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The best books on The Opium War

recommended by Julia Lovell

The Opium War by Julia Lovell

The Opium War
by Julia Lovell


The 19th century opium war marked the clash of the world’s great empires of the age – Britain and China. Historian Julia Lovell says its legacy of Chinese humiliation is still felt keenly in Beijing.

Interview by Alec Ash

The Opium War by Julia Lovell

The Opium War
by Julia Lovell

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Will you set the scene for the historically disinclined among us? What was the Opium War?

The first Opium War was fought between 1839 and 1842. Both in Western and in Chinese historiography, it became the first emblematic clash between the Chinese Empire and the West – specifically the British Empire, another of the great world empires at the time. This collision with Great Britain violently brought China into a modern, Eurocentric world system, and in a way we’re still dealing with the consequences of this today.

One of those consequences, which you nuance especially well in your new book The Opium War, is the legacy of what’s called “the century of humiliation”.

In China today, from a young age people are taught to view the Opium War as the tragic inauguration of modern Chinese history. They learn through a wide variety of media – textbooks, documentary films and so on – about how the British tried to poison the Chinese in the 1830s with opium, and how when the Chinese emperor declared war on this British scheme, the British government bullied China out of its economic independence in the first of many “unequal treaties”.

This account of the Opium War is one of the founding episodes of Chinese nationalism. It begins what most Chinese people know of as the “century of humiliation”, which starts with the Opium War, and which only comes to an end with Communist victory [in 1949].

Is there a correlation, then, between the century of humiliation and the Communist rise to power, perceived as it was to be stronger than Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalists?

Absolutely. The Opium War, understood as the start of an unprecedented crisis inflicted on China by foreigners, is a key source of political legitimacy for China’s contemporary ruling party. The official Communist historiographical narrative of the Opium War relates that it brought on a national emergency which different generations of Chinese reformers – from the late 19th century in the Qing dynasty to the national democratic revolution of 1911, and so on – tried unsuccessfully to resolve, before China eventually chose Communism, which according to Mao enabled the Chinese people to stand up against foreign imperialism and its running dogs.

That narrative is difficult to challenge in China today. In your book you mention how the magazine Bingdian closed in 2006 because of a revisionist essay it ran about the Opium War, challenging the officially approved version.

Yes, I think challenges to that narrative still manage to jangle high-level political nerves. It is a narrative which is key to propping up Communist Party rule – and one which has been called into service at various junctures in the last 30 years. One striking instance occurred in the aftermath of the suppression of the pro-democracy protests in 1989, which were officially blamed on interference by Western nations allegedly keen to destabilise China.

The 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Opium War happened to fall the following year in 1990, and this prompted a mass commemoration of the Opium War – endless historical symposia, collections of essays and books – which had a definite contemporary political relevance. An important aim of this campaign of remembrance was to remind the Chinese people of their historical suffering at the hands of Western nations, and that only socialism and the Communist Party had rescued China from this predicament and set the country on the path to independence and modernisation.

A more recent example of how the Opium War is still useful as a historical narrative in contemporary political discourse came on the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. One of the first events that Hu Jintao mentioned in his keynote speech about the history of the Party was the Opium War. So it remains a foundational trauma in China’s political and national consciousness, and continues to represent the start of the Chinese people’s struggle to stand up as a strong modern nation.

Let’s look deeper into its history by way of your book selections. In what way is Narcotic Culture a revisionist interpretation?

This book is very informative and thought-provoking in its discussions of the substance over which the war was fought. Opium was an illegal narcotic in China from the 18th century onwards, and the Chinese state crackdown against it particularly intensified during the 1830s. The standard narrative about opium – both in modern China and in a more muted way in the West – has long been that it was an apocalyptic blight for China. It was frequently thought that any Chinese person who tried opium would inevitably end up an opium slave, squandering their entire family’s fortune and destroying their health.

This is a view that Frank Dikotter, Lars Laamann and Zhou Xun try to nuance. They don’t deny that opium claimed many victims. But at the same time, they are usefully trying to complicate our understanding of the way that opium culture worked in China, from the early modern period through to the 20th century. They move away from the idea that opium turned every casual smoker into a pathetic victim, because when you think about it such a view is implicitly racist, in the assumptions that it makes about Chinese moral and physical weakness. In Britain, if somebody had a glass of wine, we wouldn’t assume they were one step away from becoming an alcoholic.

What is also eye-opening about the book is how it illuminates the complexity of the way in which opium was used – not only its recreational but its medicinal importance. Dikotter and his co-authors argue that opium was China’s aspirin until the 1920s and 30s. They also fascinatingly describe the intricate aesthetics of opium culture. Opium was a social drug, and for the best families smoking it necessitated all kinds of exquisite objects. To be a truly discerning smoker, you needed the long, beautifully carved dark wood chaise longue to recline on, and the bejewelled pipes made of silver and ivory. This material culture that grew up around the drug turned smoking opium into the perfect act of conspicuous consumption – sending money up in smoke.

Your next book choice takes a more political and economic angle.

This book explores the drug’s key importance to the British Empire. Carl Trocki explains how economically central opium was to the building and maintaining of the Empire. He observes how the expansion of the empire during the 19th century coincides almost precisely with the heyday of the opium trade. And when the empire started to go into decline, in the early years of the 20th century, again it coincided very closely with the winding down of the opium trade. So opium as a commodity was essential to the workings of the British Empire.

