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Trade with China

Karl Marx

At a time when very wild views obtained as to the impulse American and British commerce were sure to receive from the throwing open, as it was called, of the Celestial Empire, we undertook to show, by a somewhat elaborate review of Chinese foreign commerce since the commencement of this century, that those high-flown anticipations had no solid ground to stand upon[a]. Quite apart from the opium-trade, which we proved to grow in an inverse ratio to the sale of Western manufactures, we found the main obstacle to any sudden expansion of the import trade to China in the economical structure of Chinese society, depending upon the combination of minute agriculture with domestic industry. We may now, in corroboration of our former statements, refer to the Blue Book entitled, "Correspondence Relative to Lord Elgin's Special Missions to China and Japan."

Wherever the real demand for commodities imported into Asiatic countries does not answer the supposed demand—which, in most instances, is calculated on such superficial data as the extent of the new market, the magnitude of its population, and the vent foreign wares used to find at some outstanding seaports—commercial men, in their eagerness at securing a larger area of exchange, are too prone to account for their disappointment by the circumstance that artificial arrangements, invented by barbarian Governments, stand in their way, and may, consequently, be cleared away by main force. This very delusion has, in our epoch, converted the British merchant, for instance, into the reckless supporter of every Minister, who, by piratical aggressions, promises to extort a treaty of commerce from the barbarian. Thus the artificial obstacles foreign commerce was supposed to encounter on the part of the Chinese authorities, formed, in fact, the great pretext which, in the eyes of the mercantile world, justified every outrage committed on the Celestial Empire. The valuable information contained in Lord Elgin's Blue Book, will, with every unprejudiced mind, go far to dispel such dangerous delusions.

The Blue Book contains a report, dated in 1852, of Mr. Mitchell, a British agent at Canton, to Sir George Bonham, from which we quote the following passage:

"Our commercial treaty with this country (China) has. now (1852) been nearly ten years in full work, every presumed impediment has been removed, one thousand miles of new coast have been opened up to us, and new marts established at the very threshold of the producing districts, and at the best possible points upon the seaboard. And yet, what is the result as far as the promised increase in the consumption of our manufactures is concerned? Why, plainly this: that at the end of ten years the tables of the Board of Trade show us that Sir Henry Pottinger found a larger trade in existence when he signed the supplementary treaty in 1843, than his treaty itself shows us at the end of 1850!—that is to say, as far as our home manufactures are concerned, which is the sole question we are now considering."

Mr. Mitchell admits that the trade between India and China, consisting almost exclusively in an exchange of silver for opium, has been greatly developed since the treaty of 1842[407], but, even in regard to this trade, he adds:

"It developed itself in as fast a ratio, from 1834 to 1844, as it has done from the latter date to the present, which latter period may be taken as its working under the supposed protection of the treaty; while, on the other hand, we have the great fact staring us in the face, in the tables of the Board of Trade, that the export of our manufacturing stuffs to China was less by nearly three-quarters of a million sterling at the close of 1850, than it was at the close of 1844."

That the treaty of 1842 had no influence at all in fostering the British export trade to China will be seen from the following tabular statement:

Cotton Goods1,001,2831,020,9151,598,8291,905,3211,408,433640,820883,9851,544,2351,731,909
Woolen do370,878404,797373,399434,616203,875156,959134,070268,642286,852
Other articles164,948148,433189,040163,662137,289202,937259,889403,246431,221

Now, comparing these figures with the Chinese demand for British manufactures in 1843, stated by Mr. Mitchell to have amounted to £1,750,000, it will be seen that in five out of the last nine years the British exports fell far below the level of 1843, and in 1854 were only 10-17 of what they had been in 1843. Mr. Mitchell, in the first instance, explains this startling fact by some reasons which appear too general to prove anything in particular. He says:

"The habits of the Chinese are so thrifty, and so hereditary, that they wear just what their fathers wore before them; that is to say, just enough and no more of anything, no matter how cheap it may be offered them." "No working Chinaman can afford to put on a new coat which shall not last him at least three years, and stand the wear and tear of the roughest drudgery during that period. Now, a garment of that description must contain at least three times the weight of raw cotton which we put into the heaviest goods we import to China; that is to say, it must be three times as heavy as the heaviest drills and domestics we can afford to send out here."

Absence of wants, and predilection for hereditary modes of dress, are obstacles which civilized commerce has to encounter in all new markets. As to the thickness and strength of drills, might British and American manufacturers not adapt their wares to the peculiar requirements of the Chinese? But here we come to the real point at issue. In 1844, Mr. Mitchell sent samples of the native cloth of every quality to England, with the prices specified. His correspondents assured him that they could not produce it in Manchester, and much less ship it to China, at the rates quoted. Whence this inability in the most advanced factory system of the world to undersell cloth woven by hand in the most primitive looms? The combination we have already pointed to, of minute agriculture with domestic industry, solves the riddle. We quote again from Mr. Mitchell:

