America and the Opium Trade

by Jolin Chan


The United States, an ocean away from China, did not simply watch the Opium Wars unfold from afar. Rather, the budding nation had been intertwined in the opium trade long before the conflict. What fuels war—hunger for power, desire for resources, nationalism, to name a few—is important to study, but so is who fuels war. Traders in America, and specifically New England, were instrumental in maintaining and even strengthening the opium trade and war. Yet, the binary between Britain and China often masks American actors’ roles in the conflict. Their lucrative work in China—selling and transporting opium—allowed them to bring wealth back home, allowing cities like Boston to flourish, all while China struggled with addiction, plundered cultural heritage, and the beginnings of unequal treaties and injustice at the hands of foreign powers.

Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade, a special exhibition at the Harvard Art Museums, explores the opium trade’s intimate connection with Massachusetts, the art trade, and the present-day opioid epidemic. Curated by Sarah Laursen, the Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art at the Harvard Art Museums, with help from Harvard students Emily Axelsen (Class of 2023), Allison Chang (Class of 2023), and Madison Stein (Class of 2024), the exhibition uses art and artifacts to broaden our understanding of the opium trade. As visitors move throughout the exhibition, they are invited to ask critical questions: How did opium impact the lives of Chinese people and Chinese Americans? Who was integral to the trade, and how was Massachusetts implicated? How did the trade influence art collecting (legal and illegal) in the Western world? And lastly, what were the repercussions of the opium trade, and how do we still see that today?

China, specifically Canton (Guangzhou), already had an established but tense trade history with the Western world. Before the Americans came, “barbarians” (what the Chinese called the foreign traders) from Britain, Spain, Portugal, France, India, and more had come to Canton as merchants.[1] The British East India Company had a major role in the trade, first on the demand side and later on the supply side. Britain had an overwhelming demand for Chinese tea, whereas China needed little of what Britain could provide—until Britain began growing opium in its colonies in India. This India-grown opium, sold by the British East India Company helped fix the trade imbalance, as silver left China and flowed into the hands of Western traders. However, the exhibition reveals the deeply intertwined histories between America, particularly Massachusetts-based traders, and the opium trade.[2] The United States joined the China trade—a flow of tea, spices, porcelain, and more—in the late 18th century and joined the opium trade in the early 19th century.

In response to foreign presence, China created the Canton System in 1757, which limited trade with the West to Canton and imposed strict regulations on the merchants, such as only restricting them to the banks of the Pearl River—outside the walled cities of Canton—and barring foreign women from coming.[3]  Right outside Canton was an area called the Thirteen Factories (they were, however, just buildings) that the merchants operated from. This small area was the only place foreigners could be, soon becoming their home, workplace, and even church during their stay in China—with servants, too.[4] Merchants worked with intermediaries called the cohong (the officially authorized merchant guild) rather than directly with the Chinese government, and individual hong merchants were responsible for each ship that came into China. However, the cohong’s supervision of foreign merchants led to discontent due to the restrictions and demands for more freedom and expansion into other cities. The rise in illegal opium smuggling also contributed to tensions between China and foreign traders, especially as China began taking action to halt the opium trade.[5]

Thomas Handasyd Perkins was one of the first of these American merchants. Perkins had already been involved in smuggling operations involving horses, coffee, and slaves in the Caribbean, but a trip to Canton in 1789 introduced him to the lucrative opportunities of the China trade.[6]  Perkins & Co., established in 1806 and run by Thomas Handasyd Perkins’s nephew, John Cushing Perkins, became one of China’s most influential trading firms. By 1830, Perkins & Co. was estimated to control half of the American-China trade.[7] Russell & Co., another major U.S. firm later managed by John Murray Forbes, absorbed Perkins & Co. and eventually became the leading American firm in China. Other prominent competitors included Augustine Heard & Co. and Jardine, Matheson & Company, and prominent families were notably involved in the opium trade as well. The Delanos, for example, made their wealth through the smuggling of opium. From Massachusetts, Warren Delano (grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) went to Macau, where he met John Russell (of Russell & Co.), then to Canton to work at the firm’s warehouse.[8]

