Early American Trade with China

Trade Routes & Trading Strategies

Economics of the China Trade

Contrasting Views of Trade

Life on a Merchant Ship


Commodities of the Trade

Introducing the Lesson

Ask students to work with a partner to think of a product available in the newly independent United States that could have been used to trade for goods in China. Have students share their ideas with the class. What criteria do goods have to meet to be useful in trade? (They have to be available in quantity, transportable, and desired by people in the receiving country.) Do the products suggested by the students fit these criteria?

Ask students what we import from China today (clothes, shoes, many kinds of inexpensive manufactured goods).

Distribute the handout “Profits and Commodities of the China Trade.”


  • What goods were Americans interested in getting from China during the late 1700s?

  • Who could purchase these goods?

    Goods desired were tea, textiles, chinaware. Because Americans had to purchase goods in China largely with silver coins, ships going to China were heavy with chests of money. Tea was the primary commodity purchased in China. Because tea was a very light cargo, merchants would buy large quantities of inexpensive porcelain (Chinaware) to use as ballast on its return voyage. Working class American purhcased the cheap porcelain and nankeen cloth and wealthy Americans purchased the best china and silk. All Americans purchased tea.

Because of the risks, distance, and difficulties of doing business with the Chinese, only a small percentage of American merchant ships made the voyage to China. However, it could be an extremely lucrative venture. Just two or three successful voyages could make a merchant a millionaire. “Profits and Commodities of the China Trade,” shows how a relatively small investment could yield a large profit.

Be sure to point out that much of what American ships brought back to the United States was then shipped to Europe to be sold in European markets. The opportunity to profit from shipping goods was as important as profiting by selling goods directly to American consumers.

Using the table, “Value of Goods Sold by Americans in Canton” on a transparency, have the class answer the following questions:


  • What was the most important commodity Americans sold in China in the early years of the trade?

  • Where did Americans obtain it? (Be sure the students understand China’s need for silver because of inadequate domestic supply and the importance of the Mexican silver mines in world trade of this period.)

  • What commodities eventually come to replace silver?

  • Where did these come from?

Previous Next



Home | Unit Overview | Trade Routes | Economics | Contrasting Views | Life on a Ship | Resources | Credits