How are the Opium Wars significant to history?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The Opium Wars are significant to history in general because of their significance for Chinese history.

In the Opium Wars, the British (and, in the second war, the French) forced China to make concessions to them.  In the First Opium War, Britain gained Hong Kong as a territory and was given the right to trade in more Chinese cities than had previously been the case. In addition, the treaty that ended this war began the system in which foreign powers had the power of extraterritoriality in China. In the Second Opium War, even more cities were opened to European trade and Europeans were given more access to the interior of China. 

These wars were important in the short run because they helped to expose the weakness of the Chinese government and to weaken it further still.  This helped to eventually bring down the Chinese government and throw China into civil war.  This civil war, which was interrupted by a long war against Japan, ended up bringing the communists to power in China.

The Opium Wars remain significant today because of their effect on China’s attitudes towards foreign powers.  China remembers the ways in which it was humiliated in these wars and it distrusts foreign powers in part because it remembers how it was treated in the past.  Therefore, these wars have helped to make relations between China and the West more tense than they might otherwise be.

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