The Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars of the mid-19th century have sprung back into public memory in India recently. River of Smoke, the second instalment of Amitav Ghosh’s swashbuckling naval Ibis epic, which was published last month, is set in the bustling global city of Guangzhou, or Canton, and follows its Indian, Chinese and European characters, enmeshed in the opium trade through to the brink of the war.
The Opium Wars, conducted in two phases—1839-42 and 1856-60—were a bitter conflict between a British empire eager to expand its global trade, and Qing Dynasty China opposed to British ideas of trade and political relations, and severely displeased with the illegal British supply of opium (which came from the poppy fields of north India) entering the country and raising addiction rates among Chinese at alarming rates.
Author Julia Lovell.
China’s defeat in the wars is considered the mark of a long period of decline for the country. The world’s oldest nation, and one of its most powerful for much of human history, was to spend the next century fighting against Western empires on the one hand, and the belligerent Japanese empire on the other.
In her new book, The Opium War, Julia Lovell chronicles the history of this eco-political catastrophe for China. She examines how the war shaped China’s future, and still influences a certain Chinese view of history, diplomacy and foreign policy. Lovell, a Chinese scholar, works extensively on links between culture and modern Chinese nation-building. Her earlier books, The Politics of Cultural Capital: China’s Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature and The Great Wall: China against the World 1000 BC-AD 2000 have both examined aspects of this relationship. The Opium War is her third book.
Lovell spoke to Mint about her research and writing, the global impact of the Opium Wars, and their modern memory in China. Edited excerpts:
You are a historian of China. What drew you to the culture and the nation?
Like India, China is a world unto itself – a universe that is fascinatingly different from Britain, the country in which I grew up. I was drawn to China through a desire to understand a little part of this vast, complicated place.
And there’s an extraordinary drama to the narrative of modern China. At the start of the 19th century, it’s arguably one of the largest, most successful countries in the world. It’s a vast conquest empire, confidently in control of its own borders and foreign policy. Fast forward a hundred years, and China’s seen as the “sick man of East Asia”, and its capital is under attack by the armies of eight nations, during the Boxer War of 1900. Another century later, and China looks set to resume its old status as world superpower. It’s a compelling story of rise, fall and rise again.
Could you give us a sense of the opium trade that embroiled so many global forces (including the poppy fields of India) before the War?
I think that in Britain we’ve done our best to try and forget that our armies ever fought wars for opium in the 19th century. And yet much of our empire was built on drug money: on profits from the British opium monopoly in India. When the British secured Bengal in the second half of the 18th century, they quickly grabbed a monopoly on opium production there, forcing local Indian farmers to sign contracts for poppy cultivation. When the harvest was ready, raw opium sap was processed in British-run factories, packaged in mango wood chests and sold in China.
Opium reversed Britain’s massive trade deficit with Asia, funding the British tea addiction. Well past the 1850s, opium sales in China substantially underwrote the Raj (by 1856, opium revenue represented almost 22% of British India’s total revenue) and generated the silver for Britain to trade along the Indian Ocean. The drug kept the world economy moving: After British bills bought American cotton, American traders used these bills to buy tea in China; the Chinese then swapped them for Indian opium. Opium bankrolled globalization.
You write of “bureaucratic fumblings ...opportunism and collaboration” during these wars. How did one of the world’s mightiest nations lose this battle?
Logically, there was so much that could go wrong: Both the Britons and the Chinese who were directing the war in deep south China were months away from instructions from their prime ministers or emperors. And there were enormous linguistic obstacles, too: The best translators that the Chinese had tended only to understand pidgin English, rather than the written English of diplomatic communications; the British were slightly better equipped, but had only a small handful of skilled interpreters.
There are several reasons for China’s defeat. One is British technical superiority: at the time, large parts of the Qing army were still using swords, bows and shields, or outdated firearms. But the Chinese government was also too busy with other frontier wars and domestic problems to concentrate properly on the war; the emperor and his men seem to have had (at best) half an eye on the Opium War. In contemporary China, the Opium War is seen as an epochal trauma for the country; that’s not how it seemed at the time.
