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In the middle of the nineteenth century, the economic and political life of Britain was greatly influenced by the British-Chinese relations. The consequences of the Opium War had a significant impact on both Chinese and British positions in the world political arena. The war changed the economic, political, and social life of China. Besides, it greatly influenced its relations with Western countries. The situation in Britain at that time was reflected in the British periodical Punch.
It was not a scholarly journal but a magazine famous for its cartoons, humor, and satire. Such an approach greatly differed from historical and political observations of that time and thus provided a new perspective on the existing problems in economics, politics, and society. In the context of the Opium War, its consequences, and their reflection in Punch, there appear some questions. First of all, how were the relations between China and Britain modified in the course of the Opium War? Secondly, how was the British life of 1841 depicted in Punch? The following research is going to answer these questions based on the review of the literature.
Relations of Britain and China in the Context of the Opium War
The conflict caused by the attempts of the Emperor of China to legalize or even stop the opium trade was bound to influence the relations of Britain, which provided the trade and China, which was the major opium customer. It influenced the political position of both countries. However, it was not the main problem. Lowel stated on this issue: “But if relationships between the Chinese Government and foreign merchants were wary, the true source of bad feeling was not bureaucracy – it was economics.
By the 1780s, Britain was running up a serious trade deficit: while China’s government was quite happy to service the growing British tea addiction, it seemed to want little except silver in return. As East India Company profits failed to offset the costs of the rule in India, British tea-drinkers pushed Asia trade figures further into the red. From 1780 to 1790, the combined returns of the India and China trades failed to make even a £2 million dent in the £28 million debt left over from the conquest of India.”1
That situation also changed the perception of contemporary history. Haijian claimed that “the immense transformations after the Opium War, particularly those of the last several decades, have forced historians to come to new and deeper understandings of the Qing and modern history in general. But these new understandings have not altered our view of the Opium War so much as they have been mixed together with it.”2 The case of this war was contradictory.
There existed a discrepancy in the opinions on the outcome of that war. On the one hand, the fact that the defeat in the Opium War resulted from China’s decline could not be denied. On the other hand, the accounts of the war still suggested that there was an opportunity to win if the Chinese were more resistant. Haijian considered that “The macro-historical view recognizes that the Qing government was ignorant of what was happening in other parts of the world and powerless to arrest the decline.”3 (23-24).
Britain and China of 1841 as Reflected by Punch
The events of the Opium war and its impacts on various spheres of British life were broadly reflected in the printed media. Apart from the current official news, magazines such as Punch received a topic for discussions. Punch was known for the sharp humor, satiric cartoons, and specific interpretations of the events. The introduction to the magazine stated that “PUNCH” has no party prejudices – he is conservative in his opposition to Fantoccini and political puppets, but a progressive whig in his love of small change.”4
The experiences of 1841 were described in the magazine as follows: “Pekin is progressing rapidly, but that the government has determined upon building the ramparts of japanned canvas and bamboo rods, instead of pounded rice, which was thought almost too fragile to resist the attacks of the English barbarians. Some handsome guns, of blue and white porcelain, have been placed on the walls, with a proportionate number of carved ivory balls, elaborately cut one inside the other. These, it is presumed, will split upon firing, and produce incalculable mischief and confusion.”5
Even decades later, Punch still paid attention to the conflict involving China and Britain. The conflict known as the Boxer Rebellion was the fourth struggle starting from 1839. 6 The conflict which lasted for more than sixty years led to the appearance of an ultra-patriotic group in China. Thus, the article revises their activities using both images and the text.
Generally speaking, Punch was considered “a model publication” in the second half of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century. For contemporary researchers, it is a source of attitudes to real-life facts depicted with humor and satire. These attitudes are useful to understand the reality of that time.
On the whole, the opium question was a primary concern of eastern and western countries for almost a century. The issue of the Indian-Chinese opium trade monopoly provided mainly by Britain led to the conflict known as the Opium War. It was not the war in its initial understanding. Nevertheless, it had a significant impact on the political, economic, and social spheres of the countries involved and China in particular. Opium trade, although beneficial, was illegal and thus could not last long.
People’s attention was distracted from the political issues. Punch favored these changes and finally became a resource of the so-called “Comic Empire”. The cartoons printed there and reprinted in the later publications prove the significance of the magazine both at its time and for the contemporary research. The historical events of the Opium War were spoiling the image of the British Empire, and such a mocking approach could distract people’s attention from the real events.
Bryant, Mark. “Knocking Out the Boxer.” History Today, 2008.
Haijian, Mao. The Quing Empire and the Opium War: The Collapse of the Heavenly Dynasty. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
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“Important News from China: Arrival of the Overland Mail!” Punch, 1941.
Lowell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. New York: The Overlook Press, 2014.
- Julia Lowell, The Opium War: Drugs Dreams, and the Making of Modern China (New York: The Overlook Press, 2014), 1-2.
- Mao Haijian, The Quing Empire and the Opium War: The Collapse of the Heavenly Dynasty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 2.
- Haijian, The Quing Empire and the Opium War: The Collapse of the Heavenly Dynasty, 23-24.
- “Important News from China: Arrival of the Overland Mail!” Punch, 1941, 74.
- “Important News from China: Arrival of the Overland Mail!”, 1.
- Mark Bryant, “Knocking Out the Boxer,” History Today, 2008, 56-57.