The Opium War by Julia Lovell
Review by Anna Chen
The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.
With renewed calls for the West to assert its imperial might in the interest of “capitalism and democracy … if necessary by military force ” (historian and BBC Reith Lecturer Niall Ferguson), it’s useful to examine one episode in Britain’s history when we attempted to do so, with catastrophic results for the conquered nation.
Britain’s craving for chinoiserie in the 18th and 19th centuries resulted in a trade imbalance which threatened to empty the treasury. In order to pay for the tea, silks, spices and porcelain we liked so much, the East India Company mass-produced enormous quantities of cheap Bengal-grown opium and, along with other British merchants, sold it on to China, turning an aristocratic vice into a nationwide addiction.
The profits from the opium trade made fortunes, earned revenues for the British government, paid for the administration of the Empire in India and even financed a large slice of the cost of the Royal Navy. In 1839, when the Chinese tried to enforce their own laws and halt drug imports, the narco-capitalists persuaded Foreign Secretary Palmerston and Lord Melbourne’s government to go to war in order to protect their profits. The first military conflict — thanks to superior technology, more a series of massacres — lasting a bloody three years, resulted in the Treaty of Nanking and the transfer of territory including Hong Kong to British rule. In waging the second war (1856-60) the British finally achieved their goal of seeing opium legalised in China.
That the Chinese government might use this notoriously brutal example of British imperialism to bolster their power is little surprise. That western authors now seek to diminish British culpability and shift responsibility onto the nation that suffered the predations of drugs and war is disturbing, though probably inevitable in the febrile current atmosphere of the China-bashing seen by many western intellectuals as a substitute for informed criticism.
The latest in a string of histories reviving positive images of Empire, Julia Lovell’s The Opium War is on a mission to reassess history, presumably seeking to replicate her literary stablemate Jung Chang’s success with Mao: The Untold Story.
Lovell’s argument hangs by the revisionist thread that, far from creating a market for opium, the British were only satisfying what was already there. “What had happened,” she asks, “in those four decades [to 1840], to transform opium-smoking from an acceptable displacement activity for an idle emperor-in-training to a perilous scourge?” Not British traders — who were only exploiting an existing weakness, it seems — but the Chinese themselves who were gagging for it and therefore the authors of their own doom. The point that opium was an expensive luxury until the British were able to mass-produce it cheaply in India and transform the market, is buried in a welter of smoke and mirrors.
Lovell sets out to correct the Chinese government’s overplayed narrative of victimhood but overbalances into a 400-page vilification of the Chinese: theirs is a response to a Western threat “supposedly” determined to contain it (“supposedly” is wide open to argument); the 150th anniversary of the first Opium War “offered a public relations gift to the government”; it is a “founding myth”, a mere “border provocation”. Opium is a “scapegoat” for the emperor’s problems, those who opposed it “ambitious moralizers” and “ambitious literati”.
The Chinese are capable of only the basest motives in their efforts to wipe out the drug that is crippling the nation, their emotional and behavioural range running the Sax Rohmer gamut of dehumanising tropes: stupid, arrogant, cowardly, lazy and pragmatic. “Perhaps they objected for Confucian, humanitarian reasons; or then again, out of indolence, maybe.” Their avowed repulsion and fear of what opium can do is dismissed, individual suffering skated over and characters never humanised. I’m not sure I detected any irony in her use of that old colonialist favourite, “wily”, and the drooling pages of lurid descriptions in the Yellow Peril chapter might have made room for the moving contemporary accounts of the destruction of the Summer Palace, for example, or the massacres of the Chinese which shocked even hardened British soldiers.
In contrast, although some of the inescapable truths about the British drug-dealers and perpetrators of war are acknowledged, their actions are ascribed to human feelings; they are “generous”; their inner lives are explored; their flaws are treated with understanding for they are men on a quest to better themselves against a monstrous Empire that will not give them what they want.
When the moral high ground runs out, equivalence is strained: it was “mutual incomprehension that pushed both sides towards war”. “Contemporary China’s line on opium transforms it into a moral poison forced on helpless Chinese innocents by wicked aliens. The reality was more troublingly collusive.” Both were as bad as each other. When everyone is guilty, no one can be innocent.
