A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
In 1839, the British Empire was ruled by a monarch from a German family while China was ruled by Manchurians who invaded the empire several centuries before. From their palaces with little true appreciation for what they asked, both rulers directed diplomats and generals to secure territory and wealth. A trip by sea from London to China took about six months, and there was no faster means of communication. Because diplomats were bound to their monarchs’ bidding, even when the tasks were unwise and next to impossible, respectful negotiations were improbable. Mix in the greed from both British and Chinese merchants, and readers discover the plot of the Opium Wars for 1839-1842 and 1856-1860.
Most modern readers from Europe or America know very little about these wars, according to historian Julia Lovell in her new book, The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China. Few readers studied these nineteenth century conflicts in their schools. Many are truly shocked to learn that the British Empire insisted that the China buy its opium from India, and when the Chinese emperor said no – the official Chinese position was to discourage the use of the narcotic drug – the British sent its navy to level coastal cities and slaughter many Chinese soldiers and citizens.
Nearly every Chinese citizen alive after the Communist takeover of the late 1940s, on the other hand, has heard the Party’s very slanted story about this unjust Western imperial violation of the Chinese nation. The example of the Opium Wars is at the foundation of Communist Party thinking about Western capitalism and is still very relevant today. The Party even used the Opium Wars to mask its own actions in 1989 in the aftermath of its killings at Tiananmen Square.
Some readers may find The Opium War challenging to read because of its many unfamiliar place and personal names. The author includes a roster of principle characters in the appendix, which I recommend to anyone wanting to distinguish Yan Fu from Yang Fang and Yijing from Yishan. I also commend the book to anyone wanting to learn about nineteenth century history for the sake of understanding the present. – Review by Rick