Continued from The China Trade: Foreign Devils and Pidgin English – Part 2

K’ang-hsi was after the maximum profit and the minimum trouble from the “foreign devils” and made it imperial policy to control all dealings with them. Considering the imperial objectives, it’s hard to imagine a more logical system than the one established. The emperor appointed an official to remit to his treasury a sum computed upon the tonnage of foreign ships entering port. Under the Chinese system whereby the employee pays the employer, this official, called the hoppo, received no salary but rather paid for his appointment; his gain came chiefly from the merchants whom he in turn appointed to carry on the trade. The English and other Europeans at Canton were to be governed by the “eight Regulations.” Among other provisos, they were only allowed to stay there from August through March–the sailing season–and could not have wives or other women with them. The rest of the year they spent–with wives–at Macao. They could not mix with the native Chinese, but had to conduct all business through the appointed merchants who were, in turn, responsible for their conduct. Not that the Chinese merchants could exercise any direct authority over the Europeans, but they could be much more safely punished than their foreign customers and, besides, knowing an innocent man would suffer for their offenses seemed for some reason to keep the “foreign devils” in order.

The only-in-Canton policy K’ang-hsi established in 1687, Ch’ien Lung tightened in 1757 by establishing the hoppo as China, Inc. and attempting to control all commercial contact with Europe with a sort of East India monopoly in reverse. Miraculously, the system worked. More miraculous still, everybody involved made money. The Emperor Ch’ien Lung restricted all trade by sea to Canton under his hoppo system in 1757.

The Chinese merchants, or so-called co-hong members, forged links of friendship with the Europeans and depended on charm and tact to keep their often unruly charges from getting them into trouble. The hoppo relied on inaccessibility to get his way, i.e., money. This was more a matter of exactions, than trading duties. On arrival, a ship was expected to dispense presents of large sums of money all around, then pay a tax gauged by her length and beam, another of up to 15 percent of the cargo’s value, and finally contribute to a sort of insurance fund to guard against the embarrassing possibility of a hong member’s going bankrupt and being unable to meet his commitments. These were just the basic charges before trade could begin; if the ship required anything unusual or anything at all in a hurry, further grease was necessary. An insufficiently lubricated hoppo would often put off measuring a ship indefinitely, as if there were all the time in the world, knowing the captain had to conclude his trading and get away with the New Year’s monsoon or waste a season.

To be concluded in The China Trade: Foreign Devils and Pidgin English – Part 4