The Old China Trade: Before 1842

Canton River and Approaches Chart

In the years of the Old China TradeOld China Trade

When foreign ships arrived in Whampoa, during the days of the "Old China Trade," they carried a Chinese pilot, who boarded at Macao. The ship was then required to report to the local authorities: the Hoppo, or chief Chinese customs inspector.Read more.
, before the 1840s, foreign traders were only permitted to trade with CohongCohong

Group of Chinese merchants who paid for a privileged monopoly on foreign trade in the 18th and 19th centuries.
merchants in the city of Canton. Foreign ships approaching Canton had to stop at Macao and take on a Chinese river pilotPilot

A qualified individual who possesses knowledge of local shallows, rocks, etc., who is taken on board at a particular place to conduct a ship through a river, road, or channel, or to and from a port. Pilot also refers to a book containing sailing directions for certain waters and giving all needed information for navigating them. Also called a routier or rutter.
for the trip up the Pearl River to the harbor at Whampoa.

Canton, ChinaChina

During the period of the China Trade, when Mainers were sailing to ports in China, the Qing (or Ch'ing) Dynasty (1644-1911) was in power. The Qing Dynasty was established by the Manchus in northeastern China, and expanded to surrounding territories of Inner Asia, establishing the Empire of the Great Qing.Read more.
was a walled city, with a small quarter-mile strip of land outside the walls for foreigners. English, Dutch, Portuguese, and many other nationalities were represented among the merchants who lived in hongsHong

A combination living quarters, business office, and warehouse for foreigners in China.
, or trading houses, and conducted their business from March to November. In winter merchants returned to Macao to stay with their wives and families. When the new season’s teas began to reach Canton, the merchants came back to the Hongs. Foreign merchants were not permitted to travel outside of Canton, and they were forbidden to learn the Chinese language. Trade was conducted through interpreters using pidginPidgin

A means of verbal communication developed by speakers of two different languages, who need to communicate for trade or business purposes. It usually contains vocabulary from one language and structure from another.
.

The United States entered the China Trade in 1784 and participated in the traditions and restrictions of the Old China Trade.

In the early years of the China Trade, western countries encountered resistance. The Chinese had long regarded their country as the only civilized one in the world. They permitted trade condescendingly and thought westerners should be grateful for the privilege. They considered foreigners barbarians and accepted presents as evidence of European and American humility. This was a very different attitude from other countries with whom the British had established trade, where rulers were deposed and native populations subjugated. Westerners’ refusal to subjugate themselves to the kowtowKowtow

To kneel and touch your forehead to the ground in front of a superior.
ritual caused misunderstandings between the Chinese and their foreign visitors.

The Chinese mandarinsMandarin mandarins

Civil and military officials in Imperial China.
did not think they needed anything from the rest of the world. They believed they already had the best possible food — riceRice

The starchy seeds of an annual cereal grass, cultivated in South East Asia and other warm climates.
; the best drink — teaTea

Tea comes from a shrub, Camellia sinensos, whose leaves, buds, and internodes are made into a beverage by infusion with boiling water.
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; and the best cloth — silkSilk

The thread made by silk worms to form their cocoons.
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. Western merchants had to find things the Chinese wanted, because westerners wanted Chinese products. The resourceful merchants discovered certain desirable trade goods: ginsengGinseng

Ginseng is a plant with an aromatic root, one species growing wild in China and another found in the woodlands of the American Atlantic Seaboard. Ginseng root had been used for centuries in China as a medicine and tonic. It was believed to be a cure-all, with many healing powers for disease, as well as a tonic to restore youth and vigor and defer old age.
, furs for mandarinsFurs for Mandarins

Wealthy Chinese enjoyed lining their robes with furs to keep themselves comfortable in winter. American traders discovered that furs were a good trade item. Traders began to visit the American Pacific Northwest to purchase sea otter furs from the Native Americans living there.
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, sandalwoodSandalwood

Sandalwood, an aromatic, sweet-smelling wood, discovered growing in Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Isles) in 1790. By 1820 the sandalwood forests were so depleted that Hawaii was no longer involved in providing products for the China Trade.
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, and a few exotic edibles such as beche-de-merBeche-de-mer sea cucumber, trepang

Beche-de-mer (sea cucumbers) are sea-dwelling echinoderms similar to starfish and sea urchins.
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(sea slugs), shark's fins, and some kinds of bird's nests. The value of Chinese exports, however, was always greater than that of the imported goods, and the Chinese demanded silver specieSpecie

Coined money.
to make up the difference.

 

Chinese lacquered sewing box Chinese porcelain tea pot