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

Julia Lovell

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

In October 1839, a few months after the Chinese Imperial Commissioner, Lin Zexu, dispatched these confident words to his emperor, 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 170 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 country with opium and gunboat diplomacy. Beginning with the dramas of the war itself, Julia Lovell explores its causes and consequences and, through this larger narrative, interweaves the curious stories of opium’s promoters and attackers. The Opium War is both the story of modern China – starting from 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 have bedevilled its relationship with the modern West. 3.7 out of 5 based on 5 reviews
The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams & the Making of China

Omniscore:

Classification Non-fiction
Genre History
Format Hardback
Pages 352
RRP £25.00
Date of Publication September 2011
ISBN 978-0330457477
Publisher Picador
 

In October 1839, a few months after the Chinese Imperial Commissioner, Lin Zexu, dispatched these confident words to his emperor, 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 170 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 country with opium and gunboat diplomacy. Beginning with the dramas of the war itself, Julia Lovell explores its causes and consequences and, through this larger narrative, interweaves the curious stories of opium’s promoters and attackers. The Opium War is both the story of modern China – starting from 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 have bedevilled its relationship with the modern West.

Reviews

The Guardian

Rana Mitter

Lovell's major contribution is to remind us of the different worldviews involved: not so much a clash of civilisations but two sets of incompatible software, as we read, over and over again, a British politician give one view of events, and a Chinese official define it in completely different terms. The sense of an unfolding tragedy, explicable but inexorable, runs through the book, making it a gripping read as well as an important one.

02/09/2011

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The Literary Review

John Keay

… a lively, erudite and meticulously researched narrative … This is history wrenched from the hallucinogenic fumes and cast out into the cold light of contemporary relevance.

01/09/2011

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The Times

Jane Macartney

Lovell’s account of the war is lively with anecdote, and she brings to life the players … But it is when Lovell tackles the way in which the Opium Wars are used as a propaganda tool by modern rulers that the book shows its greatest value for those hoping to understand more about China today: “The point of remembering past bitterness was to remind the populace to savour the sweetness of the communist present.”

03/09/2011

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The Observer

Isabel Hilton

Lucid and compelling … No less interesting than the events themselves is Lovell's account of the war's afterlife. For the British, the opium war defined the Chinese as decadent orientals, caricatured in popular fiction in the early 20th century. Their influence lingers in recurrent racist stereotypes as China's rise sets western nerves on edge.

11/09/2011

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The Sunday Times

Frank Dikotter

John King Fairbank, doyen of modern Chinese studies at Harvard, once characterised the opium trade as “the most long-continued and systematic international crime of modern times” ... While Lovell’s book does little to query a rather hackneyed historical interpretation, it is an important reminder of how the memory of the opium war continues to cast a dark shadow.

04/09/2011

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