Skip to main content

Opening China

July 2024
14min read

Once again, Americans are learning the delicate art of trading with the biggest market on earth. Here’s how they did it the first time.

As American merchant ships call again at the China coast, they are following in the ghostly wake of a sailing ship of 360 tons burden which arrived at Whampoa Reach, the anchorage for Canton, on August 28, 1784—188 days out of New York. She proudly fired a “federal salute” of thirteen guns and was saluted in return by the other foreign vessels already anchored there. As Captain John Green recorded, his ship “had the honor of hoisting the first Continental Flagg Ever Seen or maid Euse of in those Seas.” Thus began United States trade with China—a trade that would have an impact far beyond the exchange of goods.

The dispatch of the ship to Canton was no casual undertaking. The enterprise was backed by Robert Morris, the great financier of the American Revolution. In November, 1783, he had written to John Jay, minister for foreign affairs, “I am sending some ships to China to encourage others in the adventurous pursuit of commerce.” (However, Morris and his partners in this profit-seeking venture may not have agreed fully with the comment of New York’s Independent Gazette that “a contemplation on the services they are rendering their country must sufficiently compensate for the risque of their property.”) A converted wartime privateer was appropriately named the Empress of China, and Captain Green was released from the Continental Navy for the express purpose of taking command of her. (Weighing some three hundred pounds, the imposing Green prudently specified in his will that his coffin should be “carried to the grave by eight laboring men of the neighborhood.”) As supercargo, responsible for business affairs during the voyage, the owners selected Samuel Shaw, a young man of twenty-nine whose performance as a major in the Revolutionary War had prompted General Washington to provide a testimonial stating that ”… he has greatly distinguished himself in every thing which could entitle him to the character of an intelligent, active and brave officer.” A sea letter was obtained for Captain Green from Congress, signed by the president and secretary of Congress. (There would not be a President of the United States for another five years.) Disdaining such mundane phrases as “To whom it may concern,” but uncertain as to who might be encountered, Congress addressed the letter to the “most Serene, most Puissant, High, Illustrious, Noble, Honorable, Venerable, Wise and Prudent, Emperors, Kings, Republicks, Princes, Dukes, Earls, Barons, Lords, Burgomasters, Councillors, as also Judges, Officers, Justiciaries, and Regents of all the good cities and places, whether ecclesiastical or secular, who shall see these patents or hear them read.” Shaw took with him “copies of the treaties between America and the European powers in amity of her. ” As a precaution against pirate attacks in Eastern waters, the guns that the vessel had carried as a privateer were left in place. The owners chose February 22, Washington’s birthday, for the sailing date. Captain Green recorded that upon the vessel’s departure, “Great Number of Inhabetants Salluted us by giveing three Chears which we Returned. ” As she sailed out of New York Harbor, the Empress of China fired a thirteen-gun salute, which shore batteries returned with twelve guns.

The voyage began only six months after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, in which Great Britain acknowledged American independence, and only three months after the last British troops had evacuated New York. The new nation gloried in its freedom, but it faced critical political and economic problems. The Treasury was empty, and the Continental Congress had no authority to levy taxes. Inflation was rampant in many states. Industry and trade had been severely damaged by the war. The country no longer enjoyed a favored trading position within the British Empire, and England prohibited American ships from re-entering the lucrative West Indies trade. New England’s shipbuilding and whaling industries had been shattered. Each state, jealous of its prerogatives and looking out for itself, began establishing its own customs duties, sometimes granting more favorable treatment to foreign goods than to those of other states. It was an imperfect union, still five years away from adopting the federal Constitution.

One logical step toward economic revival was Robert Morris’ “adventurous pursuit of commerce.” China trade was not only “adventurous” but also uniquely appropriate. London had prohibited colonial Americans from participating in that trade, which involved the very tea that had so memorably raised American tempers on the eve of the war.

