15.5 China and the West

For centuries, Chinese regulations had strictly controlled foreign trade, ensuring that China had a favorable balance of trade with other nations. Balance of trade refers to the difference in value between how much a country imports and how much it exports. By the 1800s, however, Western nations were using their growing power to weave a web of influence over East Asia, which tilted the balance of trade in their favor.

Illustration of a naval battle between ships of two different designs, with one being destroyed.

The antiquated Chinese fleet was outmatched by larger, more technologically advanced British warships during the Opium War.


  • Describe how Westerners tried to gain trade rights in China.
  • Explain how reformers tried to strengthen China.
  • Understand why the Qing dynasty fell.

Key Terms

  • balance of trade
  • trade surplus
  • trade deficit
  • indemnity
  • extraterritoriality
  • Taiping Rebellion
  • Sino-Japanese War
  • Open Door Policy
  • Guang Xu
  • Boxer Uprising
  • Sun Yixian
  • Opium War

Economic Interest in China

Chinese rulers had limited the activities of foreign traders. European merchants were restricted to a small area in southern China. China sold them silk, porcelain, and tea in exchange for gold and silver. Under this arrangement, China enjoyed a trade surplus, exporting more than it imported. Westerners, on the other hand, had a trade deficit with China, buying more from the Chinese than they sold to them. In 1796, the British requested more trading rights. The emperor Qianlong refused, saying that there was nothing in the West that China needed.

By the late 1700s, two developments were underway that transformed China's relations with the Western world. First, China entered a period of decline.

Second, the Industrial Revolution created a need for expanded markets for European goods. At the same time, it gave the West superior military power.

The Opium War

During the late 1700s, British merchants discovered they could make huge profits by trading opium grown in India for Chinese tea. Soon, many Chinese had become addicted to the drug. Silver flowed out of China in payment for the drug, disrupting the economy.

The Chinese government outlawed opium and executed Chinese drug dealers. They called on Britain to stop the trade. The British refused, insisting on the right of free trade.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments