Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation With China

Spanning fascination and fear, ideas about China have long been embedded in America’s conception of itself and its own fate.

Excerpted from Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China by Gordon H. Chang (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2015 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.


Ties of Opportunity

The Chinese are “the wisest of nations.”

Benjamin Franklin, 1785

The twenty-first century, it is often heard today, will be China’s century, a time when China will ascend to become the world’s dominant nation in economic and, possibly, political influence. Whether that will come about remains to be seen, but it might be more correct, from a historical perspective, to say that China could resume the top position it once held in the world’s economy, a position it had relinquished for 200 years. In the sweep of history, at least Chinese history, two centuries is the short term.

This perspective may help contemporary readers appreciate the place China occupied in the world at the time Europeans first came to America and the subsequent rise of the colonies to nationhood from the late fifteenth to the early nineteenth centuries. It provides a broad context within which to appreciate the importance of China to America in its formative years and beyond and challenges us to step back and consider the long view in America-China relations. Examining 300 years of these relations provides us with perspectives on trends and patterns beyond what we gain from focusing on the cacophony and overload of the here and now.

For the millennium before the early 1800s, China likely possessed the most productive economy in the world. From the 1500 to the 1800s, the period usually considered the to be the rise of the Atlantic world and the ascendancy of Europe over the rest of the world, the Chinese empire produced up to one-third of the world’s annual domestic product, a far greater share than any Western nation. China per capita was not wealthy, but as a collective, China wielded immense productive power and remained the object of European desire for hundreds of years.

At the start of the eighteenth century, few could have predicted the spectacular rise of Europe over the rest of the world during the next 150 years. From all appearances, it was China that would remain the great economic center of the world. It possessed an ancient, influential civilization; dominated the vast area of East Asia; and was poised to expand its imperial boundaries. During the eighteenth century, the Chinese empire would double its territory through the incorporation of lands we now call Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet. Its population would almost treble in size, from an estimated 150 million in 1700 to an enormous 400 million in 1842, making it by far the most populous country in the world, a status it may never relinquish. The population increase was founded on a highly productive agricultural economy, remarkable domestic order, internal and external stability, and effective governance.

The seat of power was the Imperial Palace in Beijing, the capital of the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty, so named by the Manchus, a Tungusic semi-nomadic people who had conquered China in 1644. They all but assumed the existing system of government and Chinese cultural and social institutions that had developed over the centuries, even as they attempted to maintain their distinct ethnic identity in the grasslands north of China proper. The emperor, the Son of Heaven, ruled over the empire, having absolute though elaborately prescribed and delineated powers, duties, and responsibilities. He governed through a sophisticated, though relatively small, administrative bureaucracy that reached down through the provinces and then loosely into localities. Actual state power from the center was often more nominal than actual, especially over everyday life. Late imperial China was more a highly developed “cultural entity,” or civilization-state than a well-organized bureaucratic structure, as we now think of the modern nation-state. A formalized body of classical literatures that Europeans called Confucianism comprised the moral and ideological foundations of official behavior and thinking. It was in many ways the actual glue that held together the empire, with its enormous population, ethnic diversity, and land reach.

The Manchus tried to maintain their distinctive language and social customs in their isolated Manchuria homeland. Though they became increasingly Sinicized over time, they never lost their separate identity, which became a source of tension with the majority Han people whom they had conquered. Under Manchu rule, China largely assumed its present borders. The Qing expanded the boundaries of the empire into central Asia to incorporate Tibet, Turkestan, and Mongolia, in addition to Manchuria. Taiwan became part of the empire, and neighboring countries from Nepal to the Ryukyus became tributary states. The empire became vastly multi-ethnic and diverse in culture, religion, and ways of life. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Chinese culture and learning also reached grand heights under the Manchus, who vigorously cultivated Confucian scholarship and traditional Han painting and ceramics. The population almost trebled in size from the sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century, making China by far the most populous country on earth.

The United States at this time could hardly offer a greater contrast to China. In 1790, the first official census counted a population of less than 4 million people, a mere 1 percent of China’s population. The newborn country was weak politically and poor economically, though it had great natural riches and the potential for expansion. The Euro-American population was spread out thinly along the eastern seaboard, with few venturing into the extensive lands beyond the Appalachians. The U.S. population was a social polyglot of Europeans and Africans (mostly slaves) and their descendants born in the New World. Native peoples continued to control broad stretches of the territory but were not considered part of the American family. American political identity was counted in single years, not millennia. Its central government was immature, experimental, and untested. Its military was barely able to meet its security needs or support the activities of its merchant vessels on the high seas. Trade is what made a few Americans wealthy, but the country produced very little that others wanted to purchase, other than some rough foodstuffs, furs, timber, and other raw materials. Yet the country’s elite possessed an extraordinarily high level of confidence and energy. Their ambition far exceeded what their material circumstances should have justified, allowed, or predicted. But their hunger was great and their visions grand. They were poised to lead one of the most dramatic national transformations in modern times. The territorial, economic, and social growth of the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century would be astonishing. And it was the desire to engage the trade of the Pacific, especially that of China, that helped stimulate the voracious appetites and fill the burgeoning coffers of the New England elite.