The book’s selectivity is irritating, ultimately undermining the story. The British who grew industrial levels of opium and sent the price plummeting, are “diligent”, their supply benignly “reliable”. James Matheson is described kindly as a “tough Scot” and “living under the influence of the holy spirit”, but whose banishment to the wilds of Canada of 500 residents of the Isle of Lewis — which he bought and decorated with Stornoway Castle on his drug money — is overlooked in this hefty tome. Of Charles Elliot, Chief Superintendent of British Trade in China, one of the architects of the first Opium War and later first administrator of Hong Kong, she writes sympathetically that he ” … instinctively disliked the opium trade and everything bound up with it: both its moral dubiousness and its ungentlemanly profit-hungry merchants”. Sentimentally, “his weakness was to see a little of everyone’s side: he understood the economic imperative of the opium trade, even while he hated the vulgarity of its perpetrators; he understood that his duty was to protect the British flag in Canton, even while he detested what some of Britannia’s children were doing in the China seas.”
Commissioner General Lin Zexu, who destroyed 20,000 cases (each holding 140 pounds) of British opium in 1839, is presented as a bureaucrat (Niall Ferguson couldn’t even bring himself to name him in his account), albeit an incorruptible one, caught between a rock and a hard place. Lovell complains that “History has been kind to Lin Zexu”, although it’s not difficult to see why such an incorruptible force who tried to right an injustice might be a much-needed inspiration today. Her extensive research does, however, unearth the little gem that, once Elliot had finally handed over the opium stash, Lin made a gift to him of prized roebuck meat before which he “was careful to kowtow nine times”.
There are some asinine reductions: “The Ming Dynasty was brought down in 1644 by insurrections led by a postman who happened also to be a failed candidate.” (Note the snobbery — how would a carpenter fare in her scheme of things?) The Taiping Rebellion with all its fascinating complexity and humane objectives (the abolition of landlordism, the redistribution of wealth for all, and the prohibition of prostitution, bound feet and the smoking of opium) is reduced to a nervous breakdown of a “provincial schoolmaster” — a movement crushed, incidentally, with the aid of the British acting in concert with the Manchu imperial army during the Opium Wars, a fact missing here, at a cost of 20 million lives over 14 years.
It’s not as if the Chinese need any lessons in the part played by the rotten Qing Empire in the nation’s downfall. The “disorganisation and cowardice of its own officials and armies” is already well known. There was indeed much “self-blame”, “self-pity” and outright “self-loathing” during and after the conflict which is still going on, as documented ad infinitum in China, with local militias fighting where Qing armies feared to tread, such as at Sanyuanli in 1841 (also derided by the author). It was the corruption of the old empire which led to its fall in 1911 and the establishment of a republic under Sun Yatsen, and which added grist to the communist mill in trying to stamp out the remnants of the old system described so luridly by Lovell.
Reading her account is a bit like hearing a rapist declaring his innocence because his victim wore a short skirt as she walked up a dark alley. Not only were there an estimated 120 million addicts in China at the trade’s peak, but national treasures were looted or destroyed, and massacres and rape perpetrated by the invading troops intent on forcing the drug on the nation. So bad was this savagery that large swathes of British public opinion clamoured against the opium-driven conflict, led by the voices of such as Richard Cobden, William Gladstone and the Chartists. But Chinese outrage is ridiculed, with no room for the possibility that they might authentically feel empathy and concern or be justified in their anger. While paying lip service to some acceptance that a crime had been committed, Lovell offsets the gravity of the injury with a running national character assassination and a downplaying of facts already known and documented.
It’s difficult to relax into the rollicking story that’s fighting to get out as you are constantly poked in the ear with the author’s “they made us do it” mantra. Lovell is much stronger when she tells the story straight and without pro-imperialist spin, but it is largely marred by an unfortunate sneering tone which plays to a gallery of prejudice and jingoism, a Great Wall that will keep out any reader whose bigotry is not being fed. This is a shame because she has done a formidable job by laying out the story in so much riveting detail.
