The West needed products from the East much more than the East needed products from the West, which produced little for export other than woolen cloth and wine. In 1793 a Manchu emperor told a British diplomatic representative: "There is nothing we lack as your principal and others have themselves observed. We have never set much store on strange or indigenous objects, nor do we need any more of your country"s manufactures."

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “At the end of the Ming dynasty, just before the Manchus overthrew the Ming and established the Qing dynasty, China"s economy was in a period of expansion. New markets were being founded, and merchants were extending their businesses across provincial lines and even into the South China Sea. “The economic growth so evident under the Ming dynasty continued under the Qing dynasty, up until the time of the Opium War in the 1840s. During this time China’s domestic economy was a dynamic, commercializing economy, and in some small ways, even an industrializing economy.

“Unlike Europe during this same period, which was composed of many small states, each with its own political system, national boundary, and tax system, Qing China was a vast continental market with no impediments to the movement of goods across provincial boundaries. In analyzing the various institutions that were in place in China at this time, it is important to keep in mind that the structure of China’s large continental empire affected economic development, economic growth, and economic structures.

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Also see Sections on China in the 18th, 19th and early 20th Centuries

Website on the Ming Dynasty Ming Studies; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Ming Tombs Wikipedia Wikipedia : UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO World Heritage Site Map ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 Matteo Ricci Websites on the Qing Dynasty Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Qing Dynasty Explained ; Recording of Grandeur of Qing Ming and Qing Tombs Wikipedia Wikipedia : UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO World Heritage Site Map ; Forbidden City: FORBIDDEN CITY; Wikipedia; UNESCO World Heritage Site Sites World Heritage Site ; Temple of Heaven: Wikipedia Wikipedia UNESCO World Heritage Site UNESCO World Heritage Site Chinese History: Chinese Text Project ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization ; Chaos Group of University of Maryland ; 2) WWW VL: History China ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia ; Books: "Cambridge History of China" multiple volumes (Cambridge University Press); "Chronicle of the Chinese Emperor" by Ann Paludan, "The Last Emperors: A Social History of the Qing Imperial Institutions" by Evelyn S. Rawski (University of California Press, 1999). "Forbidden City" by Frances Wood, a British Sinologist, "Emperor of China: Self Portrait of Kang Xi” by Jonathon Spence

Ming-Qing Era Porcelain Exports


Ming porcelain

The primary Ming-era export item to Europe and other places in the world was porcelain. From the beginning production at the Ming porcelain factories in Jingdezhen were oriented towards the export market. The factories produced coffee cups and beer mugs centuries before these drinks became popular in China. They also produced plates with Arabic and Persian motifs and place setting emblazoned with European coats of arms.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “One of the most important Chinese exports to Europe in the 17th century was porcelain, which had been invented in China about 1,000 years earlier. As European demand for Chinese porcelain grew (in part because European ceramic centers at this time did not possess the technical knowledge required to manufacture porcelain), porcelain from China, and later Japan, was by the 1630s flooding the Europe market. The Dutch alone were importing more than one million pieces per year. But in the 1680s, the Kangxi Emperor reasserted imperial control over the kilns at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi (an area renowned for having the finest clay and for producing porcelain fit for an emperor), and the export of Chinese porcelain to Europe came to a halt for a period of time. This interruption in supply led in part to renewed attempts at ceramic centers across Europe to unlock the "secret" to Chinese porcelain, which did happen eventually but not until early in the 18th century. Prior to this time Europeans could only copy the look of Chinese porcelain models and keep working to duplicate the translucent quality of Chinese porcelain.

“Today the term "Made in China" has gained a somewhat negative connotation as something that"s an inexpensive imitation of "the real thing." Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, however, the situation was quite the other way around when it came to porcelain. The European ceramics centers were far less sophisticated in their manufacturing techniques, and Chinese decorative arts had a huge influence on European tastes during this time.

Chinese Porcelain Production


Chinese spittoon

The porcelain trade was so lucrative that the porcelain making processes were closely guarded secrets and Jingdezhen was officially off limits to visitors to keep spies from uncovering these secrets. Over three million pieces were exported to Europe between 1604 and 1657 alone. This was around that the same time that the word "china" began being used in England to describe porcelains because the two were so closely associated with each other.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Porcelain Production in China The manufacture of porcelain in China evolved over time into a highly specialized set of related crafts that together formed an entire industry. There were those who specialized in mining kaolin clay, others whose specialty was to mix the raw clay with other materials to create the particular mixture used for porcelain, and still others who actually shaped the objects, others who fired them, and still others whose specialty it was to paint and decorate the final pieces. As demand continued to increase, porcelain production in China began to resemble a highly specialized, mass-production-style industry. A common view of the industrial revolution as it occurred in England in the 1750s is that the burgeoning textile industry was a key contributor to the complex interaction of various socioeconomic developments that led to that phenomenon; mentioned less often is the possibility that the porcelain industry, as it evolved in China, may have also contributed to this development.

