The China Trade

American merchants participated in a lucrative but risky trade with China. They traveled the world looking for things the Chinese would buy. They then purchased Chinese goods for the American market. Trade made Americans resourceful and created wealth for almost everyone, including the Chinese merchant Howqua, who became one of the richest men in the world.

Portrait of Howqua, about 1840

Portrait of Howqua, about 1840

Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of Rebecca B. Chase, Ann B. Mathias, Charles E. Bradford, 1990

Chinese Imports

Dragon’s blood (a red plant resin) and rhubarb root, found abundantly in China, had a ready market here. Dragon’s blood was used in varnish; rhubarb in medicines. Card cases and fans, made inexpensively in China, gratified Americans’ desire for attractive goods at low prices.

Hong bowl, 1785–1795

This porcelain punch bowl was intended for a merchant in the China trade. The image depicts the hongs (trading houses) in Canton where foreigners lived and worked.

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Tea chest, late 1700s

Tea chest, late 1700s

George Washington owned this Chinese-made tea chest. Merchants imported many grades of tea at different prices, enabling nearly all Americans to enjoy tea.

Dragon’s blood, about 1880

Dragon’s blood, about 1880

Rhubarb root, about 1880

Rhubarb root, about 1880

Fan, mid-1800s

Fan, mid-1800s

American Exports

The Chinese needed little from foreign merchants, so Americans struggled to locate objects to exchange for the goods they wanted. American ginseng root appealed to the Chinese for medicinal purposes. Mostly they sought Spanish silver dollars, an international currency. Look closely to see the Chinese merchants’ marks.

Ginseng, about 1880

Ginseng, about 1880

Spanish silver dollar, 1805

Spanish silver dollar, 1805

Spanish silver dollar, 1821

Spanish silver half dollar, 1788