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Merchants, Missionaries and Opium War: The Dynamics of Change in Late Imperial China (HI31C)

Album Leaf Tea Production British Museum

Tutor: Professor Anne Gerritsen


Late imperial China, i.e. 1600-1850, was a period of dynamic change. The transformation of the Chinese empire during this period occurred in almost all aspects: in politics (the empire went from Han-Chinese Ming to Manchu-Qing dynasty), economics (from a merchant-led empire that was a vast producer of goods for the entire world to a country crippled by internal rebellions and overrun by opium), and in all aspects of society and culture (including urbanization, the role of the military, gender balance, religious practices, migration, material culture and the arts, medicine and food, and interactions with the wider world including the West). The Opium War (1839-42) between Britain and China will be covered in the final part of the module, exploring not only the military aspects of this violent encounter between Britain and China, but also the cultural history of opium in China, and the wider context within which the diplomatic tensions in the lead-up to the Opium War as well as the war itself should be understood. All of these themes will be covered in this 30 CATS undergraduate final-year Advanced Option. No prior knowledge of China (or of the Chinese language!) is expected. We will study the transformations of the Chinese empire through a range of sources, including Chinese primary documents in translation, English (or indeed French and German) primary sources about European interactions with early modern China, secondary scholarship, and visual and material culture. Students generally write dissertations and long essays on a wide range of topics related to opium and the Opium War, British merchants in China, the global trade in tea, Jesuits in late imperial China, diplomacy and foreign relations (especially the tribute system), music and exchange between Asia and Europe, art and material culture, etc.