Customer Review

32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very good introduction to the subject, 15 Aug 2005
By A Customer
This review is from: The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another (Hardcover)
The Opium Wars are, as the book's authors point out, events largely forgotten or ignored by Westerners today. Having grown up in England, I know that no mention of it ever crept into history lessons or any other discussions involving the British Empire. This is a pity, because not only does it reflect badly on (especially) the British and the French for glossing over a shameful part of their history, but it blinds Westerners to one of the main reasons why there is so much anger, mistrust and ambivalence in China towards them today: feelings that are commonly attributed to Chinese barbarity, jealousy or non-acceptance of a superior Western civilisation.
Hanes and Sanello provide a good introduction to the subject for non-historians and those with very little knowledge of the wars in question. In the 19th century, the Chinese were patronising and overbearing in their dealings with European merchants, believing themselves to be the most civilised nation on Earth. They had very little interest in European-made goods, but the Europeans, and especially the British, wanted tea, silk and other commodities that were largely available only in China. When the British found something that the Chinese did want in return, opium, the decision was made to supply the Chinese with the drug, a trade backed by powerful and wealthy merchants who held influence in the highest ranks of British politics.
The result is covered in some detail in this book, in which China's military, weak and outdated after decades of complacency and neglect, were no match for the state-of-the-art British navy (who were later joined by the French) when they tried to enforce the opium trade. A series of battles and unreasonable demands eventually forced the Chinese to a humiliating defeat, draining their economy and turning a large number of the population into opium addicts (who the British tried to claim could quit at any time if they really wanted to). All of this culminated in the looting by French and British troops of the Old Summer Palace outside Beijing, a decadent symbol of Chinese civilisation, which the authors describe in some detail as perhaps the richest treasure trove on Earth at the time.
In general the book is very readable, lacking the stuffiness of an academic treatise while still having references to other texts for readers to turn to for more information. The authors' dry sense of humour also shows clearly throughout the narrative, my favourite example occurring when they describe the attitude of Ye Mingchen, the Viceroy of Canton, '...he displayed listlessness and apathy for the genuine war that was coming. He may have been distracted by the greater threat of the Taiping insurgents, who had overrun his province. Or as historian Douglas Hurd has suggested in his unlikely explanation of Ye's passivity, the Viceroy's sloth and inaction may have been due to the fact that "Yeh [Ye] was fat, and it was hot."'
My biggest complaint about the book is that it deals with the aftermath of the Second Opium War only very briefly, completely missing out events such as the Boxer Rebellion and fast-forwarding almost a century to Mao Zedong's rule in a mere few paragraphs. However, as the title of the book is "The Opium Wars", this is perhaps not unexpected.
Overall, the authors' account is fair, condemning the arrogance and incompetence of China's rulers, and the selfishness of Chinese merchants who also profited from the opium trade, as well as the greed and immorality of the Westerners who participated in the trade and then conveniently ignored it afterwards. It is the act of ignoring the Opium Wars in the West that continues to infuriate Chinese to this day, and a good knowledge of this subject is absolutely crucial to anyone who wants to understand the shape of modern China. This book, for anyone who wants to learn more, is a good start.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 1 Sep 2012 20:03:50 BDT
Azimuth500 says:
Thank you, to the author of this interesting review. One point the reviewer makes however is, I feel, somewhat misleading and seems to me to demand clarification. The reviewer explains that in the 19thC the Chinese required nothing from Britain, whereas there was in Britain a demand for tea, silk and other Chinese commodities. The reviewer goes on to say "When the British found something that the Chinese did want in return, opium, the decision was made to supply the Chinese with the drug..."

For the reviewer to assert that opium was a commodity "that the Chinese did want" is not unlike asserting that heroin today is a commodity that the British want. I find this sweeping generalisation insupportable and misleading. The truth is that the British were forcing the cultivation of opium crops in India and, masquerading behind the banner of "free trade", were smuggling this psycholologically and socially corrosive product into the Chinese market - in the face of determined resistance from the Chinese authorities. When stronger measures were taken by the Chinese to stop the smuggling, the British brought "gunboat diplomacy" the bear on the Chinese at Canton and the Opiuym Wars followed. After bombardment, the Chinese, whose military might was inferior to that of the Westerners, capitulated, signed "unequal treaties" permitting the importation of opium and ceded Hong Kong to British rule for 99 years. The Chinese continue to feel to humliation of these events to this day.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Dec 2012 18:07:53 GMT
agreed...there are extremely wealthy families in britain today regarded as our 'betters' who are still living off their vast profits from these crimes while we commoners take the whiplash...these lords and their ladies were stuffing their pockets with priceless treasures in front of the helpless emperor and court officials...shame on them then and shame on them now.
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