a central feature of Qing maritime policy was the goal of limiting relationships between Chinese people and the outside world.


The transnational coalition of people who made their living in the coastal opium trade transformed the Chinese political economy, and created a set of local practices that would endure the changes engendered by the [End Page 188] Opium War and subsequent treaty. When Fujianese lineages found new opportunities for trade with the northern movement of the opium market, they created a system that hinged on new patterns of trade and uneven policing by the Qing. The opium trade was high-volume, expensive, and yet was nonetheless supposed to be clandestine. As a result, people had to create new ways of doing business in order to make it work. Fujianese lineages, British and Parsee opium merchants, and Lascar ships' crews inserted opium into local markets and government finance across the realm. They extended and reshaped the culture of corruption, in major ports as well as hinterland districts. So long as opium remained illegal — all the way into the late 1850s — the standard practices of the Fujian opium network would remain in place.

The actions of these people also came to represent the core essence of treason as China entered the modern era. Over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, drug traders attracted negative attention from the noisy proponents of the nationalist enterprise. Nationalists, patriots, and state builders viewed drug traders as the domestic antagonists in a social-Darwinist struggle for national wealth and power. These traders were the original "traitors," and are still remembered as such by many Chinese nationalists. But, looking back from an outsider's perspective, it is clear that drug traders were not the passive instruments of imperialism, as Chinese nationalist historians would have us believe. Imperialism created opportunities for drug traders. Opium merchants sailed in the wake of diplomacy's gunboats: they huddled close to British ships, but they had their own goals in mind that were not the same as the goals of the British men on board those ships. The British Empire did not start a war so that Chinese people could make money on opium, but ordinary Chinese people made this into one of the principal consequences of the British imperial project in China, often at the expense of British profits. And when the Japanese arrived on the scene with an even more ambitious brand of imperialism, Chinese people used Japanese power and ambitions to their own local ends as well. Drug traders made their own meanings out of imperialism, and their experiences should inform the way we understand how imperial processes unfolded.

Over the course of the century following the Opium War, Fujian's drug traders continued to develop a national reputation as traitors, reaching new heights in the 1920s-30s as connected to the rise of Japan. [End Page 189] By highlighting some of the origins of this story in the 1830s, I resituate coastal southern Fujian in modern Chinese and global history. The Fujian coast is best understood as a maritime borderland with an uneasy relationship to the center. It is a place where the language of treason in modern Chinese was born, when maritime people consorted with foreigners in illicit trade. Hanjian was not a new term by any stretch of the imagination, but the dominant discourse of Chinese nationalism cites this exact moment as the beginning of China's "century of humiliation," and the coastal opium traders of the 1830s came to be seen as the ushers of China's unwilling entry into a harsh, semi-colonial modernity. Coastal Fujianese were unmistakably Chinese, but yet also untrustworthy and even potentially foreign (especially as they began to adopt foreign nationality strategically during the Treaty Port era). In the wider history of modern Chinese nationalism, Fujianese drug traders reoriented "treason" discourse towards the coast, towards opium, and towards people who cultivated relationships with European rather than inland non-Han people. The quotidian arrangements of coastal residents became highly symbolic acts of treachery and sedition. [End Page 190]

Peter Thilly
University of Mississippi
Peter Thilly

Peter Thilly is an Adjunct Professor in the Arch Dalrymple III Department of History at the University of Mississippi.


baojia 保甲
canjiang 參將
Da Qing 大清
diaohan 刁悍
Du Yanshi 杜彥士
guojia 國家
Guoxingye (Koxinga) 國姓爺
hanjian 漢奸
Huang Juezi 黃爵滋
Hui'an 惠安
jianshang 奸商
jiansheng 監生
jieji 接濟
Jinjiang 晉江
laoda 老大
lijia 里甲
Lian xing jie 聯興街
Lin Yin 林因
Lintin (Lingding) 伶仃
maiyan jianmin 買煙奸民
neidi liangmin 內地良民
paotai 砲台
Qi Junzao 祁寯藻
Shenhu wan 深滬灣
Shen Ruhan 沈汝瀚
Shi Hou 施猴
Shi Lang 施琅
Shi Saiguang 施塞洸
Shi Shubao 施叔寶
shuishi tidu 水師提督
Tong'an 同安
Wang Lüe 王略
wangming zhi tu 亡命之徒
xiedou 械鬥
Xing-Quan-Yong Dao 興泉永道
Yakou 衙口
yanhai jianmin 沿海奸民
yapian 鴉片
Zheng Chenggong 鄭成功
Zheng Zhilong 鄭芝龍
Zhong Xiang 鍾祥
Zhongguo 中國




In-Correspondence. Jardine Matheson & Company Archives, Cambridge University Library Department of Manuscripts.


Chinese Documents. Jardine Matheson & Company Archives, Cambridge University Library Department of Manuscripts.