China, in contrast to America, was fundamentally self-sufficient in food production, handicrafts, and luxury goods. Trade with others constituted a very small portion of the economy, which meant that aside from a few merchants in certain localities, imports or exports meant little for most Chinese, peasant and official alike. In China’s long historical experience, the desire of outsiders for what China had to offer was always greater than what the Chinese hoped to receive from others. Trade and international commerce, which became central to the modern European and other imperial powers, was usually of negligible interest to the Chinese elite. If anything, foreign trade was usually considered a minor irritant to state authorities, one that required means to control bothersome outsiders. Traditionally, the Chinese court tightly regulated foreign intercourse, both commercial and social. At times, the court tried to ban trade altogether in order to minimize undesirable influences. The idea of extensive free trade between Chinese and others, conducted by relatively autonomous individuals or firms, was virtually unknown and certainly not considered a positive good. Under the Ming and early Qing, however, the combination of a virtual commercial revolution from below and the challenge from abroad would profoundly alter the landscape.

In contrast, Europeans, from the Venetians and Iberians to the Dutch, were keenly interested in trade, which for centuries was seen as the key to power and wealth. Europeans vigorously traded among themselves, throughout the Mediterranean and beyond to the “Orient.” In 1511, the Portuguese, the first Europeans to arrive by sea, established an outpost in China for trade when they received a permanent lease of Macao in 1557 in exchange for their help in suppressing irksome pirates. The British took a more aggressive stance in trying to open China to Western commerce. Five English ships arrived in 1637, and more began to appear regularly in China’s ports in the mid-seventeenth century. The British East India Company came to dominate trade with China for 100 years, during which time the Chinese court permitted trading ships to enter China’s ports with little restriction. In 1757, however, Beijing reversed the policy after British activity, including unruly port behavior, angered the Chinese authorities. The court established what became known as the Canton system to regulate and limit seafaring trade along China’s long coast. In that year, the court closed all Chinese ports to Western traders except for the one southern port at Guangzhou (Canton). For the next eighty years, until China’s defeat in the First Anglo-Chinese War, known popularly as the Opium War, European traders and Westerners generally were confined to a single walled compound in Guangzhou. There, European traders were subject to strict, though at times only laxly enforced, Chinese controls. Trade could be conducted only during certain times of the year and foreigners were confined to a prescribed area of just several blocks from which they could not freely leave. Foreign women were completely forbidden to reside in the quarter. The traders were subject to Chinese taxes and could conduct business only with a small number of officially designated Chinese merchants, the gonghang (cohong), a court-designated monopoly. The Chinese recognized no political representation from European governments. The so-called hong merchants were responsible for handling the foreign traders and supervising the quarter where they resided.

This is the system Americans encountered as they began their own China trade. Though irritating to the acquisitive Westerners, who had long traded largely unencumbered among themselves elsewhere, the restrictions were tolerated because the profits of the China trade far outweighed the inconveniences and control. The Canton system aimed to regulate foreign commerce, but it was also a way of controlling foreigners, especially those who came by sea from across the great oceans. Westerners were hugely distant in linguistic, moral, cultural, and social ways from the Chinese and from the other peoples from Eurasia and East Asia, such as Persians, Arabs, Turkic peoples, and South and Southeast Asians, with whom the Chinese had interacted through the centuries. Chinese cultural and commercial interaction with others beyond their borders had often been extensive and mutually beneficial.

Formal political relations were a different matter, and by the eighteenth century, the Chinese court had developed a sophisticated and effective system for organizing interstate relations with its neighbors in Asia. The Chinese developed what we would now call an international system, or at least a regional system, a way of regularizing foreign relations with explicit and implicit rules, norms, procedures, expectations, and etiquette. Unlike the system that developed in Europe with many competing, small states of relatively equal power, China’s overwhelmingly dominant economic, military, and territorial position in Asia grounded and defined the East Asia system. It was a system that explicitly accepted inequality in status, the supremacy of the Chinese emperor in all affairs, and the authority of the Confucian moral and philosophical world view as interpreted by the imperial court. This system functioned well, at least from the perspective of the Chinese court and the so-called tributary states, for hundreds of years. At its height, the system included some 100 tributaries. By the early nineteenth century, the main tributary states were Korea, the Ryukyus, Annam, Siam, and Burma. By the end of the century, other powers would remove these states from the Chinese sphere and incorporate all of them into their own empires.

For Beijing, the traditional political order embodied the moral universe of civilization. Those outside this order were considered uncultured peoples who were lacking in propriety, morality, and proper knowledge. Europeans accepted the outsider status accorded them by the Chinese interstate system when they visited. Seventeen European missions traveled to Beijing from 1655 to 1795, and all but the last, under Lord Macartney in 1795, performed the required kowtow (koutou) before the emperor, a ritual prostration of emissaries that acknowledged his supremacy. Macartney considered it a humiliation of his sovereign and refused to do it. He agreed only to lower himself to one knee, as he said he could do as a sign of respect to his own king. Fifty years later the British invaded China and humiliated the Chinese in the first Opium War, fought to open the door to British opium and goods.

