The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China 
by Julia Lovell.
Picador, 458 pp., £25, September 2011, 978 0 330 45747 7
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In China the Opium War is taken to mark the beginning of the country’s modern history, seen as one of continuous national humiliation under the heel of Western imperialism, bravely but hopelessly resisted by the peasantry, until Chairman Mao came along. It takes pride of place in school history courses; monuments, museums, books, films and TV documentaries are devoted to it; and there is even a computer game in which you can play at bashing the British at Canton. Wasn’t David Cameron aware of all this when he arrived in Beijing in November 2010 wearing a Remembrance Day poppy in his buttonhole? Or the right-wing press, when it heaped praise on him for allegedly refusing to remove it when the Chinese asked him? That will have stirred up historical memories, too. Much of the diplomatic row over the opium issue in 1839-42 (the period of the First Opium War, which Julia Lovell’s book focuses on) revolved around who should ‘kowtow’ to whom.

It hardly seems surprising that the event has slipped British historical memory. I don’t imagine the topic will make it into Michael Gove’s ‘patriotic’ school history syllabus, and even at the time it was seen as something of an embarrassment. A war ‘undertaken against a nation so puerile in that art’, one military official wrote, ‘would better deserve the name of murder, and could certainly add no laurels to British valour’. Murder seems an apt word: tens of thousands of Chinese were killed (some killed themselves, out of shame), but the British (and Indian auxiliaries) suffered only minor casualties. Julia Lovell describes it from eyewitness accounts: the ‘brain-spattered walls’ of the forts the British stormed; ‘bent, blackened, smouldering, stinking’ human remains; ‘the bodies of the slain … found literally three and four deep’; the sea ‘quite blackened with corpses’ and so on; as well as the excesses of the rampaging British troops afterwards, pillaging, desecrating holy sites, shooting prisoners and raping women. It was too easy. And all in the interests of a bunch of drug-pushers. Hardly any of the British participants felt proud of their victory; which I suppose was to their credit.

The other thing that may have banished it from our memories is that in the broader context of imperial history it seems so marginal – especially if you don’t know about those blackened corpses. It didn’t expand the area of the empire by very much: just the tiny island of Hong Kong (80 km2, before it was enlarged with the lease of the New Territories), which was virtually uninhabited when Britain took it over, incredible as that now seems, plus a few semi-autonomous ‘treaty ports’. Britain didn’t gain – because it didn’t demand – any exclusive trading rights with China; only free trade for everyone, including in Indian-grown opium. The main instigators of the quarrel were not the British government, but those same opium traders, especially the Scottish firms of Jardine and Matheson, whose (merged) company is still engaged in Eastern trade, though it now keeps the drug-smuggling on which its fortunes were founded very quiet. The underlying rationale was a very specific commercial one: Britain wanted Chinese goods, especially tea and chinoiserie; the Chinese didn’t want anything in return except opium, which meant there would have been a huge trade deficit without it, paid for in silver. The government got involved because of perceived insults and trumped-up treaty violations. Palmerston, the foreign secretary, was at the height of his civis Britannicus sum braggadocio: British citizens, like the Romans, should be able to count on the state to get them out of foreign fixes. In this case the fix seemed trivial, and the imperial responsibilities minor. The huge bulk of the Celestial Empire remained as independent as, say, Britain is now. When ‘imperialism’ was taken to mean ‘painting the map red’, it was difficult to see where the Opium Wars fitted in.

