Popular Responses and Diplomatic Resolutions to the Opium War

The Opium War (1839-1842) was far from a popular war among either the Chinese or the British. There exist numerous instances in both countries of popular discontent over the way the war was entered into and carried out. While the British lower classes were inevitably less aware of the war than their Chinese counterparts, several of the following documents reveal that the commoners in both countries shared strong moral objections to the opium trade. Such reactions are almost entirely forgotten in many histories of the war today. Instead, many Western accounts seek to suggest that Britain's actions were entirely instigated by Chinese attacks on British goods or that the British uniformly approved of such ventures.

Guangdong Residents’ Denunciation of the British (1841)

The following anonymous document was likely hand-written, copied, and then posted in several locations where the author felt it would have the greatest impact. It was almost certainly written by a local scholar living in the south of China or near Guangzhou. The language is colloquial, complete with crass terminology used in daily conversations. Pay particular attention to how the denunciation employs common themes like the benevolence of the emperor, reliance on China for specific goods, etc., but turns them on their head to insult the British. The inclusion of rhubarb (here and by Lin in 2.7) reflects the short-lived misunderstanding that the British required the vegetable to prevent constipation. The defense of the emperor and attack on Qishan (Lin's replacement) are also quite typical, since it was often assumed that the emperor was at the mercy of his officials.


  • 1. How do the popular sentiments expressed in the document diverge from that of the emperor and Lin Zexu?
  • 2. Do you think the language employed is more reflective of the lower classes (and thus an attempt to curry favor among them) or intentionally provocative to anger the British?

Public announcement from all loyal and patriotic people of Guangdong to you, the barbarian dogs and sheep.

We have noted that you English barbarians are practiced in the plundering actions of animals, such as, hyenas and wolfs, similar to the Japanese pirates and bandits during Ming Dynasty. Our imperial kingdom has previously defeated the likes of you. Because other overseas countries ask our Emperor to permit them to trade, our Emperor has benevolently tolerated trade between your dog-country and our own. You simply come for profit, what expertise do you have! Your greed for profit is just like an animal's pursuit of food. You have no knowledge of law and rites. Look at yourselves in the mirror! What is the difference between you and an animal? You are simply an animal who can talk. How can you understand loyalty, filial piety, and etiquette? How can you understand ritual manners and shame?

Although you have feather [down] and woolen goods, without our raw silk, how could you weave? Although you have your tricks, without our silver and white lead, how could you make your currency? Everything else was also following our imperial dynasty's rules. Your dog-country depends on our empire's tea, rhubarb and other medicine to survive. If our empire refuses to supply these goods, how are you going to live? Instead of having a sense gratitude for the great favor of our empire, you repay us by harmful acts. You use opium to injure our people and cheat us of our silver. Your animal-country does not consume such products, so why poison our empire with them?

Enraged by what he learned [about your actions], our Emperor sent Commissioner Lin to eliminate the harmful opium. Initially, he announced that you would be pardoned if you surrendered your opium. As an animal, you understood enough to be afraid and surrender the opium. It was reported to the Emperor, who gave you rhubarb and tea as a reward. But you animals were not grateful. You refused to accept and sign the agreement. You have claimed to be powerful, why did you dare not to attack Guangdong where Commissioner Lin was posted? Instead, you snuck up the coast to Zhejiang, massacred civilians in Dinghai, and then went to Tianjin, attempting to present a petition to the emperor. If you were really wronged, why not present your petition earlier, why first attack Dinghai and only then go to Tianjin? It was obvious you understood your crimes were much too great to be forgiven, so you came up with another plan to deceive our officials. The corrupted minister Qishan was fooled by you, and passed the petition to the emperor for you. The Great Emperor was benevolent, and believed in it. [He] ordered the withdrawal of provincial military forces, pardoned your dog-lives, and ordered his soldiers not to open fire. If you were truly obedient, why did you not give up Dinghai, and return to Guangdong to await an investigation? Instead you continue to disrupt towns in the Guangdong area, and roam the seas. You duped Qishan, the corrupt minister, who withdrew soldiers from Shajiao and Hengdang [along the Pearl River]. He ordered soldiers not to fire their weapons, which encouraged you to go further inland. You colluded with the collaborators who had no respect for their Emperor or their fathers, and you paid them to create a disturbance. What kind of strength was that? You claim to be exceptional fighters, why not just use your English barbarians to fight. To use Chinese collaborators does not show your full talents, you English-dogs.

[• ■ ■]

Our hatred towards your brutal behavior is so fanatical, that if we do not exterminate you pigs and dogs completely, we cannot consider ourselves true men who support the weight of the sky on earth. We have made our pronouncement and we will not take it back. We are determined to kill you, cut off your head, and burn you to a crisp. Even if you implore people to stop us, nothing will cause us to change our minds. We will peel off your skins and eat your flesh. Only then you will you understand just how tough we are. We are the first to announce to your Yilii [Elliot], Malixun, Diandi, and Danju, and the other Chinese collaborators who show no respect to their fathers and the emperor. We should have written in a more delicate style, but animals do not understand written words, therefore we have used vulgar language for you animals to understand in the simplest terms possible, to quickly confess your crime, surrender yourself and beg [for forgiveness]. Differentiate between the leaders and followers, as we are too kind to kill you all. If there is any delay, there will be no time for regret.

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