Before the American Revolution, fewer than a dozen Anglo-Americans had been to China, and an undetermined number of Chinese, South Asians, and other deckhands lived in ports such as Philadelphia after sailing to and from Asia. The British had controlled the international China trade through the East India Company and prevented subject Americans from directly engaging in the very profitable business. London’s restrictions became a major irritant in the colonial relationship, because China and its imported products had become an integral part of the everyday lives of many early Americans. Their homes, both grand and modest, contained a wide array of Chinese crafts, silk, textiles, silverware, furniture, decorative wares, ceramics, and fine porcelains. Chinese craftsmen could produce items of elegance and rarity, signs of sumptuary wealth. Wealthy Americans would custom design wallpaper and dinnerware and Chinese artisans on the other side of the globe would embellish porcelain with the ordered family regalia or scenes of American homes and towns. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other American gentry held Chinese wares in the highest esteem. The Chinese also could produce modest objects for the homes of the less privileged, such as everyday home decorations and eating utensils. China had developed the most sophisticated and productive system for export trade in the world. As much as a fifth of the contents of an early-nineteenth-century home in Salem, Boston, or Philadelphia came from China. The China trade was a major source of wealth for many of America’s leading import merchants, and they were not happy with London’s enforced role of intermediary between its colonies and China.

This was because London ensured that British homeland merchants and the Crown would principally benefit from the trade between America and Asia. London’s control particularly hampered the efforts of merchants in the colonies. The 1651 Navigation Act and subsequent legislation prohibited direct trade between North America and Asia. The British East India Company, the only enterprise the Crown authorized to conduct trade with Asia, brought items from China to London, where they were offloaded and taxed. These goods, in turn, could then be redirected to the American colonies, but with prices substantially higher than if the goods had come directly from the original sources. The system ensured that the British Crown, concerned about the cost of maintaining its growing empire, directly benefited from all the trade between China and the colonies.

Chinese Tea Gives Way to the American Revolution

As this trade grew in importance and value, London’s control became an increasingly serious irritant for the colonies. Restrictions on the conduct of American trade became closely associated with the problem of taxation and political representation in London. The Townshend Acts of 1767, especially those that affected the burgeoning trade in tea, especially aggravated already tense relations. Chinese tea had been an important commodity for English and Americans since the early eighteenth century, and by the 1760s colonists were consuming large quantities of the beverage, some 1.2 million pounds a year, or about three-quarters of a pound per capita. Most were black and green teas from southern China. India and others did not yet produce significant qualities of tea for export. Many of the most prominent and wealthiest colonial merchants included the lucrative China tea trade as part of their businesses.

Americans consumed tea as a regular staple in their daily diet and the duties on tea imports became the single most important source of revenue from commodities for the Crown. To evade these burdensome levies, American colonists, among them the leading merchants of the day, trafficked with smugglers, who brought hundreds of thousands of pounds of tea to the Atlantic coast. With the Tea Act of 1773, London hoped frictions would decrease. It allowed the East India Company to import tea directly to the colonies, thereby reducing its price, eliminating the London middlemen, and undercutting the smugglers. However the tea was still taxed, though at a reduced rate, and only a handful of American merchants the company selected were permitted to market it. The act infuriated Americans, who linked the duties on tea and the restrictions on their commercial activities with the general principle of taxation and representation. Boycotts of the imported tea, threats against ships arriving with the tea, and then the incendiary Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, inflamed relations to a breaking point. To prevent thousands of pounds of tea from landing, a hundred or so men stormed three tea ships and dumped the China cargo into Boston Harbor. News of the action spread and inspired further anti-tea actions throughout the colonies, but the flagrant destruction of private property sent London over the edge. It retaliated by imposing draconian measures on Boston. The American colonies then rose in rage against London and its attack on their liberty. Americans boycotted tea and all imported goods from England. Tea became a symbol of the tyranny of the Crown and London’s commercial monopoly. Masses of Americans joined the protest against London by publicly burning their tea stashes. Within a month, the American colonies were in open rebellion and the War of Independence had begun.

Chinese tea and the China trade more generally were thus deeply implicated in the causes of the American Revolution and the formative events of defining American political identity. However, the China connection increased in importance after the winning of independence. Beyond the material dimensions of actual commerce, the China trade assumed symbolic importance. China, the freedom to trade, and political independence became intertwined. These associations surrounded the 1784 voyage of the Empress of China, the first American ship to sail directly to China, and in some accounts the first ship to fly the new American flag of stars and stripes and sail to a foreign port. This most significant voyage initiated the U.S.- China trade.

