China: Book Revisits Opium War, Offering New Insights

Hong Kong Book Fair

The Opium War of 1839 to 1842 provoked controversy at last year’s Hong Kong Book Fair, with the launch of a provocative book by British writer Julia Lovell.

Entitled The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China, the new account challenged conventional wisdom regarding the highly contentious episode in Anglo-Chinese relations.

To watch an interview conducted with Julia by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, click on the above link.

Nationalism vs Pragmatism

“If you look at the reality of the war, pragmatism was a very important force in governments and interaction between the Chinese and the British,” says Julie, who teaches modern Chinese history at Birkbeck College, University of London.

In the book, Julia draws on both Chinese and Western sources in an attempt to show both sides of the conflict. What she discovers are two completely different accounts of an event that has become a watershed moment in modern Chinese history.

“So it wasn’t a clear-cut story of innocent Chinese on the one hand, and the British invaders on the other,” Julia maintains.

“But even if you look at the time, what’s going on during the time of the war itself, the Chinese are supplying the British, they are navigating for the British, they are spying for the British, for a fee of course, so there is an extraordinary pragmatism. They don’t necessarily feel the loyalty to the idea of the Chinese imperial centre or the emperor or anything else, they will go with where the smart money. And the British couldn’t have won the war without this assistance.”

Black and White vs Shades of Gray

Julia says that she has always wanted to go back to this episode in history, “and see whether things really were as black and white as the Chinese textbooks seem to say it was. What I wanted to try to do with this book is try to tell a tale of the Opium War which looked from both the Chinese and British perspectives.”

An understanding of the Opium War is key to an understanding of the Chinese psyche. It’s best to read what several historians have to say to get a balanced view of the conflict – and how it has come to define the way the Chinese see themselves, their relationships with other nationalities, and their unique place in the world.

Top 10 Books on the Opium War

This list begins with Julia’s account. The following nine are listed based on their popularity according to Hover over the titles for more information on each one of these books.

  1. The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China
  2. Opium War, 1840-1842: Barbarians in the Celestial Empire in the Early Part of the Nineteenth Century and the War by Which They Forced Her Gates
  3. The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another
  4. The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes
  5. The Chinese Opium Wars
  6. Foreign Mud: Being an Account of the Opium Imbroglio at Canton in the 1830s and the Anglo-Chinese War That Followed (New Directions Classics)
  7. Through the Looking Glass: China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao
  8. The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another
  9. Modernization and Revolution in China: From the Opium Wars to the Olympics (East Gate Books)
  10. Drugging a Nation The Story of China and the Opium Curse




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