Stephen R Platt is a history professor at the University of Massachusetts who has written a compelling history of the relationship between Britain and Imperial China in the late 18th century. The work is eminently readable as the author introduces us to the relationships and misunderstandings of the fascinating collection of people involved in this important period.
Platt focuses on the period leading up to the Opium War rather than the war itself. The history is told from a wide range of perspectives: the merchants in the Canton trading area; missionaries with grandiose plans to convert the Chinese; and of course, the politicians on both sides.
In a period of rapid industrialisation and the victories in the Napoleonic wars, Britain was the most powerful military nation in the world, thanks to the Royal Navy. Merchants wanted to expand beyond the small trading area at Canton into the vast interior of China and wanted the backing of the navy to do so. Although there were merchants and politicians who spoke and read Chinese, the overwhelming impression one gains from the book is that the British never had a deep understanding of how China, and the Chinese, saw themselves.
The Chinese were willing to trade with Britain, and other countries, but on their terms. The British never seemed to grasp that the Qing Emperor was willing to cut off all trade if the ‘barbarians’, as the westerners were viewed by the Chinese, did not conform to their regulations and laws. Platt notes several occasions when the Chinese stated that they did not actually ‘need’ anything the merchants had to offer.
That may well have been true for cotton goods from the newly industrialised cotton towns, but it wasn’t true of opium. Opium came from British India and, although illegal in China, it was regularly smuggled in. Initially, opium was largely restricted to the elites of Chinese society due to its cost. However, as it was hugely profitable, more and more was brought in by the British. It was responsible for the trade imbalance shifting to favour Britain. This had devastating impacts both socially and financially in China.
The Chinese confiscation of the opium from the merchants was merely the straw which broke the camel’s back. Corruption within the Imperial bureaucracy, popular uprisings and financial difficulties had all worked to weaken the Chinese state much more than is usually understood. Even so, the Opium War was by no means inevitable. Corruption existed on the British side too, at least in the sense that the government sent war ships to force the Chinese to open their ports to the deadly opium trade.
The book is a thoroughly entertaining read and reminds us to consider how the great wonders and progress of the Victorian age were achieved and financed – and at whose cost. Platt argues the war hastened the fall of the Qing dynasty and, even today, is still seen in China as pivotal in the nationalist and communist movements of the twentieth century.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 9
Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: July 2018