The American merchants did not work alone, and nor could they due to the restrictions placed on them by the Qing government. Howqua was one of the leading hong merchants and worked closely with the largest trading firms. For example, Howqua and Russell worked together to build an offshore warehouse where ships would deliver illegal opium at night, and Chinese gangs would handle everything else.[9] His work in the opium trade allowed him to become one of the richest men in the world, and his role as leader of the cohong meant he developed close relations with the families who oversaw the operations.[10] Howqua’s role importantly highlights Chinese individuals’ participation—and power—as well as an early example of close relations between America and China. A witness at Howqua’s grand send-off banquet for Delano remembers fifteen courses of bird’s nest soup, shark fins, quail, and more, noting that “perhaps never before did [Howqua] give to a friend the like of this.”[11]


Port of Shanghai, China, Qing dynasty, c. 1863–64. Pigments in animal glue on paper.Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Mrs. William Hayes Fogg, 1895.692. Photo: © President and Fellows of Harvard College; courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums.
The partnership—and even friendship—between hong merchants like Howqua and American traders, however, did not erase the traders’ discontent. Tensions eventually reached a tipping point. Chinese scholar and official Lin Zexu had been attempting to stop the sale and use of opium, including dumping 2.6 million pounds of opium into the ocean (confiscated from merchants) and writing a letter to Queen Victoria urging her to end the trade:
“We have further learned that in London, the capital of your honorable rule, and in Scotland, Ireland, and other places, originally no opium has been produced… The obnoxious odor [of opium] ascends, irritating heaven and frightening the spirits. Indeed you, O King, can eradicate the opium plant in these places, hoe over the fields entirely, and sow in its stead the five grains [millet, barley, wheat, etc.]. Anyone who dares again attempt to plant and manufacture opium should be severely punished. This will really be a great, benevolent government policy that will increase the common weal and get rid of evil.”[12]Since Britain depended heavily on exporting opium, these two events catalyzed the First Opium War, which ended in China’s defeat and a series of unequal treaties. The Treaty of Nanking ended the Canton System, ceded Hong Kong to Britain, and opened up new ports, where foreigners enjoyed extraterritorial status and allowed the opium trade to flourish. The Treaty of Wangxia, signed two years later, specifically benefitted American merchants and granted them the same privileges as the British.These unequal treaties, as well as the Second Opium War fourteen years later, greatly weakened China and contributed to the fall of the Qing dynasty. As China declined, however, there were American merchants who thrived. Delano and other prominent traders, including Russell, Cushing, Perkins, and Forbes, not only transformed the coast of China but also used the wealth they amassed from the opium trade to transform the East Coast, investing in American enterprises and institutions.[13] From smuggling Turkish opium, the Perkins family, for example, funded the Granite Railway (one of America’s first commercial railways), co-founded Massachusetts General Hospital, donated his mansion to the Perkins School for the Blind, and contributed to the Boston Athenaeum (the original location of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts).[14] Universities carry the legacy of opium: John Cleve Green (of Russell & Co.) was one of Princeton University’s largest donors (donating around $1.5–2 million), and Edward W. Forbes of the Forbes family became the director of the Fogg Art Museum in 1909, to name a couple of examples.[15]

Much of the wealth of merchants (and the wealth passed down to future generations) went into philanthropic contributions that transformed America’s economic landscape, including turning Boston from a colonial town into a flourishing city of commerce, scholarship, and culture. However, while this wealth enriched New England, it simultaneously subtracted from China. Though opium was originally used among the higher class and a symbol of status, the influx of smuggled opium allowed for widespread use of the highly addictive drug in places such as opium dens.[16] Though it brought temporary alleviation for the struggles of middle and lower class life, opium’s withdrawal symptoms were particularly severe, the financial cost of opium hurt families, and overdoses could lead to death.[17]

