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

18 customer reviews

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Hardcover, October 1, 2011
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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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Picador USA (October 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330457470
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330457477
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,920,784 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 17 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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23 of 27 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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20 of 24 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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Marcel Dupasquier on February 5, 2014
Format: Paperback
Julia Lovell's book about the Opium War tells a big story of lack of dialogue and misunderstanding, where two parties would fight a war; respectively one side would fight one, whereas the other side was busy with some border or trade dispute. Thus where the Qing government of China would see the burden of Opium on its people and its economy, the British would see exactly this trade as crucial and even go to war to defend it. Being militarily far superior, the British would subsequently have no problem to destroy whatever they wanted. The Qing emperor on the other hand would not understand this, as nobody told him earnestly, and consequently push for a quick resolution. And as such, they would go on for three years, never understanding the other side, until some Chinese officials would forge their permission to negotiate with the British and grant them whatever they wanted. Such is the story of the First Opium War that Julia Lovell manages to tell in quite clear and vivid pictures.

Thereby, she has obviously consulted both Western and Chinese sources and as such manages to tell the story from both angles. Is her view now biased? As an author who writes in the English language, it is clear that the British story comes out clearer. Nobody can write a book without a point of view. Nevertheless, I would put forward the point that she managed to write the book quite unbiased. She clearly tells that the British started the war unprovoked and with outermost aggression. Such were the times of imperialism that this was nothing special. The Qing government was militarily inferior, and got, in the minds of contemporary British, what they deserved.

But Julia Lovell's history of the Opium War does not stop there.
Read more ›
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