The irony – in view of the wars’ importance to the Chinese now – is that at the time they didn’t take them very seriously. On the emperor’s part this was largely due to ignorance, both of the world outside China – ‘Where is this England?’ he asked, quite late on in the war – and of the progress of events. His officials constantly lied to him. ‘It’s just empty bluster,’ Niu Jian, the governor-general of Zhejiang, wrote in July 1842. ‘I have the situation perfectly under control – they are not going to attack.’ But attack they did, and the Chinese were routed. Niu Jian ran away. Such defeats were scarcely surprising: China had poor troop morale (men had to be bribed to turn up), incompetent generals, antiquated and rusting artillery, and ‘secret weapons’ such as hundreds of women’s chamberpots, which were floated out towards the enemy boats, and monkeys, which were flung onto the boats with firecrackers strapped to their backs. Even the worst defeats weren’t reported back to the emperor, but reframed as victories. (An account of one such engagement claimed that 500 British soldiers had been killed – the real figure was three – including ‘their chief, Palmerston’.) The emperor had no way of gauging the true seriousness of the affair until the very end. At last, in 1842, someone had the guts to tell him: ‘My anger and hatred are inexpressible,’ he wrote (in imperial vermilion ink) on the report. Shortly afterwards he authorised the Treaty of Nanjing, which gave the foreigners almost everything they wanted, though not without leaving some wiggle-room.

Another reason the First Opium War did not seem all that important to the Chinese was that they had other things on their minds. ‘Our emperor has innumerable great problems to consider every day,’ as one of his negotiators put it. ‘Certainly it is not worthwhile to bother his mind with such petty business.’ He also pointed out how expensive it would be to strengthen China’s coastal defences. The empire was not the rock-solid monolith it was usually seen as at the time, and still sometimes is today, but an unstable mix of races, cultures and religions, ruled over by a foreign dynasty, and continually plagued by civil conflicts, especially at its borders. Lovell calls it a ‘cross-bred state’. She expresses surprise that it did not collapse on any of a dozen occasions during the 18th and 19th centuries (so why didn’t it?). In this context, the British attacks weren’t particularly special. The foreigners in their sleek ships and odd costumes were just another bunch of ‘rebels’. That was what they were invariably called, which must be significant: ‘invaders’ might have had different implications.

When it came to explaining their humiliations, the Chinese tended not to blame the invaders so much as themselves, or their Manchu rulers, or other Chinese. They were embarrassed by their own cowardice, scathing about their military leaders, suspicious of their compatriots (the Cantonese especially) for cosying up to the foreign traders, and constantly seeing traitors in their midst. They also blamed themselves for the opium trade: if corrupt local officials hadn’t been so willing to disregard the ban on its import, and the Chinese hadn’t wanted to smoke the stuff, it would not have gone on. China’s wounds were self-inflicted. ‘Worms only appear in a rotten carcass,’ was how one man put it in the 1860s. This seems to have been the usual Chinese reaction to the Opium Wars for years afterwards. ‘If a people is dispirited and stupid,’ Yan Fu wrote half a century later, ‘then the society will disintegrate, and when a society in disintegration encounters an aggressive, intelligent, patriotic people, it will be dominated.’ That at least spread the responsibility. It was only much later, in the 1920s, that Western capitalist imperialism came to seem the real villain of the piece, ‘discovered’ by Lenin and then scapegoated by Sun Yat-sen in order, Lovell suggests, to get desperately needed Soviet funding for the Nationalist revolution he was leading. It was the ideological fee he was expected to pay. It was then too that the First Opium War came to be seen as the opening salvo of an imperialist plot to befuddle the minds and enslave the bodies of the Chinese.

As for the British back home, they never approved of it. The fact that it was called an ‘opium war’ almost from the beginning saw to that. There were attempts to soften the drug’s image – upper-class aesthetes in England had, after all, been experimenting with it for years, and it was widely used in patent medicines, especially in the Fen Country apparently – but that cut little ice with Britain’s puritans, and the idea of forcing it on people who had laws against its use was deplored. You could blame the Chinese, as many Chinese themselves did. ‘If your people are virtuous,’ Henry Pottinger, the most unbending of Britain’s agents in China, claimed, ‘they will desist from the evil practice; and if your officers are incorruptible, and obey their orders, no opium can enter your country. The discouragement of the growth of the poppy in our territories rests principally with you.’ He suggested that they legalise it, stamping out smuggling that way. Most British, however, weren’t having this. The opium trade, they believed, demeaned and disgraced the whole enterprise. The Radical Richard Cobden thought it showed the British up as ‘bullies’ and ‘cowards’. The imperialist Lord Elgin claimed it revealed ‘how hollow and superficial’ were ‘both their civilisation and their Christianity’. Gladstone thought it ‘covered this country with permanent disgrace’. Even the Times was ashamed, at least initially. So excuses had to take other forms.