This direct trade between the United States and China began auspiciously. Coincidentally, the newly constructed 360-ton sailing vessel named the Empress of China set out from New York Harbor on George Washington’s fifty-second birthday, February 22, 1784. Preparations for the voyage had actually begun almost a year earlier, when eager financiers, merchants, and ship owners, encouraged by American military successes against the British and a preliminary settlement granting independence to the colonies, started to raise capital, locate a suitable vessel to refit, and organize a crew. Wealthy Philadelphians were the main backers of the enterprise. The main investor was Robert Morris, the “financier of the American Revolution” and himself a former tea smuggler. Morris was also then the richest man in America and the superintendent of finance of the United States, the earliest version of the secretary of the treasury. Excited rumors about the ambitious plan had spread months before — the Salem Gazette reported in August 1783 that “many eminent merchants in different parts of the Continent are said to be interested in this first venture from the new world to the old.” John Ledyard, the famous early American explorer and entrepreneur in the China fur trade, called it the “greatest commercial enterprise” that the young country had undertaken.

Ice floes from a particularly cold winter blocked the ship from leaving New York Harbor for weeks, but a warming trend opened the channel and the ship finally set sail early in the morning. The Edward, another American ship that left New York Harbor the same morning, carried the newly ratified Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the hostilities with London and recognized American independence. That the Edward and the Empress of China sailed on the same day was unplanned, but their simultaneous departures had great symbolic importance. One ship represented the passing of dependence and war and made for Europe; the other symbolized independence and enterprise and headed for Asia, where many believed the future of the fledging republic lay. Recognizing the importance of the venture for the new country, Congress gave the voyage its blessing and provided the captain of the Empress with an official letter of passage. Gathered multitudes along the way out of New York Harbor cheered the ship as it sailed past. At Fort George on Manhattan Island, the Empress of China boomed a thirteen-cannon salute, which was replied to in kind from the fort. The festivities signaled what all believed was a most propitious beginning.

Philip Freneau, called the “poet of the American revolution,” captured the unique interplay of the voyage’s grand political symbolism and practical enterprise in verse. Freneau, who wrote prolifically and regularly commented on the political and social matters of the day in his poetry, composed a verse dedicated to the voyage of the Empress of China in which he captured the excitement and promise that attended the voyage. Freneau’s poem inspired the imagination of his readers with imagery of the high seas and travel to a distant, largely unknown land. But his was not mainly a simple tale aimed at conjuring visions of adventure or good wishes for safe travels. It hailed the beginning of the opportunity for the new American nation to pursue its ambition to pursue the China trade unencumbered by London’s restrictions. In Freneau’s mind, political independence and the chance for national wealth in the China trade were indelibly linked. One of the last stanzas reads,

From thence their fragrant TEAS to bring

Without the leave of Britain’s king;

And PORCELAIN WARE, enchas’d in gold,

The product of that finer mould.

In 1797, Freneau published a series of his poems under the title The Book of Odes, honoring the Shijing of Confucius and the new U.S.-China connection.

The Empress of China, with a crew of just thirty-four sailors, crossed the Atlantic and rounded the Cape of Good Hope and a long six months later arrived at Guangzhou. The ship carried 2,600 furs and some raw cotton and lead. But its main cargo was thirty tons of ginseng harvested in the mountains of the eastern seaboard, where it grew abundantly. It was the largest importation of ginseng into China ever. North American Indians, who used the root as a medicinal agent, had collected the herb for European merchants, who sent it to China during the early colonial days. The Chinese valued ginseng, especially the varieties that grew throughout northeast Asia, for male potency and vitalization. Now the acquisitive Americans hoped to capture the ginseng import market to pay for the Chinese exports they would bring back to the United States. They also knew they had precious little else that the Chinese would want in trade for their goods. Chinese consumers, however, found the American ginseng to be much inferior in potency to the varieties they found in northern China and Korea, and the American ginseng trade never amounted to a substantial American export. It was the fabulously lucrative fur and opium trade with China that would later realize American dreams of profits.

The crew of the Empress were the first bona fide Americans to visit China. “The Chinese had never heard of us,” wrote John White Swift, the purser of the Empress, “but we introduced ourselves as a new Nation, gave them our history, with a description of our Country, the importance and necessity of a trade here to the advantage of both, which they appear perfectly to understand and wish.” As required, Swift and the rest of the crew of the Empress of China stayed in the foreign quarters of the trading entrepôt of the Huangpu (Whampoa) anchorage, located twelve miles below Guangzhou, for four months. The ship returned to America loaded with expensive teas, cloth, silk, and porcelains. The ship also returned with Samuel Shaw, the lead business agent on board and his travel journal, one of the earliest American accounts of China. Shaw kept detailed records of the journey, including his observations of Chinese life, business ways, personalities, and society generally. Much piqued his curiosity, and his descriptions of Chinese food, customs, etiquette, and daily life are colorful and engaging. But they also were devoid of the kind of romanticism other travelers to the East had previously offered and would continue to be presented to American readers through the coming years. He explicitly wanted to avoid the sort of tales that he said were spread by missionaries, accounts that bordered on the “marvelous,” he claimed, and enveloped the country in much “mystery.” His account is also devoid of information about life outside the walled compound where the Americans and Europeans were required to stay. Shaw, who later became the first American consul in Guangzhou, also wrote about matters that perplexed, even disgusted, him, such as the despotism of the throne and his inability to have direct contact with the people. These negatives grew larger in American minds in the coming decades, even as commercial interests continued to attract Americans to China. But other aspects of China primarily impressed Shaw: he found the Chinese merchants with whom he dealt to be scrupulous in detail and honest in manner. He praised their ethics. They were good businessmen. Though he dismissed petty traders as knaves and “rogues,” the designated cohong merchants were “intelligent, exact accountants, punctual to their engagements, and, though not the worse for being looked after, value themselves much upon maintaining a fair character. The concurrent testimony of all the Europeans justifies this remark.” Overall, China fascinated him, and he concluded the account of his journey on a note confessing ignorance as well as respect, “All we know with certainty respecting the empire of China,” Shaw wrote, “is that it has long existed[,] a striking evidence of the wisdom of its government, and still continues the admiration of the world.”

