The Inner Trade War: Chinese Junks across the Qing and British Empires and Beyond

Friday, January 4, 2019: 10:50 AM
Water Tower Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Gary Chi-hung Luk, University of Saskatchewan
The Opium War (1839-42) between the Qing and British empires has been commonly described as a commercial conflict between a closed China and an industrial Britain with emphasis on the Western trade. This paper, in contrast, interweaves the war and the regional, interregional, and transnational trade by Chinese sailing vessels or “junks.” Enforced since its “opening to the ocean” in the late seventeenth century, the Qing’s restrictive but flexible rule over Chinese long-distance trade slackened across the empire during the Opium War due to, among other factors, the closure of many maritime and inland customs branches in face of the British threats, in the Southeast and beyond. Although the Qing and British blockades of waters and ports and their taxation regimes overlapped in many littoral regions, a huge number of the merchantmen fell beyond both the Qing and British grips and conducted doubly illicit trade. The British invasion and the Qing defense, moreover, imposed a rippling shock on the Chinese junk trade across the Qing Empire, Japan, the Ryukyu, and Southeast Asia, and profoundly affected Fujian’s Xiamen, a leading port long reputed for China’s internal and international trade, where Chinese smuggling rose in its environs since the war while the legal junk trade irreversibly declined throughout the late Qing period.