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From Tea To T-Shirts: The History Of U.S.-China Trade

Sep 30, 2012
Originally published on October 1, 2012 5:25 pm

You probably don't give much thought to the phrase "Made in China" when you see it written on the bottom of your coffee mug, or on the tag of your T-shirt, but Americans have traded with China for hundreds of years.

In his new book, When America First Met China, Eric Jay Dolin takes us back to the beginning of the long and complicated trade relationship between the two countries.

As Dolin tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, it all started with a three-masted sailing ship called the Empress of China. Built in Boston, it was the first American ship to leave the nascent United States after the Revolutionary War. It sailed for 18,000 miles to what was known then as Port of Canton in China.


Interview Highlights

On early tensions

"The Chinese had a long experience with Westerners, even though the Americans only got there after the American Revolution. Many Western European countries had been coming to China's shores since the late 1400s, and a number of those Europeans had shown a poor temperament and had behaved very rudely towards their Chinese trading partners, and the Chinese were also a little wary of foreigners. They called the foreigners fan qui, or foreign devils, and the goal of the emperor was to confine all of this trading activity to Canton, sort of constraining all of the foreign traders to this 12-acre spot of land on the edge of the Pearl River. They could keep an eye on the foreigners and could also keep the potentially negative influence of those foreigners away from the rest of the citizens of the country."

On initial American perceptions of the Chinese

"By and large, those who thought about China had probably a good regard for China. It was an illustrious empire, created a lot of the great inventions in the world, and it was viewed somewhat favorably before the American Revolution. But after the Americans started going to China, and especially these traders who brought back stories, and were confined to a small area in Canton, and only saw a little sliver of China, their opinion of China and the Chinese was very negative. They thought that a lot of the small traders were trying to cheat them at every turn, they saw a lot of poverty, they felt that the government was dictatorial and corrupt, they didn't like how they treated women. So there was a condescending attitude on the part of the Americans towards the Chinese."

On the first of many unequal treaties

"At the end of the first Opium War in 1842, the British, who had bested the Chinese on the battlefield, forced upon them what has been referred to by many as the first of many unequal treaties. And it was forced on them at the end of a gun. And among the terms, China has to cede Hong Kong to Britain, they had to open up four other ports besides Canton to foreign trading, and perhaps most insulting of all, the Chinese were forced to pay a $21 million indemnity in Spanish silver, which was to cover the costs — the British costs of the war — and also to pay for the opium — 20,000 chests of opium, which had been destroyed by the Chinese during the war. So after this treaty was signed, the Americans got their own treaty, which gave them much the same rights as the British had, and opened up increased trading opportunities."

On Taking Cues from the Past

"There are some parallels. We're still largely connected by trade and concerns about commercial issues. It's interesting to note that the deficit that we talk about a lot today was with us also in the beginning. But the relationship has also fundamentally changed. Back then it was just about imports and exports. Today there are a huge number of connections between America and China, and we're much more dependent upon each other than we ever were before. We also understand a lot more about each other. Today, because of international connections, understanding, cross-cultural exchanges, we know a lot more about China, and they know a lot more about us. But we're still profoundly separated, or divided, by a number key issues, and we still see the world, in many instances, in different ways."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Shortly after the end of the American Revolution, a ship sailed down the Hudson River and across the Atlantic en route to China. It was a three-masted ship called the Empress of China, and it marked the beginning of a trade relationship that is now the cornerstone of the global economy.

Eric Jay Dolan tells that story in his new book. It's called "When America First Met China." And as he explains, on that first journey, the emperor set sail for the port of Canton, modern-day Guangzhou, 18,000 miles away.

ERIC JAY DOLAN: On board was alcohol, 30 tons of ginseng, $20,000 in Spanish silver coins, a variety of furs, lead. And it was hoping to bring back the main items that Americans had grown accustomed to buying and consuming. So this is a potentially large market, and the Empress of China and its backers hoped to tap it. And when they came back from Canton in May of 1785, they had onboard a huge amount of tea, cotton fabric, silk, other items, and they earned the backers about $30,000, which is roughly a 25 percent return on their investment. And from there on out, the America-China trade started to explode.

