A deeply researched study of an early clash of civilizations, when England attempted to impose its will on East Asia.
The Opium War of 1839 began, in at least one sense, a half-century earlier, when a British adventurer attracted enough attention after wandering around in the country to give the imperial Chinese government a solid case that it didn’t want outsiders to enter the realm. After a period of imprisonment, writes Platt (Chinese History/Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst; Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, 2012, etc.), the traveler returned to England, where he taught an American named Benjamin Franklin how to make tofu. After that comparatively pleasant interlude, things took a martial turn; Britain and France sent competing fleets, and Asia beckoned to every European imperial power. China tried to fend them off, with the governor general of Macao, for instance, closing off access to food and water to foreign fleets. While the emperor accepted gifts from the king of England, he did not welcome commerce: “If the king would just tend to the boundaries of his own empire…and feel ‘dutiful submission’ within his own heart, there would be no need for a British mission ever to come to China again.” The British did come, demanding that China open its markets for the sale of illegal opium. As the author notes, it’s not as if there was no demand for the product—Chinese students used it to stay sharp for their exams, and “for those in more humble situations who couldn’t afford to smoke it themselves, employment in the opium trade still provided a chance for income as couriers and petty dealers.” British victory opened the door to concessions to other European powers and, in time, brought down the Qing monarchy, which ushered in the modern, communist China—surely a lesson in unintended consequences.
A fluent, well-written exercise in revisionism, one of interest to students of modern geopolitics as well as 19th-century history.