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The Barbarian’s Book Review: The Opium War, by Julia Lovell

It had been a long time since I had read up on any Chinese history, and way too long for someone who comments on world events, so I went to my favorite socialist institution, the local public library, and got very lucky by finding this book within a few minutes.

Julia Lovell is a British academic who lives in China about half the time, and this book, The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China, published in 2012, deals with a historical event that has helped shape both Chinese and Western views towards each other ever since the events of 1840-42 actually took place. It also helps that Lovell writes in simple English prose as opposed to acadamese, and is fluent in Chinese so she can actually interpret Chinese records on her own.

The book has two halves. The first is devoted to the events leading up to and during the First Opium War of 1840-42 and has one chapter dedicated to the Second Opium War of 1860, when a combined British and French force sacked the Forbidden City in Beijing. The second half focuses on both Chinese and Western(primarily British and American) interpretations of the wars with regards to their own and each others’ national characters’, and the often gross distortions of the same.

Very, very basically, what Lovell refers to as the Qing Empire(pronounced Shing, why is that, anyway?) but what most of us have heard of as the Manchu Dynasty, had a whole mess of internal problems in the 19th Century. There were all sorts of internal revolts around the edges of the Empire. There was the resentment of the majority Han Chinese population to the preferential treatment given to the ethnic Manchus who had overthrown the Ming Dynasty and conquered all of China and then some in 1644. There was the traditional Chinese view that China was the center of the world, and that somehow all of the outside “barbarians” bowed down to the greatness of the Chinese civilization that had been around for millennia.

And then there were these troublesome barbarians themselves who were just, well, weird. The British East India Company had been trading opium produced in British India in the Chinese port of Canton for decades in exchange for first silk, and then that favorite English beverage, tea, for decades. When the British government took direct control over the East India Company’s operations, it made a mint off of the export tax on opium. The imperial Qing government had relied on easy trading access to Spanish silver from the New World for its currency for over a century when first the Mexican and then the rest of Spanish America’s secession from the old Spanish Empire cut it off, starting in the 1820’s.

This caused a revenue shortfall for the Qing, and they saw all of the silver flowing into British coffers in exchange for opium as an unacceptable trade deficit, and they tried to ban the trade. Besides, they could do that self-righteously, since opium is just a wee bit addictive, after all. British merchants in China and civil servants in India went ballistic, and successfully lobbied for military intervention from the Whig Government in London, over the objections of both the Tories and emerging Liberals such as William Gladstone, who thought going to war to force another country to accept importation of an addictive drug would besmirch British honor, which it did in fact do.

The First Opium War itself was an incredibly unequal contest where the technologically superior British navy and marines crushed their Qing opponents at every encounter. Chinese officials, terrified of failing their Emperor, either outright lied about imaginary victories as long as they could or blamed other officials’, or the people’s,  incompetence and corruption for defeat after defeat. The Qing government, faced with a British invasion force at the gates of Beijing, eventually capitulated, ceding Hong Kong to the British and opening up other ports for trade with them.

The second war was, if anything, even more lopsided, with the Napoleon III’s French in the fray as well. The fact that the Taipeng Rebellion, where a Chinese man who thought himself the Second Coming of Jesus Christ had launched a holy war against the Qing government, was raging at the time did nothing to help the Chinese cause. What the Chinese would later accurately call the “Unequal Treaties” with the European powers, as well as America and Japan, swiftly followed.

The second half of the book should be required reading for anyone who is involved in China’s relations with foreign countries, including the Chinese themselves. For the Chinese, the Opium Wars led to a curious dichotomy of how they view themselves vis a vis everybody else, especially the West. On the one hand, it was their own flaws, their insulation, their weakness in succumbing to a foreign drug, their corruption, their inadequate form of government, their laziness, that caused their defeats. On the other hand, vicious, greedy foreign imperialists who sought to turn all of China into subservient colonies are to blame for most of China’s woes.

Lovell goes into great detail on this subject, tracing both perspectives from the wars themselves through the Boxer Rebellion and the ideologies of both the Nationalist and Communist parties. Interestingly, the two rivals share two common themes: only a one-party state can save China from foreign domination and insure its rightful place as a Great Power in the world, and the Chinese people themselves are just too ignorant and easily misled to be allowed to truly govern themselves in a functioning democracy. The ancient Chinese faith in authority, inculcated for over 2000 years, first by imperial Confucianism and then Nationalist and Communist propagandists, is alive and well. And so is the mixture of xenophobia on the one hand and an admiration for things Western on the other.

In Britain and the West, pro-war propagandists went into great contortions to justify the military invasion of an ancient civilization and the slaughter of at least tens of thousands of its inhabitants. A lot of it was based on shameless racism, but the Chinese were also portrayed as fiendishly intelligent, treacherous, and cruel adversaries. The old Chinese practice of “the death of a thousand cuts,” which did happen, only fueled the fire. I think, though Lovell doesn’t  mention, the fact that the Chinese have engaged in trade for thousands of years couldn’t help but produce a lot of very shrewd businessmen caused at least a grudging admiration by their foreign counterparts.

In any case, the Opium wars saw the creation of the myth of the Yellow Peril in first British and then American fiction. Ironically, the popularity of opium and its derivatives of heroin and morphine in late 19th Century America and Europe was often portrayed as an evil Chinese plot to destroy Western civilization as revenge for the depredations of the Opium Wars. Lovell sees Fu Manchu as the ultimate incarnation of the brilliantly evil Chinese who uses both drugs and clever assassination techniques in his efforts to bring down the West so the yellow race can conquer the world.

I think it fair to say that these myths continue to percolate in America today in the popular perception by many whites and blacks of Asians as these fanatically studious workaholics who will stop at nothing in order to come out on top of the socioeconomic class heap at the expense of the former. This fear of the Asian Other has its roots in the Opium Wars and their aftermath.

Finally, throughout the book Lovell points out the domestic political concerns that drove both Chinese and Western policy-makers, and still do, and how all of them were and are often ignorant of the other’s domestic issues. Such ignorance can cause the other party to look irrational and even sinister, and can lead to tragic miscalculations because neither party truly understands the other one’s motivations. The following examples are mine, not Lovell’s:

The Chinese want to expand their trade network to gain access to African minerals that they need, and American neocons see this as some nefarious plot to impose Chinese political domination on that continent. American administrations, pushed by the environmental lobby to at least appear to do something to combat human-caused climate change, pressure the Chinese to reduce carbon emissions and are frustrated when they are reluctant to do so. Perhaps it’s not because the Chinese government doesn’t recognize global warming as a real problem, but because if they do anything that threatens their people’s rising standard of living they could be in serious political trouble at home, and that’s the last thing they want to admit to a foreign power.

In any case, both Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao saw the Opium War as the beginning of modern Chinese history, and the current Chinese leadership appears to do so as well. In order to begin to understand the China of today, one must be familiar with the Opium War and its aftermath. This book is a great place to start. I highly recommend it.

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