In Im­pe­rial Twi­light, his­to­rian Stephen Platt shows how flawed de­ci­sions led to full- blown con­flict be­tween two mighty trad­ing part­ner­s裴士锋全新视角解读鸦片战争

The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY JEREMIAH JENNE


The story of the First Opium War is of­ten told, but rarely this well. Stephen Platt's Im­pe­rial twi­light: the opium war and the end of china' s last golden age gives a char­ac­ter-based study of the fraught de­ci­sions and mis­cal­cu­la­tions that led to this defin­ing event in China's re­cent his­tory

Few events in mod­ern Chi­nese his­tory come loaded with as much sym­bolic bag­gage as the First Opium War of 1839 – 1842. For many his­to­ri­ans in the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic, the con­flict marks the be­gin­ning of China’s mod­ern era. Gen­er­a­tions of Chi­nese school­child­ren are taught how the Treaty of Nan­jing, signed in 1842 at the con­clu­sion of hos­til­i­ties,

BY HATTY LIU was the be­gin­ning of a “Cen­tury of Hu­mil­i­a­tion.”

It is a story of­ten told—although rarely well. For some, the con­flict was clear ev­i­dence of ra­pa­cious for­eign pow­ers declar­ing war against a peace­ful na­tion for the in­ter­ests of drug traf­fick­ers and im­pe­ri­al­ists. For oth­ers, it was a les­son well taught about an ar­ro­gant and scle­rotic regime, un­will­ing to join the mod­ern comity of na­tions and stub­bornly re­fus­ing to of­fer the benefits of free and fair trade to its sub­jects.

His­to­rian Stephen Platt’s Im­pe­rial Twi­light: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age helps to hew away th­ese polem­i­cal ex­tremes to craft a char­ac­ter-driven nar­ra­tive that’s one of the best ac­counts (in English) of the decades and de­ci­sions lead­ing to war.

This is a book about how the Opium War came to be—“how China de­clined from its 18th-cen­tury grandeur and how Bri­tain be­came suf­fi­ciently em­bold­ened to take ad­van­tage of that de­cline,” Platt writes. “The cen­tral ques­tion…is not how Bri­tain won…rather, the cen­tral ques­tion is a moral one: how Bri­tain could have come to fight such a war in China in the first place—against, it should be noted, sav­age crit­i­cism both at home and abroad.”

As a his­to­rian, Platt has made some­thing of a ca­reer remap­ping well-trod his­tor­i­cal ter­rain. His pre­vi­ous work, Au­tumn in the Heav­enly King­dom, placed the events of the

ex­traor­di­nar­ily bloody Taip­ing Re­bel­lion (1850 – 1864) in a much­needed his­tor­i­cal con­text. But whereas the Taip­ing was an epochal event of im­mense scale, of­ten over­looked in world his­tory, the Opium War was, as mil­i­tary en­gage­ments go, a rel­a­tively mi­nor sideshow, whose sym­bolic im­por­tance came to over­shadow the ac­tual events.

There is no at­tempt here to down­play the shame­less­ness of the opium mer­chants and their sup­port­ers in pro­mot­ing a war to pro­tect their nar­row eco­nomic in­ter­ests, wrapped in the bunting of na­tional honor. Much as the Amer­i­can Civil War was pri­mar­ily over slav­ery, this was a war, first and fore­most, about opium.

How­ever, to fo­cus ex­clu­sively on that is to ig­nore other im­por­tant dy­nam­ics which would have long-last­ing reper­cus­sions for China and the world. Pos­i­tive, even en­vi­ous, ap­praisals of China’s civ­i­liza­tion in the 17th and 18th cen­turies had given way to scorn and con­tempt by the In­dus­trial Age. This change re­flected changes in how “the West” in­ter­acted with China in the 19th cen­tury, but also an un­for­tu­nate re­al­ity: In the early 1800s, China, or rather the Great Qing, was an em­pire in de­cline.

The govern­ment was strug­gling to man­age in­ter­nal re­bel­lions like the Taip­ing, a fre­quently an­ar­chic coast, as well as a sharp de­cline in bu­reau­cratic and mil­i­tary morale. For a court be­sieged by crises, which all de­manded the em­peror’s at­ten­tion, a hand­ful of for­eign mer­chants, whin­ing about trade im­bal­ances on the edges of the em­pire, hardly seemed a pri­or­ity.

