Aim for the foot

The Opium Wars by Julia Lovell.

The Opium Wars is a book in two parts: the first part is about the wars themselves, and the second about how the China has used the conflict for its own purposes since.

These are two conflicts which redound to the glory of neither side. Britain was pumping opium into China, which led to a significant proportion of the male population of the eastern seaboard becoming addicted to the drug. The Chinese empire was a fractious mess. Lin Zexu seemed to be the man to see the foreigners off the premises, but he and his successors then deliberately misled one emperor or another about the progress of the war. The Chinese hated the Manchus who ruled them, and they weren’t too fond of each other, either. Although their numbers were superior and there were occasions when they proved to be worthy opponents, there were more occasions when British technology prevailed.

After the war, China was viewed as the yellow peril by the West even although this was a ridiculous exaggeration. It also seemed to be quickly forgotten that China’s addiction to opium was a consequence of the market being flooded with imports from India. Thus the Chinese were blamed for an addiction which was not of their own making.

For their part, the Chinese often blamed their government rather than the British or other outsiders for their problems, and many believed that the adoption of Western systems was the way forward. The Opium Wars were also taken as the starting point for the so-called Century of Humiliation.

Lovell attempts to take a fairly balanced perspective, although she is no apologist for the Chinese as she shows that they’re perfectly prepared to throw their nationalist tendencies out of the window without apparently noticing the irony of their actions.

I cannot comment on the book from a historical perspective because I knew next to nothing about the Opium Wars apart from the most general facts. However, from a practical perspective, the chapters do tend to ramble on, which makes it difficult to get through one before bedtime without starting rather early. (Yes, I know this is a trivial matter, but I felt I ought to say something.)


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