One was to demote opium in the pecking order of motives for the war, putting it below Chinese ‘insults’, and the broader and essentially ethical principle of spreading ‘enlightenment’ through free trade. Palmerston, outrageous as ever, used the first approach to get temporary backing for war in the House of Commons; thereafter the second approach proved more persuasive. The war may have been wrong in its origins, but it had worked out well in the end because it had opened up China. ‘We weep over the miseries’ of the Chinese, a Protestant missionary proclaimed in 1857, ‘but we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that nothing but the strong arm of foreign power can soon open the field for the entrance of the Gospel.’ One or two persuaded themselves that the Chinese were crying out to be ‘liberated’ from their tyrants (see Iraq in 2003). It was also argued that if Britain could force free trade on China, and cultivate a taste there for other British exports (pots, textiles, pianos), it might no longer need opium to balance the books. That unfettered trade leads to liberty, prosperity and happiness was a common liberal shibboleth then, and remains so in some quarters. Whether it worked in China in the 19th century is open to dispute. The country remained a tough commercial nut to crack, outside the Treaty Ports, even after the Opium Wars. It could be that Britain’s way of opening up the country – with gunboats – was counter-productive. Charles Elliot, a far gentler envoy than Pottinger, which is why Palmerston eventually sacked him, thought it would have been (in Lovell’s paraphrase) ‘better for the long term to bank goodwill than hard cash’. In the very long term this has turned out to be wise advice.

This is a fine account of the First Opium War, from Chinese sources as well as Western, by a writer who seems admirably sensitive to the cultural differences that have always made understanding China so difficult for Westerners, and vice versa. The war itself did nothing to help that. It pushed the Chinese further into their shell until, very late on in the century (and after more Western invasions), reformers like Yan Fu and Sun Yet-sen decided to visit Europe to discover what made it at any rate materially superior. Yan Fu took on board almost everything he found there: Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Montesquieu, the notion of impartial justice, patriotism. Until then, however, prejudice and hostile stereotypes persisted. ‘The English,’ announced placards posted up in Canton just after the First Opium War, ‘are born and grow up in wicked and noxious villages beyond the pale of civilisation, have wolfish hearts and brutish faces, the looks of the tiger and the suspicion of the fox.’ The Chinese made huge fun of the ‘heavy, greasy meat dishes for which they have such a passion’; the British obsession with exercise (Lovell writes that ‘one Chinese official is supposed to have once asked a British consul why he did not pay someone to play tennis on his behalf’); and their tight trousers, which it was thought must give their enemies an advantage in battle: ‘Once fallen down, they cannot stand up again.’

On the British side we find the same. Charles Dickens’s sneering dismissal of the ‘glory of yellow jaundice’ at a display of chinoiserie (products, he claimed, that had ‘made no advance and been of no earthly use for thousands of years’), held to coincide with the Great Exhibition in 1851, is notorious. This was the main charge levelled against the Chinese: that they had frittered away millennia making silly toys. Their abject humiliation in the recent war was supposed to bear this out.

