China: How the Opium War Continues to Shape China’s Self Image and Its Role in the World

Book Review

Understanding the Opium War is important to understanding China, because it continues to colour the way the Chinese people see themselves, their country, and its position in the world.

“The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of Modern China” was written by Julia Lovell, a Professor of Chinese History at the University of London. Published in 2011, it has attracted praise and skepticism by scholars.

It is often said that the victors write history. While this is largely true, it is not always true.

There are notable exceptions, and the Opium War (or should it be the Opium Wars since there were 2 of them) is one (or is it 2?) of such exception(s).

A conflict over trade (according to the British view) or part of an overreaching multinational plot to weaken and subjugate China (according to the Chinese view), the Opium War serves as a defining moment in Modern Chinese History but a mere footnote in the histories of Britain (and France,which took part in the 2nd conflict).

Monument to Victimization

Julia Lovell, a Professor of Chinese History at Birkbeck College at the University of London and author of “The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of Modern China”, describes the war as “a monument to China’s victimization by the West” – from the Chinese point of view, of course.

The 361 page tome (if you don’t include the 94 pages of notes, bibliography, index, timeline, and principle characters) starts at what led up to the Opium War. It chronicles the war itself.

It moves on to the signing of the Unequal Treaties, which were the result of the wars and  led to the annexation of Hong Kong to Britain, the opening of the treaty ports up and down the China coast, and other national indignities.

But it doesn’t stop there. An entire chapter, “The Yellow Peril”, deals with racist perceptions of China and the Chinese in the West in the decades that followed.

National Disease

his is followed by a chapter entitled “the National Disease”, which details the ambivalent feelings that many Chinese scholars had toward opium and the Opium War in the early decades of the 20th century.

Both the Chinese Nationalists and the Chinese Communists leveraged the Opium War in order to justify their existence and convince the Chinese people that only they could rescue the country from the yoke of Western and Japanese Imperialism.

Even today, Julia suggests, the Chinese government uses the Opium War as a tool by which to deflect attention from its own shortcomings.

Julia raises interesting questions. Is it true that Sun Yat-sen, the so-called Father of Modern China, revered on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, did not actually lead the rebellion that led to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, but rather read about it in the newspaper while breakfasting in the United States?

Humorous Anecdotes

If the book is well-researched, its real strength is in Julia’s ability to tell a good story. She has an uncanny ability to extract the most humorous anecdotes from the innumerable Chinese and English language sources that she combed through while researching this well researched book.

A few of my favourites …

  • Lit firecrackers were attached to monkeys, which were launched unto British war ships in a bid to create confusion and chaos among the sailors on board;
  • When British forces starting bombarding a line of defense on the outskirts of Canton, a single band of defensive soldiers was deployed to march around a strategic hill, changing “their clothes after each circuit to give the impression of infinite force”;
  • Lin Zexu, the Imperial Commissioner at Canton, was confident of his ability to repulse British forces because he was prepared to employ such defensive tactics as attaching fire boats to British war ships in the hopes of setting them on fire and employing martial arts divers to drill holes in British war ships in the hopes that they would sink;
  • A Chinese official is supposed to have asked a wealthy British colleague why he bothered to play tennis when he could simply pay someone else to play tennis for him.

Sometimes described as a Conflict of Civilizations, the Opium War was an exercise in brutality, greed, bureaucratic incompetence, opportunism, racism, collaboration, military ineptitude, and xenophobia. There was also no small measure of hypocrisy on both sides.

Understanding the Opium War is important to understanding China, because it continues to colour the way the Chinese people see themselves, their country, and its position in the world.

Julia sheds new light on the conflict, and she does so in an informative and entertaining way. I enjoyed reading this book, and I highly recommend it to others.

Click here to buy the Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of Modern China

 

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