Amazon.com: Customer Reviews: The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China
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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.
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on November 10, 2011
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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on January 19, 2012
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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on February 5, 2014
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. She goes on how the view of a xenophobic inward-looking China would tempt the British further to get more out it by force, leading to the Second Opium War. But only the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, where China lost against a former tributary state, would eventually lead to the Chinese people questioning their world view. After the Nationalists and also the Communists made the imperialists their arch-enemies, the Opium War would become the founding myth of the Chinese nation, which place it still holds today. The British, on the other side, would realize that this was a big empire that might one day become strong again, leading to the fear of the "yellow peril" and also, at least some of them, started to consider this war shameful, calling it thus the Opium War, and not something like the "First Sino-British War".

Did the book now fulfill my expectations? I would say, having read it clearly helps me to understand the world view of contemporary Chinese people. Only the conclusion chapter I found a little bit over the edge, blaming contemporary Chinese for this world view, as if they could decide what education they wanted to take in school. Apart from this point, I can clearly recommend this book to those with an interest in contemporary China, and how it got there.
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on July 17, 2016
As a China specialist, I am reasonably familiar with the Opium War and have read several books covering it. Lovell's book is by far the most comprehensive I have encountered, in that it includes much material from Chinese archives. All the other accounts I have seen are written strictly from the Western perspective; Lovell makes a considerable contribution in offering insights on how the Chinese viewed (and view) the conflict.
Lovell hits all the major points surrounding the embroglio -- Lord Napier's mission, the gunner of the Lady Hughes, Britain's trade imbalance with China, the hong and the hoppo, China's bimetallic currency standard, the Canton factories, and much more. Importantly, the author brings the War into the present, demonstrating convincingly how its impact shaped and shapes the contemporary Chinese views of the West (and Japan). She further elucidates how the Communist Party utilizes this narrative to support its own position, and strengthen nationalism in the country.

Stylistically the book is well written and engrossing. I suspect readers less familiar with the general background may be a bit overwhelmed by the complexity of issues and campaign, and particularly by the myriad of Chinese actors involved in the story. The many Chinese names that appear in the book could become rather confusing. The author thankfully offers a short summary of the major players at the end of the book.

My only significant criticism is Lovell's lack of focus on the foreign powers demands for extraterritoriality (whereby foreigners committing crimes in China are tried not by Chinese courts, but by authorities of their own nationality). This was an extremely pernicious practice, one still widely resented in China today.

All in all, a first rate effort, and a worthy read.
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on September 15, 2013
I found the book interesting in that it considered something that other books about the period does not. This was that the Qing Empire was an empire under increasing stress. It also showed how nations can create their own myths based on their idea of their own culture.
What was very interesting is the fact that the arguments used to open China to Opium can now be used for opening the west to Heroin and other drugs.
I found that some of the results considered by the author of the war and the subsequent history of the West and China overly simplified but were valid within the context they were used.
Finally I would say that I enjoyed the scope and the argument produced in this book.
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VINE VOICEon July 7, 2012
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. According to Lovell, Chinese school children are dragged around the country to various 'historical education' centers, where the current government has erected memorials on the sites of Opium War battles. The narrative goes something like this: "The evil Western capitalists needed to expand their markets, so they came to China and forced us to smoke opium so that they could get our tea, silk and silver. When we resisted, they made war on us. Never forget and never trust foreigners." I have a couple of young friends who went to public school in mainland China, and they confirm this, although as you might imagine, in less vivid language than I have used here.

I should add that, while I did find this book useful, I also found it overly detailed and over long. It has good photos and a useful index and bibliography, but I believe that this whole tale could easily have been told in fewer pages. The promotional blurbs on the book's cover make me wonder if any of the endorsers actually read it. Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, for instance, writes, "A great history of the Opium War. A real cracker of a book," and the Guardian's Rana Mitter calls it "a gripping read." Alas and alack, this is not so.

As Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, "The evil that men do lives after them." This is apparently the case regarding the Opium Wars.
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on June 1, 2016
This book was an excellent read, especially the final chapters dealing with the legacy of the Opium Wars, both in China and in the West. This little-known episode of history has had far-reaching effects, and the author points out the linkage of the Opium Wars with the rise of the Communist Party in China as well as China's recent economic boom. At times this book can be heavy going, but persistence is rewarded by the author's perceptive insights.
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on December 21, 2014
Since I knew almost nothing about the Opium Wars when I began reading, I learned a lot. Ms. Lovell sticks to the facts, dramatizes the events very well and leads the reader to an understanding of faults on both sides (British vs. Chinese). Sun Yat Sen's influence is covered and sheds some light on his connection to the Chiang Kai Shek problem. I learned more from this book about modern history than I have in a long time. She's a great writer.
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on April 14, 2013
A very detailed and well balanced book, exposing the motives of the characters and the drivers behind the opium war.
Human greed, cowardice, laziness, stupidity (quite well distributed across the main characters, both British and Chinese) are well described without being phrased as a list of accusations.
Riveting and thought-provoking!
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