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The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China Hardcover – October 1, 2011

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Hardcover, October 1, 2011
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Picador USA (October 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330457470
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330457477
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,375,113 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


“A crisp readable account [Lovell] keeps a sharp plot running, which is a testament to her writing skills . . . Ms. Lovell, a keen observer of contemporary Chinese culture, also traces the "afterlife" of the war, exploring the ways it has been remembered from the 19th century to the present.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Excellent . . . Intriguing . . .  For those seeking a blow-by-blow account of the conflict, this book will more than satisfy . . . Lovell is no apologist for the English, or their eagerness for war.” —The Daily Beast 

“An astute, bracing history lesson on a conflict that set off the British notion of “yellow peril” and Chinese victimhood . . . Lovell offers extensive analysis of why and how this conflict helped create an entire founding theory of Chinese nationalism” —Kirkus Reviews

The Opium War is dramatic, eye-opening history . . . Historian Lovell recounts the war and its aftermath in full detail.” —Booklist 

“Painstakingly follows the intricate webs of trades, treaties, accusations, and recriminations between the two empires . . . Lovell masterfully condenses into one volume a dense, difficult conflict, the results of which are still can be felt 170 years later.”Publishers Weekly

--This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

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.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By reader 451 on September 11, 2012
Format: Hardcover
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 often all 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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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan J Hunt on November 10, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition
Julia Lovell is a brilliant writer. In this meticulously footnoted account of the Opium wars, history comes alive. Her pithy descriptions and accounts of characters on both sides of the war was both informative and at times laugh-out-loud funny. As well as a description of the wars, researched from both Chinese and British sources, she includes a final chapter based on interviews from young Chinese today which provides insight into the ongoing impact on the Opium wars on modern Chinese perception of the West.

It's hard to do justice to her nuanced account of the Opium wars. Suffice to say, she finds greed, incompetence, and violence, but also civilisation, kindness and apathy, occurring on both sides of the conflict.

Overall, she finds that Chinese rulers have always been as concerned, if not more, with domestic affairs than foreign ones. She sees the British failure to understand this underpinning the conflict during the Opium wars, but still relevant today as Chinese actions are interpreted by outsiders without consideration for their domestic pressures and constraints.
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Erez Davidi on January 19, 2012
Format: Hardcover
The Opium War is a very balanced and accessible account of a not-so glorious period of British history. The British went to war mainly to open up China to trade in general, and to keep the profitable opium trade in particular, which the Chinese were trying to shut down due to the horrendous effect opium had on the country's population. Interestingly, the British mostly justified the war by saying they were librating the Chinese people, who wanted to trade, but were reluctant to do so because of their repressive empire.

Lovell's account of this important historical event is based on Western and Chinese sources which help shed some light on how the Chinese viewed the Western world in those days.

Highly recommended for those, who are interested in learning more about the historical events that shaped how China views the West today.
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15 of 21 people found the following review helpful By B. McEwan VINE VOICE on July 7, 2012
Format: Paperback
As far as I can tell from my somewhat limited investigations, Julia Lovell's The Opium War provides an accurate and fair portrayal of events leading up to, during and in the aftermath of what have come to be called the Opium Wars of the 19th century. At the beginning of the book, she justifies the use of the singular 'war' in her title by explaining that, in her view, both of these conflicts are actually one, since the quasi-resolution of the first conflict merely set the stage for the second. This seems unnecessary to me. Why not just go with prevailing custom and use the plural?

At any rate, this book provides the highlights of the battles, as well as the rationales and strategies, or lack thereof, that were used by both sides. Not knowing much about China during this period, I must say that I now find China's attitude toward 'foreigners' far more understandable than I did in the past. In short, the British seem to have forced China to purchase opium from them, which was cultivated in British India and sold in China in return for tea and silk, which were much wanted back on the home isle. When the Chinese government resisted, the Brits sent in their navy and started shooting.

Ok, so that is an over simplification. But not by much. Because the Qing dynasty was in the process of unraveling and its leaders had almost zero understanding of the world beyond China, the British seemed to think it was acceptable to plunder the country and make addicts of its people. Their behavior was truly outrageous and it is not surprising that the Chinese considered them barbarians.

So that was then and this is now. Except in the People's Republic today, the Communist government seems to be using the Opium Wars as a way to cultivate nationalism in its young people.
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