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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 11 September 2012
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. Lovell's narrative angle that this was too often a comedy of errors, containing so much avoidable tragedy, is convincing.

Where the book is weaker, however, is on its broader points on the history of the Opium War as it has been taught and on its cultural legacy. Lovell writes, in her preface, that the Opium War has a far less prominent place in Chinese popular memory than in official history. Yet the structure of her book, of which fully the last third examines the war's changing appraisals from then to the present, suggests otherwise. Another problem is that one can't do the Opium Wars' historiography in a third of a book, especially with the ambition of commenting both on Western and Chinese attitudes. A whole volume is required. The result is a less than coherent set of last chapters in which it is not always clear if Lovell is writing about changing perceptions of the Opium Wars, about opium itself, or simply commenting on Chinese-Western mutual perceptions in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Almost one whole chapter is dedicated to the Fu Manchu novels and films of the 1920s: entertaining but probably not of essential relevance on its own. A last issue, finally, is that Lovell ignores, in her book, the very long pedigree of such tropes about the Chinese being closed, condescending, and hostile to foreigners. These stereotypes went back, in Europe, at least to the seventeenth century. By making it look as though this was a British gloss, Lovell only lends more credence to the Opium War as watershed, which her narrative otherwise seeks to relativise. Lovell gets points, nevertheless, for her interesting treatment of the Opium Wars in post-Mao China, and in particular for the chapter relating her personal experience with Chinese students, so that this gets four stars after all.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
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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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on 13 October 2011
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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 18 December 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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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 January 2012
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 15 October 2013
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 dysfunctional Qing dynasty. Although the latter lasted another seventy odd years until it collapsed in 1912 the author paints a fascinating picture of a regime already in the first stages of terminal decline - one in which nepotism, corruption and staggering incompetence had been raised to the level of an art form. The second book,looking at chinese/british attitudes towards each other post Opium war, and which takes up about one third of the published book, comes accross as a filler. While some sections are interesting the relevance of other parts to the opium war is somewhat tenuous and this tends to devalue all the good material in the first book.
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on 4 November 2014
At the time of writing this review, Hong Kong is once again in turmoil as political unrest manifests itself in street protests across the region. In seeking to understand the forces at play, Julia Lovell’s book ‘The Opium War’, provides particular insight. The book offers a meticulously researched argument that China’s relationship with the rest of the world remains firmly rooted in events that took place over 100 years ago. For it is in the 19th Century that conflicting interests over the opium trade prompted a series of wars between China and the Western powers. The author argues that it is the legacy of these wars that determines the manner in which China conducts its’ relations with the outside world today.

The author is well qualified to present the argument. Julia Lovell is a Professor of modern Chinese History at Birkbeck College, University of London. She has written extensively on China for the Guardian, the Independent and the Times Literary Supplement. In addition she is a very active literary translator.

The book takes the form of a historical chronology starting from the beginning of what, in her introduction, the author describes as ‘the beginning of the century of humiliation’. As the narrative unfolds, the author continually draws on a variety of sources to describe the connection between past and present. An extensive range of references not only supports the argument but also make this book an enjoyable and engaging read. The archive of official edits, memorials and letters put together by Yapian Zhanzheng in 1954 is just one of ten substantial Chinese primary sources used. Over the course of nineteen chapters the author describes how the Chinese leadership have synthesised the history of 19th century Western military intervention into a story of Western duplicity. The author argues that this perception permeates into every aspect of Chinese international relations today. Indeed, she goes on to argue that the enduring usage of this narrative in the media and in education is a key pillar underpinning the continuation of one party government in China.

One could misconstrue the title of this book as a reference to the first Opium War of 1839 to 1842. A cursory review of the content would reinforce this view as the 2nd Opium War, the scale of which was on a par with the preceding conflict, receives scant attention with just three pages devoted to it. However, the fact is that the author lands her argument well and whilst further historical detail would have created a more complete work, it would have done little to add anything new in terms of supporting the argument. Indeed, doubling the size of what is already a weighty tome might well have meant that fewer people would read, what is, an authoritative explanation of modern Chinese geo-political thinking.
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on 25 January 2015
Addictively interesting, thought-provoking and cleverly crafted. One can only wonder at what she is smoking for such poetry to pour from her pen.

One is agog at her mastery of the sources: she weaves all the various characters, history and components of the complicated story into a wonderfully coherent narrative. Naturally, her fluency of Chinese shines through and penetrates the Oriental idiom to impressive effect.

The writing has grit - and without being unsympathetic - shows few qualms at confronting uncomfortable facts, regardless of whose sacred cows that might be endangered.

Buy the book - you won't be disappointed and you will learn a lot about the past and future.
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on 30 July 2013
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 national anger against their erstwhile aggressors.
It's not as well known as it should be that, in order to off-set a 19th century trade imbalance with Britain, the East India Company (with the tacit agreement of the British government) actively fostered the importation of opium from British Bengal into China and, when the Chinese authorities took action, the British went to war to ensure the trade continued.
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on 15 January 2013
This is an excellent piece of History and Scholarship. Lowell looks at the Opium War from the Chinese and British Side. She highlights the mis-udnerstandings, the weakness of the Chinese Empire, the mercantlist obsession with selling opium to the Chinese and the way that the Chinese locally supported it. Dealing with all of the propaganda surrounding the period Lowell outlines how the Opium War became the defining experience for the Revolution tat would lead to Mao and how it remains a touchstone today.

Highly readable, very lucid and revealing
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