But while trade with China seemed attractive, finding goods that could be traded in Canton for tea, silks, and porcelains was not easy. A proudly self-sufficient nation, China had no desire for the usual items of Western trade. The initial solution to this problem was ginseng, an aromatic root that the Chinese believed to have miraculous medicinal powers, including the restoration of youthful virility. So highly prized that it was an imperial monopoly in times of scarcity, the root was carefully dried, then wrapped in silk and stored inside a series of metal-lined boxes, with packages of quick-lime between the boxes to absorb moisture. Anyone examining a piece was asked not to breathe on it, for fear of contaminating the precious herb.

Although ginseng grown in China and Korea was considered the best, a variety found in America and Canada was acceptable, and some already had been exported to China by English merchants. It was collected in the forests by Indians, who traded it for whisky and trinkets.

In addition to ginseng, the Empress of China carried furs, camlets (woolen garments), cotton, pepper, and lead. First stop out of New York was at the Cape Verde Islands, for supplies and caulking. Samuel Shaw found little to divert him there: according to his journal, the wife of one Portuguese official “did not excite in any of us an idea that would militate with the tenth commandment,” while the viceroy lived in a house that was “in point of elegance nearly equal to a good barn.” Leaving the islands, the Americans headed southward to round the Cape of Good Hope, then northeast across the Indian Ocean. Almost five months after leaving New York, they sighted Java Head, which was to become a landmark in the China trade. As they dropped anchor in the Sunda Straits, natives in canoes offered for sale fish, fowl, turtles, fruit, and coconuts. Perhaps even more welcome was the invitation by a French captain experienced in the China trade to accompany his ship to the China coast. Captain Green accepted the offer with alacrity, for the Sunda Straits and a stretch off Borneo were dangerous waters, where the threat of Malay or Chinese pirates was added to natural perils. A Boston shipmaster a few years later wrote of them, ” ‘Tis surprising to see the joy depicted on everyone’s countenance at getting clear of these horrid straits.”


A month’s sailing took the ships to Macao, a small island on the south China coast. Visited by Vasco da Gama on his famous voyage in 1497, Macao had been under Portuguese control since 1557. Shaw quoted the British Admiral George Anson that Macao “subsists merely by the sufferance of the Chinese, who can starve the place and dispossess the Portuguese whenever they please.” (That sufferance has now lasted for over four centuries; although Peking claims that Macao is Chinese territory, the government has declined politely Portugal’s offer to return control of the island to China.)

At Macao, the Empress of China obtained a Chinese permit, or “chop,” to proceed up the Pearl River, and took on a Chinese pilot. After a day’s sail, the vessel arrived at Whampoa Reach, where it joined forty-five European merchant ships anchored in a sweeping arc. Officers of the various nationalities promptly and formally called on the first citizens of the United States to reach China. Shaw wrote that with the British “it was impossible to avoid speaking of the late war. They allowed it to have been a great mistake on the part of their nation,—were happy it was over, glad to see us in this part of the world,—hoped all prejudice would be laid aside,—and added, that, let England and America be united, they might bid defiance to all the world. ” British merchants, it would turn out later, were less enthusiastic about these new competitors.

It was at Whampoa that the Americans were introduced to some of the peculiarities of dealing with China—peculiarities that nevertheless resulted in a trading system that, wrote Shaw, “appears to be as little embarrassed, and is, perhaps, as simple as any in the known world.”

It had been established in 1720 by K’ang-hsi, one of the greatest of the Manchu emperors, and both its peculiarities and simplicities stemmed from two related facts. China had no strong interest in trade with the outside world, and all foreigners were officially regarded as “barbarians.” One typically scornful imperial edict stated, “As the dispositions of these said foreigners are depraved by the education and customs of countries beyond the bounds of civilization, they are incapable of following right reason; their characters are formed, their perverse obstinacy is untameable; they are dead to the influence of our renovating laws and manners.” Emperor Ch’ien Lung disdainfully informed King George III that the Celestial Empire had “no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians.… But as the tea, silk and porcelain which the Celestial Empire produces are absolute necessities to the European nations and to yourselves, we have permitted, as a signal mark of favor, that foreign hongs should be established at Canton, so that your wants might be supplied and your country thus participate in our beneficence.”