The voyage of the Empress of China brought Robert Morris and the other investors a handsome profit of 25 percent, though it was far less than the 600 percent they had hoped for. News of the success of the voyage spread widely, and excited Americans concluded that the China trade would be of unprecedented economic importance for the new nation. Indeed, a booming China trade did become one of the mainstays of the early American economy. Within a year of the ship’s return, five other American vessels sailed for Guangzhou, and by 1789 there were fifteen American vessels traveling back and forth to China. By the mid-1790s, seventy ships were engaged in the trade, comprising the second-largest contingent of Western traders in Chinese waters. Only the English had more. By the turn of the nineteenth century, American trade with Asia surpassed that of all other Western nations except Great Britain. Between 1784 and 1814, some 618 American vessels reached Guangzhou or Macao. The profit for the Americans has been described as “immense”; 300 to 400 percent returns on investments were commonplace. Imports from China expanded beyond tea to include finished products for the home, decorative items, furniture, foodstuffs, various forms of cloth, and luxury items. The port cities of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, and Salem thrived with the so-called Canton trade. American vessels left East Coast ports, rounded Cape Horn, stopped along the western coast of South America, ventured up the eastern Pacific Rim, and then sailed across the Pacific, to Hawaii, the South Seas, the Philippines, and then China. Other ships took the Atlantic route along the coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, and then into the Indian Ocean and the East Indies, to China. In the early 1800s, American companies began stationing their representatives in Guangzhou on a long-term basis.

The voyage of the Empress of China initiated what is known as the Old China Trade, to distinguish the period of 1784 to the mid-nineteenth century from subsequent crests in the economic relationship between America and China. This period captured the American imagination and has been romanticized by Americans ever since, not without good reason. The Old China Trade is associated with the rise of the great New England and mid-Atlantic port cities, with the glory days of the Yankee clipper ships, the appearance of the first great American fortunes and blueblood families (Forbes, Astor, Cushing, Whitney, Cabot, Lowell, Russell, Peabody, Girard, and others), and the irrepressible urge of Americans to go west to the Pacific. The vast profits associated with the China trade and the Atlantic slave trade were the principal stimuli to American commercial expansion and even the beginnings of American capital accumulation and industry. The legendary Lowell, Massachusetts, textile mills, celebrated as the start of America’s factory system, were financed and managed to a large degree by investors who had been enriched by the China trade.

In the late 1780s, luxuriant sea otter pelts from American waters became one of the most important American exports to China. American traders exploited the bountiful numbers of animals along the northwestern Pacific Coast to supply the Chinese market and became middlemen between Indian trappers and the Chinese, who valued the fur for winter coats. Sea otter fur is exceptionally dense, dark, and lustrous, and it became the most expensive pelt on the world market. Although the trade was once dominated by Russian traders, Americans became increasingly active, and from 1790 to 1818, more than 100 American vessels visited the waters of the northwest to collect otter pelts. The China market made huge profits for the merchants, especially John Jacob Astor, who became the richest man in America and its first multimillionaire. Astor gave his name to the first American settlement on the Pacific Coast when Astoria was established in 1811 at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River. Thomas Jefferson personally supported Astor’s efforts, believing that a formal American presence was an important strategic claim to the Pacific Northwest and a boost to the China trade. Jefferson was one of the earliest prominent Americans to make the connection between continental expansion and the coveted trade in the Pacific. Astor’s fur trade proved immensely profitable and helped provide him the capital to engage in his later New York real estate investments, for which he is best known. The slaughter of the sea otter, however, almost caused its extinction and made the trade short lived. By the 1830s it had ended almost entirely.

