Top positive review
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Good two-sided narrative
on September 11, 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 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. 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.