Yet the Qing were keenly aware of the dan­gers of pro­vok­ing a war. Of­fi­cials reg­u­larly sent in­tel­li­gence to Beijing warn­ing their coastal de­fenses would be lit­tle match for a Euro­pean navy in high dud­geon. The court’s er­ror was not ig­no­rance of the per­ils, ar­gues Platt, but rather a naive faith in the power of trade to pre­vent a con­flict. They be­lieved that the for­eign pow­ers would not jeop­ar­dize their lu­cra­tive com­mer­cial in­ter­ests— how­ever con­strained—by declar­ing hos­til­i­ties.

Th­ese “for­eign pow­ers” were a bump­tious and au­da­cious as­sem­bly of ad­ven­tur­ers, so­journ­ers, traders, smug­glers, ex­plor­ers, and seek­ers of for­tune. Both in­di­vid­u­ally and in loose con­fed­er­a­tion, they were prone to chal­lenge au­thor­ity, in­clud­ing the Bri­tish East In­dia Com­pany (which it­self of­ten rode roughshod over par­lia­men­tary ob­jec­tions back home), agents of their own gov­ern­ments, and Qing of­fi­cials.

The Can­ton Sys­tem (1757 – 1842), which gov­erned Euro­pean trade on the China coast was an in­her­ently lim­it­ing set of poli­cies and prac­tices, but not nec­es­sar­ily un­fair. It was an ex­ten­sion of ar­range­ments which had worked well for cen­turies be­tween China and their fron­tier trade part­ners. Ar­gu­ments to over­turn es­tab­lished poli­cies in the name of free and fair trade, and in­creas­ingly stri­dent re­quests that China play by the “international norms of com­merce,” were met by be­mused dis­dain on the part of Qing of­fi­cials, who felt the real prob­lem was the in­abil­ity of th­ese up­start traders to ap­pre­ci­ate their em­peror’s benev­o­lence.

This is not re­ally a book about a war­fare, though, much less a blow-by­blow ac­count of the bat­tles be­tween the forces of the Bri­tish and Qing Em­pire. That’s slightly sur­pris­ing, given the vis­ceral de­scrip­tions of bat­tles in Au­tumn in the Heav­enly King­dom, but there are other books, in­clud­ing Ju­lia Lovell’s 2015 The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Mak­ing of Mod­ern China, which may be of more in­ter­est to mil­i­tary en­thu­si­asts.

In­stead, Platt art­fully re­con­structs the world of coastal China, and takes us through the halls of power in Beijing and Lon­don where flawed de­ci­sions—of­ten based on faulty in­tel­li­gence—would ul­ti­mately lead the two into open con­flict.

Platt blends schol­arly rigor with an ac­ces­si­ble eye for story and char­ac­ter. As with his ear­lier books, he in­tro­duces us to the per­son­al­i­ties be­hind the mon­u­ments and doc­u­ments: The fop­pish diplo­mat Lord Napier, the spoiled Amer­i­can in­génue Har­riet Low, John Mur­ray Forbes (whose ef­forts in Can­ton would even­tu­ally fund the Amer­i­can dy­nasty), and the ec­cen­tric Si­nol­o­gist Thomas Man­ning, with his Chi­nese clothes and waist-long beard. Fresh takes on fa­mous fig­ures, such as the hap­less govern­ment agent Charles El­liott and his coun­ter­part— Com­mis­sioner Lin Zexu (now revered as a pa­tri­otic hero, but whose fail­ure to con­trol the con­flict led to his dis­missal and exile at the time)—in­ter­weave the per­sonal with the po­lit­i­cal.

And, of course, there is opium, the ca­sus belli, even though the drug goes un­men­tioned in the Treaty of Nan­jing. Platt ar­gues that opium mer­chants had more to lose by le­gal­iz­ing their traf­fic (hav­ing al­ready made sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ments in ships and other tools of smug­gling) than open­ing the trade to competition.

Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties bet that the for­eign traders would act in their own ra­tio­nal self-in­ter­est. Un­for­tu­nately, they were only half right. The opium mer­chants and their sup­port­ers were ar­dent, en­thu­si­as­tic, and of­ten cyn­i­cal pro­po­nents of self-in­ter­est, but rarely did so in a way which made sense to Chi­nese of­fi­cials.

Lit­tle won­der then that, in this age of Twit­ter-fu­eled trade dis­putes, Beijing seem dis­in­clined to take de­mands to change their trade pol­icy se­ri­ously. Surely, the rel­e­vant or­gans must won­der, their for­eign coun­ter­parts will act in their own ra­tio­nal self-in­ter­est. It may be un­likely that to­day’s ten­sions will lead to ki­netic war­fare, but the mis­takes and mis­un­der­stand­ings that lead up to the Opium War seem grimly des­tined for a cur­tain call in the 21st cen­tury.

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