At Whampoa, the Americans began their accommodation to the Chinese trading system. The chief customs officer, called the “hoppo” by foreigners, came aboard to measure the ship and determine the considerable charges that would be levied on the vessel and its cargo. It was an established custom that at this point the ship’s captain would display some gifts, such as clocks or perfume (“smellum water” in pidgin English), and those chosen by the hoppo would shortly be sent to him. To maintain pretense, the hoppo would then ask the price, and Shaw wrote that the Chinese merchant handling the ship’s affairs, “who understands matters perfectly, tells him about one twentieth part, or less, of their value. ” Innocent of such niceties, the Americans had brought no gifts. Although the hoppo accepted the explanation that they were not familiar with the custom, he “did not forget to enjoin it upon us to bring some when we should come again.” Despite this breach of etiquette, the “grand mandarin” sent on board as a present to the ship “two bulls, eight bags of flour and seven jars of country wine.”

Also at Whampoa the Americans took on a comprador, who would be responsible for provisioning the ship, and a “linguist.” The latter term was a gross overstatement, but the linguists were able, with considerable effort on everyone’s part, to interpret through pidgin English.

Foreign ships were forbidden to sail upriver from Whampoa, so Shaw and Captain Green took a Chinese “fast boat” to Canton, twelve miles away. All the newcomers were fascinated by the river traffic. Another American later described the scene: “Myriads of boats moored in long, regular streets … salt junks discharging their cargoes … immense rafts of timber and bamboos floating down with the tide, managed by a few miserable little wretches.… Revenue cruizers rowing in every direction, painted with the brightest colours.… Thousands of small ferry boats.… Immense junks of four or five hundred tons, gorgeously embellished with the fascinations of dragons, paint, gold-leaf and ginger-bread-work, with a huge eye painted on either side of the bow, to enable the vessel to see her way… the night… is disturbed by the … discordant music from the flower boats, in which the women of the town reside,” as he discreetly phrased it.


Passing the Chinese forts known as Dutch Folly and French Folly, the Americans reached Jackass Point, from where they could see the strip of shore on which foreigners lived and worked. The foreign factories—from “factor,” as an agent was called—were two- or three-story buildings in a long line set back about one hundred yards from the river. Godowns (warehouses) occupied the first floors; living quarters, often elegantly furnished, were on the second and third. The square in front of the factories was enclosed by an iron fence and reserved for foreigners. The streets immediately adjoining—Thirteen Factory Street, Old China Street, and Hog Lane—contained retail stores selling a wide variety of native goods. Sailors were particularly attracted to Hog Lane, which offered a potent wine called samshu.

Although occupied by foreigners, the factories were built by members of a remarkable institution called the cohong, a group of Chinese merchants who were the only ones authorized to trade with foreigners. Usually numbering about a dozen, these hong merchants had many functions: they purchased the goods brought in on foreign ships, sold the tea and other Chinese products, acted as a guarantor for a ship and its crew, provided servants to the foreigners living in the factories, and shared responsibility for any debts of fellow members of the cohong. Since Chinese mandarins would seldom deal officially with “foreign devils,” hong merchants had to act as buffers and middlemen between the foreigners and Chinese officials. These merchants paid enormous sums for the right to trade with foreigners, and they were also subject to official levies and unofficial “squeeze,” which they would pass on to foreigners by adjusting the prices of the goods they bought and sold. A few went bankrupt and were exiled in disgrace to some inhospitable border area; others made great fortunes. In later years, the most famous hong merchant—his likeness was in Madame Tussaud’s wax museum and a clipper ship was named after him—was Wu Ping-chien, commonly known as Houqua. A man of great ability and integrity, he was reported to be worth $26,000,000 in the early 1830’s, perhaps the largest mercantile fortune in the world. Shaw said that although the “small dealers”—the shopkeepers in the nearby streets—”are rogues, and require to be narrowly watched, it must at the same time be admitted that the merchants of the co-hong are as respectable a set of men as are commonly found in other parts of the world.”


