John M. Carroll
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Sorting out China
British accounts from pre-Opium War Canton
in The cultural construction of the British world
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The Canton System, which regulated China's trade with the West from the mid-1700s until the Opium War (1839-1842), has often been held up as an example of everything that was wrong with Qing China and its relations with the outside world, and of the fundamental incompatibility of "East" and "West". This view has recently been challenged by several studies which have shown that the Canton System worked remarkably well until the abolition of the East India Company's monopolies in the early 1800s, and that the Canton System was not necessarily a cultural clash waiting to erupt.

This chapter, based on accounts by Britons who visited or resided in pre-war Canton, argues that China was a site of encounter and affinity as much as one of conflict and difference. Though exposure to Chinese people and customs often reinforced British attitudes of superiority, many Britons in Canton also found much that was familiar. That which seemed unusual or strange could often be explained by way of comparison and contrast – either with the British historical past or with other societies and cultures. For many Britons travellers and residents in Canton, their time in China enabled them to try to understand China and to consider the nature of Britishness in a world in which ideas about trade, politics, and diplomacy were being questioned and challenged.

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