Prior to the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, Chinese officials prohibited the presence of foreign women in China. While many Chinese regulations concerning foreign merchants and missionaries were not enforced, this rule was. In 1830 and again in the 1840s, in the aftermath of the first Opium War, clusters of British and American families traveled up the Pearl River to the factories that housed visiting merchants in Canton (Guangzhou). On both occasions, trouble ensued. But the conflicts may not have been all they seemed. This article suggests that foreign women did have the potential to be a problem in China, less because of inherent cultural differences than because both Chinese officials and Western merchants used Western women to embody a boundary between peoples.

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