Chris Hall reviews The Opium War by Julia Lovell
The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China
Cultures collide, interweave, and disperse because of wars. Few wars in modern history have resulted in the permanent occupation or dominance of any nation. India’s place in British history is defined not just by the times of the Raj and the exploitation of the country and its people, but also by the effect that India had on Britain. Our language, cuisine, and perhaps most importantly our beers, have been altered forever by a shared history.
The Empire’s dealings with China were a very different story indeed. Julia Lovell’s The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China is a thorough and hugely affecting history of the conflict and its legacy.
Lovell shrewdly begins by recounting a recent meeting between Chinese officials and a visiting British trade delegation during November, when the wearing of Remembrance Day Poppies (utterly different to opium poppies) caused offence. Chinese bloggers raged about the supposedly deliberate slight against them, which brought about all kinds of terrible memories and anti-Western feeling.
To even begin understanding the Opium War of 1839-42 means learning a great deal about Qing-ruled China and Victorian British politics. Unfortunately this means a very slow start to the book, as the reader is guided through decades of political history, interspersed with lessons in the Victorian and Qing economies. There is also the matter of the narcotic itself to explore, and a great deal of time is spent examining the effects and perceptions of opium as both a drug and a commodity.
One of the skills of a great historian is relating dry material in a way that makes you understand its importance, and entertains you while doing so. Initially, it feels as though Lovell lacks this talent, though this is long forgotten by the final chapter. The density and specialist nature of the early material is almost prohibitive of narrative flourishes, something which Lovell displays a natural aptitude for later on. The story of the Opium War only becomes truly compelling once the account of the war itself begins.
Lovell clearly relishes in unravelling the failures and futility of warfare, as well as uncovering the mind-boggling corruption and incompetence at the heart of political regimes. For the most part, it is the Chinese that bear the brunt of this, as she paints a vivid picture of an utterly hopeless military led by cowards and fools with delusions of grandeur. Some of the most amusing (and tragic) parts of the book are those where she compares the British version of events with that which was reported to the Qing emperor by his sycophantic and incompetent underlings. Total defeats are related to the Emperor Daoguang as total victories, usually with cringe worthy embellishments about the heroics of soldiers who in fact ran away days before the battle began.
The British are by no means the heroes of the Opium War, though. Their principle motive for initiating the conflict was that they were annoyed the Qing didn’t want its population addicted to opium. They prosecuted a war simply because they had the power to do so. Lovell never shies away from pointing out the brutal nature of the Empire’s love of gunboat diplomacy.
The complete incapability of either side to understand the other is something Lovell returns to frequently. The Qing emperor Daoguang spends most of the war utterly oblivious as to what the British want, and the British remain ignorant to the ways of the Manchu government throughout. This basic lack of understanding develops, on the Chinese part, into the beginnings of anti-Western propaganda; equally, Sinophobia and the demonising of Eastern culture become commonplace in Britain following the first Opium War. Indeed, one war over opium was not enough, and a second, shorter, more evenly matched but equally bloody conflict was waged nearly twenty years later. Lovell’s coverage of the second Opium War is frankly microscopic compared to the exhaustive account of the first, and this is explained away in the introduction as being due to the abundance of material to cover from the first war. Whilst this is a shame, given the otherwise completeness of the book in its study of the topic, it is welcome in many respects, principally because it allows Lovell to get straight to the part she clearly enjoys the most: the effects of the Opium War.
One of the most powerful truths at the heart of the book is that China benefited from the Opium War too, or rather, the Chinese nationalist and communist revolutions did. Lovell describes how the conflict became an ideal anti-Western propaganda tool, and was used by the successive Nationalist and Communist governments as both an example of Western imperialism, as well as a reason to change from ‘the old ways’. Lovell finds again and again that Chinese people are taught to blame the Qing government for the humiliation of the war as much as the British invaders.
Meanwhile, the British military’s experiences of the inscrutable, sinister and brutal Chinese give birth to the archetypes of Chinese people that are used even today. Whilst the likes of ‘The Devil Doctor’ Fu Manchu are more likely to be used in humorous pastiche nowadays, the image of the Chinese government being inscrutable and sinister is something that has simply not left the Western consciousness.
In giving such rich background at the start, these revelations toward the end of the book are all the more affecting. Lovell has crafted a compelling and important study, not just of Anglo-Sino relations, but also of when both war and diplomacy fail to achieve peace. Whilst opium is perceived as the poison that clouds the minds of men, Lovell makes it clear that these minds are clouded from the outset, and that the drug was merely the currency through which imperial ambitions were paid.
The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China is an impressive, exhaustive and fascinating account of a war, and a legacy, that is grossly overlooked.