However, far from presenting a brave new take on the history, this is an old dish reheated, a rebranding of Empire (do we still call it the Indian “Mutiny”?). Lovell replays the excuses made in Britain at the time by the narco-capitalists and Lord Palmerston, who tried to win over a public opinion revolted by the idea of a narcotics war by playing the insult to the flag by the Chinese and the “liberating values of Free Trade” cards. To this she adds a steady poisonous drip of various distancing devices and systematic “othering” of the Chinese.
The narrative spin dehumanises the Chinese, divesting them of moral capacity while painting violent drug dealers as acting out of a higher calling, themselves passive victims of force majeur. Hence, while Elliott considers opium smuggling to be “a trade which every friend of humanity must deplore”, he wants the Qing to “legalise it, because it would force the Chinese to take full responsibility for its moral dubiousness”, the opium trade being the fault of the addicts and not the suppliers. Elliot has a “conscience” while Lin is merely a bureaucrat who is described from the outside in, a bundle of facts with no heart. Elliot possesses an interior landscape. His “weakness was to see a little of everyone’s side”. He “understood his duty was to defend the British flag in Canton” even though he “detested” what his compatriots were doing. Yet, like Lewis Carroll’s Walrus, he weeps into his handkerchief over the plight of the poor oysters while scoffing the biggest ones himself when he lands the British government with the inflated £2 million bill for the confiscated opium and thereby hands them the final excuse for war.
The rest of the book similarly struggles with balance in a scattergun outpouring of distaste for nearly everything and everyone Chinese. Lovell’s account of the breakdown of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 is ludicrously one-sided — she makes it appear that it was all China’s fault, with no mention of the Danish Text stitch-up of the talks by the wealthy nations — and she has nothing to say about China’s massive efforts to cut carbon emissions and combat pollution. She condemns Chinese anti-Japanese hysteria but never mentions former Prime Minister Koizumi’s provocative visits to shrines of war criminals and rewritten history books. Sun Yatsen is a “chancer” who was snubbed by the head of state and that’s why he brought down the Qing. Bored students obsess about their careers. Interviewees interrupt their “self-loathing” denunciations of the West with requests for job-tips and enquiries about how to get on in the land of the rising shun. Chinese don’t need to indulge in self-loathing while Lovell’s on the case because she can loathe for England. By the end, you are willing the poor woman to retrain in another field altogether just so she can find some peace of mind.
Perhaps it’s the illustrations which tell the story best. A photograph of Akmal Shaikh, the Briton executed in China in 2009 for smuggling heroin, is juxtaposed favourably with one of an emotional protester following the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing three journalists — an outrage claimed by the US as an accident even though the allies had the map co-ordinates and knew where the embassy was. Those of us opposed to the death penalty argued that a prison sentence was a more humane and apt option for Shaikh, especially if he was ill as claimed. But if one picture is worth a thousand words, then the juxtaposition of these two photographs speaks volumes. The British smuggler of 4 kg of heroin into China is portrayed with sympathy while the other is not. It is a deeply flattering, almost saintly, portrait revealing the humanity of the drug-dealer, set against the ape-like rictus of the Chinese protester in the grip of a feral rage. One is humanised, the other dehumanised. One life has value, the three dead and 20 injured Chinese do not even warrant a mention anywhere. This twisted morality evoking a visceral response — empathy for us and revulsion for “them” — as employed in the use of the photographs, permeates the book.
Lovell seeks to make a case against the communist government, but her thrust replaces one orthodoxy with another. In describing the fundamental rottenness of an ossified and decadent empire (China’s, not ours) she inadvertently stirs a degree of sympathy with those men and women who tried to build a better society in response to the horrors visited upon a country on its knees but who have tragically failed to avoid writing their own catalogue of misery despite doubling life-expectancy and raising 600 million out of absolute poverty. As a demolition job on the upstart rival on the global stage, this book is sure to do well among those less scholarly than the professor who will seize on this exercise in exculpation with glee.
Anna Chen wrote and narrates The Steampunk Opium Wars.
Niall Ferguson dismisses the Opium Wars
At last, someone else has done a thorough analysis here at Hidden Harmonies.
Anna’s food blog here: