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Most students in the west never get the opportunity to learn in-depth about the east. However, history in the east can be even more complex and lengthy than that of the west. Julia Lovell explores a rough time in the history of China in her book “The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China.” Lovell’s account provides as an excellent and readable account of Chinese history. While the events described in the book were devastating to the people of China, Lovell has a way of writing that includes humor and wit, all without being unsympathetic or brushing aside the effects of the events.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning about the tales of the history of China.
While, overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this account, I had a few critiques. Lovell does little to explain the context of the opium trade in India and barely scratches the surface of the problems on the British side of the war.
This was not too much of an issue, as the intended focus of the book was on China, but I believe that more information and background would help me understand the topic more. Lovell’s book was extremely comprehensive and covered a lot of material. I have only a small amount of knowledge on the history of China, and had no idea about the opium wars before I read this book. From someone who was completely clueless, I now feel thoroughly informed. However, it seems that Lovell’s writing is dynamic enough for someone who is knowledgeable on the subject to learn something from is as well.
The opium trade was able to penetrate so deeply into China during the first half of the nineteenth century because the emperor and the leaders were unaware that there was any issue. The people of China were afraid to say anything to the government. This resulted in the opium trade continuing to grow within China without any regulations put in against it. Once the government was made aware of the issue, the problem was too big to be stopped quickly. Lovell writes that the emperors “needed to hold their nerve beneath this heavy weight of responsibility.” Lovell demonstrates that the Qing Empire was put under increasing stress as the opium trade expanded within China. The emperors had difficulty stopping the trade because it had already existed for so long in the country before the leaders were aware. The leader that Lovell writes about the most is Emperor Daoguang.
Daoguang was favored by his royal family ever since he was a nine-year-old when he shot a deer with a bow and arrow. He was made emperor in the year 1820. Lovell’s opinion of Daoguang was that he was an irresponsible leader. Lovell writes that “Daoguang’s two least successful attributes were probably indecision and a fondness for scapegoating others. Lovell goes on to describe Daoguang made several mistakes throughout his reign, showcasing that he was a bad leader. I agree with Lovell’s analysis that Daoguang was not a good emperor because Daoguang seemed to not know how to do anything. According to Lovell, Daoguang would frequently abandon projects and attempts to solve the ongoing issues within China. While Lovell has a clear bias against Daoguang and dislikes him as a leader, her writing is mostly objective.
While I happen to agree with Lovell’s opinion surrounding this emperor, I would think that her writing would still allow someone who disagreed with her opinion to enjoy this book. The way that Lovell structured her book made the content easy for me to understand. The writing itself was more complex than books that I am used to reading, and some of it was difficult to get through, but for the most part, I was able to follow along. Lovell writes about the motivations behind the people at play in the wars during the first half of the book, using primary sources, such as journals and official communications to further her points. Lovell backed up all of her points with evidence, demonstrating that she is a credible author. I thoroughly enjoyed the book as a whole, with this first half being incredibly interesting. Lovell then goes on to write about the second opium war and describes the growth of Sino-Western relationships. The opium wars were mostly between the British and the Chinese.
The British had the upper hand in the wars because they used the strength of the military in the west and the weakness of the military in the east in order to create a power imbalance. This allowed the British to eventually take the lead and win the war. After the first Opium War, the Treaty of Nanjing was signed. This treaty was said to be one of peace, but was later come to be known as the Unequal Treaty by the Chinese. This treaty required China to lower its tariffs, as well as pay a large indemnity to Britain. Not only that, but the Treaty of Nanjing gave the British control of a large amount of ports in China, so the British were able to regulate the goods, especially opium, that traveled in and out of China. Additionally, the Chinese were required to relinquish their control of Hong Kong Island to the British. Overall, it can clearly be seen why the Chinese thought this treaty to be unfair. Lovell writes about how the Treaty of Nanjing and the Opium Wars in general started a trend among the young people of China to be against imperialism.
The leaders of China were nationalist, and the children were taught to hate imperialists in schools. Lovell includes a dialogue between a young boy and his older brother in regards to the Opium Wars. Lovell writes that the older brother told his sibling that the imperialist leaders humiliated the nation, and the younger brother responds with, “Those horrible fierce imperialists!” This demonstrates that the children were raised with ideologies forced into their heads, and the government and teachers in schools did not allow kids to discover the world and think for themselves. I like how Lovell included this segment as a conversation, rather than just saying the information with no variation. This creates an engaging form of storytelling that kept my attention piqued, even as I was not completely thrilled with the subject. Lovell did a great job of keeping her text interesting from the beginning to the end of her book. While I would not classify it as a page-turner, per se, this book was probably the most enjoyable nonfiction book that I have been required to read. Another treaty that was signed during the Opium Wars was the Treaty of Peking.
This treaty was very damaging to the Qing Empire because it “quadrupled the indemnities agreed in 1858, as well as yielding everything for which politicians, merchants and missionaries had agitated between 1842 and 1856…” Essentially, all the progress that had been made was reversed by this treaty. Generally, when people think of treaties, they associate them with compromise and good things for both sides; however, Lovell has proven that these treaties in the Opium Wars were damaging to China and only beneficial to European powers, especially Britain. Overall, I was very fond of Lovell’s writing in this book. I was previously completely uninformed about the Opium Wars, and while I am still far from an expert, I know more than I would have expected to before. I was not expecting to be actually interested in reading this book, yet I found Lovell’s writing to be so good that I never found my attention drifting away from the text.
Lovell closes the book by addressing the lasting effects of the Opium Wars on the country of China today. Currently, people in China are still worried about a resurgence of the Opium Wars. The Chinese government has strict regulations about what is allowed to come into the country from the west in order to attempt to prevent the same mistakes from being made. This results in the Chinese people being unable to experience many things from the world outside of their country. Lovell’s writing conveyed this was absolute certainty and I truly learned a lot from this book. Again, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who would want to learn about history or would just want an interesting book to read.
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