Book: The Opium War by Julia Lovell

Mostly very interesting

January 20, 2012

Julia Lovell

The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China

Picador, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-330-53785-8

361 pages (main text)

UKP 25.00

Ever since I listened to the podcast of episode 92 of Neil MacGregor’s brilliant A History of the World in 100 Objects in which the subject was a British tea set and Mr MacGregor said that the two Opium Wars fought between Britain and China were really just as much about tea, I’ve though that it would be interesting to know something more about those wars. And The Opium War by Julia Lovell serves admirably. It is mainly about the first Opium War but there’s enough about the second one to satisfy most people’s curiosity and there are a few other things in the book as well.

It turns out that the British East India Company produced opium in Bengal. Since opium was technically illegal in China, the company didn’t export it there. They merely sold it to individual Britons who they knew were going to take it there. I had no idea that Jardine and Matheson were opium smugglers. Britons wanted Chinese tea (and silk and porcelain too) and they needed something to trade in exchange. Opium was just the thing.

In 1839 the Chinese emperor was the Daoguang Emperor, from the Manchurian Qing (pronounced, it seems, approximately “ching”) dynasty. His officials persuaded him that opium was a scourge of China and he appointed the super-competent and incorruptible civil servant Lin Zexu to be governor of Canton (now called Guangzhou) where the trade was centered and gave him instructions to put an end to it.

Shortly after arriving, Mr Lin confiscated around 1.1m kg of opium from the British traders there and succeeded in banning the trade for some time. But the British government insisted on compensation for the destroyed opium and sent a small fleet from Singapore to do the insisting. The Chinese army was outclassed and the result, after battles in which there were around 500 British casualties and 18,000 Chinese ones, was the Treaty of Nanking. In addition to opening five Chinese ports to British trade, it ceded Hong Kong to Britain.

In 1856, Qing officials boarded the ship Arrow, and arrested some Chinese crew members on suspicion of piracy. All perfectly legally since the ship’s Hong Kong registration had expired. But nobody noticed that at the time so another small fleet was sent. The French joined in, outraged that a French missionary had been executed. Once again the Chinese army was outclassed.

That history is at least as interesting as I had hoped it would be and Ms Lovell’s observations on it are insightful. I occasionally found the narrative a bit repetitive and wished for a minor speedup, but that’s a small thing.

And it’s certainly interesting that the Daoguang Emperor considered the wars mere border skirmishes (of which there were plenty) but the modern Chinese government puts them at the beginning of a narrative of Chinese humiliation at the hands of foreign powers and the beginning of Chinese resistance to that humiliation. How historical events have been interpreted over time is certainly part of the history of those events and analysis of that sort belongs in a book like this one.

But Ms Lovell takes the history of the history to something of an extreme. She ventures as far afield as analyzing Sax Rohmer’s fictional character Doctor Fu Manchu and interviewing contemporary Chinese schoolchildren (unsurprisingly they’re rather more interested in the future than the past). The first two-thirds of this book is an interesting history. The last third isn’t what a reader who picks up a book about the Opium Wars would likely expect to find.