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The Europeans who began regular voyaging across the Indian Ocean into Pacific Asia were bent mainly on establishing independent sources and highly lucrative trade networks for Southeast Asian spices and other commodities. Chinese goods were also in strong demand in Europe, but the West had little to offer that was of interest to the Chinese. Meanwhile, with their superior technology in arms and industry, the Europeans were able to quell and subvert local populations in many parts of Pacific Asia.

By the nineteenth century, British commercial power far exceeded that of other nations and became the vanguard of the West's clash with China, particularly in the sale of opium to the Chinese. Through a series of initial miscalculations on both sides, the two countries fought a small scale, coastal war, the first Opium War, that revealed the extreme vulnerability of the Chinese to the superior firepower of British ships. The "unequal treaties" that followed have reverberated through Chinese politics and society ever since. Even in the 21st century, the Chinese government has found it useful to commemorate and publicize the injustices the country bore as a result of the Opium Wars.  In December, 2009, for example, when over strenuous British objections, a British citizen was executed in China for drug smuggling, China brought up the depredations of the nineteenth century opium trade as a further rebuke to the British criticism.

China's nineteenth century reform efforts failed due to lack of suitable leadership, a lack of money due to repeated foreign indemnities that were heaped upon it, and the interest paid on foreign loans. New taxes could not be imposed on an already impoverished population. In Southeast Asia, rivalries among the European powers gained momentum, resulting in the toppling or manipulation of most kingdoms with the exception of Thailand. The trade in opium was not limited to the British in China. Although it is not specifically noted in the text, the Dutch in Southeast Asia, notably in Indonesia, promoted a significant opium trade with the population, aided by Chinese intermediaries.

Meanwhile, technological change and new levels of exposure to the West began to alter the social life of Asian cities and to offer new visions of the future to the next generation of Asia leaders.





Video:  The Two Coasts of China: Asia and the Challenge of the West


General Points


1. European rivalries affected Western imperialism in Asia.

2. An extensive Indo-Pacific system of maritime trade routes vied with those of the early European arrivals.

3. Contact in the modern era between Europe and Asia often involved a collision of cultures.

4. Representatives of foreign powers often sought to impose "advanced" Western civilization upon the "inferior" peoples and cultures of Asia.

5. Although a late arrival, the United States also became an imperial power in Pacific Asia, particularly through its involvement in the Philippines.

6. Pressures from the West altered and sometimes overthrew kingdoms in Asia.




This is a list of important terms, people, and places that you should understand from reading the text.


Batavia (Jakarta)

British East India Company

Canton Trade

Chulalongkorn (Rama V)


Coolie Trade

Dutch East India Company (VOC)

Guangzhou (Canton)

Hong Kong


Industrial Revolution










1. Look at the above list of Key Terms and Names, find all place names, then locate each place on the maps in the text. Pay particular attention to: Spice Islands, silver trade, and the location and dates of imperial conquest by Western powers.

2. How important was opium to the Opium Wars?

3. Discuss the factors that affected Sino-British relations, both before and after the Opium Wars.

4. How did the Siamese response to the West differ from the Chinese response? What were factors in the Siamese ability to respond differently from its neighbors?

5. How did the Malay view of piracy differ from the Western view?

6. The Treaty of Nanjing has been called revolutionary. What made it "revolutionary?" What were the effects of this treaty on China? What kind of precedent did it set for China? for Asia?

7. What tensions developed in the Philippines as a result of the Spanish presence? Why?

8. Why was Chinese immigration to America a source of friction in the American West? What problems do present-day Asian-Americans face? Is there a connection between past attitudes and present ones?

9. Although the Dutch had a long history in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, they eventually ceased to be important in the area. Why?

10. What led to the establishment of the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong? What made Hong Kong attractive to the British? What advantages did Hong Kong possess?

11. Although the British were not the first Europeans in Southeast Asia, they certainly became the most dominant. Why? How?

12. What areas in Southeast Asia were subject to French incursions? Why were the French there? What did they accomplish?

13. Compare and contrast the 1821 Terranova case and the 1839 murder of a Chinese man by British soldiers. What were the responses of the Americans and the British? Why did they respond differently? What major event did the 1839 case ultimately precipitate? Why?


Seaborne Barbarians:

Incursions by the West

Li Hongzhang


Manila Galleon

King Mongkut

Nanjing, Treaty of

Opium Wars

Qing Dynasty

Siam (Thailand)

Spice Trade

Stamford Raffles

Unequal Treaties

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