Probably, the most famous trading route in the whole of our existence is the silk route, which separates China from Europe and is one of the most inhospitable environments in the world. Most of its part is covered in desert – The Taklimakan desert, and there is hardly any rainfall, with dust storms being common, making it one of the most difficult terrains to tread. The other regions of this area include the Gobi Desert and the Tibetan Plateau. But this region has seen a lot when it comes to trade. Afghanistan, India , Pakistan and even Greece lies on this route and Chinese traders, particularly during the Han dynasty, treaded this unpopular path and traded heavily.
The region of the Hindukush Mountains, also known as the 'crossroads' region, adopted the Greek system of trading and coin system, learning the art of sculpting and designing from the passing travelers. Travelers from China would trade Silk with materials like dry fruits and gold and ivory and even plants and animals. Frequent traveling by many traders along this path also helped in the exchange of technical know-how and art forms of various cultures. The number system of the Arabians was spread wide into the reaches of this route, for example. This route had also opened China to the rest of the world, and vice versa, and is one of the major reasons for the rise, and later downfall of China as a superpower during the Han period.
By the 18th century AD, the Chinese had started to realize and fear that the ship route to the South needs to be limited and they feared that the foreigners might corrupt the Chinese traders, like they had done at places like India and other South East Asian countries, and might even consequently try to capture China. Therefore, the flow of foreigners and their ships was regulated and Canton was the only port that was opened to foreign traders. The ships had to stop at Macao, and they were checked there, later they were taken over by a Chinese captain, who had the written permission if the Officials, which allowed the ship to enter Chinese waters. Then the ship was thoroughly checked and allowed to enter Canton. All ships could go no further than Whampoa, an island 13 miles from Canton. Women, guns and arms of any sorts were not allowed to enter Canton and the sailors had to remain with the ships. If women did accompany their husband on a voyage to China, they were required to be left at Macao. Such strictness was applied in those times when it came to trading with foreigners. Canton was also home to many factories, which were named after the countries that had initially established them. These factories also included space to dump and accommodation for the captain.
The influence of bureaucracy was quite visible when it came to trading. The Chinese system of Hong trading demanded 13 Hong traders, who were like buffers between the foreign traders and the government, to take care of all the trading policies and to make sure that the foreign traders were keeping within their limits of quality and behavior while trading. The most famous and recalled Hong merchant of all time is Hoqua, who was one of the richest men of his time, owing to his loyalty and honesty.
During the time when America was a British colony, trade was totally forbidden between America and China, and after the first war of Independence, the first American ship , called the Empress Of China sailed into Chinese waters in 1784. The foreigners were mesmerized by the Chinese women, peculiar in looks, and the mysterious and enigmatic music flowing through the windows of the houses lined up along the Pearl River. They were also stunned to see such a large number of small boats carrying about trading in the waters of the Pearl River.
Initially, every ship had its own Supercargo, or a manager of sorts, who was responsible for the sale of cargoes and purchases of new goods, later on, this system, was replaced by that of in-house agents. Agents were young when they started, and usually turned up rich by the time they were 20 odd, and retired in America by that time. Some of the firms working at that time have made remarkable fortunes, alive even today for firms like Russell and Co. from the Forbes family, Perkins and company and Heard and company.
During the 19th century, Chinese tea and silk was a growing market in the West, but China, which was still in a pre industrial era, required less of what the west had to offer. The traders from the West feared that this would create a trade imbalance and decided to market finished goods of cotton and opium, imported from India into China. Opium was a banned material, yet because of the demand, its trade flourished, and this led to the Opium wars in 1839-1842. This was one of the darkest scars on China- west trade. This was the first Anglo- British war and the British won it, and later many treaties were signed which favored the British traders unequally, and were thus known as the ‘unequal treaties’ or the treaties of Nanjing, these asked China to Cede Hong Kong, to open five new ports to the British traders and to lower the trade duty when dealing with the British traders.
Today, the Chinese foreign policy has been relaxed to a great extent in matters of trade with other countries, and this trend is changing with the tick of the clock. As opposed to early periods of suspicion and skeptical views of foreign trade, China is going global, thinking global and acting global.