“It was some time,” wrote Shaw, “before the Chinese could fully comprehend the distinction between Englishmen and us. They styled us the New People.” (Later, Americans were sometimes called “flowery-flag devils,” a variation on the standard term “foreign devils.”) Keenly aware of his responsibility as an unofficial representative of a new nation, he obtained French assistance to ensure that the Chinese understood that “we are Americans, a free, independent and sovereign nation, not connected with Great Britain, not owing allegiance to her, or any other power on earth, but to the authority of the United States.”

Throughout the Americans’ stay, the French continued to be particularly helpful. This evidently piqued the English, for Shaw later wrote that the English “more than once observed, that it was a matter of astonishment to them that the descendants of Britons could so soon divest themselves of prejudices which they had thought to be not only hereditary, but inherent in our nature.”

While in Canton, the Americans were part of a small foreign community that led a tightly restricted life. Except for special occasions—a supervised visit to a public garden in the Canton suburbs, an occasional dinner at a hong merchant’s residence—they were confined to the factory area, unable to enter Canton proper. One of the eight regulations governing foreigners stated, “Neither women, guns, spears nor arms of any kind can be brought to the Factories.” Not everyone objected to the prohibition against foreign women. George Chinnery, an eccentric British artist, found refuge in Canton from an irascible wife—who he said was “the ugliest woman he ever saw”—and gratefully observed, “What a kind providence is this Chinese Government, that it forbids the softer sex from coming and bothering us here.”

To relieve the tedium, there was considerable formal entertaining back and forth between the factories, although Shaw found that the “Europeans at Canton do not associate together so freely as might be expected … observing a very ceremonious and reserved behavior.” Recording an early version of a bring-your-own-bottle party, Shaw said that when he accompanied the French to dinner at a hong merchant’s house, the French “supplied the table furniture, wine, and a large portion of the victuals,” as apparently was customary on such occasions. In a comment that would be echoed almost two centuries later by visitors to the People’s Republic of China, one American wrote that “we find scarcely any flies,” although “most vindictive mosquitoes” were plentiful. Foreigners were permitted to remain in Canton only during the trading season of about six months; then they had to leave, some taking up residence in Macao.

The Americans became indirectly involved in an ugly incident that was briefly known as the “Canton war.” A British ship, the Lady Hughes, fired a gun in salute to some visitors, inadvertently killing one Chinese and wounding two others in a nearby sampan. The Chinese demanded that the gunner be handed over to them; when the British refused, the Chinese seized the ship’s supercargo as a hostage. The Europeans—a term that in Canton included Americans—decided that each ship at Whampoa should send a boat, “with an armed force, for the protection of the persons and property of the respective nations,” whereupon the Chinese stationed some forty warships opposite the factories. Shaw thought that “these ships were not very formidable … I am certain that three European long-boats, properly equipped, might have forced their way through them, had they been five times as numerous.” However, only the Americans actually gave the British full support, and the episode “terminated disgracefully,” in Shaw’s view, when the British decided they had no choice but to surrender the gunner to his executioners.


Some Chinese apparently found the Americans more likeable than the British; Shaw recorded one of the hong merchants as saying: “When I speak Englishman his price, he say, ‘So much,—take it,—let alone.’ I tell him, ‘No, my friend, I give you so much.’ He look at me,—‘Go to hell, you damned rascal; what! you come here,—set price my goods?’ Truly, Massa Typan, I see very well you no hap Englishmen. All Chinamen very much love your country.” But Shaw added, “Thus far, it may be supposed, the fellow’s remarks pleased me. Justice obliges me to add his conclusion: ‘All men come first time China very good gentlemen, all same you. I think two three time more you come Canton, you make all same Englishman too.’ ”

