The story of “the extraordinary war that has been haunting Sino-Western relations for almost two centuries.”
A fatal misunderstanding between the paternalistic British and the proud Chinese lay at the root of the First Opium War (1839-1842); the British were determined to open Chinese markets, and the Chinese resisted being bullied into submission. Lovell (Chinese History and Literature/Univ. of London; The Great Wall: China Against the World 1000 BC-AD 2000, 2006, etc.) offers extensive analysis of why and how this conflict helped create an entire founding theory of Chinese nationalism—the first step in China’s attempt to “stand up” to imperialist powers, as Mao Zedong put it, only to end with the Communist triumph of 1949. Opium was good business: The poppy fields of India were carefully overseen by the merchants of the East India Company and, like the lucrative tea trade with China, helped keep “the British empire afloat.” China had developed a craving for opium, and the British had grown a whopping trade deficit. While the British turned a blind eye to private merchants dealing in opium off the Chinese coast, the Qing rulers grew alarmed at the effects of opium addiction on the population. Emperor Daoguang, tottering on an unstable empire of Manchu minority and bureaucratic venality, found in opium a scapegoat, and he directed his agent Lin Zexu to inform Queen Victoria to “eliminate opium productions in her dominions.” His British counterpart, Charles Elliott, was either a “scheming genius” or caught in a bind: He allowed Lin to dump more than 20,000 chests of British opium into the Canton River in 1839, thus inviting the British to avenge what they considered a threat to the principle of extraterritorial powers. The rhetoric on both sides revealed deep suspicions of the other, provoking British “gunboat diplomacy,” against which the Chinese were woefully unprepared.
An astute, bracing history lesson on a conflict that set off the British notion of “yellow peril” and Chinese victimhood.