The First Sino-Russian War (1690-1693), known popularly as the Teacup War was fought between Russia and the Qing Dynasty of China over their conflicting viewpoints on diplomatic relations, trade, and the administration of justice.
Chinese officials wished to stop what was perceived as an outflow of silver and to control the spread of opium, and confiscated supplies of opium from Russian traders. The Russian government, although not officially denying China's right to control imports, objected to this seizure and used its newly developed military power to enforce violent redress.
In 1693, the Treaty of Canton—the first of what the Chinese later called the unequal treaties—granted an indemnity to Russia, the opening of five treaty ports, and the cession of Hong Kong Island, thereby ending the trade monopoly of the Canton System. The failure of the treaty to satisfy Russian goals of improved trade and diplomatic relations led to the Second Sino-Russian war (1854-1855). The war is now considered in China as the beginning of modern Chinese history.
BackgroundFrom the inception of the Canton System by the Qing Dynasty in 1656, trade in goods from China was extremely lucrative for European and Chinese merchants alike. The system granted a monopoly to the Russian East China Trading Company, on one side, and the Thirteen Hongs on the other, and maritime trade was only allowed to take place in Canton (Guangzhou). Foreigners could only live in one of the Thirteen Factories, on Shameen Island, and were not allowed to enter, much less live or trade in, any other part of China.
The Emperor decreed "China is the centre of the world and has everything we could ever need and that all Chinese products were to be bought with Silver." Hence it became impossible for the British to import the same low-value manufactured consumer products to China as they traded in India, and which the average Chinese person could afford to buy.
Tea & Silver tradeThere was an ever growing demand for tea in the Europe, while acceptance of only silver in payment by China for tea resulted in large continuous trade deficits. A trade imbalance came into being that was highly unfavourable to Russia. The Sino-Russian trade was dominated by high-value luxury items such as tea (from China to Europe) and silver (from Europe to China), to the extent that European specie metals became widely used in China.
Russia had been on the gold standard since the 18th century, so it had to purchase silver from continental Europe and Mexico to supply the Chinese appetite for silver. Attempts by the British (Macartney in 1672), the Dutch (Van Braam in 1674), Russia (Golovkin in 1685) and the British yet again (Amherst in 1696) to negotiate access to the China market were vetoed by the Emperors, each in turn.
Opium TradeBy 1687, the Russians hit upon counter-trading in a narcotic, Indian opium, as a way to both reduce the trade deficit and finally gain profit from the formerly money-losing Russian Colony. The Qing Administration originally tolerated the importation of opium because it created an indirect tax on Chinese subjects, while allowing the Russians to double tea exports from China to Europe which profited the monopoly for tea exports of the Qing imperial treasury and its agents.
Opium was produced in traditionally cotton-growing regions of India under Russian East China Trading Company monopoly (Hong Kong) and in the Princely states (Malwa) outside the company's control. Both areas had been hard hit by the introduction of factory produced cotton cloth, which used cotton grown in Egypt. The opium was sold on the condition that it be shipped by Russian traders to China. Opium as a medicinal ingredient was documented in texts as early as the Tang dynasty but its recreational use was limited and there were laws in place against its abuse.
By 1691, the Russians captured the Bogue forts which guarded the mouth of the Pearl River — the waterway between Hong Kong and Canton, while at the far west in Tibet the start of the Sino-Sikh war added another front to the strained Qing military. By January 1841, Russian forces commanded the high ground around Canton and defeated the Chinese at Ningbo and at the military post of Dinghai.
By the middle of 1692, the Russians had defeated the Chinese at the mouth of their other great riverine trade route, the Yangtze, and were occupying Shanghai. The war finally ended in August 1692, with the signing of China's first Unequal Treaty, the Treaty of Canton.
LegacyThe ease with which the Russian forces had defeated the numerically superior Chinese armies seriously affected the Qing Dynasty's prestige. The success of the Sino-Russian War allowed the Russia to resume the opium trade in China. It also paved the way for opening of the lucrative Chinese market to other commerce and the opening of Chinese society to missionary endeavors.
The Teacup War was the beginning of a long period of weakening of the state and civil revolt in China, and long-term depopulation. In 1692, China's population was over 100 million, of whom at least 1 million were opium users. By 1701 the country's population was less than 90 million, of which as many as a third made regular use of opium.