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Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age (2018)

by Stephen R. Platt

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Describes how nineteenth-century British efforts to open China to trade set in motion the fall of the Qing dynasty and started a war that allowed for the rise of nationalism and communism in the twentieth century.

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Good, broad history of China and trade from 1800 forward. Objective- down the middle on China / UK perspective. Full of characters and capsule bios (too much for my taste), but still - very good narrative history. ( )
  apende | Jul 12, 2022 |
A book that does a great job of clearly laying out a very complex historical event. Focuses on the history of trade leading up to the first opium war more than the war itself, but it makes a worthwhile picture of Chinese-British relations and trade. There were a lot of small details and colorful quotations that were interesting enough to make me want to look up and dig into the primary sources he cited--"Confessions of an English Opium Eater" and the letter from the official Lin Zexu to Queen Victoria, for instance--and for me that makes a history book a great success. ( )
  Sammelsurium | Jun 23, 2022 |
While is a very worthwhile chronicle of how the British relationship with Qing China curdled over time, however, maybe ten percent of this work deals with the actual war. Essentially, Platt traces the decline from the zenith of British respect in the 1790s, to the point, where, in the 1830s, a naval campaign seemed like the logical response to what was essentially a local misunderstanding by the nations' responsible officials on the ground in Canton. For most of this book, Platt examines either the perspective of a Chinese government that was surfing chaos with less and less success, or the position of the community of merchant adventurers in Canton, who longed for a more robust status. In the end, if this war was about anything (the opium trade was, at most, the fuse to the conflict), it was about the inability of the Chinese and British governments to previously establish channels through which to work out their issues; making this one of those rare occasions where a war broke out by something that looked like an accident. However, once that war did break out, there is no denying that the UK Whig government of time was prepared to make the most of the situation that they could. Also, while this war remains the event where it all went wrong in the estimate of modern Chinese patriots, at the time, Lin Zexu (the responsible official cracking down on the use and trade of opium), was held to have overplayed his hand, and gave the British an excuse for war. ( )
  Shrike58 | Jan 10, 2021 |
Imperial Twilight concerns the period 1800-1839 leading up to the Opium War. It's not about the war itself which is covered in a few pages at the end. Rather it seeks to understand how such a bizarre historical episode came to be - while the British were ending slavery and starting the worlds first human rights organization, they were enslaving millions of Chinese to opium which at the time was illegal in China, they were drug lords that Pablo Escobar would understand. It's a multi-generational story centered on Canton, the only Chinese port where Western companies could do trade with the kingdom. There are lessons relevant to today, namely when a few corporate entities are making ungodly amounts of money they will do anything to keep it going, even if means destroying entire countries, or indeed the planet, for short-term profits regardless of human or ethical issues.

The Chinese today see the event as the start of the modern era, when outsiders began meddling in their affairs from which they are still recovering a rightful place as the greatest country in history. Platt undermines that narrative somewhat showing it as mostly a series of unintended consequences and contingencies with both sides at fault. However if there is a bad guy it would be the British for deciding to go to war to maintain a reprehensible trade. This is serious but readable history, Platt has done considerable research on a key period. ( )
  Stbalbach | Aug 7, 2018 |
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Desolate castle, the sky, the wide desert. / There is no wall left to this village. / Bones white with a thousand frosts, / High heaps, covered with trees and grass: / Who brought this to pass? / Who has brought the flaming imperial anger? / Who has brought the army with drums and with kettle-drums? / Barbarous kings. / A gracious spring, turned to blood-ravenous autumn... -Li Bo (701-762), trans. Ezra Pound, "Lament of the Frontier Guard"
Weave a circle around him thrice, / And close your eyes with holy dread, / For he on honey-dew has fed / And drunk the milk of Paradise. -Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Kubla Khan"
For Francie, Lucy, and Eliot
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If you stand outside the wall, it is impossible to gauge the size of the city. -Introduction: Canton
In the summer of 1759, James Flint sailed up the coast of China and almost didn't come back. -Prologue, The Journey of James Flint
On the morning of September 26, 1792, several days of cold English rain came to an end, a light wind picked up for the north, and the HMS Lion, a sixty-four gun ship of the line, unfurled its sails and weighed anchor to depart the harbor at Spithead. -Chapter 1, A Time of Wonder
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Describes how nineteenth-century British efforts to open China to trade set in motion the fall of the Qing dynasty and started a war that allowed for the rise of nationalism and communism in the twentieth century.

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When Britain launched its first war on China in 1839, pushed into hostilities by profiteering drug merchants and free-trade interests, it sealed the fate of what had long been seen as the most prosperous and powerful empire in Asia, if not the world. But internal problems of corruption, popular unrest, and dwindling finances had weakened China far more than was commonly understood, and the war would help set in motion the eventual fall of the Qing dynasty--which, in turn, would lead to the rise of nationalism and communism in the twentieth century. As one of the most potent turning points in the country's modern history, the Opium War has since come to stand for everything that today's China seeks to put behind it.
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