When Americans Came To China

With Beijing only 14 hours by air from New York, it's hard to imagine today just how far away China was in the age of sail. A round-trip voyage could easily take 18 months, and many ships simply vanished, lost at sea. But China was the world's foremost industrial power in the 17th and 18th centuries, the source of porcelain and silk as well as increasingly popular tea. There were huge profits to be made in the China trade.
As Eric Jay Dolin points out in his entertaining, informative and highly readable book "When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail," the 13 colonies took no part in this business. The British East India Co. had a monopoly on trade with China, and only in February 1784, the year after a peace treaty with Britain established American independence, did direct links between the United States and China begin.

When America First Met China

By Eric Jay Dolin
Liveright, 394 pages, $27.95
Mystic Seaport Museum
The clipper ship Comet, built in 1851, made runs to California and China.
That year the three-masted Empress of China sailed out of New York harbor, bound for Canton. She arrived seven months later and sold her cargo of lead, cordage, woolen cloth, liquor, ginseng (a herb much prized in Chinese medicine) and silver. She returned with 800 chests of tea, 20,000 nankeen trousers and much porcelain. This was enough to bring her backers a profit of $30,727, about a 25% return on their investment.
As Americans learned better what goods were desired in the Chinese market, profits increased. Furs were in great demand, especially that of the sea otters who thrived on the American West Coast. Sandalwood, which grows on tropical Pacific islands, was popular in China for furniture and other uses because of its fragrance, which the wood retains for decades. Seal pelts as well found a seller's market in China. Pelts that went for 50 cents apiece in New York sold for 10 times that in Canton. John Jacob Astor often cleared over $50,000 on a single voyage. (While highly profitable, the trade proved an ecological disaster, as sea otters, fur seals and sandalwood forests drastically declined.)
China's economy was more developed than that of the West until well into the 18th century, and there was little, other than such luxuries as fur or sandalwood, that traders could offer the Chinese. The West ran big trade deficits with China in the 18th century.
Because of the long voyages (during which tea deteriorated), the China trade also led directly to the development of the clipper ship, which had a vast sail area and a long, narrow, deep-drafted hull that sacrificed cargo space for speed. These swift and graceful ships were the culmination of the age of sail. On her second voyage, in 1845, Rainbow, generally considered the first clipper, did the round trip between New York and Canton in an astounding 6½ months, less time than it had taken the Empress of China just to get to Canton. "So fast did the Rainbow scud over the waves," Mr. Dolin writes, "that it brought back to New York the first news of its arrival in Canton."
China had been, by far, the greatest power in East Asia for two millennia. It thought of itself as the "Celestial Empire" and the "Middle Kingdom." The emperor was the "son of heaven." All other nations were subject to it, in Chinese eyes. But Chinese power was under threat, and it is the 19th-century interaction between an increasingly fragile Chinese empire and the expanding Western presence in the Far East that lies at the heart of Mr. Dolin's book. He covers the growing conflict both sympathetically and fairly—and makes plain its continuing significance.
China's population doubled in the 18th century and would double again in the 19th. But there was little additional agricultural land available to keep pace. The West was surging in power, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and its increasingly powerful military technology. And with profoundly different social, legal and political systems, the two often talked past each other, oblivious to each other's cultural assumptions.
As Chinese power declined, European nations, especially Britain, extracted concessions. The Chinese, for instance, were forced to open more and more ports to Western traders and even to agree to "extraterritoriality," where foreign citizens accused of crimes in China would be tried in Western, not Chinese, courts. And the British found a trade item—opium from India—that was hugely profitable. It was illegal in China, but for the right price Chinese officials turned a blind eye to the trade. When the imperial government tried to crack down and destroyed a vast amount of warehoused opium, Britain went to war. With overwhelming victories in the two Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60), which included the destruction of the Summer Palace outside Beijing, one of history's great cultural desecrations, Britain imposed deeply humiliating treaties on China, including one forcing the cession of Hong Kong Island. That humiliation is keenly felt in China to this day.
This remarkably complex story—involving trade, ecology, ship design, international politics and cultural conflict, not to mention captains, merchants, naval architects, Chinese mandarins and generals—is remarkably well told by Mr. Dolin, who is in complete command of the material. If a major purpose of history is to help us understand the present, the history of the early China trade is essential to understanding today's China as it resumes its place among the foremost nations of the world. You couldn't find a better place to start than "When America First Met China."

Read the full story here.


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