Furthermore, the effects of the drug also impacted the perceptions of Chinese people and Chinese Americans. Stereotypes of corrupted opium users and gamblers pervaded Western and Eastern narratives, painting them as corrupting society and especially women. This led not only toward a distorted perception of China but also to anti-Chinese sentiment and immigration policies.[18] Overall, the painful effects of the drug were widespread—for both the user and their community, and both China and the Chinese diasporic community.
The opium trade fueled the increasing extraction of another resource from China: art. The last part of Objects of Addiction focuses on how art traveled from China to the hands of collectors and dealers to Western homes, shops, and museums. The Qing dynasty’s decline and eventual collapse in 1911 allowed for a flourishing of Chinese art collecting in the United States and Europe.[19] Some artworks were stolen from China. During the Second Opium War, for example, French and British forces invaded and looted the Yuanmingyuan (the Old Summer Palace), and the British army—ordered by Lord Elgin (son of Lord Elgin who removed the Parthenon statues—returned nine days later to burn down almost the entire palace complex.[20] The artifacts that were not destroyed in the process were stolen and brought to Europe. Furthermore, more items were taken during the Boxer Rebellion and entered the personal collections of Americans and Europeans.[21]

The aforementioned families, who made their wealth through the opium trade, were also key players in the Chinese art trade. They acquired Chinese art from dealers such as C. T. Loo and Sadajirō Yamanaka. Because these purchases were private or were not recorded, tracing the history of Chinese art in such collections is difficult. What is clear, however, is the West’s interest and control over art from China. Objects of Addiction showcases items such as a tortoiseshell comb (from the Forbes family’s collections) and a crystal ball (from collector and Harvard alum Grenwill L. Winthrop’s collections).[22] Given the exhibition’s location at Harvard University, it also highlights the university’s direct connection to the collectors and the art trade. Archaeologist and art historian Langdon Warner, for example, famously taught Harvard’s first courses in Asian art as a research associate and curator at the Harvard Fogg Museum.[23] However, more infamously, Warner is known for having removed art from Mongolia and China’s Gansu province—a process that irreversibly damaged the art and its surroundings.[24]

One of the removed wall paintings (reproduced at full scale for the exhibition) and Buddha statues surround a room full of Chinese art in Western collections, reminding visitors to question not just where art came from but how it got to the institutions we study and work at, visit, and participate in today.


Bust of an attendant bodhisattva, China, Tang dynasty, early 8th century. Section of a wall painting; color on unfired clay. From south wall of Cave 320, Mogao 莫高 Caves, Dunhuang, Gansu province. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, First Fogg Expedition to China (1923–1924), 1924.43. Photo: © President and Fellows of Harvard College; courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums

Thus, the United States is intimately connected to the opium trade. The lucrative wealth that allowed for the flourishing of America’s economic, academic, and cultural endeavors is the same wealth that contributed to China’s decline and brought the nation to its Century of Humiliation. Furthermore, we often think of the trade and the wars on grand scales—a battle between prominent nations. However, the interlocked web of opium, tea, silk, art, and merchant- and warships also consisted of individual actors and families (albeit very powerful ones sometimes). They ensured that the cycle of goods continued to revolve, but the web also revolved around them. Though desired goods were shipped from ocean to ocean and continent to continent, the benefits were often one-sided.

Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade is on view until January 14, 2024 at the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, MA. More information about visiting and the exhibition can be found here: https://harvardartmuseums.org/exhibitions/6265/objects-of-addiction-opium-empire-and-the-chinese-art-trade

