The Opium War of 1840-42 demarcated the ancient and the modern for China; it was arguably the most important turning point and defining moment in Chinese history. However, if you, like most Chinese who learn this part of history in middle school, believe that the Chinese were completely innocent victims and the British the heinous aggressors, your knowledge about the war is simplistic at best. You have missed the crucial details that played a key role in leading to the war. Fortunately, they have come to light in Eric Jay Dolin's new (and so far his best) historical narrative, When America First Met China.
Dolin's book unveils a major fault line between China and the West in the legal system and cultural tradition in addition to diplomatic awkwardness for the Qing officials and ethnic and cultural centralism for both the Qing and the British governments (they both viewed themselves the civilized peoples whereas their opponents the barbarians) before the 19th century. This is best illustrated in the detailed account of the Lady Hughes incident on the eve of November 24, 1784, when one Chinese was accidentally killed and three injured by a ceremonial cannon fire. In retributive justice, the British deemed the tragedy accidental and the gunner innocent, whereas the Chinese, holding the tradition of "Life for Life," insisted the gunner be executed. In legal procedure, the principle "innocent unless proven guilty" for the British was turned on its head for the Chinese ("guilty unless proven innocent") who saw no professional lawyer much less knew the concepts of jury and legal defense. When the British refused to turn in the gunner, the Chinese abducted George Smith, the supercargo of the Lady Hughes, forcing the British to their knees. In the end, although the gunner was executed as the Chinese wished, the incidence made the British avoid subjecting themselves to Chinese laws by all means, an attitude that precipitated the conflict in 1839.
Dolin's historical narrative opens the new inquiry into what kind of role Lin Zexu played when he was commissioned by Emperor Daoguang to eradicate opium smuggle. Instead of his heroic image unquestioned among the Chinese for generations, Lin left the British little room and time to back down, and the clash quickly escalated. There is little doubt about Lin's personal integrity, his loyalty in defending the sovereignty of the empire, and his sympathy with the 2-10 million of Chinese addicts whose lives were ruined by the "foreign mud" (opium), but Lin's blunt pompousness, lack of knowledge (he thought opium was intended specifically for Chinese without knowing it was legal in Britain and other nations as well at the time), deficit in diplomatic experience, and complete ignorance of consequence about his heavy-handed approach in dealing with Western powers eventually brought the war to China. In the end, the Qing government, signing the humiliating Treaty of Nanking, paid 20 million dollars in silver, ceded Hong Kong, and opened six more harbors for the flow of foreign goods (including more "foreign mud") into China, not to mention thousands of Chinese killed in the war. As Lin was no less blindsided--only more radical--than any other Qing official at the time, it is puzzling why he has been hailed as "the first Chinese who opened his eyes to the world."
One of the main strengths of Dolin's recounting of the Opium War is its neutrality. Although American merchants were also involved in profiting from smuggling opium, the scale was minor compared with the British. But Dolin is not shy of exposing Americans' involvement in the illegal activity. Moreover, he details about how the British government was coaxed by powerful, well-funded, and well-connected merchant lobbyists led by William Jardine into taking military action to "protect" the British interest. And in preparing for the war, foreign secretary Lord Palmerston, for quite some time, kept Parliament in the dark. (The Tories moved for a no-confidence vote on the Whig government after the trick was discovered, but the motion was defeated by a narrow margin of 9 votes.) I find it astounding how a democratic government could be so easily manipulated by a special interest group into taking military action against an innocent nation (sounds familiar?). Clearly, there is much to learn from this part of history. And, in many ways, a good number of conflicts are still linked to cultural differences today as it was in the time of the Opium War. In this sense, Dolin's book serves as a mirror, reminding us the potential danger of cultural centralism and cultural misunderstanding.
Certainly, as its title indicates, Dolin's book covers a much larger spectrum and timespan in Sino-American trade than its focus of the Opium War. It contains many rarely-known stories and events surrounding the exotic trade in tea, furs, beche-de-mer (sea cucmber), and sandalwood between America and China. Aided by plentiful of images, Dolin's compelling narrative is vivid and engaging. If you are interested in Chinese history and American relationship with China in the past, at present, and in the future, you will not be disappointed.