Efforts by Europeans to Learn the Secret of Chinese Porcelain

Pere d’Entrecolles, a Jesuit missionary from France, secretly entered Jingdezhen and described porcelain making in the city in letters that made their way to Europe in the early 1700s. He described a city with a million people and 3,000 kilns that were fired up day and night and filled the night sky with an orange glow. He learned the process but confused the clays.

Around he same time that d’Entrecolles was describing porcelain-making in Jingdezhen, Germans working independently in their homeland discovered the secret to making porcelain Large scale porcelain production began in the West in 1710 in Meissen, Germany.

Chinese porcelain dominated the world until European manufacturers such as those in Messen, Germany and Wedgewood, England began producing products of equal quality but at a cheaper price. After that the Chinese porcelain industry collapsed as many industries have done today when underpriced by cheap Chinese imports.

Silver in China and the World Economy

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Those who would argue that China was not involved in the world economy by the Qing period have only to look at some of the consequences of China"s use of currency -- both copper and silver. China under the Qing had an enormous unmet demand for silver. As the economy grew, the populace needed silver for transactions in the marketplace.” A scroll commemorating the Qianlong Emperor"s Southern Inspection Tour “Entering Suzhou Along the Grand Canal” (Scroll Six) shows a government-designated shop where copper coins and small ingots of silver can be exchanged for larger ingots of silver to be used for paying taxes.


Spanish silver coin

Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong wrote: “From 1500 to 1800, Mexico and Peru produced something like 85 percent of the world"s silver. During that same period at least a third and some people would say over 40 percent of all that silver eventually wound up in China. Now what was going on there and what does it mean? The Europeans of course were not shipping the silver to China as an act of donation or charity. They were getting goods in return, such as silk, porcelain, and later especially tea. Silver supported the staggeringly large export sector.

“As early as the 1720s, Mexican silver dollars were used in transactions in Southern China. Mexican silver had the advantage of already being in coin form and being reliable for its weight in silver, so that one did not have to go to a money changer to have him weigh the silver and take a fee for attaching a certificate. The Chinese government did not mint silver coins, so throughout this period people were using minted and raw silver coming into the country through the Philippines and other areas that were points of trade in the Southern China region. Western European nations during this time had very few commodities other than silver to sell to China in exchange for the tea, porcelain, and silk that were being imported to meet their own growing demand. Indeed, this inflow of silver from the West is one reason for the rapid expansion of China"s economy during the 18th century.”

Impact of Silver on Chinese Trade

Nayan Chanda wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review: “The currency that flowed into Asia from the 16th to the 19th century was in the form of bars of silver and Spanish silver coins which gave an unprecedented boost to trade with China, India, and Southeast Asia. ... By the end of the 15th century, new direct sea routes to Asia allowed Europeans to discover for themselves that it was just as Marco Polo had described—a place of enormous wealth and splendor. Asia was not only spilling over with the spices they hankered after, it had Chinese tea, porcelain and fine silks to offer. “But the traders were soon disappointed by their inability to buy all they coveted. Their Asian counterparts were not interested in the trinkets that they wanted to barter: They wanted settlements to be made with gold or silver.

“The biggest boost to trading with Asia came with Spain"s discovery of silver in newly conquered Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru in the early 16th century. When the galleon trade across the Pacific between Acapulco and Manila started in 1572, Spanish silver began flowing into Asia in huge quantities. ... It"s said that at least half the silver mined in America between 1527 and 1821 found its way to China. Braudel <1902-1985>, the historian, believed the claim plausible because in China there was an attractive profit to be made exchanging silver for gold. For example, in 1570 the ratio of silver to gold was 6:1 in China, as against 12:1 in Spain, which opened up great possibilities for arbitrage. |~|

“By the end of the 18th century, the balance of trade became a major issue as the Chinese had not yet developed a taste for European cotton or woollen cloth or Europe"s mechanical products like clocks. Between 1760 and 1780, Qing China"s import of silver rose from 3 million taels to 16 million taels...In the 1820s, the crisis over silver was heightened by a worldwide silver shortage and an increasing amount began to flow out of China. The amount of silver leaving China rose from 2 million taels a year in 1820 to 9 million taels in 1830. The country"s lack of silver resulted in a major new problem—inflation. Merchants and farmers alike used copper coins to buy silver to pay their taxes and the soaring price of the metal was a crushing burden...But it was the opium trade which was seen to be at the root of China"s financial problems. And it was the opium trade, plus the Daoguang emperor"s efforts to stamp out the scourge, which eventually triggered the Opium War—and that changed China for ever." |~|

Paper Money, Silver and Opium in Ming- and Qing-Era Economies


raw opium

Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong wrote: “For more or less coincidental geological reasons, China simply has very little in the way of precious metals: not much gold, virtually no silver, reasonable amounts of copper but not massive amounts. However, the huge Chinese population, something on the order of a quarter of humanity for most of the time since we"ve had decent records, developed an unusually dynamic, commercially sophisticated economy, which needed a medium of exchange: money. And that posed an enormous problem, which the Chinese solved in the Song dynasty by inventing the world"s first paper money. Paper money cost very little, but it required a certain technological sophistication, such as good printing. And again, it required social institutions: paper money is only as good as people"s willingness to trust it.

