Trade in Early Nineteenth-Century Guangzhou

Attitudes toward maritime exploration and expansion by Europeans and by the Chinese while hardly identical were not that dissimilar. While it is tempting to identify one state as more "modern" than the other, it is risky to over-generalize the deeper meaning of Britain's ability to enforce its opium trade with China as being representative of Europe's superiority over Asia. A more constructive way to make sense of China's relations with Europe is to consider the different realities, needs, and ambitions shaping the actions of each empire.

By the mid-1700s, most European maritime ventures were monopolies (such as the Dutch East India Company or the British East India Company), heavily underwritten by their respective governments. These companies were given exclusive rights to the trade within specific regions and for specific goods (and thus were far from being natural extensions of "free trade" as many Europeans would later suggest). Qing China had little interest in pursuing similar trading activities because of the colonial and military expenditures such ventures demanded. A significant reason for this difference is based on the simple fact that more than 90 percent of the "everyday luxuries" the European companies were pursuing in Asia (sugar, silk, and tea) were goods China markets could secure from domestic sources.

This is not to say that the Qing court was heedless of the broader world. The fact that large numbers of Chinese living along the south China coast relied on overseas trade with Southeast Asia, Japan, and India—and that conversely many Chinese communities existed across Asia—all demonstrate an active international presence. The court's primary concern over the opium trade was its impact on China's domestic security. With the imperial government only very rarely initiating military, colonial, and commercial ventures outside the empire, it could quickly restrict Chinese trade in ways that protected Chinese security, experiencing little or no immediate consequences. The following documents relate the ways in which the Qing court's notions of security were inextricably tied to perceived or real threats to China's domestic, social, and political stability.

Description of European Factories in Guangzhou (1825–1844)

For the modern reader, one of the most confusing aspects of the interaction between Westerners and the Chinese in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century is the vocabulary. Some words (like "chop-chop” from kuai kuai to mean "faster") are of indeterminate origin and were likely borrowed from Chinese or perhaps Cantonese, the dialect spoken by most of the local population in the southern port city of Guangzhou. Other words were frequently borrowed from European languages. In the case of the factories at Guangzhou, many of the terms have their origins from the Portuguese, whose contact with China began with their enclave in Macao (south of Guangzhou) in the late 1500s. A useful example of this is the title "compradore" given to a native-born agent in China. This term originated from the Portuguese compra ("to buy"). However, it is the term "factory" that most often confuses modern readers.

A factory in this historical context referred to the warehouses and living quarters assigned to the foreign traders and regulated by the Board of Revenue. The author of the following piece, American William Hunter, was one of the foremost experts on the European presence in China. Arriving in China in 1824, he remained therefor several decades and published numerous books on life in China.


Nineteenth-century Western accounts of trade in Guangzhou refer to any customs officer (and sometimes to the Superintendent of Maritime Customs) as the "hoppo." The term is a corruption of the Chinese designation for the Board of Revenue (hubu) to which all revenue from maritime customs was remitted.

HUANGPU—A deepwater anchorage 12 miles downstream from Guangzhou, serving as the primary port for sailing vessels involved in the China trade during the nineteenth century.

BRITISH EAST INDIA COMPANY—Founded in 1600, the East India Company was granted a monopoly on all British trade from western India to eastern China. The company lost its exclusive monopoly on Asian trade in 1813 and was dissolved in 1874.


Chinese agent serving in the factories in Guangzhou. The term was also used to apply to Chinese representatives on foreign sailing vessels.


  • 1. What was the function of the factory for foreign merchants?
  • 2. What benefits did China gain by limiting foreigners to the factories?

The word "Factory" was an importation from India, where the commercial establishments of the East India Company were so designated, and synonymous with "agency." It is well to explain this, as it is now being confounded with "manufactory."

The space occupied by the foreign community at Canton was about 300 feet from the banks of the Pearl River, eighty miles from Macau, sixty miles from Lingting [Island], forty miles from the Humen Forts, and ten miles from the Huangpu anchorage. In breadth from east to west it was about 1,000 feet. On it stood the Factories, which comprised the dwellings and places of business of each nation originally under one roof. The line of frontage was uniform, all looking due south. The distinction of new given to one of the two buildings occupied by the "[East India] Company" applied to that one which was rebuilt after the great fire of 1822, which destroyed all the others, with a few exceptions, as well as, according to official accounts, 12,000 Chinese houses, shops, and temples in the western suburb. Each Factory consisted of a succession of buildings, behind one another, separated by narrow spaces or courtyards, and running north. The front ones were numbered 1, those back of them, nearly all of three stories, No. 2, 3, and so on. The least numerous Factories were then in the American Hang, the greatest number were in the Danish and Dutch Hangs, which contained seven and eight respectively.


The Factories were the individual property of the Hang merchants, and were hired of them. . . . Entrance to the rear Factories was by arched passages running through those in front. The lower floors were occupied by counting-rooms, go-downs, and store-rooms, by the rooms of the Com- pradore, his assistants, servants and coolies, as well as by a massively built treasury of granite, with iron doors, an essential feature, there being no banks in existence. In front of each treasury was a well-paved open space, with table for scales and weights, the indispensable adjuncts of all money transactions, as receipts and payments were made by weight only, except in some peculiar case. The second floor was devoted to dining and sitting rooms, the third to bedrooms. As almost all were provided with broad verandahs and the buildings put up with care, they were quite comfortable, although in every respect devoid of ornamental work. In front of the middle Factories between Old China Street and Hog Lane ran a broad stone pavement, and this bordered an open space running down to the banks of the river, a distance of about three hundred feet. On the east side it was bounded by the wall of the East India Company's landing place and enclosure, and on the west by the wall in front of the landing and enclosure.

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