Julia Lovell begins her story of the 1839-42 First Opium War with a telling anecdote. In November 2010, David Cameron arrived at a function in Beijing. There, a Chinese official asked him to take off his Remembrance Day poppy, incensed that it provoked memories of China’s humiliation at the hands of Britain. The resulting online media furore demonstrated just how raw the Opium War remains today – and how far it continues to shape Sino-British relations.
Lovell describes the Opium War as a ‘tragicomedy’. Her fast-paced narrative of the build-up to the conflict itself – a picture of grave bureaucratic blunders, misunderstandings and flawed characters that eventually resulted in China’s defeat and the handover of Hong Kong – makes for a ripping read. The author, a preeminent Chinese-English translator, has used both Anglophone and Chinese sources, providing a fresh take on an otherwise oft-told tale.
The analysis of the war’s aftermath, still visible nearly two centuries later, is particularly engrossing. Lovell describes the Opium War as a key founding myth of the Communist Party: used to unite the people against a tyrannical West, fuelling nationalism and explaining away China’s past century of weakness and foreign invasion.
Britain, however, does not get off lightly either. The ‘irrational clouds of Yellow Peril suspicion’ that began when Britain invaded what it viewed as a xenophobic China still reverberate in 2011 in the clash-of-civilisations rhetoric favoured by the Western media.
‘The Opium War is a pretty shameful story,’ runs a quote from The Guardian that Lovell cites towards the end of the book. ‘Perhaps it slipped your memory? It certainly hasn’t slipped [China’s] and it is still unravelling.’ The Opium War reminds us why, if we want to understand modern China, we must all remember.
The Opium War is available from Amazon.cn priced at 188RMB