Book Review: The Opium War by Julia Lovell.

Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: Picador (2 Sep 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0330457470
ISBN-13: 978-0330457477
http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Opium-War-Dreams-Making/dp/0330457470/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0book cover

Appearance and handling:
The rich red dust-jacket fairly jumps from any shelf it is placed on. A delicate, significance laden, Poppy graces the front over a scene from the first war. The hardback is heavy and definitely a showy number but be careful how you hold it, because the publishers unwisely went with embossed guilt lettering, not only on the front but on the spine as well, which rubs off removing all but subtle traces of the writing. I’ve tried different hand postures but the only ones that work are very uncomfortable. Inside it’s got some nice illustrations in two sections, with the usual ratio of pictures to page, relatively generic maps of course, and a few black and white images scattered in between.

Review:
A more accurate name for this book would have been: “The Opium War, Causes & Consequences.” In that the main focus is not so much on the conduct of the wars, but the trigger mechanisms, socio-political ramifications and cultural significance of the conflicts.

Julia Lovell does a fine job of this and convincingly show’s how China was violently thrust into the modern world, and how, later, it took control of its past to secure its destiny. Initially the British and the Chinese face off as two nations, each imbued with its own sense of moral, cultural and racial superiority, both unwilling to understand or compromise with the other.

Triggered by the hot topic of the Opium trade, the ensuing clashes of arms leaves China with its moral superiority intact, but very little else, and a bruising road of rebellion, revolution and reform begins, which, due to the ideological hijack of the historical record by the Communist party, all leads back to the Opium War, which is at the root of Chinese attitudes to the world.

The book tries to encompass quite a large subject into a short space, 361 reading pages by my count, the rest is notes, index and maps. Not only does Lovell try to tell the tale of the Opium Wars but she also includes the Taiping & Boxer Rebellions, an interesting study of how “sinophobia” gripped the west in the late 19th century, and even a skim over the tumultuous events of the 20th century too.

This book therefore is perfectly good for a reader, new to the subject as I was, and wants an overview of the causes and of how they impact the world today. Despite its name though, the book is not a military history.

Comment on the lack of the sort of detail in the battle’s and campaigns military historians would prefer I will omit, I have already said this is not actually a military history. Suffice to say that “Breech loading percussion muskets” were not used against the Chinese by the British army in the 1840’s and it was not a company of the 37th Foot that got surrounded during the Sanyuanli Incident, it was one from the 37th Madras Native Infantry.

The main bulk of the text is taken up with what I have called causes and consequences, and the 1st war, the second getting but a chapter, but this is because the 2nd War was not directly caused by Opium, not in the same way the first was, and hardly merits the name, note the name of this book is not pluralised.

I believe this book will give a reader a good comprehension of the effects of European interference in China, and of the many varying factors that affected the decisions and actions of the participants involved, it will also show you how China’s modern journey began.

Josh.

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