America, China, and Life on the High Seas in Foreign Lands

The heart of the Old China Trade remained the importation of tea. From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, some might dismiss the simple agricultural product as being of dubious importance. But in the early nineteenth century, tea was one of the world’s most important commodities, spurring economies from southwest China to Western Europe, where it had become an everyday staple in diets, especially in Britain. The tea trade played a critical role in the accumulation of capital, the development of modern banking, shipbuilding, taxation (it accounted for 10 percent of Britain’s revenues in 1784), and the trade of other products including sugar (for taste) and later opium (to help the British balance their trade deficit). In America, tea had also grown in importance as a consumer staple since the colonial days, playing a role akin to coffee in today’s American diet. After the Empress of China brought back tea from its maiden voyage, tea imports rose steadily. Imports from Guangdong rose from 880,000 pounds in 1785 to over 3 million pounds in 1790. By 1850, Americans were importing some 30 million pounds of Chinese tea each year. Tariffs and competition with India and Japan subsequently cut the China trade, but in its heyday, the tea trade accrued handsome profits for tea merchants, both American and Chinese. The size and nature of the trade was such that huge fortunes could be made quickly. Astor boasted about the enormous amount of money he had made from tea. Traders such as John P. Cushing returned rich to New England from Guangdong and then invested their capital in real estate, railroads, and other domestic enterprises. It also helped make a Chinese tea merchant named Houqua (Wu Bingjian, 1769–1843) perhaps the richest man in the world in the 1830s. In 1834, he estimated his personal wealth at 26 million U.S. dollars. In an early reversal of the investment pattern, Houqua partnered with American friends to invest some of his capital in railroad construction in the United States.

To pay for the tons of tea Americans consumed, American traders tried to use ginseng, sandalwood from Hawaii, and then furs to balance their payments. But even at the height of the fur trade in the early nineteenth century, Americans had to pay vast sums of silver specie to purchase the Chinese products they brought home. In 1810, 75 percent of the value of American imports at Guangzhou was in silver specie. From 1805 through 1812, the United States exported $22,000,000 worth of specie and only $9,000,000 in goods to China.

The tea trade created a troublesome problem for American merchants, but it stimulated the development of another, more romantic, dimension of the early American economy, shipbuilding. The hallmark of American shipbuilding became the tall-masted, sleek sailing ships that were known variously as the China or Yankee clippers. First developed as fighting vessels or as smuggling ships, Americans modified the design to make them capable for long-distance sailing. The Yankee clipper ships became the fastest trading ships in the world, eclipsing their British competition. They cut weeks, even months off travel time. In the 1820s, an American ship could make three voyages to China in a year, compared to two voyages for a British ship using the same route. By 1849, when the British Navigation Laws were repealed, Americans could even bring Chinese tea directly to the huge market in London. The clipper ship design exchanged cargo capacity for speed, for it was speed that the traders wanted. Still, a Yankee clipper could store over a million and a quarter pounds of tea in its hold. Getting the newly harvested tea to market quickly was a coveted advantage, as the most delicate and complex tea taste, especially from green teas, came from the most freshly picked leaves.

Beyond this limited commercial interaction, Americans and Chinese had little contact and even less substantive knowledge of one another. Chinese elites in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries knew virtually nothing about the United States. They also seemed not to care very much about who these English-speaking, non-British people were. Need fuels curiosity, and the Chinese elite, believing they already had everything important, were uninterested in the foreigners from far across the Pacific. Hailu, now described as the most complete Chinese geographical work of its day, for example, says virtually nothing about the United States. Based on an account of a Chinese sailor’s travels on the seas from 1782 to 1795, the 1820 book could say of America only that it was an “isolated island in the middle of the ocean, its territory rather constricted. Originally a fiefdom of England, it now has become a nation.” Twenty-five years later, in 1844, the high Chinese official who negotiated the first diplomatic treaty between the United States and China reported to the emperor that

the location of the United States is in the Far West. It is the most uncivilized and remote of all countries. Now Your Majesty has granted them the Imperial Favor of a special Edict which they can observe forever. You have rewarded the sincerity of their admiration for our righteousness and are encouraging their determination to turn toward culture. The different races of the world are all grateful for your Imperial charity. But the said country is in an isolated place outside the pale, solitary and ignorant. Not only are the people entirely unversed in the forms of edicts and laws, but if the meaning be rather deep, they would probably not even be able to comprehend. It would seem that we must make our words somewhat simple.

The American attitude could not have offered a sharper contrast to the haughty and officious attitude that surrounded the emperor. Americans were extremely curious about other lands, and one of the countries outside of Europe that most commanded their attention was China. Americans inherited Europe’s lively interest in China that became a passion, a Sinophilia, in the mid-eighteenth century. European thinkers such as Voltaire in France and Leibniz in Germany praised China for the quality of its rule, its moral philosophy, and its agricultural productivity. They believed China could serve as a model for their own visions of an enlightened society ruled by reason. Leading Americans believed China held promise for them not just for material enrichment but for ideas and social practices that Americans might adopt. Benjamin Franklin, one of the most educated and learned of early Americans, took an unusually active interest in China because it offered, he believed, a positive cultural model for Americans. As early as the mid-eighteenth century, Franklin was avidly studying books on Chinese civilization and publishing an English translation of The Morals of Confucius, a French study about Confucius’s writing. In the 1750s he partnered with William Allen, one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest citizens, to support a multiyear effort to locate a northwest passage to China. Franklin expressed interest in traveling to China himself. In 1771, as the intellectual leader of the American Philosophical Society, Franklin endorsed this high praise of China that appeared in the society’s newsletter: “Could we be so fortunate as to introduce the industry of the Chinese, their arts of living and improvements in husbandry, as well as their native plants, America might in time become as populous as China, which is allowed to contain more inhabitants than any other country, of the same extent, in the world.”

