Qing Dynasty Economy

Canton River

The transition from the Ming dynasty to the Qing dynasty was marked by the flourishing of the Chinese economy and its capability to explore overseas business ventures. The Ming dynasty was the last period ruled by the Han Chinese ethnic group in imperial China, who was in power from 1368 to 1644. They sent expeditions across the South China Sea during the Little Ice Age, a climate phenomenon that referred to the growth of mountain glaciers in North America and Europe. This intense cooling caused widespread famine, drought, and epidemics. Despite this, Chinese merchants were able to trade with the Philippines, Japan, and other nations in Southeast Asia. 

In the beginning, the Qing dynasty attempted to hinder rice exports and the use of silver as currency; however, the revenue that numerous Chinese merchants gained through trade with other countries pushed the Qing to allow such trade to continue. 

Once the dynasty was more stable in the 1700s, the Chinese population grew from 150 million during the Ming period to 300 million. Thus, crops became more important to provide food for the rising numbers in China.     

Support for Agricultural Endeavors

The Qing dynasty had a stable economy for most of the 1700s. Agriculture was integral to the community due to the increase in the population; thus, the rulers motivated farmers by providing free livestock and seeds. People were taxed less if they were involved in agriculture. Furthermore, international avenues led to opportunities to trade with other countries and towns. Additionally, imports from America, such as maize, peanuts, and sweet potatoes, diversified their crops and encouraged trade from one locality to another. This prompted the Qing leaders to issue foreign trade and manufacturing regulations, preventing rich merchants from monopolizing the economy and protecting Chinese traders from possible extortion from Western countries. 

Canton System

Kangxi emperor declared in an edict in 1684 that trade with the West would be allowed under Qing rule. In an effort to protect Chinese merchants that participated in this, the Canton System was established in 1757. For the government to monitor these transactions, they would all be accomplished at the southern Canton port, currently Guangzhou. Only specific Chinese guilds were allowed to join these trades.

Both the Chinese and their Western counterparts became wealthy due to the popularity of luxury goods such as Chinese-style furniture, lacquer, porcelain, and furniture. The Western elite class also prized visual art such as paintings and sculptures. Notably, tea was especially valued in England. These items allowed arts and handicrafts to flourish during the Qing dynasty. 

First Opium War (1839 to 1842)

Chinese and American trade started around 1784, with Chinese art and other opulent products dominating trade between both parties. The demand for Chinese products was high in the West, while the Chinese lacked the need for the exports that America offered, such as ginseng, furs, and sandalwood. Following the British’s way of trading with the country, American ships smuggled opium into China. The narcotic drug derived from poppy was addictive, causing a shift from a surplus of exports to a higher number of imports into China. Both the health issues involving opium and the disadvantaged position of the Chinese led to the First Opium War between China and Great Britain. From 1839 to 1842, Naval warfare ensued with the Chinese losing the battle. The West had already advanced in the creation of steamboats that stabilized their movement in shallow waters and allowed them to fight effectively. 

Due to their loss, China was forced to accept unfavorable conditions in the Treaty of Nanjing. The U.S. acted on this and forwarded the comparable Treaty of Wangxia to the Chinese. The Qing consented to both propositions to ensure both Western countries had equal treatment under the most-favored-nation clause. 

Second Opium War (1857 to 1858)

Both Western Powers aimed to negotiate with the Chinese for further advantages in their treaties with the country because these were inconsistently implemented. This caused the Second Opium War to last from 1857 to 1858. Great Britain and France both fought against China, ending with the destruction of the Imperial Summer Palace, where Qing emperors frequently conducted their duties. 

The Qing’s second defeat resulted in their agreement to the Tianjin Treaty as well as the Beijing Treaty. Both were called “unequal treaties” signed by the Chinese opening trade, legalizing opium imports, and missionary efforts from the West to freely enter China. This had a negative effect on the Chinese, whose health was compromised by the drug, while opium was considered illegal in the foreign nations that exported it. The Western countries were also able to use eleven ports in China for trade. The most-favored-nation clause made these agreements applicable to all Western nations that China had trade relations with. Consequently, the extortion and war losses increased Chinese bitterness toward Western imperialism. 

Instead of Western countries paying tribute to the Qing rulers, which was inherent in Chinese tradition, the Westerners pushed China to accept treaties as was their custom. Many Chinese people perceived this as a way of undermining their culture in preference of the Western parties, causing friction between each nation involved. 

To the relief of the Chinese government, the end of the battles gave them time to focus on the Taiping Rebellion, a civil war between the Qing and the Han. 


When the Spanish colonized the Philippines in the middle of the 1500s, silver reentered trade and became the money used for larger business transactions. Copper coins and paper money were used for smaller purchases. Silver became the currency accepted by landlords, whereas before, they had accepted crops. The metal pieces were valued through their weight and purity, with traders paying “meltage fees” to have the currency assessed.

The Yongzheng emperor discovered that these meltage fees gave way to abuse of power among those who handled the fees. Indirectly, he further cemented the use of silver when he made a policy that would regulate meltage fees and direct them to the public coffer, boosting the income of his government officials assigned to collect these fees.