Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Opium War

Book Cover

Book Title

The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China. London: Picador, 2011


Lovell, Julia


Lovell follows her study of the Great Wall with this monograph quite similar in approach, combining analysis of the event with critical discussion of how it travelled in public memory ever since, as part of the ongoing process of defining China, at home and abroad. Lovell’s explanation of the Opium War builds usefully on the principal Chinese and British studies, and heavily mines contemporary sources from both sides. The War had its deeper roots and causes. On the British side, these included growing frustration over the refusal of the Qing Dynasty to treat foreign governments as diplomatic equals, similar frustration over being confined to one small area near Canton from which to carry on trade, increasing disregard for Chinese administration, power, and culture, and growing interest in the ever more important opium traffic, as an enabler of the all-important tea trade. For the Qing government, growing frustration with the behaviour of Western merchants near Canton, increasing concern over the effects of the opium traffic on public health, the economy, and public administration, and a strong desire to resolve these problems so as to concentrate on more serious internal challenges elsewhere, all played a part. But contingency and misunderstanding sparked the conflict itself. Commissioner Lin reflected the larger policy of his government: both knew what they wanted to do, but had no idea what kind of backlash this would provoke, and how they could handle such a reaction. Chief Superintendent Elliot knew what he wanted, but had to manufacture a grave challenge to national power out of a minor dispute over regional trade in order to pursue his agenda. Both men on the spot found themselves working for political masters who misread their enemy. Both launched a war without having any idea how to terminate it. Both fought a war shaped more by domestic politics than any strategic clash of vital interests on the spot.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The campaigns of the Opium War exposed the creeping decline of the Qing state as a military power. Coastal defences were in a chronic state of disrepair or neglect. Naval forces were hopelessly outmatched by the up to date steamers deployed by the British. Ground force weapons ranged from old to antiquated. What made all this much worse was the inability of the Qing government to audit any of these or other shortcomings, and deal with them. The Daoguang Emperor regarded the fighting as an annoying minor skirmish with impertinent foreigners on one of the empire’s frontiers, and kept pressing for it to be resolved by a salutary demonstration of force, leading to the resumption of trade on the same terms minus the opium traffic. His commanders in the field, stunned by their inability to cope with British naval power in particular, prevaricated, dissembled, or simply lied, assuring Beijing that all was going well and hostilities would soon be over. This was supposed to reflect the Chinese ‘middle kingdom’ mentality that so infuriated the British, who made expansive demands that would ‘open up’ China to diplomacy and trade. Because those demands would compel the Qing state to confront its fundamental policies and attitudes, no one engaged them. Canton was besieged, stormed and taken. British expeditionary forces moved up the East Coast of China, then inland along the Yangtze. In the process they exposed the fault lines of Qing vulnerability. Local populations did not always regard their own armies and governors as deserving their active support. Some Manchu garrisons fought to the death, having been told the British took no prisoners. Others fled at the proverbial first shot. Successive Chinese commanders could neither find a way to treat with the British on terms the Empire could accept, or stop their gunboat diplomacy by military power. The Qing Empire was too distracted to concentrate the sheer numbers to stop the British, too fixated on its own world view to evaluate that of their enemy, and its writ in the south was too frail to rally the region to the cause. Too many people made too much money out of opium, which sparked the conflict in the first place.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Lovell goes on to analyze the Arrow or Second Opium War as very much an extension of the first, initiated in order to pursue the full concessions as to trade and diplomacy, especially extraterritorial permanent trading residence, which the British thought they secured with the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing. This more drastic conflict ended only when British and French armies took over Beijing itself, razed the Summer Palace to the ground, and forcibly connected China to a newly emerging world order in which it had no central position. These imperial penetrations led China into the era of final decline for the Qing, punctuated by the growing foreign presence in China and her economy. Such pressures provoked recrimination, self-criticism, angst, and what became a chronic Chinese search for answers as to how to cope with this modern world. In that very internal experience, memories of the Opium War played some part. But those memories travelled over time, both reflecting, and influencing, changing context.

For contemporaries and following generations, defeat at British hands exposed the corruption, incompetence, weakness, and fecklessness of the Qing state and its officials. Chinese weakness was a principal theme. Such perceptions began to change after the 1911 Revolution that led in due course to Republican China. This 20th century effort to modernize rediscovered the Opium War as nothing less than the beginning of Chinese modern history itself, as the start of what became the ‘century of humiliation,’ which saw China exploited and oppressed by foreign imperialism because it was weak, divided, backward and inefficient. Both Nationalists and Communists played up these themes of humiliation due to weakness, turning them almost into a morality play in which Western and then Japanese wickedness was able to harm China because under the Qing it had become so slothful. The PRC made Communist success at expelling all foreign influence and reunifying China the cornerstone of its legitimacy, drawing on the Opium War and associated themes of humiliation and imperialism to re-educate generations of Chinese in a new national narrative. This narrative persists today, however it has not succeeded in throwing off the heavy theme that marked it from the start: the counterpoint to foreign bullying was Chinese weakness. The internal defined the experience, and the memory.

Lovell’s main thesis is just this: the Chinese state blundered into a war it did not want in 1839 because it pursued a policy shaped almost entirely by internal concerns and considerations, and the foreign policies it pursues today remain as heavily driven by domestic factors. The strategic and diplomatic autism by which Chinese commanders conducted the Opium War bears her out, as analyzed by a clear and insightful narrative. The military mismatch shocked Chinese decision makers, but no more than their belated understanding that the British simply would not stop advancing until the Empire itself treated with them. The care and concern the Qing lavished on domestic pressures was matched by the tendency to take almost for granted the world outside, which included its foothold on the Pearl River. Chinese strategic decisions were, and are, made through a lens that looks through Chinese internal priorities.

Annotated by Brian Farrell