Second Opium War

The Second Opium War revealed the weaknesses of China to the outside world. It also undermined traditional Chinese perceptions of the world order and accelerated the opening of China to the West. It was one of several foreign and domestic wars during the mid-nineteenth century that contributed to the rise of Chinese nationalism.

Summary of Event

The Second Opium War, essentially a continuation of the First Opium War (1839-1842), was a limited military conflict between China’s Qing Dynasty and the allied forces of Great Britain and France. The factors that led to this war included issues of control over Guangzhou, disputes over British diplomatic representation in the Chinese capital and over the revision of the Treaty of Nanjing Nanjing, Treaty of (1842) (1842), the boarding of a nominally British ship by Chinese authorities, and the murder of a French Catholic missionary Missionaries;in China[China] . Fundamentally, however, it was the differences between China and the West in their perceptions of international relations that underlay the outbreak of the war. Opium Wars
China;Opium Wars
China;and Great Britain[Great Britain]
British Empire;and China[China]
Qing Dynasty;and Opium Wars[Opium Wars]
China;Qing Dynasty
French Empire;and China[China]
China;and France[France]
[kw]Second Opium War (Oct. 23, 1856-Nov. 6, 1860)
[kw]Opium War, Second (Oct. 23, 1856-Nov. 6, 1860)
[kw]War, Second Opium (Oct. 23, 1856-Nov. 6, 1860)
Opium Wars
China;Opium Wars
China;and Great Britain[Great Britain]
British Empire;and China[China]
Qing Dynasty;and Opium Wars[Opium Wars]
China;Qing Dynasty
French Empire;and China[China]
China;and France[France]
[g]British Empire;Oct. 23, 1856-Nov. 6, 1860: Second Opium War[3120]
[g]China;Oct. 23, 1856-Nov. 6, 1860: Second Opium War[3120]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 23, 1856-Nov. 6, 1860: Second Opium War[3120]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Oct. 23, 1856-Nov. 6, 1860: Second Opium War[3120]
Ye Mingzhen
Elgin, eighth earl of
Gros, Baron
Gong, Prince
Palmerston, Lord
[p]Palmerston, Lord;and China[China]

According to the Treaty of Nanjing, which concluded the First Opium War, the British had the right to enter and reside in the city of Guangzhou, which they called Canton. For years, the British tried to enter this city, but they failed because of the steadfast resistance of Guangzhou’s residents, who were notorious for their xenophobia. The local Qing officials, who, more often than not, shared the same antiforeigner feelings, proved inept and unable or unwilling to help the British gain entry to the city.

It was difficult, moreover, for the British to deal with this situation diplomatically. China’s relations with the West during the late 1840’s and early 1850’s were not handled directly by the central Qing government. Instead, European envoys interacted with local Guangzhou authorities who reported to Guangzhou’s imperial commissioner. The imperial commissioner of Guangzhou served concurrently as governor of Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces. Frustrated by irresponsive, stubborn, and sometimes dubious Guangzhou officials, the British attempted to bypass them and deal directly with the Chinese central government. For this purpose, they demanded time and again that a British ambassador be allowed to reside in the Chinese capital, Beijing Beijing;foreign legations . This demand was rejected by the Chinese, who argued that diplomatic residence in the capital was incompatible with the established institutions of China.

The British and Chinese also clashed over the issue of treaty revision. From the early 1850’s, Great Britain (together with France and the United States) began to request that the terms of the Treaty Nanjing, Treaty of (1842) of Nanjing be revised in order to secure more European rights and interests in China. This request was rejected by the Chinese authorities, who insisted that there was no need for any revision of the treaty.

In dealing with the British, China’s rulers, from the emperor Xianfeng Xianfeng to imperial commissioners in Guangzhou, especially Commissioner Ye Mingzhen Ye Mingzhen , harbored the time-honored illusion that China was the center of the world order and superior to foreign countries. Without any sense of equal relations among nations, they treated Western nations as inferior tributary states. As a matter of fact, they were inward-looking, showing little interest in Western affairs. These perceptions conflicted diametrically with Western values, which embraced the principle of equality in international relations and cherished global trade. Given these fundamental differences in values, a military clash between Britain and China was bound to occur.

The Second Opium War was directly sparked by the so-called Arrow incident. On October 8, 1856, Chinese officials boarded the Arrow, a ship owned by a Chinese merchant but registered in Hong Kong as a British vessel. (It later emerged that the registration had lapsed, so it was technically not a British ship.) The officials arrested the Arrow’s crew—all native Chinese—on the ground that some of them were former pirates Piracy;Chinese . It was later alleged that the Chinese pulled down the British flag flying above the ship. The acting British consul in Guangzhou, Harry Parkes, demanded the immediate release of the Arrow’s crew members and an apology from the Chinese government. Ye Mingzhen, the Chinese imperial commissioner, did release the crew but refused to apologize. Using this incident as an excuse, British gunboats attacked four barrier forts five miles south of Guangzhou on October 23, 1856, killing five defenders. Later, they moved to bombard the city of Guangzhou.

British troops storming Beijing in 1860.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

In London, the British government under Lord Palmerston, Palmerston, Lord
[p]Palmerston, Lord;and China[China] determined to uphold British honors and overseas interests, decided to launch a formal military expedition against China. It appointed the eighth earl of Elgin Elgin, eighth earl of as plenipotentiary and the leader of the expedition to China. The French decided to join the expedition, allegedly to avenge the murder of a French missionary Missionaries;in China[China] by the Chinese in Guangxi Province in February, 1856. On the Chinese side, no efforts were made to strengthen the defenses of Guangzhou.

