What Lay Be­hind the Opium Wars?

Global Asia - - BOOK REVIEWS - Re­viewed by John Delury

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)

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