Junji chu hanwen lufu zouzhe (Grand Council Chinese-language palace memorial copies). First Historical Archives of China, Beijing.


Neige daku dang'an (Grand Secretariat archives), Academia Sinica, Taipei.


Neige huke tiben (Routine memorials from the Censorate, Office of Scrutiny for the Board of Revenue). First Historical Archives of China, Beijing.


Qingdai gongzhong dang'an zouzhe ji junji chu dang zhejian quanwen yingxiang ziliao ku (Qing Palace and Grand Council archives database), Palace Museum, Taipei.


Yapian zhanzheng zai min tai shiliao xuanbian (Fujian-Taiwan Opium War materials). Fuzhou: Fujian renmin chuban she, 1982.


Gongzhong hanwen zhupi zouzhe (Chinese-language imperially inscribed palace memorials). First Historical Archives of China, Beijing. [End Page 192]


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* Financial support for this project came from the Buffett Center for International Studies at Northwestern University, the IHR-Mellon Pre-Dissertation Fellowship in the Humanities, the Fulbright IIE Program, and the Social Science Research Council. The author thanks colleagues who commented on earlier versions of this article as presented at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and the Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies. He is grateful for detailed feedback from Melissa Macauley, Peter Carroll, Deborah Cohen, Rebecca Marchiel, Eugenio Menegon, and two anonymous readers.

1. In-Correspondence (hereafter cited as JM B), Jardine Matheson & Company Archives, B2 7, Reel 495, No. 247, 24 February 1839. "Shik Po" was likely Shi Shubao, an at-large opium criminal wanted by the Fujian authorities since early 1837, or even Shi Hou, who had supposedly died in prison during 1837. See Junji chu Hanwen lufu zouzhe (Grand Council Chinese-Language Palace Memorial Copies; hereafter cited as LFZZ), Beijing: First Historical Archives, 03–4007–048, DG 18.10.29.

11. Two recent works provide excellent analysis of the Zheng organization. See Xing Hang, Conflict and Commerce in Maritime East Asia; and Dahpon Ho, "Sealords Live in Vain."

14. Chin-Keong Ng, Trade and Society, 82; Gang Zhao argues that Shi Lang was not interested in opening Fujian to free trade so much as in establishing a system wherein a few wealthy merchants (himself included) could monopolize foreign trade, and that the Kangxi emperor himself was the primary force behind the "open door" policy of 1684. See Gang Zhao, The Qing Opening to the Ocean 92–93.

15. Qing shilu, vol. 119, QL 5.6, p. 748; vol. 129, QL 5.10, p. 884.

17. LFZZ 03–2677–064, DG 18.12. These fortifications were not new phenomena. Many date to the Ming.

18. Historian Lin Renchuan also identifies the rise of the trade in Malwa opium out of Bombay — not controlled by the BEIC — along with increased Qing attention to opium smuggling in the Pearl River Delta, as factors that contributed to the migration of the opium trade to the Fujian coast. Lin Renchuan, "Qingdai Fujian de yapian maoyi," 62–63.

19. Guangdong Governor Li Hongbin describes the system in detail in a memorial from January 1832: Gongzhong hanwen zhupi zouzhe, 04–01–01–0732–021, DG 11.12. Hereafter cited as ZPZZ.

20. Though competitors, Jardine and Dent seem to have seen this expedition as good for their mutual profit. The two firms maintained a tenuous relationship throughout the decade, sometimes colluding in price-fixing schemes, and just as quickly breaking mutual agreements when it suited them. See for example JM B2.7, Reel 495, No. 96, 11 May 1836.

21. Thomas Rees appears throughout the Jardine-Matheson archive materials as a representative of the competition. For Dent & Company's approximate share of the opium trade, see Fay, The Opium War, 157, 169, 238. His maps along with several drawn by his brother John are held at the British Library, Add MS 16364, A-I and J-R.

23. See the Yang Meimei case, Yapian zhanzheng zai min tai shiliao xuanbian (hereafter cited as YPZZ-MT), 26–28.

24. E.g., ZPZZ 04–01–01–0772–049, DG 15.4.24.

25. YPZZ-MT, 291–95.

26. JM B2.7, Reel 495, No. 6, 6 September 1833.

27. JM B2.7, Reel 495, No. 10, 2 February 1834.

28. JM B2.7, Reel 495, No. 265, 21 April 1839.

29. See for example two extraordinary documents from the Jardine-Matheson Archive wherein members of the Shi Lineage at Yakou wrote letters to Captain Rees, exhorting him to leave Shenhu Bay for a few days because of an impending visit to the area by patrol boats from the Xiamen naval commander-in-chief and Jinmen brigade general. Chinese Documents (hereafter cited as JM H), H1 51.01, 1837, and H1 51.2, 1837.