Franklin studied Chinese science and technology and of course used the kite, a Chinese invention, to discover electricity. “The Chinese are an enlightened people,” Franklin wrote in 1789, they are “the most anciently civilized of any existing, and their arts are ancient, a presumption in their favour.” His view of the Chinese emperor was that he was a benevolent, moderate, and sage leader guided by moral philosophy. America, he once argued, would be better modeling itself less on Europe and more on China, “the wisest of Nations.” In 1786, he helped gather funds to support stranded Chinese sailors in America. Franklin even thought that the English language would evolve in the future to be more like Chinese script, with written words becoming symbols of things, not an indication of sounds! Franklin was the first, but not the last, of America’s Sinophiles. The early American elites’ veneration of Confucius, like Franklin’s, is permanently embodied in the building housing the U.S. Supreme Court, where an image of Confucius appears next to Moses in its eastern facade.

Thomas Paine, the great pamphleteer of the American Revolution, also greatly admired the Chinese and, unlike others interested purely in an economic relationship, praised their cultural superiority over the West and criticized the negative effect of trade on their country. The Chinese, he wrote, were a “people of mild manners and of good morals, except where they have been corrupted by European commerce.” He positively compared Jesus and Confucius as great moral teachers. As a young man, Thomas Jefferson took an active interest in Chinese literature and drama, recommending several translated Chinese works to his brother-in-law in 1771. He believed they favorably compared to Western classical work that encouraged virtue. China’s deliberate distancing from Europeans so intrigued Thomas Jefferson that he even suggested that America would be wise to emulate the Chinese court’s policy of limited contact with foreigners. China’s difference from the West appealed to Americans seeking to break from familiar European models of social organization. Old China could offer something new to Americans. Writing in October 1785 when he was in Paris as the American ambassador to France, Jefferson advanced the idea that Americans should “practice neither commerce or navigation, but to stand with Europe precisely on the footing of China.” Jefferson’s vision of a relatively autarkic continental republic based on the independent farmer seemed to find precedence in China’s imperial experience based on domestic agriculture. He, with Franklin and Paine, also continued to have a keen interest in the commercial possibilities of the lucrative China trade after the Revolution.

Another avid early student of China was Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College from 1778 to 1795 and one of the country’s leading intellectuals, clergy, and political figures. Stiles perhaps exceeded all other Americans in the extent of study of China, a country he described in a 1783 sermon as “the wisest empire the sun hath ever shined upon.” On another occasion, he called China “the greatest, the richest & most populous Kingdom now known in the World.” Clearly a Sinophile, Stiles carefully studied China’s agricultural production, Confucianism and other philosophies, silk production, geography, politics, history, and social customs to see what might benefit America. In his eyes, Chinese civilization embodied a benevolent humanism. His papers at Yale University’s archives contain hundreds of pages of his China research.

Not all Americans, however, had such a positive view of China and the Chinese. Some rejected “Chinomania,” the term one jaundiced observer coined to describe the eighteenth-century idealized rage about things Chinese. Others expressed contempt for the Chinese, especially for their non-Christian beliefs, strange customs, and physical difference. Critical attitudes toward the Chinese would steadily grow in the nineteenth century, but in the early republic, Americans generally held China in high regard. Even China’s Grand Canal, which was constructed in the sixth century, helped inspire the imagination of New Yorkers about their own “grand canal,” as it was originally called (when it opened in 1825 it was better known as the Erie Canal). In 1834, the leaders of Canton, Georgia, hoped their town would become the center of an American silk industry. Americans in Maryland, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, South Dakota, and a dozen other states honored China by naming their towns and city districts Canton or Pekin, as Peking was often known at the time. A good name would help bring an auspicious future.

Though most educated Americans knew China about as well as their counterparts in Europe, their knowledge was still rudimentary and often insubstantial. A most telling example of this is George Washington’s confusion about the “racial” character of the Chinese. For years, Washington had taken an active interest in the China trade, and he and his wife Martha collected luxury goods from Asia for their homes. They owned hundreds of pieces of Chinaware. In the fall of 1785, Washington received a letter from a merchant friend telling him of the return of an American trading ship that had followed the Empress of China and was full of Chinaware. Washington’s correspondent described the crew as being all “natives of India” and “of the countenance and complexion of your old groom” — most certainly one of Washington’s African slaves — and “four Chinese” “who are exactly the Indians of North America, in color, texture of hair, and every external mark.” Washington wrote back to his merchant friend to order goods and thanked him for the description of the crew. “Before your letter was received,” George Washington wrote, “from my reading, or rather from an imperfect recollection of what I had read, I had conceived an idea that the Chinese, tho’ droll in shape and appearance, were yet white.” The American construction of a defined Oriental or Asian “racial” type would develop later in the nineteenth century as American contact with Chinese increased, including on American soil.