This was because increased sales of the drug, especially in China, reversed Britain’s trade deficit with Asia. Sales of opium gave British merchants silver with which to buy silks, ceramics and particularly teas for the British market. When this tea travelled back to Great Britain, before it disappeared into British tea cups the government extracted its customs duties. Those customs duties – paid for largely by opium money – covered a large part of the cost of the Royal Navy. And the navy kept the British Empire afloat. So without the financial boost of opium, you would absolutely not have seen the same expansion of the British Empire through the 19th century.

Your third selection offers a great level of detail, such as just how the chain of supply for opium worked, through India.

This book is hugely readable, because of its sure grasp of historical narrative. I love the way that Peter Ward Fay uses individual stories, testimonies and voices to bring the story alive. And as you just said, it spells out very clearly the trade triangle involving opium, tea and silver between India, China and Britain. Importantly, it also shines a light on links between British merchants in China and Indian merchants. This Anglo-Indian story is a very important one of the Opium War and of the opium trade, and I think it has often been overlooked. The economic impact of the opium trade on India itself has long been relatively forgotten.

There is one niggling criticism I have of the book, which Peter Ward Fay himself acknowledges, in that he neglects the Chinese story. It’s an account told from European and mainly Anglophone materials. He himself admits he is no Sinologist. And that is a curious feature of the landscape of much Western writing about the Opium War. Until 20-odd years ago, most accounts written in English made detailed use of the English language sources while neglecting the rich array of Chinese evidence. So readers were left with a collection of rather Euro-centric interpretations.

Perhaps the fourth book on your list shows more of the Chinese side to the story?

I chose this book to contrast with Peter Ward Fay’s, because of its immersion in the Chinese side of the story. Polachek behaves a little like a detective in this book, picking his way through an intricate, opaque mass of internal Chinese sources, policy debates and abstruse connections between members of the imperial bureaucracy – which make you think that not very much has changed in Chinese politics over the last 150 years.

The Opium War in both Chinese and Western historiography has taken on a momentous significance as an almost mystically pre-destined clash between the two big civilisations of China and Great Britain. Polachek, by contrast, argues amongst other things that the Opium War was triggered by Chinese policy makers in a fit of bureaucratic haste. Many of the key policy makers in China were too busy worrying about domestic issues to size up the new British enemy on their maritime borders. Very few top-level officials had actually thought through the implications of the Qing crackdown on opium in the 1830s on relations with Great Britain. So, in Polachek’s account, the Opium War becomes an almost accidental occurrence.

Your fifth choice takes a step back from the Opium war to look at the British Empire more broadly. Why is this book on your list?

I wanted to include this because, although it’s not to do with the Opium war, it raises very important and broad questions about how we in Britain remember our imperial past. Thinking specifically about the opium trade, it’s fair to say that Britain’s role in these events is not particularly well understood or known in Britain today. Even the physical traces are neglected – our old East India docks have been overrun by wild birds, or redeveloped into glass and steel apartment blocks.

As a British student, it would have been quite easy for me to get through the history curriculum without ever encountering the Opium War, if I hadn’t chosen to study Chinese. And back in 1997, at the time of the handover of Hong Kong, there was no mention in the dignitaries’ speeches of opium wars fought over it. I can’t say whether we’ve forgotten about our Opium War out of laziness or out of guilt, but I do think that there is a tendency in Britain to think of ourselves as post-imperial, and avoid reflecting on some of our colonial misdeeds.

To what extent, then, did the British Empire act atrociously, as the agent of all this human suffering?

The uncomfortable fact remains that a large slice of the British Empire was bankrolled by opium money, and opium is a highly addictive and illegal narcotic. That is a very inconvenient truth. Some historians of the Opium War, and politicians and merchants at the time, argued that we just brought the opium to China, and the Chinese didn’t have to smoke it – or that if the British hadn’t sold the opium, some other country would have. But you can’t escape the fact that it was the British who were growing the opium in India, and selling it for profit in China.

When I first read Caroline Elkins’s book, I was shocked by the crimes committed by the British colonial regime in the 1950s. Her revelations about torture and forced slave labour perpetrated by the British in Kenya completely refuted the lazy idea you sometimes hear that the British were somehow “less bad” as colonial overlords than the French or the Belgians. So the book really throws open the debate about the benign nature of the British Empire, and about how we should think about this period in our history, which is still so defining to us.

Although we think of ourselves as postcolonial, our experience as a vast empire still shapes many of our foreign policy decisions today. Why were we in Iraq? Why were we in Libya? Why are we in Aghanistan? Because of the assumption that Britain should have a global policeman’s role. I think we need to ask questions about what originally bankrolled our international influence (namely opium), whether we are entitled to play that global role, and how we have played that role in the past. We certainly didn’t play it very creditably during the Opium War.

Interview by Alec Ash

May 16, 2017

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Julia Lovell

Julia Lovell

Julia Lovell is a prize-winning author and translator. She is lecturer in modern Chinese history and literature at Birkbeck, University of London, and has also written on China for The Guardian and The Economist. Lovell’s books include The Great Wall and most recently The Opium War, which is shortlisted for the prestigious 2012 Orwell prize

Julia Lovell

Julia Lovell

Julia Lovell is a prize-winning author and translator. She is lecturer in modern Chinese history and literature at Birkbeck, University of London, and has also written on China for The Guardian and The Economist. Lovell’s books include The Great Wall and most recently The Opium War, which is shortlisted for the prestigious 2012 Orwell prize