30. E.g., ZPZZ 04–01–01–0772–049, DG 15.4.24; ZPZZ 04–01–01–0762–052, DG 15.6.7.

31. ZPZZ 04-01-01-0759-012, DG 14.8.22.

32. LFZZ 03–4007–048, DG 18.10.29.

33. Bricks (kuai) most likely describes Malwa opium, exported to China from Bombay.

34. In this article the symbol "$" represents Spanish silver dollars.

35. Shi Saiguang was sentenced to be cashiered from his rank for the crimes of purchasing opium from a foreign ship and opening an opium den and enticing the sons and brothers of good families to smoke. His partner Shi Chang, who was not protected by jiansheng status, was strangled for the same crimes. LFZZ 03–4007–048, DG 18.10.29.

36. JM B2.7, Reel 495, No. 56, 12 August 1835.

37. JM B2.7, Reel 495, No. 69, 29 November 1835.

38. JM B2.7, Reel 495, No. 76, 21 January 1836.

39. JM B2.7, Reel 495, No. 133, 21 January 1837.

40. JM B2.7, Reel 495, No. 99, 21 May 1836.

41. JM B2.7, Reel 495, No. 102, 15 June 1836.

43. JM B2.7, Reel 495, No. 131, 2 January 1837; no. 132, 15 January 1837; No. 133, 21 January 1837; No. 140, 28 March 1837.

44. JM B2.7, Reel 495, No. 194, 19 May 1838.

46. This map is based on the following sources: The British Library, Add MS 16364 A-I CHARTS, Maps drawn by John and Thomas Rees; Huang Juezi, Xu Naiji, and Qi Sihe, Huang Juezi zou shu, 102–4; The Jardine Matheson archives (primarily JM B2, In-Correspondence); YPZZ–MT, vol. 4.1, no. 4, pp. 291–95.

48. JM B7.5, Reel 525, No. 5, 20 April 1835.

49. The total value of British trade in China during 1833–44 was $49,953,856. See "Recent Piracies," 523.

51. Carl Trocki's work indicates that Fujianese direct trade with Singapore during this period was in fact substantial. See Chapter 3, "Opium and the Singapore Economy," in Opium and Empire.

52. YPZZ-MT, vol. 4.1, no. 4, pp. 291–95.

53. YPZZ-MT, vol. 4.1, no. 4, pp. 291–95.

54. LFZZ 03–2677–064, DG 18.12.23.

61. On disrepair of the admiralty's ships in 1839, see LFZZ 03–3607–046, DG 19.12. For difficulties in provisioning troops and securing affordable ammunition, see Neige huke tiben (herafter cited as NGHKTB), 02–01–04–20828–004, DG 16.6.5.

62. Local officials also arrested and killed large numbers of Chinese suspects, e.g., the 1834 raid on Tong'an county in Zhang-Quan, after which 22 of 310 arrested prisoners died in jail. ZPZZ 04–01–01–0758–045, DG 14.2.21.

63. The Jardine-Matheson captains regularly refer to "Mandarine" junks fleeing at their arrival, e.g., JM B2.7, Reel 495, No. 4, 6 August 1833.

64. JM H1.51.1 and JM H1.51.2, both of which are the original letters from opium brokers at Yakou to "Captain Li" (John Rees) during 1837.

66. Another of Shi Lang's sons, Shi Shilun, became a famous civil official who was later canonized in a series of judge stories called Shi Gong An. See Hummel, Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period, vol. II, 653–55.

67. During the early Jiaqing reign (in 1801), the Fujian governor-general had arranged for the merchants of Xiamen to contribute $24,000 in silver each year for the purposes of maritime defense, more still than the Qing state's own contribution of $20,000. NGHKTB, 02–01–04–20828–004, DG 16.6.5.

68. One way to deal with insufficient funding was to confiscate boats, though those boats were not necessarily confiscated in good condition.

69. YPZZ-MT, vol. 4.5, no. 6, pp. 398–99.

70. What is more customary than a New Years bribe?

71. LFZZ 03–3607–046, DG 19.12.23.

74. Hou also refers to the British in his article as yi (a word meaning foreigners, or barbarians, not commonly used since the nineteenth century).

77. The distinction between coastal and inland was never clear, and many lineage feuds that took place inland also generated jianmin language.

78. Surveyed from 84 records in the Grand Secretariat Archive (hereafter cite as NGDKDA) and Qing Palace and Grand Council Archives Database (hereafter cited as QDGZ-JJC).

79. Listed in approximate order of frequency. Surveyed from 116 cases in NGDKDA and QDGZ-JJC.

80. QDGZ-JJC 048067, JQ 21.6.27.

81. NGDKDA 015391–001, TZ 1.6.4.

82. The two most common, as noted above: yanhai jianmin (treacherous/debased/treasonous people of the coast) and maiyan jianmin (treacherous opium-buying people).

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