British travels in China during the Opium Wars (1839-1860): Shifting Images and Perceptions

Louise Tythacott

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


For over two thousand years, European travellers and traders have found their way to the country now known as China. The Romans, for example, referred to this territory as Seres, the land of silk (Hughes, 1937: 4). The Travels of Marco Polo, published in the late thirteenth century, created in Europe strong images of China as an advanced and sophisticated culture. Yet, over the centuries, travellers have been periodically welcomed and expelled by the Chinese ruling elite, as the country opened and then closed its doors to foreigners. Notably, in 1435, China severed contact with the outside world and commenced a long period of isolation; for the remainder of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) only the occasional outsider managed to obtain access beyond the coastal regions. The Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), perhaps came closest to China and the Chinese, for he was one of the few foreigners to reside in the capital, Beijing (Spence, 1985). The establishment of the Canton system by the Qing (1644-1911) rulers in 1756 at last permitted foreign merchants to trade at the port of Canton (Guangzhou) , but they were strictly confined to their compounds, the Chinese city being off limits (Levien, 1982: 13). Despite the lack of contact with everyday culture, the idea of ?China? gripped the European imagination during the eighteenth century, with the various waves of chinoiserie permeating the decorative arts and literature (Porter, 2010). From the late eighteenth- early nineteenth century, the reports of the British expeditions, the Macartney (1792-4) and Amherst (1816-17) trade embassies, served to create hitherto unseen representations of this land ? fanciful images of pagodas, mandarins, canals and the courtly life in Beijing (Peyrefitte, 1993). Confined and carefully monitored, however, Europeans were never able to see everyday Chinese life. It was the Opium Wars in the mid-nineteenth century which most dramatically transformed the image of the country in the West. During this time, soldiers travelled to regions previously closed to the outside world. This chapter takes as its focus the period of the First and Second Opium Wars (1839-42; 1856-60), documenting the perceptions of China constructed by British travellers at this time. It argues that the idea of China shifted dramatically, from romantic and idealized images, to an ambivalent but largely negative position at the conclusion of the Second Opium War in 1860.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBritain and the Narration of Travel in the Nineteenth Century: Texts, Images, Objects
EditorsKate Hill
Place of PublicationLondon, UK
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages18
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2016
Externally publishedYes

Cite this