The Opium War by Julia Lovell – review
Rana Mitter. guardian.co.uk, Friday 2 September 2011″The opium war did help to bring about the collapse of the last Chinese dynasty, a fact worth remembering in 2011, exactly a century since the revolution that deposed the last emperor. But their significance was to hasten violent changes already under way.
The expansion of China’s territory and population, without any increase in the size of the bureaucracy (shades of current debates about austerity versus spending in the west), meant that government functions had become less competent and more corrupt.
And while the opium war itself had a direct impact on relatively few Chinese, one of the results of the opening up of China demanded by the 1842 treaty was the Taiping war of 1856-64, when a lunatic inspired by Christian missionary theology managed to spark off one of the bloodiest civil wars in history, which killed some 20 million people.
Throughout the 20th century, the opium war has remained a rallying-cry for Chinese nationalists seeking to overcome “national humiliation” and restore China to its rightful place in the world. The opium war is capable of creating waves in China even today. One academic, Mao Haijian at Peking University, recently had the temerity to question the official Chinese narrative of the opium war in his book The Collapse of the Empire, rehabilitating the Qing official Qishan, generally regarded as the weak villain of the piece who failed to stand up to the British, and criticising Lin, traditionally regarded as the upright hero of the story. His book was subjected to a storm of criticism, but the debate did not result in the purging of the dissident scholar, as it would have done in an earlier era.
The signs of a livelier debate among Chinese academics make the account of the war in the new national museum even more disappointing. Britain may have forgotten the history of its Chinese empire, but the Communist party also continues to be highly selective in what it chooses to remember.
The conquest of China by Mao in 1949 was not an endpoint to the story started in 1842, but brought its own horrors of history with it: the Great Leap Forward and the famine that killed millions of people (described in Frank Dikötter’srecent Samuel Johnson-prizewinning book), the cultural revolution (officially repudiated and hardly mentioned in the new museum), and the killings of non-violent students and workers just a few hundred metres from the site of the museum in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
This book serves a crucial purpose in reminding Britain of a shameful episode in its past that still shapes relations with China today. But official China could also learn from it that reconciliation with the past comes by understanding its complexities, rather than turning it into a simple morality tale.”
Rana Mitter’s Modern China: A Very Short Introduction is published byOxford University Press.