But it also had another effect. It added ‘opium’ to the noxious xenophobic mix. This might seem unreasonable in view of Britain’s responsibility for the trade, but Lovell’s explanation is that it was a way of shifting some of the shame they felt onto the Chinese. ‘War guilt,’ she writes, can lead to ‘ever more militant acts of self-justification. Once blood has been shed in dubious circumstances, those involved often try to brazen it out: first, through blaming the injured party for forcing them to act thus; and second, through affirming the validity of their violence by persisting with it.’ The ‘opium den’ became a key element in popular images of China in the later 19th century and well into the 20th. When Chinese opium dens were found (or alleged to have been found) in British cities, at a time when there was panic about ‘national degeneration’ – stunted growth, crime, hooliganism, illegitimacy, homosexuality, masturbation and so on – it seemed to prove that the Chinese were not only a threat to themselves, but to ‘us’ as well. It’s easy to find evidence of this in the popular culture of the day. Trashy papers featured semi-pornographic woodcuts of English women lounging about, usually en déshabillé, in smoky opium dens. You couldn’t get much more threatening than poisoning the womb of the English race. It was said that some of these women actually married opium den proprietors, with the result that their skin yellowed and their eyes narrowed. (Lovell is wrong to say that the ‘strict British immigration policy that prohibited Chinese workers from bringing their families with them’ was to blame for these marriages. There was no such policy.) Later on, Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu Manchu came to embody the modern Yellow Peril – all evidence, Lovell thinks, of the lasting legacy of the war.

She may be exaggerating here – she isn’t as surefooted on the British aspect of her subject as she seems to be on the Chinese. There are errors, such as the one about immigration. It was in fact the open nature of British society, with no effective means of excluding or expelling any immigrants at all, that gave Britons the moral right, as they thought, to object to China’s insularity. Lovell’s sources for ‘opinion’ about China, too, are rather thin. Almost the only newspaper she has consulted directly is the Times, which she takes to be representative of ‘the press’, but of course it wasn’t. (There was some excuse for this when the Times was the only newspaper that was indexed, but not now that most of the others have been digitised.) This has led her to miss a great deal of British commentary from the middle of the century, which was pro-Chinese on the whole and took Dickens and other sinophobes to task. She also ignores the many fictional ripostes to Fu Manchu, like Earl Derr Biggers’s sympathetic and even heroic (albeit still stereotypical) Charlie Chan. (Biggers, unlike Rohmer, knew something of China.) Western images of China have always been complex and varied.

What does seem to have survived into modern times is a different image of China, as a sleeping giant, potentially vigorous and resourceful, which it may have been impolitic for the West to have provoked. Exactly a century ago the Times predicted this future China, ‘teeming with vitality … slowly modernised, then suddenly eager for expansion, perhaps for conquest, for world power, if not for revenge for wrongs inflicted on it by nearly every European power’. This encompasses most of the fears Americans now have of China: teeming, certainly; rapidly industrialising; expanding (economically) into Africa; orientally cunning in its manipulation of financial markets; over-exporting, just as it did in the mid-19th century, though with no hope this time (one presumes) of balancing the deficit with drugs; widely tipped as the US’s successor as world superpower; and yet still not properly understood by Westerners, any more than the Celestial Empire had been.

As for ‘revenge for wrongs inflicted’, we can only hope that the Chinese have forgiven us. There may be reasons for thinking they have. One of the most interesting findings in this book comes not from documentary evidence, but from conversations Lovell had with history teachers and pupils in Chinese schools. Officially the ‘patriotic’ line is that everything bad that has happened to China in the last 170 years, starting with the Opium Wars, is the fault of Western imperialism. Lovell sat in on a lesson on the subject. ‘Soon, the only way I could keep myself awake was by sitting at the back and keeping a count on all the students who had obviously fallen asleep.’ When it came to the class discussion, however, they all perked up: ‘We lost because we were too weak, too closed up’; ‘We had no backbone’; ‘Our weapons were three hundred years behind the West’; ‘We were too cowardly, too backward, too isolated.’ They were returning to the line their ancestors had taken in the 19th century. This may be one of the most remarkable and distinctive features of the Opium Wars: that both sides’ perceptions of them at the time, and historical memories of them since, are so inglorious.

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