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The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China [Paperback]

Julia Lovell
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
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Book Description

19 July 2012

‘A gripping read as well as an important one.’ Rana Mitter, Guardian

In October 1839, Britain entered the first Opium War with China. Its brutality notwithstanding, the conflict was also threaded with tragicomedy: with Victorian hypocrisy, bureaucratic fumblings, military missteps, political opportunism and collaboration. Yet over the past hundred and seventy years, this strange tale of misunderstanding, incompetence and compromise has become the founding episode of modern Chinese nationalism.

Starting from this first conflict, The Opium War explores how China’s national myths mould its interactions with the outside world, how public memory is spun to serve the present, and how delusion and prejudice have bedevilled its relationship with the modern West.

‘Lively, erudite and meticulously researched’ Literary Review

‘An important reminder of how the memory of the Opium War continues to cast a dark shadow.’ Sunday Times

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Product details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Picador (19 July 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330457489
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330457484
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 13 x 3.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 41,716 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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`Making the most of her considerable gifts as a story teller and deep familiarity with the contrasting ways that the tale of the Opium War has been told inside and outside of China, Julia Lovell offers us a fresh perspective on a pivotal episode in nineteenth-century history. The result is a compulsively readable and consistently thought provoking work. It is filled with both lively accounts of things that happened long ago and insightful comments on the powerful shadows that these old events continue to cast in our still-young century.' --Jeffrey Wasserstrom, author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know

`Julia Lovell has written a lucid, perceptive and rich account of this much manipulated story of the first, bruising encounter between China and the West. An important and compelling book for anyone who wants to understand the uses and misuses of Chinese history.'

`No one who has read Julia Lovell's marvelous book on the Great Wall of China will be surprised that she has written such a great history of the Opium War. This defining passage in China's history - the beginning of a grisly century and a half of exploitation and misery - provides a rich seam of material which Julia Lovell draws on with huge narrative skill. Not the least of her attributes is her ability to show how these events have resonated down the years. A real cracker of a book.' --Chris Patten, former Governor and Commander in Chief of Hong Kong

`You cannot understand China today without understanding the huge impact the Opium Wars have had on restructuring Chinese national pride. This is the first western book I have read that does justice to that complicated story.' --Xinran, author of The Good Women of China and Message From an Unknown Chinese Mother.

`In this riveting book, Julia Lovell explores the myths surrounding opium trading and the titanic clash between Britain and China, which shaped China's perception of its place in the world for more than a century. This book is at its heart a powerful plea for deeper mutual sympathy between the West and China; with Western economies under stress and tensions rising over trade imbalances, the parallel between the 1830's and today is unmistakable . . . we would be wise to heed the ancient warning that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.'
--Tim Clissold, author of Mr China

'More than just a history... by looking at the conflict from a contemporary viewpoint, The Opium War offers insight into an Asian superpower still uneasy with its trade relations with the West.' --International Herald Tribune --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Julia Lovell teaches modern Chinese history at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is the author of The Great Wall: China Against the World and The Politics of Cultural Capital: China’s Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature and writes on China for the Guardian, Independent and The Times Literary Supplement. Her many translations of modern Chinese fiction include, most recently, Lu Xun’s The Real Story of Ah-Q, and Other Tales of China.

Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good two-sided narrative 11 Sep 2012
By reader 451 TOP 1000 REVIEWER
The story of the First Opium War (1839-42) has been told before. The question, then, is what Julia Lovell adds to it. First, her narrative reads well, balancing the military account, political decision-making, private descriptions, and analysis. Second, Lovell is a sinologist and translator from Chinese, and her book is based on both English-language and Chinese sources. The Opium War is indeed neither kind to the British nor the Chinese, not hesitating to dwell either on the appalling brutality of the British or the frequent incompetence of the main Chinese actors. Dishonesty abounded on both sides, and it would all often have been funny if failures to communicate had not been punctuated with such terrible slaughter. Perhaps Lovell overdoes the level of indecision on the British side, especially under the leadership of Charles Elliott, the British superintendant in Canton during the first phase of operations. The bibliography suggests she did not visit the foreign office archives, relying instead on published compilations, and this unfortunately leaves a question mark over the Palmerston-Elliott relationship. Indeed, this is all the more surprising that Lovell seems to teach at Birkbeck, and the archives are in London. Nevertheless, the dysfunctionality on the Manchu side is staggering. Chinese and Manchu were invariably at odds. And officials consistently lied to the emperor, blamed supposed traitors, and procrastinated instead of trying to appraise the threat they were faced with. By the time of the Second Opium War (1856-60), the Chinese administration had at least understood that its problem was a technological gap, even if filling it was another matter. In 1839-42, no-one even knew what questions to ask. Read more ›
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Poppy Power 6 Oct 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Beautifully written account of a not so glorious period of British history; the Opium Wars with China. The British went to war to keep the hugely profitable opium trade with China open whilst the Chinese ,realising the debilitating effect it was having on a vast swathe of their population ,were trying to stop it. The many maps are terrific, and it gave me a much better understanding of the Chinese today.
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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but flawed 13 Oct 2011
Format:Kindle Edition
This was an engaging read that filled me in on some aspects of the Opium Wars I was unclear about, especially the way in which the trade was brought to an end. A lot of research has obviously been done. It's an interesting counterpoint to the simplistic, jingoistic narrative set out by the CCP, who dominate the conversation more than perhaps they should.