“For a couple hundred years, China had a paper currency that worked quite well, centuries before anybody else had it. This didn"t last, however, because when later dynasties, the Yuan and then especially the early Ming, got into fiscal crises, they did what many governments in many moments have done: they tried to solve the problem by printing money, and they undermined confidence in it. And once burned, people are shy for a long time. It will be centuries before they trust paper money again. It meant that this huge commercial economy had to be supplied with something else, with coinage. And what China turns to, for a whole series of reasons that are imperfectly understood, is silver.

“During this period when silver was flowing to China, the Mexican peso became the standard coin throughout much of the world. In some ways, it was the first global product with a brand name—"Mexican pesos," not "silver," was the preferred term for currency among many peoples. Silver coin from Mexico with bust of Carlos IV, minted 1798 Silver coin from Mexico with bust of Carlos IV, minted 1798 Pesos were so familiar in China that they had cute little names for them. One of the kings of Spain, whose image was on the peso during his reign, looked to the Chinese like Buddha, so they referred to this as the "Fat Buddha" coin or the "Buddha Head" coin. And they were so used to this that, in fact, they drove world demand for this particular coin. Long after this particular Spanish king was dead, other people discovered that the Chinese wanted coins with this particular image on them, so the price of the coins rose.

“As a result, people such as the Dutch were making coins with the face of a particular long-dead Spanish king on them because the Chinese wanted them. (Much as people today make fake Prada handbags to satisfy consumer demand.) The Chinese market for coins, essentially, set the global standard. These coins were also so common in China that land contracts normally had a price in copper or some local medium, and then in a little handwritten note on the side next to the standard price, they told you how much that was in Spanish or Mexican pesos. It was just a part of life there.

“Eventually the Europeans, for reasons of their own, became reluctant to continue shipping so much silver to East Asia. This is largely because they preferred to hoard the silver so that they could use it to pay mercenaries in their ongoing wars. They started looking for something else to export to China and found that they were in a real bind because there were very few things that they produce more efficiently than the Chinese could. The thing that eventually filled the gap left when the Europeans tried to cut back on their silver shipments was opium. Opium served a whole series of functions for the British in particular. It helped make their new colony in India profitable by providing a very ready revenue source. It saved on the silver that they no longer wanted to ship and, of course, the story of the opium trade to China then gets us into a whole different period of world history and different kinds of links between China and the outside world.

Creation of the "Canton System" in 1760


Ming-era junk

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The notion that the Chinese government feared foreign traders and did not want foreign traders on its shores is a major misconception. Although foreign trade was not a dominant source of revenue for the imperial household, it was taxed at a number of ports along the Chinese coast and was an important source of revenue for the central government.

“It was not until the 1760s that China really began to limit foreign trade to the single port of Canton, and there is much speculation about why this happened. Some scholars have related this to Chinese awareness of the activities of the British East India Company in India in the 1750s, when Britain was effectively colonizing India, and the Chinese government"s fear of similar foreign encroachment on its own soil.

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“Other scholars see the creation of the single port of call for European ships at Canton as being a mutual decision, because, in fact, Canton was the only port that really could provide the kind of facilities that foreign traders needed. Canton had a sufficient number of merchants, sufficient capital to be able to bring goods from the interior in sufficient amounts to make it worthwhile for foreigners to come all the way from England to China. The trip from England to China during this time was indeed very long, and ships only came once a year. The merchants bought everything they could to fill up the ships and soon set sail again.”

Tea Exports from China

Tea picking in ChinaTea was also a major export item in the Qing Dynasty. According to Hong Kong Museum of Tea Ware: Between 1840 ~and 1886 the production and trades of Chinese tea rose, the area for tea production was enlarged, and the amount of production increased. From statistical records, the total amount in production for the whole of China was around 50,000 tons and the total amount of tea exported was 19,000 tons in the 1840s. By 1886, the total amount of tea produced and exported reached 250,000 tons and 134,000 tons respectively - a 500 percent and 700 percent increase in four decades. At the time the total amount of tea exported accounted for 62 percent of all of China"s exports.

The rise in tea trade was mainly due to the rapidly growing demand for tea by foreigners. The signing of the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 forced the Qing government to open five ports for trade, which, together with the advent of fast transport boats, increased the development of sea trade. But the rise in tea trade was also because China needed to balance its trade deficit. By around 1842, China was importing opium in vast amounts. In order to pay for the imports, the Qing government enlarged its export of silk and tea to bring money into China. These actions in turn increased tea selling. +++

Between 1887 and 1949, the Chinese tea trade declined. After the Dutch and the British began planting tea in their colonies (around 1886), China"s leading position in tea trading was eroded and later replaced. During that time, places such as Indonesia, India, and Sri Lanka became major tea producers. This was partly because these new tea makers were using machines to make tea. They were more efficient and more competitive than China, not just in quantity but also in quality. China was still producing tea with old methods at the time. Gradually, the British and Americans took away the black tea market from China; Japan took away the green tea market. All these factors minimized Chinese tea"s competitiveness in the world and squeezed China out of the world market. +++

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021