Incense, Opium and Imperial Games: A Brief History of Hong Kong

With protests erupting in Hong Kong recently, it is important to understand the fascinating history of this special administrative region of China. Today, Hong Kong is made up of numerous parts, including Hong Kong island, Kowloon Peninsula and over 200 islands. The name Hong Kong first appeared during the Ming dynasty, a Chinese dynasty which ruled from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century. Hong Kong referred to a small village on the coast of Hong Kong island, with the village being known for its export of incense products (Kwok-kin 1989: 391). Over time, the broader region became known as Hong Kong, which means fragrant harbour(Kwok-kin 1989: 391). Throughout its history, Hong Kong was always vulnerable to attacks from pirates, given its geographical location (Kwok-kin 1989: 392).

In 1842, the island of Hong Kong was ceded to Britain in the Treaty of Nanjing, after the British victory in the First Opium War, which had started in 1839. The First Opium War was a complex event. One of the underlying reasons war broke out was because British traders were importing opium illegally from India into China, despite the fact that the Chinese authorities had been trying to restrict this practice for decades. Another major factor war erupted pertained to restrictions placed on foreign merchants by China. Prior to the First Opium War, the port of Canton was the only Chinese port open to British traders (Gelber 2019: 6). In fact, a major victory from the First Opium War for Britain was the further opening of China, as the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing opened four more ports to foreign trade, including Shanghai (Gelber 2019: 7-8).

The First Opium War also marked the start of a crucial period in the psychological history of China, as defeat in the First Opium War and the loss of Hong Kong island to Britain is often seen as the beginning of the century of humiliation. The century of humiliation essentially refers to the period between the end of the First Opium War and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 by the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong (Callahan 2004: 204). In Chinese history and the narrative of Chinese nationalism, the century of humiliation is often portrayed as a period where China was humiliated and exploited by foreign imperialism on one hand and riddled with internal corruption on the other (Callahan 2004: 204). Various key events are often cited as examples of this humiliation, with one notable example being the Massacre of Nanjing in 1937, when Japanese forces invaded the Chinese capital of the time, raping and massacring the civilian population on mass (Callahan 2004: 205). The century of humiliation is a key historical dynamic that is imperative to understand if we want to understand the symbolic value of Hong Kong to China.

Yet for now, let’s return back to the history of Hong Kong itself. In 1860, during the final days of the Second Opium War – which had started in 1856 and which was fought between the British and French empires on one side and the Qing dynasty on the other – the defeated Chinese signed the Convention of Peking, which formally handed over another section of present-day Hong Kong to Britain, known as Kowloon.

Nearly four decades later, a treaty was signed that would cede even more territory to Britain. The 1898 Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory resulted in China leasing another major region of modern-day Hong Kong, known as the New Territories, to Britain for 99 years, with China set to regain control over the territory on July 1st, 1997.

In 1941, Hong Kong was occupied by Japan, forcing an exodus of many people to China. Following the end of the Second World War and the defeat of the imperial Japanese, Britain re-established control over Hong Kong once more. In the period after the Second World War, the paths that Hong Kong and China took diverged starkly, as Hong Kong was in large part a capitalist region whilst China was a communist country. The differences between Hong Kong and China became a major topic of debate in the decades prior to the handover in 1997.

In 1984, the UK and Chinese governments signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong. The joint declaration contained the principle that came to be known as “one country, two systems,” which meant that China would regain control of the special administrative region of Hong Kong in 1997, yet Hong Kong would be allowed to maintain a “high degree of autonomy” from China and keep its distinct socio-economic system for five decades.

On the 1st of July 1997, Hong Kong became a special administrative region of China, with Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, coming into force, with Chapter 1, Article 5 of the Basic Law reaffirming that “the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.”

Two decades later however, on the 30th of June 2017, the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared that the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong no longer had any “realistic meaning,” with his comments sparking outrage in many Western capitals. A week later, another official from the Chinese Foreign Ministry clarified Beijing’s stance, announcing that China accepted that the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration was still legally binding and that the “one country, two systems” dynamic was still best for Hong Kong, but cautioned Britain against interfering in the internal affairs of China.

Given Hong Kong’s fascinating history, its future constitutional ambiguity and its symbolic value to China, Hong Kong is likely to be a major flashpoint for decades to come, especially considering the growing tension between China and the United States of America. 


Basic Law Text

BBC News (2019) Hong Kong Profile

Blakemore, E. (2019) How Hong Kong’s complex history explains its current crisis with China National Geographic  –

Callahan, W. (2004) National Insecurities: Humiliation, Salvation, and Chinese Nationalism, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 29:2, 199-218.

Gelber, H. (2019) China as “Victim”? The Opium War That Wasn’t, Center for European Studies Harvard – Working Paper Series #136

Kwok-kin, A., A. (1989) ‘The History of Hong Kong: From a Village to a City,’ Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 29, 391-394.

Ng, J. (2017) Beijing says Sino-British treaty on Hong Kong handover still binding but does not allow UK to interfere, South China Morning Post  

Ng, J. (2017) Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong ‘no longer has any realistic meaning’, Chinese Foreign Ministry says, South China Morning Post

Pletcher, K. (2019) Opium Wars, Encyclopaedia Britannica

Treaty of Nanjing, US-China Institute – 

UK Parliament Briefing (2019) Hong Kong: Joint Declaration –

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Creative Commons Imagery (all the rest from ):

The Times of India

Alex Woodburn

Peter Fitzgerald, amendments by Globe-trotter Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license


Historical and Commercial Atlas of China, Harvard University Press 1935

Edward Duncan

Johannes Vingboons

Michael Angelo Hayes (artist), James Henry Lynch (lithographer) Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection

US Gov

“Illustration of Chinese Generals from Pyongyang Captured Alive” by Migita Toshihide, October 1894. Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Sodacan Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

The Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders

New York Public Library

Booklet of “The Battle of Hong Kong- Hong Kong under the camera of the Japanese Army” Exhibition, Hong Kong Museum of History, 2002 – Mainichi Newpaper, Japan

Conrad Poirier

UK Gov, College of Arms

Matthew Laird Acred Acred99 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported GNU Free Documentation License

World Economic Forum

DaNk Tube

The US Army

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