Could you give us a glimpse of how it influences an official Chinese world view today?
In China today, every schoolchild is taught that the Opium War is the tragic curtain-raiser on the country’s modern history. The War is, in public at least, told as a story of evil British imperialists pushing drugs on the Chinese, to rob them of their silver and their will to resist foreign invasion. In 1839, the Chinese government declared war on opium and this poisonous conspiracy. At that point, British warships arrived and bullied China out of tens of millions of dollars in the first of many unequal treaties that left China the sick man of East Asia. So British gunboat diplomacy and opium brought the great Chinese empire to its knees.
This is the founding myth of Chinese nationalism. It begins what people in China call the “Century of Humiliation” by the West, and China’s battle to “stand up” as a strong modern nation.
The war is incredibly relevant to an ambitious, rising China. This is a state, remember, that on the one hand sees itself as a superpower, but on the other is constantly suspicious that the West is somehow trying to keep it down.
So in this context, the Opium War is far more than history. In Chinese politics, the war stands for the long-term Western plot to undermine China; and the Communist government portrays itself as the only political force able to resist this plot. If the West criticizes China, the Chinese government can press what you might call the Opium War button. It keeps far quieter about its own mistakes in the second half of the 20th century: the purges, the terrors, the manmade famine that left 30 or perhaps 40 million Chinese dead. The regime spends so much time and energy commemorating the “Century of Humiliation” because it doesn’t want people thinking about its own disasters.
So to understand China’s often troubled relationship with the West, you have to understand how and why China remembers the Opium War.
Could you tell us a bit about the process of working on the book? What kind of work did reconstructing this massive history entail?
As my long-suffering husband will tell you, it often involved me losing my sense of humour. I wanted to reconstruct the war from both Chinese and British perspectives, and as a result I faced an intimidating mass of Chinese and Western sources. As is the case with probably all wars, both sides disagreed on the outcome of just about every single event.
But I loved the detective work involved in squaring British and Chinese accounts of the same incidents, and in spotting the outrageous lies that were told by British and Chinese officials and generals to their commanders back home.
I also did a lot of fieldwork in contemporary China: I tracked attitudes to the Opium War by interviewing Chinese journalists, politicians, film-makers, bloggers, teachers and schoolchildren, and by visiting museums and memorials where the Opium War is remembered. Very often, I was surprised by what I discovered there. In China’s public history industry, there’s a lot of sound and fury about Britain’s crimes against China. But when you actually talk to ordinary Chinese people about the Opium War, their responses are pragmatically laid-back, as well as patriotic.
As I wandered around museums depicting the horrors of British aggression during the Opium War, I was often stopped by people wanting to practise their English, or ask me questions about studying in England. I sat through the lectures that Chinese students have to attend on the Opium War—the audiences were bored, not angry. I kept myself awake by sitting at the back and counting how many people had fallen asleep.
Was there anything that you came across while writing ‘The Opium War’ that surprised you? Why?
One of my favourite discoveries while I was writing was a spectacularly vague letter that the Qing emperor sent to one of his frontline officials some two and a half years into the war (just a few weeks before everything was going to be wrapped up). “Actually, where is England?” he wanted to know. “And why does it want to sell us opium?”
The emperor’s men on the ground—his generals—also seriously lacked focus. They kept their financial records in a state that makes my tax return look almost respectable. I must confess, that detail really pleased me. I realised you could be in charge of one of the biggest, most important countries in the world and have the financial sense of a British academic.
I was surprised also at how much cooperation and collaboration there was between the British and China during the Opium War. For sure, if their lives or property or family were threatened, the Chinese fought – but these were personal, not patriotic fights. Many ordinary Chinese saw the war as an opportunity to make money from the British, not as a clash with the evil enemy. They sold the British supplies, they navigated, they spied for them.
Researching the Opium War threw out so many of my assumptions about China. I used to think of it as a basically together, coherent kind of place. In the 19th century, it really wasn’t like that at all. It was a mess: scattered with chancers who’d sell their loyalty to the highest bidder.