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The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire…

The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another

by W. Travis Hanes

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1554120,424 (3.34)None
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.… (more)



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This book has an interesting pair of authors; one (W. Travis Hanes III) is a history professor, and the other (Frank Sanello) is a film critic. A couple of reviewers at Amazon complained that the book is poorly edited; I didn’t really see that, but found it quite readable. I wonder if the film critic was brought in by the publisher to “spice up” an otherwise dry academic work?

At any rate, the Opium Wars were a fairly sordid episode; it’s no wonder that the Chinese are still annoyed with the West. The basic problem was Europeans had a profound appetite for Chinese porcelain, silk, and tea, while the Chinese had no use for anything Western and insisted on payment in Spanish silver dollars. The British solved (in fact, reversed) the balance-of-payments problem by forcing the Chinese to allow imported opium. The Chinese government tried twice to ban opium - once in 1836 (resulting in the First Opium War, or Arrow War), and again in 1856 (resulting in the Second Opium War, that ended with a joint French-British force sacking and looting the Summer Palace). It didn’t help that during the Second Opium War the Chinese were simultaneously engaged in fighting the Taiping Rebellion, led by a charismatic if somewhat unworldly man who claimed to be Jesus Christ’s younger brother.

Although the authors’ sympathy is generally with the Chinese, they don’t get off blame-free. They failed to understand, despite repeated evidence to the contrary, that their large army and navy were powerless against modern weaponry and therefore some compromise was necessary. A particular sticking point was their insistence that foreigners perform the “kowtow”; kneeling and knocking their forehead on the floor nine times when granted an audience with an Imperial representative. The various efforts of the Chinese to reach an understanding here would be comic if the results weren’t so sad; they offered to allow the barbarians to kowtow three times instead of nine, to kowtow behind a screen so no one would see, and so on. (When an American ambassador was ordered to kowtow, he indignantly replied “I kneel to no one but Woman and God!” The puzzled Chinese official said “But the Emperor is God!”).

Opium remained a problem in China until the Communists took over and offered addicts and users the choice of cold turkey or death. That finally worked. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 28, 2017 |
The Barnes & Noble edition contains several typos and at least one incorrect date. This work provides a background to the two opium wars conducted by Britain (and joined in by France) to maintain the importation of opium into China. This drug trade was conducted for the purpose of maintaining a stream of revenue for the British economy. ( )
  Waltersgn | Jul 21, 2017 |
This book should be proscribed reading in every British school. At the time of reviewing this book, the UK is going through the first stage traumas from the decision to leave the EU. Whilst a few, a very few, people might have voted 'out' for other reasons, the vast majority of that vote was fuelled by rampant racism and promises to keep the dangerous foreigners out of the country. Reading this book is a dispiriting lesson in how little has changed within 150 years. We British have always considered ourselves to be more of a different species, than a mongrel race interlinked to humanity.

The basic story behind the Opium Wars is not, as most British would imagine, the tale of how we tried to prevent oriental importation of opium to Britain, but rather of how we forced the Chinese to accept opium trading because we had nothing else to offer for their exports - tea in particular. The establishment, for tea was far too expensive to be partaken of by the hoi polloi, liked their tea; a drink eventually introduced into India, where control could be more easily exercised, but only available from China, at this time. The Chinese, being a pretty self-sufficient lot, wanted payment in silver - the nearest equivalent to today's US dollar. The British were not happy to expend their silver supplies on what they felt to be uncivilised foreigners and so, set up the opium trade.

The British were outnumbered in China but, their military hardware was so much in advance of the Chinese, that to call the ensuing military actions 'wars', rather than 'exterminations', is pushing credibility. In any conflict, the Chinese dead would be measured in thousands whilst the British and French forces, who were persuaded to take part without too much difficulty, would lose tens of troops only on a very bad day.

None of the three armies (British, French and Chinese) can be proud of their actions but history records that the British were particularly barbaric and this is where my initial comments, about history repeating itself, comes into play. The British Parliament and troops did not believe that they were behaving disgracefully towards fellow human beings, their approach was the eradication of a particularly pestilential, but insignificant inferior species. This may have been a salve to their consciences, but the echoes in those who, "aren't racist, but we're full up", is chilling: how does twenty miles of water build such a barrier between human beings? ( )
  the.ken.petersen | Jul 3, 2016 |
Meh. Started strong, but got a bit worn down by the particulars. ( )
  epersonae | Mar 30, 2013 |
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