The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another
by W. Travis Hanes (Author), Frank Sanello (Author)
In this tragic and powerful story, the two Opium Wars of 1839–1842 and 1856–1860 between Britain and China are recounted for the first time through the eyes of the Chinese as well as the Imperial West. Opium entered China during the Middle Ages when Arab traders brought it into China for medicinal purposes. As it took hold as a recreational drug, opium wrought havoc on Chinese society. By the early nineteenth century, 90 percent of the Emperor’s court and the majority of the army were opium addicts.
Britain was also a nation addicted-to tea, grown in China, and paid for with profits made from the opium trade. When China tried to ban the use of the drug and bar its Western smugglers from it gates, England decided to fight to keep open China’s ports for its importation. England, the superpower of its time, managed to do so in two wars, resulting in a drug-induced devastation of the Chinese people that would last 150 years.
In this page-turning, dramatic and colorful history, The Opium Wars responds to past, biased Western accounts by representing the neglected Chinese version of the story and showing how the wars stand as one of the monumental clashes between the cultures of East and West.
“A fine popular account.”-Publishers Weekly
“Their account of the causes, military campaigns and tragic effects of these wars is absorbing, frequently macabre and deeply unsettling.”-Booklist
- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Sourcebooks; 1st edition (February 1, 2004)
From Publishers Weekly
Hanes (Imperial Diplomacy in the Era of Decolonization) and film author and former Los Angeles Daily News critic Sanello have teamed up to produce this fine popular account. Beginning in the 18th century, British merchants quickly discovered that by introducing high-quality opium into China, they could earn high profits and use the hard currency to buy more tea. As a result, Chinese society became inundated with opium, and more and more people, including much of the army, became addicted. Twice, from 1839 to 1842 and again from 1856 until 1860, the Chinese government sought to oust the British trade. Hanes and Sanello describe in detail the military operations of both wars, the few Chinese successes and inexorable British wave of victories, culminating in the 1860 sacking and looting of the Imperial Summer Palace and its sumptuous works of art. The opium saturation of China continued until the post-WWII communist takeover, when the Maoist government banned opium, executed dealers and weaned the country (perhaps 10% of the population was addicted) off the drug with progressive rehab programs. The book covers a familiar time and place in history, but the authors make some nice analogies between the brutal economics and empire of the 19th century, and 21st- century forms of money, politics and war.
Today it seems incredible, but not that long ago a liberal and presumably “progressive” nation forced a weaker one to accept the importation of opium at the point of a sword. Tea grown on Chinese plantations was already a staple of the British diet in the 1830s. Frequently, British merchants paid for the tea with the profits gleaned from massive smuggling of opium into Chinese ports. Opium, first imported into China by Arab traders during the Middle Ages, had cut a devastatingly wide swath through Chinese society, with a large percentage of the army and the bureaucracy addicted. When the Chinese government attempted to prohibit both the use and the smuggling of the drug, Britain launched two wars between 1839 and 1860 to force open Chinese ports. Hanes is a historian and educator who specializes in British imperial history; Sanello is a film critic and author of numerous books on films and history. Their account of the causes, military campaigns, and tragic effects of these wars is absorbing, frequently macabre, and deeply unsettling. Jay Freeman
So much for “Christian morality” as being part of our Western heritage . . .
Read this book and check out some of the sources and you’ll come to the conclusion that Western Scociety having anything like the “Christian basis” it claims is pure tripe. The Brits so devistated China by forcing opium on them that it took nearly a century for them to recover and then only due to extremely harsh measurses instituted by the Communists. It would be nice to see this as a sad chapter in the history of the Western powers but unfortunately, all you have to do is look at US troops protecting poppy fields in Afghanistan to realize that anything like Christian morality goes right out the door as soon as a Western power has economic or other goals to pursue. Too bad the US has modeled their foreign policy efforts on those of the British Empire rather than going their own way.
A tale of two addictions
This is an interesting book, written in a very entertaining style. It tells the story of the two “Opium Wars”, occurring in 1839-1842 and 1856-1860. It is a story of the clash of cultures, Chinese and British hubris, and, as discussed below, the result of two addictions – the British addiction to tea and the Chinese addiction to opium, and how one fed the other. I enjoyed the book and recommend it to anyone interested in history with great relevance to our times – drug addiction and how to stop it, and how these wars and the resulting humiliation of the Chinese helped lead to the creation of modern China and modern Chinese policies vis-à-vis the rest of the world. This book helps explain why the modern Chinese government sometimes seems to have a chip on its shoulder, demanding respect from the rest of the world and aggressively pushing for it.
The book, apparently written for an American audience, sometimes takes on a somewhat snarky tone, with most of the major characters being shown in a less than favorable light. On the other hand, I found the text to be far from being academic in tone, and was therefore highly readable.
While I liked the book I could not give it five stars because, while I liked the presentation I found it somewhat sloppy. The book contains numerous errors – errors in dates, unmatched parenthesis and a problem with geographical information. While the book contains two maps, taken from other sources, I found them to be of limited use, as they do not show most of the place names mentioned in the text, which I found very annoying – requiring me to look them up in atlases and on the Internet, a chore made more difficult my the use of different English transliterations of the Chinese. Furthermore, I got the impression that the authors were largely ignorant of the geography of China. For instance, on page 88 it states … “the Bei He river, which flowed into the Yangtze” … The Bei He river (the White River near Beijing, also written as Baihe) does not flow into the Yangtze, although the Pearl river in southern China has separate tributaries named the Bei and He, but they have nothing to do with the text of the book.
What is in the book-
The British found themselves addicted to tea from China, which the Chinese would only sell for silver coins. However, the Chinese were not interested in British machinery or textiles, as they had little use for the former and believed their textiles to be superior to the latter. The only thing that they were willing to buy with silver was opium, grown in India and supplied by British merchants. However, opium addiction was destroying the fabric of Chinese society and the Chinese government was therefore trying to suppress it, both by punishing the users and preventing its importation. The story of the Opium Wars is told against the backdrop of these two addictions, and of the influence of the huge profits that the opium trade brought to British merchants and the resulting pressure that they put on the British Parliament to prevent the Chinese from stopping it. The also book discusses the strong anti-opium constituency in Britain, but it failed to overcome the greed and influence of the pro-opium forces in Britain.
The Chinese emperor and his court added to the problem by treating the British and other westerners (Europeans, Russians and Americans) as inferior barbarians, useful only as a source of tribute and not to be treated as equals. In fact, the understandable (from the British point of view, but not as the Chinese saw it) refusal of the British to kowtow (bow to the emperor – prostrate on the ground, hitting ones forehead on the floor nine times) was a major problem preventing useful interactions. The military aspects of the war bordered on farce, with the Chinese using bows and arrows, and 16th and 17th century firearms, against modern (19th century) firearms and modern cannons. The result was European losses in the hundreds and Chinese losses in the tens of thousands. The book begins and ends with the looting and destruction of the Chinese Summer Palace complex, which destroyed buildings of great historical and cultural importance. The book goes into the complex reasons why Lord Elgin, whose father was responsible for removing (stealing or removing for safe keeping, depending upon if you are Greek or British) the marble freeze from the Parthenon, burned down this complex after it had been looted by French and British troops.