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

When America First Met China
When America First Met China

An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail

by Eric Jay Dolin

Hardcover, 394 pages | purchase

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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."

Eric Jay Dolin is also the author of Fur, Fortune, and Empire: the Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. i i

hide captionEric Jay Dolin is also the author of Fur, Fortune, and Empire: the Epic History of the Fur Trade in America.

Kimberly Drooks Photography/Courtesy Liveright
Eric Jay Dolin is also the author of Fur, Fortune, and Empire: the Epic History of the Fur Trade in America.

Eric Jay Dolin is also the author of Fur, Fortune, and Empire: the Epic History of the Fur Trade in America.

Kimberly Drooks Photography/Courtesy Liveright

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."

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