In the early nineteenth century, American traders returning from China wrote extensive reports on their experiences and observations. The reports and tales whetted the appetites of Americans for more information and contact with China. No longer did Americans have to rely on British and translated European accounts for information about China. These early American accounts remain fascinating even for twenty-first-century readers, for they are filled with colorful anecdotes and candid personal reflections. Seeking to dispel early and unconfirmed tales of the exotic, these first-person efforts offered what their authors hoped were dispassionate, unbiased, and intelligent descriptions of a land far removed from the daily experiences of all but a small handful of Americans in the early nineteenth century.

Amasa Delano’s Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, published in 1817, addressed an audience eager to learn of life on the high seas and in foreign lands. Delano was one of the most widely traveled Americans in the early republic, and his 600-page book offered an extended travelogue documenting his rich experiences in the Pacific, South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. He was born in 1763 in Massachusetts, fought in the Revolution, and at an early age went to sea, where he stayed most of his life. His engagingly written Narrative tells of his many travels as a ship captain around the globe and of life in distant lands, especially in the China trade. He was one of the first Americans to visit the country, and his repeated visits to China made him one of the earliest “China hands,” those Americans who came to know China well. Today, his Narrative is more well known as the source for Herman Melville’s famous novella Benito Cereno, one of the classic American stories of deception, slavery, and cruelty. Melville based his story on an actual incident Delano experienced off the coast of Chile during his return trip from China.

The China Amasa Delano describes is grand and exotic and commands immense respect. It is the most populous country in the world, he wrote, and has a long history of generosity toward foreigners, including Europeans, until their wanton misbehavior forced the court to restrict them to a quarter in Guangzhou. In “modern times,” Delano informed his readers, China is the “foremost in the arts and sciences and in agriculture. It is one of the best regulated governments in the world. The laws are just and maintained with such strict impartiality, that the guilty seldom escape punishment, or the injured fail to obtain prompt justice.” Meritorious individuals are commonly rewarded “very liberally” by the emperor. All in all, Delano was generous in his praise of China, a country that he clearly believed was essential for America’s future. China, he told his readers, “is one of the most fertile and beautiful countries on the globe.” Its fruits, vegetables, and made goods were abundant. China “is the first for greatness, riches, and grandeur, of any country ever known.” He could not know that his words would be read by his famous twentieth-century relative, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who would have his own long engagement with China.

In 1844, Robert Bennet Forbes, who had first sailed to China in 1817 when he was just 13 years old and later headed Russell & Company, the largest American trading firm in China, published the earliest study of American interaction with China. Forbes recounted activities between the two countries from 1784 until the Opium War of 1840, focusing almost exclusively on commercial activities. His Remarks on China and the China Trade carefully recounted the nature of the trade, the commodities involved, and the intricacies of the Canton system under which the American merchants operated. He argued that the British government clearly and openly encouraged its merchants to engage in opium smuggling, an activity London knew full well was an illicit activity in China. Forbes, as did many Americans, sympathized with the Chinese side in the dispute with the British, even though he himself was also involved in the opium trade. Although much about the imperial control of trade irked him, including the machinations of local officials, he had kind words for the Chinese merchants with whom he worked, especially the famous head of the merchant consortium, Houqua. Forbes described Houqua as hard-working, upright, and a “warm friend to the Americans” and as a man with “a most comprehensive mind… [who] united the qualities of an enterprising merchant and a sagacious politician.” Other leading American merchants developed similar affection for the man; the leading American trading firm, Low and Company, even named one of its commissioned ships the Houqua to honor him. In the ensuing years, many other Americans who went to China developed similar close and respectful ties with other individual Chinese, so much so that a notion developed that Americans and Chinese had a special affinity for one another.

Certainly not all Americans wrote so admiringly of China and Chinese as did Delano and Forbes. Samuel Shaw, on board the Empress of China in its maiden voyage and on several subsequent trips, was much less taken with the country, though his views were not made public generally until fifty years after his death in 1794. By the late 1840s, his unfavorable views of China were commonplace and they found a hearing audience. Shaw had found the confinement imposed on the foreign traders and the petty corruption of Chinese officials distasteful and he also thought that the government, despite the praise it received from others, was arbitrary and oppressive, perhaps the most “oppressive” in any “civilized nation upon earth.” The common people, he found, were full of idolatry and superstition. And yet much in China attracted Shaw, especially its commercial opportunities, which brought him back repeatedly to the country as a trader and as the first official of the United States in China. A young Ralph Waldo Emerson once called China a “booby nation,” “reverend dullness! Hoary idiot!, all she can say at the convocation of nations must be — ‘I made the tea.’ ” (Later in life, though, he had a complete change of opinion and came to regard Chinese philology and classical philosophy highly.) Still, the initial respect for China that was widely expressed by many of the early American China traders formed a reservoir of positive feelings that long endured in American life and legend.

Gordon H. Chang is Oliver H. Palmer Professor in Humanities and Professor of History at Stanford University.