RAZ: We were still at the, sort of the end of the 18th century into the 19th century, kind of bit part players, right? I mean, the great powers of Europe were still dominating trade with China. But we started to make inroads. And at the beginning, certainly when the United States gets involved, the only port open to American ships was the port of Canton, known as Guangzhou now. Why was that the only place where they could dock?

DOLAN: Well, the Chinese had long experience with Westerners. Even though the Americans only got there after the American Revolution, many Western European countries had been coming to China's shores since the late 1400s. And a number of those Europeans had shown a poor temperament and had behaved very rudely towards their Chinese trading partners. And the Chinese were also a little bit wary of foreigners. They called the foreigners fan quis, or foreign devils.

And the goal of the emperor was to confine all of this trading activity to Canton. Sort of constraining all the foreign traders to this 12-acre spot of land on the edge of the Pearl River, they could keep an eye on the foreigners and they can also keep the potentially negative influence of those foreigners away from the rest of the citizens of the country.

RAZ: In your research, Eric, what did you find out about what those American traders thought of the Chinese that they encountered? What did they say, what did they write about them?

DOLAN: By and large, those who thought about China had a - probably a good regard for China. It was an illustrious empire, created a lot of the great inventions in the world, and it was viewed somewhat favorably before the American Revolution. But after the Americans started going to China, and especially to these traders who brought back stories and were confined to a small area in Canton and only saw a little sliver of China, their opinion of China and the Chinese was very negative.

They thought that a lot of the small traders were trying to cheat them at every turn. They saw a lot of poverty. They felt that the government was dictatorial and corrupt. They didn't like how they treated women. So there was generally a condescending attitude on the part of the Americans towards Chinese.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Eric Jay Dolan. He's written a new book about America's relationship with China. It's called "When America First Met China." It's interesting because in modern-day China, a lot of the views and attitudes towards the West are informed by the opium wars. And the treaty impositions after those wars, the harsh terms that were laid down on China, this was primarily a British affair. But the United States also sort of got a piece of the pie at the end of these wars.

DOLAN: At the end of the First Opium War in 1842, the British, who had bested the Chinese on the battlefield, forced upon them what has been referred to by many as the first of many unequal treaties. And it was forcing them at the end of a gun. And among the terms, China had to cede Hong Kong to Britain, they had to open up four other ports besides Canton to foreign trading, and perhaps most insulting of all, the Chinese were forced to pay a $21 million indemnity in Spanish silver, which was to cover the cost - the British costs - of the war and also to pay for the opium - 20,000 chests of opium, which had been destroyed by the Chinese during the war.

So after this treaty was signed, the Americans got their own treaty, which gave them much the same rights as the British had and opened up increased trading opportunities.

RAZ: What happened after the end of the second opium war between the United States and China? Did the relationship change, and who did it benefit?

DOLAN: After the Second Opium War, the main change in the relationship was the way in which the trade was conducted. It was more expansive because a number of ports were opened. There was the opportunity to bring Chinese goods back to America faster because this was the time when there was the rise of steamship travel in the late 1860s, and also the Transcontinental Railroad gave another new pathway for the China trade to be prosecuted. But the trade didn't blow open like Americans had hoped. It stayed relatively small in terms of the whole United States economy.

RAZ: That, of course, very different from today. We're talking about one of our biggest trading partners. How does the past sort of clue us in to how this relationship works today?

DOLAN: Well, there are some parallels. We're still largely connected by trade and concerns about commercial issues. It's interesting to note the deficit, which we talk about a lot today, is something that was with us also in the beginning. But the relationship is also fundamentally changed. Back then, it was just about imports and exports. Today, there are huge number of connections between America and China, and we're much more dependent upon each other than we ever were before.

We also understand a lot more about each other. Today, because of international connections, understanding cross-cultural exchanges, we know a lot more about China, and they know a lot more about us. But we're still profoundly separated or divided by a number of key issues, and we still see the world, in many instances, in different ways.

RAZ: That's Eric Jay Dolan. His new book is called "When America First Met China," about the history of the trade relationship between the U.S. and China. Eric, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.