The Englishman's fondness for roast beef and a leg of lamb undoubtedly lies behind the secret plan to retaliate against the British for the blockade of Canton. The Chinese Emperor, his court, and leading officials actually knew very little about the West in general, and Great Britain in particular. During his term in office, Lin Ze-xu, made painfully aware of British technological superiority as a result of the taking of Canton, attempted to collect as much information as he could about the West — from missionary tracts, commercial documents, and geographical descriptions — and have it translated. If dazzling displays of Chinese troops in pantaloons firing matchlocks with precision at paper targets and cavalry wheeling about in formation while firing horn bows (again, with stunning accuracy at paper targets) did nothing to deter Her Majesty's representatives, then perhaps a trade embargo was the answer. Just as the English in seeking to redress their balance of trade to purchase Chinese tea without paying for it in silver had asked, "What do the Chinese need that we can sell them?" so the Chinese asked themselves, "What do we have that the English constitution desperately needs to maintain its health?" The answer, based on research into the barbarian diet, was, "tea and rhubarb." If the English were determined to bring the Chinese to their knees by a selective blockade — of the Gulf of Canton, Amoy, the Chusan-Ningpo area, and the mouths of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers (June 1839) — then, wrote Commissioner Lin to his superior in 1839, should we not withhold from the foreigners those valuable products of ours without which they cannot live — rhubarb and tea?

The belief that foreigners, and particularly the English, would die of constipation if deprived of rhubarb was widely held at this time in China. It had its origin, I think, in the practice, so widely spread in early nineteenth-century Europe, of a grand purge every spring, rhubarb-root being often an ingredient in the purgatives used. The seasonal purge was thought to be particularly necessary in the case of children, who without it would be sure to develop worms. However, about ten months later, Lin modified his views about rhubarb, and said that only tea could be considered an absolute necessity [to the English]. The export of rhubarb, he had discovered, was confined to very small quantities, classed at the Customs as medicine. (Arthur Waley, The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes, p. 33)

Other more likely propositions to defend China were modernizing the armed forces, the navy, and fortifications.

Related Material


Fay, Peter Ward. The Opium War 1840-1842. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

Last modified 28 June 2006