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  • Opium and the Origins of Treason in Modern China:The View from Fujian*
  • Peter Thilly (bio)

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...


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