1. Jacques M. Downs, The Golden Ghetto: The American Commercial Community at Canton and the Shaping of American China Policy, 1784-1844 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2014),44.
2. “Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade,” Harvard Art Museums, accessed January 3, 2024, http://harvardartmuseums.org/exhibitions/6265/objects-of-addiction-opium-empire-and-the-chinese-art-trade.
3. “Canton System,” in Britannica Academic, 2008, https://academic-eb-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/levels/collegiate/article/Canton-system/20078.
4. Downs, The Golden Ghetto: The American Commercial Community at Canton and the Shaping of American China Policy, 1784-1844, 27.
5. “Canton System,” in Britannica Academic, 2008, https://academic-eb-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/levels/collegiate/article/Canton-system/20078.
6. Michael E. Chapman, “Taking Business to the Tiger’s Gate: Thomas Handasyd Perkins and the Boston-Smyrna-Canton Opium Trade of the Early Republic,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch 52 (2012): 11.
7. Downs, The Golden Ghetto: The American Commercial Community at Canton and the Shaping of American China Policy, 1784-1844, 151.
8. James Bradley, The China Mirage (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015), 19-20.
9. Bradley, The China Mirage, 22.
10. Sarah Laursen, Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade, Cambridge: Harvard Art Museums, 2023–2024, Exhibition.
11. Bradley, The China Mirage, 26.
12. Zexu Lin, “Letter of Advice to Queen Victoria.” Digital China, https://cyber.harvard.edu/ChinaDragon/lin_xexu.html.
13. Bradley, The China Mirage, 28-29.
14. Chapman, “Taking Business to the Tiger’s Gate: Thomas Handasyd Perkins and the Boston-Smyrna-Canton Opium Trade of the Early Republic,” 20-21.
15. “John C. Green,” Princetoniana Museum, https://www.princetonianamuseum.org/reference/b5388d91-1efc-4e01-ace3-3b5d7a6e3774; Laursen, Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade, Exhibition.
16. Sarah Laursen, Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Art Museums, 2023), 11–12. Gallery Booklet.
17. Laursen, Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade, 12. Gallery Booklet.
18. Laursen, Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade, 12–13. Gallery Booklet.
19. Laursen, Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade, Exhibition.
20. Greg M. Thomas, “The Looting of Yuanming and the Translation of Chinese Art in Europe,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 7, no. 2 (2008), http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/autumn08/93-the-looting-of-yuanming-and-the-translation-of-chinese-art-in-europe.
21. Laursen, Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade, 17–18. Gallery Booklet.
22. Laursen, Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade, Exhibition.
23. “Langdon Warner Photographs from the 1924 Dunhuang Expedition,” Harvard Library, https://library.harvard.edu/exhibits/langdon-warner-photographs-1924-dunhuang-expedition.
24. Laursen, Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade, 21, Gallery Booklet.

Bradley, James. The China Mirage. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015.
“Canton System.” In Britannica Academic, 2008. https://academic-eb-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/levels/collegiate/article/Canton-system/20078.
Chapman, Michael E. “Taking Business to the Tiger’s Gate: Thomas Handasyd Perkins and the Boston-Smyrna-Canton Opium Trade of the Early Republic.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch 52 (2012): 7–28.
Downs, Jacques M. The Golden Ghetto: The American Commercial Community at Canton and the Shaping of American China Policy, 1784-1844. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, HKU, 2014. https://muse.jhu.edu/pub/175/monograph/book/35841.
Harvard Art Museums. “Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade.” http://harvardartmuseums.org/exhibitions/6265/objects-of-addiction-opium-empire-and-the-chinese-art-trade.
Harvard Library. “Langdon Warner Photographs from the 1924 Dunhuang Expedition.” https://library.harvard.edu/exhibits/langdon-warner-photographs-1924-dunhuang-expedition.
Laursen, Sarah. Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museums, 2023. Booklet.
Laursen, Sarah, curator. Objects of Addiction: Opium, Empire, and the Chinese Art Trade. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museums, 2023–2024. Exhibition.
Lin, Zexu. “Letter of Advice to Queen Victoria.” Translated by Ssuyu Teng and John Fairbank. Digital China. https://cyber.harvard.edu/ChinaDragon/lin_xexu.html.
Princetoniana Museum. “John C. Green.” https://www.princetonianamuseum.org/reference/b5388d91-1efc-4e01-ace3-3b5d7a6e3774.
Thomas, Greg M. “The Looting of Yuanming and the Translation of Chinese Art in Europe.” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 7, no. 2 (2008). http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/autumn08/93-the-looting-of-yuanming-and-the-translation-of-chinese-art-in-europe.


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