What Lay Behind the Opium Wars?
Readers expecting a history of the Opium War, conventionally treated as the starting point for modern China — or at least, modern Chinese nationalism — will find themselves happily disappointed by Stephen Platt’s masterful new book. Imperial Twilight is about the path leading up to war, and restores a sense of contingency to one of the most over-determined episodes in modern Chinese experience.
It is also a book of world history, for Platt deals as intimately with Victorian Britain as with Qing Dynasty China, drawing widely on archival sources. He vividly reconstructs the diplomatic, economic and personal stories behind the clash of two utterly different empires — maritime vs. continental, industrial vs. industrious, Confucian vs. Christian.
The one element that seemingly unites them is insatiable pride, along with its shadow, a keen sensitivity to slight. Indeed, pride is perhaps the best single answer to the question that drove Platt to write this marvelous history: why did Britain go to war halfway around the world with a lucrative trading partner (and why didn’t China anticipate that it would do so)? Platt brings a colorful cast of characters to life — not just emperors and prime ministers, but also interpreters, emissaries, merchants and local officials.
With the dark cloud of a trade war looming over the Pacific today, and Beijing and Washington manifesting the kind of pride that Platt describes two centuries ago in the Forbidden City and Westminster, Imperial Twilight could not come at a better time.
Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden AgeBy Stephen R. Platt Alfred A. Knopf, 2018, 556 pages, $35.00 (Hardcover)