Reading Log 2019, #6: The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of Modern China by Julia Lovell

The modal American knows fuck-all about The Opium Wars. Maybe one in a hundred could tell you they involved China, maybe? One in a thousand could possibly identify the other participant, Great Britain. The number who could go into any amount of detail on the war beyond the phrase “treaty ports” would surely not tax the capacity of a minor-minor league ballpark in one of those flyover states whose borders were drawn by a government bureaucrat having only a ruler and a time limit.

Point being, a book like this, in English, is a massive undertaking. The author basically cannot assume any level of background knowledge on behalf of her reader; you have to cover EVERYTHING. Which probably leads to my one, quite thin, complaint with the book; I’d love to have seen it cover the Second Opium War in as much detail as the first, which is the actual topic of this book. It’s a thin complaint because a) the book quite specifically states that it is primarily about the first war and b) it still manages to cover the second in decent detail anyways.

But I get ahead of myself… The Opium War is a magnum opus, the finest history of the event available in English. It is more than just a history of the rather brief conflict that ran from 1839-1842 between a Britain that was essentially bullied into the conflict by her own merchant class and a Chinese Empire so vast, so decadent, and so dismissive of foreigners in every possible way that its court was, for most of the conflict, not even aware that it was at war.

The conflict itself is covered extremely well and in great detail. More importantly, though, is the back third of the book, which covers how the various Chinese governments since the war have viewed the war and presented it to their governed populace. If the phrase “Century of Humiliation” means nothing to you, this book might be a good place to start, and it’s something you should want to understand because undoing it undergirds the entirety of the Chinese government’s foreign policy.

The bad reviews I’ve seen of this book tend to come from, well, Chinese nationalists… they dislike some of the lightness with which Lovell occasionally treats the topic, but let’s be honest: some of the happenings in these events WERE comically absurd, period. She doesn’t stint on mentioning the awful, hypocritical nature of British rapaciousness in their conduct of the war, nor does she try to short-sell the deaths that resulted on the Chinese side. I feel it’s a balanced look at the causes and blame all around.

For a pretty obscure (in the West) topic, I think that this is a great book to pick up if you’re at all interested in rendering it not obscure for yourself, personally. A fascinating read on a frankly fascinating event.

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