Trading with one of the hong merchants, Shaw obtained a cargo for the return voyage. It set a pattern that would be followed by other Americans: 2,460 piculs (a picul was the Chinese hundredweight, equal to 133 1/3 pounds) of bohea (black) tea, 562 piculs of hyson (green) tea, 962 piculs of chinaware, 24 piculs of nankeens (cotton cloth), 490 pieces of silk, and 21 piculs of cassia, a cinnamonlike spice. Captain Green had also been commissioned by Robert Morris to purchase certain articles for his wife, including “a dressing Boxe and four Lacquered Fans” and “Bamboo silk Mounted Window Blinds. ” The captain’s purchases for his own account included “umbrellas,” lacquer ware, “six hundred Ladies Silk Mitts,” “six pr. sattin shoes Ladies,” and 113 pairs of “Sattin Breeches at 1 1/2 Dollars p’ pair.” Shaw ordered a set of dinnerware decorated with the emblem of the Order of the Cincinnati, a fraternal society of Revolutionaty Army officers in which he was active. Later he sold the set to George Washington, and pieces of it are displayed at Mount Vernon. Although tea accounted for most of the imports from China, an advertisement for one ship’s cargo illustrates the great variety of goods Yankee traders would bring back: “Fresh Bohea tea of the first quality, in Chests, Half and Quarter Chests, China, a great Variety, Sattins, Lutestrings, Persians, Taffetas, of different Qualities, black and other Colours, for Gentlemen’s Summer Wear, Nankeens, Elegant Sattin Shoe-Patterns, Pearl Buttons with Gold Figures, Superfine Lambskins, Ivory and lacquered Ware, Tea-Caddies, A Large Assortment of lacquered Tea-Trays, Waiters, Bottle-stands, &c. &c., Silk Handkerchiefs, Hair Ribbons, Cinnamons and Cinnamon Buds, Black Pepper, 200 Boxes excellent Sugar, &c.” Individuals could place special orders with captains or supercargoes and housewives requested such items as “Two Canton Crape shawls of the enclosed colors at $5 per shawl” or a “Sett Mother Pearl Counters.”

After being entertained at “another public dinner and supper” by each nationality in the factories, the Americans left Whampoa on December 28, 1784. Encountering an American ship at the Cape of Good Hope, Shaw learned from a newspaper that his father had died. “How precarious is all earthly happiness!” he wrote in his journal.

The Empress of China reached New York on May 11, 1785, some fourteen months after its departure. New York’s Independent Journal called the voyage a “judicious, distinguished and very prosperous achievement.” The profit was not in fact remarkable, about 25 per cent on an initial investment of $120,000, but the voyage proved that trade with China was feasible. Shaw sent a report to John Jay “for the information of the fathers of the country,” in which he said, “To every lover of his country, as well as those more immediately concerned in its commerce, it must be a pleasing reflection, that a communication is thus happily opened between us and the eastern extremity of the globe.” Jay forwarded the report to Congress and later informed Shaw that the members of “Congress feel a peculiar satisfaction in the successful issue of this first effort of the citizens of America to establish a direct trade with China, which does so much honor to its undertakers and conductors.”

The “old China trade” had started. This romantic and important chapter in the history of the United States would last until the early 1840’s, when Great Britain defeated China in the Opium War and a treaty was concluded between the United States and China that established more normal political and commercial relations. But the trade that the Empress of China inaugurated had a lasting and significant effect. Americans acquired a fascination with China that survived the Communist take-over, as shown by the thousands of American tourists who have visited the People’s Republic of China since President Nixon’s trip to Peking in 1972. The search for furs to trade in Canton opened our minds to the importance of America’s West Coast: it strengthened the United States’ claim to the area later called the Oregon Territory, and it led to the first American contacts with California. Ships in the China trade called at the Sandwich Islands for water, fresh food, sandalwood, and relaxation, beginning a relationship with Hawaii that eventually resulted in annexation and statehood. New England’s “peddling keels” enlarged our knowledge of the world and the world’s knowledge of us. Their cargoes contributed to national economic revival and created the first American millionaires. Perhaps most important, meeting the challenges of the China trade helped to give a sense of achievement and confidence to the struggling young nation.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.