“The Opium War” labeled as the beginning of modern China’s history of humiliation

“The Opium War” has remained a tragic trauma in the hearts of all the Chinese people. However, as the signifier of a symbol that represented the image of modern China, today “the Opium War” has been accorded meanings which are fundamentally different from those that were first accorded to the war. This means that the “Opium War,” as a signifier of a sign, did not have a natural relationship with the image of China in modern times as it now signifies on the connotative level. The relationship is purely a product of gradual and artificial construction.

According to the historical documentations toward the late Qing Dynasty, it was widely believed that the “Opium War” was just one of the many ordinary conflicts with the arrival of the Westerners in the territory of China. At that time, the “Opium War” as a signifier was merely the carrier of the signified of a denotative signification. During the period of the Republic of China, some Chinese people started to realize the far-reaching impact of the “Opium War” on Chinese history. Nevertheless, such a realization was merely confined to the negative impact of the opium as a drug - people simply deplored over “the abuse of the opium as a drug whose influence permeated the entire country.” But during the reign of the Kuomintang (KMT, or the Chinese Nationalist Party) after 1930’s, many people attributed the backwardness and the difficulties faced by China during that particular historical period to the “Opium War”. Among various elaborations formulated about the “Opium War”, most of them focused on the “signing of an unequal treat[y]” and the “aggressions by imperialism,” emphasizing the fact that the “Opium War” marked the beginning of invasions of China by imperialists and that China’s defeat in the war and the subsequent signing of unequal treaties had severely affected the process of China’s social development. Nowadays, the “Opium War,” as the signifier of a sign, has been accorded by China’s historical community a new historical meaning, a new signified, as marking the “beginning of China’s modern history.” In acquiring this new meaning, the “Opium War” has become a symbolic landmark event that marks the commencement of China’s modern history.

For countless times, the Chinese people deplored over the corruption and the incompetence of the Qing Government, bewailed over the army’s relinquishment of war efforts without ever attempting to fight, lamented over the colossal amounts of war indemnity incurred by the national treasury, and bemoaned the loss of national sovereignty. We keep on reinforcing and highlighting the connection between the signifier “the Opium War” and its implications of “decay, backwardness and humiliation” on the connotative level. In doing so, we have succeeded in establishing a metaphorical relationship between the two and have thus weakened the signified as expressed on the denotative level by the signifier “the Opium War.” We may have even gone so far as to equate “humiliation” with the entire modern history of China, with “the Opium War” as its beginning. As a result, a symbol which represents the national image of China in modern times came to be popularized and has since become embedded in the cognitive system of the Chinese people.

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