On December 28, 1857, the British and French forces took the city of Guangzhou, captured Ye Mingzhen Ye Mingzhen , and shipped him to Calcutta, where he died a year later. Then they proceeded north and arrived in Tianjin in mid-April, 1858, taking the Dagu forts. The Qing court sent three high-ranking officials to negotiate with Elgin Elgin, eighth earl of and Baron Gros Gros, Baron , commander of the French forces.

In June of 1858, Tianjin, Treaty of (1858) the Chinese negotiators signed the Treaties of Tianjin with delegates of Great Britain, France, the United States, and Russia. The treaties allowed the establishment of foreign legations in Beijing, Beijing;foreign legations opened ten new Chinese ports to foreign trade, and permitted free travel for foreigners throughout China. They also stipulated that China pay an indemnity of four million taels of silver to Britain and two million taels to France and that no inland transit dues for foreign imports exceed 2.5 percent. It was agreed that the exchange of the ratifications of the treaties was to take place in China one year later. The allied troops then withdrew from northern China.

In May, 1859, Frederick Bruce Bruce, Frederick , the newly appointed British plenipotentiary, arrived in China with the Crown’s instruction to exchange the treaty ratifications in Beijing. Ignoring the Chinese suggestion that he take the back route via Beitang, Bruce insisted on traveling along the main route to Beijing via Beihe. When approaching the mouth of the Beihe River, the British forces came under fire from Chinese forces at the Dagu forts and suffered heavy losses, including 424 casualties, four ships sunk, and two badly damaged. They were forced to retreat.

In March, 1860, the British government recommitted Elgin as the leader of another British expedition to China. Again, France joined the expedition. The allied forces(about ten thousand British troops and fifty-eight hundred French troops) took Tianjin at the end of August, 1860, then charged into Beijing, Beijing;French and British occupation of arriving there in October, 1860. They burned the imperial Summer Palace (the Yuan Ming Yuan), including its eighty square miles of park, and looted the treasures in it. Xianfeng Xianfeng fled the capital to Jehol, in Manchuria, leaving his younger brother, Prince Gong Gong, Prince , to conduct negotiations with the allied forces.

On October 24, 1860, Elgin Elgin, eighth earl of dictated to Prince Gong the Convention of Beijing Beijing, Convention of (1860) , which increased China’s annual indemnity to eight million taels each for Britain and France, opened Tianjin to foreign trade and residence, ceded to Britain Kowloon Peninsula, opposite Hong Kong Hong Kong;British occupation of , and granted French Catholic missionaries Missionaries;in China[China] the right to own property in the interior of China. The allied troops left Beijing around November 6, 1860. In the process of negotiations for these terms, the Russian ambassador in China played an active role as mediator. In return, he secured the Supplementary Treaty of Beijing, by which Russia gained from China the sovereignty of a large territory east of the Ussuri River.


The Second Opium War further challenged the traditional Chinese world view that China was superior to all other nations. It revealed instead that China was militarily weak compared to major Western nations. It taught the Chinese a lesson—in order to survive, China must change and adapt itself to a new world order that was emerging. Coupled with other events (especially the Taiping Rebellion), the Second Opium War provoked the Qing rulers to conduct their first round of reforms, the self-strengthening movement of the 1860’s and 1870’s.

The Second Opium War further exposed China to Western influence and integrated China into the international economic system. With more Chinese cities opened and more Western settlements (concessions) established in China, Western goods, technologies, business practices, ideas, and customs increasingly flowed into China, serving as a catalyst for China’s modernization.

The Second Opium War also contributed to the rise of modern Chinese nationalism. The European imposition of unequal treaties on China in the wake of the war was seen by the Chinese—including such prominent figures as Sun Yat-sen Sun Yat-sen , Chiang Kai-shek Chiang Kai-shek , and Mao Zedong Mao Zedong —as a naked violation of Chinese sovereignty and dignity and as a humiliation for all Chinese. Resentment of Western domination often served as a unifying force for the Chinese, helping sharpen their sense of being a unique Chinese nation.

Further Reading

  • Gelber, Harry G., Opium, Soldiers, and Evangelicals. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Extensive discussion of international opium trade, wars, and religion. Includes a chapter on the Second Opium War.
  • Hanes, W. Travis, III, and Frank Sanello. The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2002. An interesting account of the two Opium Wars, discussing the British domestic experience of the wars as well as the events in China.
  • Hu, Sheng. From the Opium Wars to the May Fourth Movement. Beijing: People’s Press, 1981. Connects the Opium Wars to the development of Chinese nationalism and revolutionary movements.
  • Mao, Haijian. Measures of Modernity: Military Affairs and Diplomacy During the Opium Wars. Shanghai: Sanlian Press, 1998. Examines the diplomatic disputes between China and Britain over certain issues that directly led to the Second Opium War. Also details military performance during the war, especially on the Chinese part.
  • Twitchett, Denis, and Frederick W. Mote, eds. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 10. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Part of a comprehensive series on Chinese history. Contains a section on the Second Opium War, placing it in its broader context.

First Opium War

China’s Taiping Rebellion

Qing Dynasty Confronts the Nian Rebellion

Perry Opens Japan to Western Trade

Muslim Rebellions in China

France and Spain Invade Vietnam

China’s Self-Strengthening Movement Arises

Cixi’s Coup Preserves Qing Dynasty Power

French Indochina War

Scramble for Chinese Concessions Begins

Boxer Rebellion

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