The Opium War: Britain and the Birth of Modern China, 1839-1842 (HIH1406)

StaffDr Hao Gao -
Credit Value15
ECTS Value7.5
NQF Level4
Duration of Module Term 2: 11 weeks;

Module aims

The aim of the module is to introduce students to this crucial moment in China’s past by looking at the causes, course, and consequences of the conflict through both British and Chinese sources. In doing so, the course will assess the nature of China’s encounter with the West and consider the impact of the conflict on modern China. Students will compare and contrast conflicting responses to particular events and issues, such as debates over the rights and wrongs of opium trading, and the diplomatic assumptions and practices of the two powers. They will do so through the close reading of primary sources (all in translation) and secondary literature.

ILO: Module-specific skills

  • 1. Assess the nature of China¬ís encounter with the West and its impact on modern China.
  • 2. Work critically with a range of sources related to the Opium War.

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

  • 3. Identify the problems of using historical sources, e.g. bias, reliability, etc., and to compare the validity of different.

ILO: Personal and key skills

  • 4. Demonstrate the ability to answer a question briefly and concisely.
  • 5. Present work and respond to question orally, and think quickly of questions to ask other students.
  • 6. Conduct independent study and group work, including the presentation of material for group discussion, developed through the mode of learning.
  • 7. Digest, select and organise material to produce to a deadline a coherent and cogent argument, developed through the mode of assessment.
  • 8. Work with others in a team and to interact effectively with tutor and the wider group.
  • 9. Write to a very tight word-length.

Syllabus plan

The module will benefit from the wide range of sources available on the Opium War. From the British side, students will explore travel writing on China, parliamentary debates, newspaper articles, missionary correspondence, and images. From the Chinese side, they will critically evaluate imperial edicts, memoirs and reports. One session will consider the Treaty of Nanjing alongside subsequent diplomatic agreements, while a final class will look at the social memory of the conflict in contemporary China. All sources are in English, though the class will consider translation as a historical and historiographical challenge

1. Introduction


2. British perceptions before the war

3. Chinese world view


4. China: Debates over suppression and legalisation

5. Britain: Intervention or non-interference


6. British views

7. Chinese views


8. The ‘unequal treaties’

9. Modernisation and self-strengthening

10. The ‘Yellow Peril’

11. The Opium War in Chinese memory

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching activities22 hour lecture: Introduction to module
Scheduled learning and teaching activities2010 x 2 Seminars. At a meeting of the whole class generally a different group of 3-4 students will give a presentation to the whole class, followed by class discussion and working through the sources for that week carefully. Additional sources may be issued in the class and the lecturer will also use the time to set up issues for the following week.
Guided Independent Study128Students prepare for the session through reading and research; writing five source commentaries and an essay and preparing one group presentation in the course of the term.

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Group presentation (3-4 students)10-15 minutes1-4, 6-7, 9Oral
Lowest mark from portfolio of 5 source commentaries500 words1-4, 6-7, 9Mark and written comments

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
4 highest marks from portfolio of 5 source commentaries602000 words (500 per commentary)1-5, 7-8, 10Marks and written comments
Essay on Sources401500 words1-5, 7-8, 10Mark and written comments

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
4 highest marks from portfolio of 5 source commentaries4 highest marks from portfolio of 5 source commentaries1-5, 7-8, 10Referral/deferral period
1500 word essay1500 word essay1-5, 7-8, 10Referral/deferral period

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Baumler, lan. Modern China and Opium: A Reader (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2001).

Brook, Timothy and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi (eds.). Opium Regimes: China, Britain and Japan, 1839-1952 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

Fairbank, John K. Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842-54 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974).

Fay, Peter Ward. The Opium War, 1840-42 (Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

Lovell, Julia. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China (London: Picador, 2012).

Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China (London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001).

Wakeman, Frederic. Strangers at the Gate: Social Disorder in South China, 1839-1861 (Berkeley: California University Press, 1966).

Waley, Arthur. The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1979).

Yangwen, Zheng. The Social Life of Opium in China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

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Key words search

Opium war, Britain, China