"When the harvest is gathered, all hands in the farm-houses, young and old together, turn to carding, spinning, and weaving this cotton; and out of this homespun stuff a heavy and durable material, adapted to the rough handling it has to go through for two or three years, they clothe themselves, and the surplus they carry to the nearest town, where the shopkeeper buys for the use of the population of the towns, and the boat people on the rivers[408]. With this homespun stuff, nine out of every ten human beings in this country are clothed, the manufacture varying in quality from the coarsest dungaree to the finest nanking, all produced in the farm-houses, and costing the producer literally nothing beyond the value of the raw material, or rather of the sugar which he exchanged for it, the produce of his own husbandry. Our manufacturers have only to contemplate for a moment the admirable economy of this system, and, so to speak, its exquisite dove-tailing with the other pursuits of the farmer, to be satisfied, at a glance, that they have no chance whatever in the competition, as far as the coarser fabrics are concerned. It is, perhaps, characteristic of China alone, of all countries in the world, that the loom is to be found in every well-conditioned homestead. The people of all other countries content themselves with carding and spinning, and at that point stop short, sending the yarn to the professional weaver to be made into cloth. It was reserved for the thrifty Chinaman to carry the thing out to perfection. He not only cards and spins his cotton, but he weaves it himself, with the help of his wives and daughters, and farm servants, and hardly ever confines himself to producing for the mere wants of his family, but makes it an essential part of his season's operations to produce a certain quantity of cloth for the supply of the neighboring towns and rivers.

"The Fukien farmer is thus not merely a farmer, but an agriculturist and a manufacturer in one. He produces his cloth literally for nothing, beyond the cost of the raw material; he produces it, as shown, under his own roof-tree, by the hands of his women and farm servants; it costs neither extra labor not extra time. He keeps his domestics spinning and weaving while his crops are growing, and after they are harvested, during rainy weather, when out-of-door labor cannot be pursued. In short, at every available interval throughout the year does this model of domestic industry pursue his calling, and engage himself upon something useful."

As a complement of Mr. Mitchell's statement, may be considered the following description Lord Elgin gives of the rural population he met with during his voyage up the Yang-tse-kiang:

"What I have seen leads me to think that the rural population of China is, generally speaking, well-doing and contented. I worked very hard, though with only indifferent success, to obtain from them accurate information respecting the extent of their holdings, the nature of their tenure, the taxation which they have to pay, and other kindred matters. I arrived at the conclusion that, for the most part, they hold their lands, which are of very limited extent, in full property from the Crown, subject to certain annual charges of no very exorbitant amount, and that these advantages, improved by assiduous industry, supply abundantly their simple wants, whether in respect of food or clothing."

It is this same combination of husbandry with manufacturing industry, which, for a long time, withstood, and still checks, the export of British wares to East India; but there that combination was based upon a peculiar constitution of the landed property which the British, in their position as the supreme landlords of the country, had it in their power to undermine, and thus forcibly convert part of the Hindoo self-sustaining communities into mere farms, producing opium, cotton, indigo, hemp, and other raw materials, in exchange for British stuffs. In China the English have not yet wielded this power, nor are they likely ever to do so.

Written in mid-November 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5808, December 3, 1859


[a] See this volume, pp. 46-50.—Ed.

[407] The Treaty of Nanking, concluded between Britain and China in 1842,was the first of a series of unequal treaties imposed by the Western powers on China, which reduced it to the status of a semi-colony. The Nanking Treaty made China open five of its ports to British commerce—Canton, Shanghai, Amoy, Ningpo and Fu-chou, cede the Island of Hongkong to Britain "in perpetuity" and pay a large indemnity. It introduced import and export tariffs advantageous to Britain. The latter did not succeed in legalising the import of opium, though the Nanking Treaty did not oblige the British Government to prohibit British subjects to trade in opium.

The supplementary protocol of 1843 concerning the general rules for trading in the five open ports contained articles (2, 7, 13) envisaging cooperation between the British and Chinese authorities in inspecting the goods brought to the ports and in organising their work.

Similar treaties with China were also signed by the USA and France. On the Tientsin Anglo-Chinese Treaty see Note 6↓.

[408] This refers to people engaged mainly in fishing and ferrying and living on the deltas of large rivers or in floating homes on the rivers.

[6] This refers to the unequal treaties signed in Tientsin in June 1858 by Britain and France with China during the second Opium war (1856-60). The treaties made new ports available to foreign commerce: on the River Yangtze, in Manchuria and on the islands of Taiwan and Hainan, also the port of Tientsin. Foreign diplomatic representatives were authorised in Peking; foreigners were allowed to travel freely in the country for commercial or other purposes. Britain and France received economic privileges through the introduction of new commercial rules legalising the opium trade, and were paid indemnities. The Peking treaties of 1860 which ended the second Opium war increased the indemnities to be paid out by China. The British received the right to recruit Chinese for work in colonies and other places. Britain obtained the southern part of the Tsulung (Koulung) peninsula. The Peking treaties confirmed the remaining, unchanged, articles of the Tientsin treaties, which were ratified simultaneously with the signing of the Peking treaties. Though the USA did not officially take part in the war, it rendered aid, above all diplomatic, to Britain and France. This gave the USA the possibility to sign with China the Tientsin Treaty of June 1858 which guaranteed it a number of commercial privileges, the most-favoured-nation treatment and freedom of activity for US missionaries.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.536-539), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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