Two hundred twenty-eight years ago, a Boston-built ship inaugurated one of the longest and most fraught trading relationships in our country’s history. As the sun rose in the brilliant blue sky and gentle winds rippled the surface of water on Feb. 22, 1784, the Empress of China sailed down New York’s East River, embarking on a 15-month round-trip journey to Canton, modern day Guangzhou. The voyage rewarded its backers with a 25 percent return on their money—not as much as they had hoped, but enough to prove the viability of the trade. Through the mid-1800s, a veritable armada of ships followed in the Empress of China’s wake, venturing from the young nation of the United States to the ancient empire of China, the mysterious so-called Middle Kingdom.
The merchants who funded those voyages, and their countrymen, saw China as a golden economic opportunity. China grew from roughly 300 million to 400 million people during this period; it was then, as now, the world’s most populous country. It was a rich source of tea, silk, and porcelain. Businessmen here dreamed that it would also become a major market for American goods, fueled by the purchasing power of Chinese consumers.