American Trade with China in the 1860s

American Trade with China in the 1860s

The nature of American trade with China in the 1860s has its roots firmly planted in the Treaty of Nanking. China was forced into signing this treaty in 1842 and it effectively ended the first Opium War between China and Great Britain. Among other sanctions against China, the Treaty of Nanking opened four new ports in Canton to foreign trade and living. The Second Opium War, also called the Arrow War because it began when the British ship the Arrow was seized by the Chinese government, amidst arising British discontent with the way in which the Chinese were not adhering to the treaty of Nanking, ensued in 1856 (The Opening of China Part II). The Treaty of Tientsin marked the end of the Second Opium War when it was created in 1858, although the fighting between the British and French, and Chinese continued for two more years. The British and French obtained new unequal treaties by military force, but the United States sought their own through diplomacy. The “most-favored-nation clause” (Brown 179) of the Treaty of Tientsin allowed for other nations to hold the same trade privileges the British and French had gained. These new ratifications opened ports and even the interior of China to America for trade purposes.

After the war ended in 1860 the American opium trade practically diminished. The Treaty of Tientsin legalized opium in China and in doing so allowed for the domestic production of the drug. Once the Chinese were able to produce the drug themselves it wasn’t necessary to import it at such high prices. Americans also could not compete with foreign merchants who had lower operating costs, and so America had practically backed out of the opium trade entirely (Dolin 289-290). Exporting opium to China wasn’t the only immoral activity that American merchants participated in with China though.  Americans traded labor as well under the coolie system. Chinese laborers were shipped to different locations around the world in what seemed similar to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade (The American Coolie-Trade). 

American imports from China in 1860 totaled 13,556,587 dollars (Elder 9). In 1860 China had 5 ports that were open to foreign trade, but that number increased to 14 by 1870 (Brown 180). Tea was the most important imported commodity Americans obtained from China through the end of the 19th century. Initially, American imports from China largely consisted of cloth (nankeen and silk) as well as tea. Tea became the dominant commodity, expanding from approximately 36% of the total imports from China in 1822 to 65% in 1860 (May 18).

Although the Treaty of Tientsin in 1860 opened the door for American trade in China America was too busy for the first part of the decade fighting in the Civil War, because of this America did not establish very good trade relations with China compared to the rest of the imperial powers of Europe. Nations like Great Britain and France were very much so ahead of America when it came to trade with China in the late 19th century.

- John Cunningham and William Miller

Works Cited

May, Ernest R., and John King Fairbank, eds. America's China trade in historical perspective: The Chinese and American performance. No. 11. Harvard Univ Asia Center, 1986.

Liao, Guangsheng. Antiforeignism and Modernization in China 1860-1980: linkage between domestic politics and foreign policy. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984. Print.

Dolin, Eric Jay. When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail. WW Norton & Company, 2012.

Pletcher, David M. The diplomacy of involvement: American economic expansion across the Pacific, 1784-1900. University of Missouri Press, 2001.

Brown, Shannon R. "The partially opened door: Limitations on economic change in China in the 1860s." Modern Asian Studies 12.02 (1978): 177-192.

"The American Coolie-Trade." The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 Apr. 1860. Web. 3 May 2015. <>.

Elder, William. Statistics of the Foreign and Domestic Commerce of the United States: Embracing a Historical Review and Analysis of Foreign Commerce from the Beginning of the Government ... Washington D.C.: Government Print Offices, 1864. Print.