January 22, 2012


Julia Lovell, The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China (London: Picador, 2011) (From the bookjacket: "In October 1839 . . . a Cabinet meeting in Windsor voted to fight Britain's first Opium War (1839-42) with China, The conflict turned out to be rich in tragicomedy; in bureaucratic fumblings, military missteps, political opportunism and collaboration. Yet over the past hundred and seventy years, this strange tale of misunderstanding, incompetence and compromise has become the founding myth of modern Chinese nationalism: the start of China's heroic struggle against a Western conspiracy to destroy the county with opium and gunboat diplomacy." "Beginning withe dramas of the war itself, Julia Lovell explores its background, causes and consequences: Qing China's expansive interactions with the world beyond its borders; the mutual incomprehension that pushed both sides towards war; the hypocrisy of the British; the terrible bloodshed resulting from the Britain's technical superiority. She then traces out the construction of the Opium War myth in both China and the West, via China's intensifying sense of guochi (national humiliation) and the West's fear of Yellow Peril retribution, ending in the Chinese Communist Party's ongoing efforts to harness historical memory. Through this larger narrative, she weaves the curious stories of opium's promoters and attackers--of smugglers turned gentleman; of self-loathing Chinese nationalist; of doctors who tried to detox smokers with arsenic, heroin and cocaine; of twentieth-century China's two great dictators, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong (both sworn pubic enemies of opium both bankrolled by drug-trade profits.)." The Opium War is both the story of modern china--starting form this first conflict with the West--and an analysis of the country's contemporary self-image. It explores how China's national myths mould its interactions with the outside world, how public memory is spun to serve the present, and how delusion and prejudice on both sides have bedevilled its relationship withe he modern West." Although Lovell mentions it, she does not develop the fact that all of this was triggered in an imbalance in trade between China and the West, mainly Britain. Gold was leaving Britain to may for the British appetite for Chinese goods, while the Chinese were not buying British goods. It is a reminder that the choice is not between peace and war, but rather between trade and war.).