However, I believe the book suffers from a couple of flaws. While the Qing were clearly both incompetent and unpopular rulers, I felt the author adopted an almost sneering tone towards Chinese attempts to repel the British, something out of place in a scholarly work. This is not to say that she underplays the invidious nature of British actions during the conflict.

I also felt that the final chapter was a bit of an afterthought. I agree with many of the sentiments expressed about current Chinese attitudes to the West, and share Lovell's concern about the rise in toxic ultra-Nationalism. I'm just not sure that this book is the place to deal with the subject. Despite these reservations, The Opium War is certainly worth a read by anyone interested in the period. It'll be interesting to see how Paxman deals with the same subject in his new book on the British Empire.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars two centuries of mutual incomprehension 16 Jan 2012
By markr TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
An excellent book, well written and highly readable, which gives an entertaining and informative account of the two opium wars fought by Britain and China in the nineteenth century. The British, keen to raise revenues from the sale of opium to finance the purchase of tea and to offset the rising costs of empire, as well as to encourage China into more open approach to trade in general, refused to accept the entirely reasonable Chinese desire to prevent the growing trade in the drug and its ill effects on the population. And so two wars were fought to settle the issue, atrocities were committed, Chinese costal cities were occupied, and Hong Hong was taken and held for over one hundred years until 1997.

Both sides, with some exceptions even at the time, held firm to a sense of superiority in their respective civilisations over the other, and were equally sure of the rightness of their cause. Neither side held the other in much respect, and this lack of respect fuelled the flames of war. Neither side had any real comprehension of the other's motives, values, or ambitions

Ms Lovell's account of the historical events, and the shadows which they continue to shed over China's relationship with the West, is entertaining, illuminating, and written with humour as well as insight.

Highly recommended for those interested in history, and in the historical factors shaping China's relationship with the West today.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great history of the Opium War 18 Dec 2012
Julia Lovell does a fine job in recounting the history of the Opium War.

The drug trade is a hugely profitable business and it does create a rather loyal customer base. It doesn't surprise that the British put their morals behind them and went after the money. What didn't help was that both parties knew virtually nothing of each other or had a rather quaint idea what the other one was about. They both believed they did the right thing but because of the Chinese Empire's ineffectiveness in dealing with the situation the British got away with it.

The real winner in all this is China's present Government because the Opium War is an excellent propaganda tool. They can forever point the finger at the British for doing the evil deed and the Qing Dynasty for being such an incompetent bunch.

The author does a fine job in recounting the history of the war through the eyes of all parties involved. Like others here, I found the maps rather useful. This book is excellent background reading to understand that part of China's and Hong Kong's history and some of the actions of today's China.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic book
A clear unbiased account of what happened in the opium war and then a fascinating description of how the opium war is now the beginning of modern history in Chinese thinking.
Published 7 months ago by W GIBSON
4.0 out of 5 stars Two into one
The Opium War is really two books condensed into one. In the first, on the war itself, the well research narrative is even handed on the hypocrisy of the british and the... Read more
Published 10 months ago by H. Rogers
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining but overly subjective
I would agree with the last review. This is an entertaining read but written with such cloying (?sneering) subjectivity that it is difficult to believe that any of it is true. Read more
Published 12 months ago by tangawk
5.0 out of 5 stars An Indictment of British Trade Policy in the Far East
A well researched book describing the (series of) Opium Wars that were the start of China's humiliations by the Western Powers in the 19th Century and a still-festering source of... Read more
Published 13 months ago by J I Houston
4.0 out of 5 stars China on its knees
It's hard to believe that China is now the world's up and coming superpower. This book shows how a small force of ships and troops utterly humiliated the celestial empire,... Read more
Published 19 months ago by Adam Dare
5.0 out of 5 stars The best book about the Opium wars
This is an excellent piece of History and Scholarship. Lowell looks at the Opium War from the Chinese and British Side. Read more
Published 19 months ago by peter upton
4.0 out of 5 stars Opium war
A really excellent read.
The research done dispels some of the popular myths about the opium wars and the role of the British in them.
Published 20 months ago by EYEMAN
3.0 out of 5 stars Incisive account of China's modern history
First of all, reading a London University lecturer's account of the Opium War is probably as impartial as immersing oneself in Maoist propaganda - conflict of interest anyone (if... Read more
Published 23 months ago by Silence Dogood
4.0 out of 5 stars Drug trafficking called civilisation
Opium Wars provides a sweeping authoritative context for the Chinese attitudes towards Britain and Hong Kong in the World today. Read more
Published on 8 Jun 2012 by M. Hillmann
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative with usefull insights
A thoroughly enjoyable and original history of not just of the first Opium War (and a brief one of the second war) but a masterful placing of these events in the socioeconomic... Read more
Published on 11 Nov 2011 by Amazon Customer
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