Merchants and Mandarins : the Genesis of American Relations With China

Kuebel, Mary Veronica, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Graebner, Norman A., Department of History, University of Virginia
Israel, John, Department of History, University of Virginia

American contact with China began in the 1780’s, when traders from the newly-independent Republic appeared at Canton to purchase China teas and silks. These first Americans in China discovered that Westerners resided in the Chinese Empire only on Chinese terms. Americans, like the European traders who preceded them ·to China, could enter the Empire at one port (Canton) for the sole purpose of trade. The Chinese considered all foreigners to be inferior "barbarians." To govern the Westerners at Canton, the Chinese had established a set of regulations and restrictions. Known as 'the "Canton system," these laws kept Westerners under the strict control of ·the Imperial government.

By the 1780's this system had operated efficiently for over a century. Since their government had little power or influence to protect them in foreign ports, American traders generally observed native laws. Eager for commercial profits, Americans in China tolerated Chinese assumptions of superiority to succeed under the "Canton system." The first Americans at Canton were individualistic, adventuresome and competitive. characteristics had pushed them across oceans to India and the East Indies and to the Pacific Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands on their way to the Celestial Empire. American sea captains faced storms, shipwrecks and native pirates for trade. They considered the inconveniences of the "Canton system" merely another challenge.

American trade at Canton grew rapidly in its first three decades. The China trade became part of a global foreign commerce, in which American merchants despatched their vessels to ports in all hemispheres to procure cargoes for Canton. After the War of 1812, American trade changed. Resident-agents. and commission” houses at Canton permitted greater efficiency. By the 1830's Americans were competing successfully with the English, the largest and most-powerful group of foreigners at Canton. While business acumen was partially responsible for American success, another equally important factor was American attitudes toward the Chinese and the "Canton system." Obedience to Imperial laws earned Americans the benevolence of Chinese authorities and the friendship of Chinese merchants. The latter shared American desires for commercial profits and co-operated with them to achieve mutual benefits. In the 1830' s this bond between Americans and Chinese increased, as the English disrupted and finally destroyed the "canton system" in the Opium War (1839-42).

The Opium War originated with English refusal to withdraw from the illegal drug trade. England's vie tor y changed the entire basis of Sino-Western contact. Gradual deterioration of Imperial administration under the Ch'ing dynasty had caused a shift in the balance-of-power that had allowed the Chinese to govern their foreign relations. Increasingly characterized by corruption and venality, Ch'ing officials became powerless to enforce Imperial rule. As power slipped away from Chinese administrators the English stepped into the vacuum. Attempting to maintain order and stability, England employed military force to impose Western concepts of international law on its relations with China. Consequently, with the Treaty of Nanking (1842), the basis of Sino-Western contact became the treaty system. Aware of the importance of the English treaty, the United States government acted to protect American interests in China by despatching Caleb Cushing with powers to conclude a treaty with the Imperial government. In China Cushing perceived that American residents, who had refused to co-operate with the English during the Opium War, now had only the dubious protection of Imperial law. As the Ch'ing dynasty’s power waned the Chinese government became less capable of discriminating in favor of nations. who observed Chinese regulations. Cushing' s recognition of the potential difficulties facing Americans under the emerging treaty system" prompted him to insist on formalizing American relations with China. In the Treaty of Wanghsia (1844) Americans exchanged the advantages they had enjoyed under the "Canton system" for commercial regulations and legal and extraterritorial rights guaranteed by international law. Cushing' s treaty reflected the ties of friendship that had developed between Americans and Chinese. This study examines the first sixty years of Sino-American contact, a period which strongly influenced both the Treaty of Wanghsia and the course of American relations with China in to the twentieth century.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
United States -- Foreign relations -- China, China -- Foreign relations -- United States

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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