China’s old order, stagnant for some time, finally began to crumble by 1840. Opium was a major reason for Qing decay. After many unsuccessful attempts, Britain finally convinced China to open trade with them. Unfortunately, they didn’t have anything that China wanted. A massive trade deficit resulted, which the British addressed by successfully addicting the Chinese to opium, a narcotic which induces a vegetable-like state of tranquility in its users. Opium use became prevalent among soldiers and government officials, seriously undermining the effectiveness of the Qing Government (Schoppa, 51). This was shown in The Good Earth when Wang Lung entered the House of Hwang, only to find the mistress of the house addicted to opium, which likely contributed to the house’s demise (Buck, 16). Opium’s potential to ruin lives was displayed later when Wang used it to put an end to the ambitions of his uncle and aunt (Buck, 321).
Western nations, specifically Great Britain, only exacerbated China’s problems. When China tried to restrict opium imports, the British embarrassed China in a series of battles and skirmishes known as the Opium War (Schoppa, 54). The overwhelming technological advantage of the British underscored how far behind the arrogant isolationism of the Qing had allowed China to fall. The British demanded and received concessions, causing every other Western nation to demand equal status. This embarrassment further weakened Qing officials.
Warlords and bandits took advantage of the situation by pillaging and extorting Chinese citizens. Secret societies, such as the Triads, destabilized the Qing regime wherever they could (Bohr, Dynastic Decline). When economic misfortune struck a region, bandits would ensure their own survival by preying on others. This is how Wang Lung’s uncle survived the drought in The Good Earth (Buck, 143). This type of activity continued into the 1920s, when bandits kidnapped Fong See’s nephews and held them for ransom (See, 160-164). When brigands like these roam free, those they prey upon will not be happy with those who were supposed to protect them.