An East India Company steamship destroying Chinese war junks during the Opium War, 1841

Niday Picture Library/Alamy

The East India Company steamship Nemesis destroying Chinese war junks at the Second Battle of Chuenpi during the Opium War, 1841; hand-colored engraving by Edward Duncan, 1843

For much of the 1700s, China’s Qing dynasty (1644–1912) governed fairly well, and many foreigners were impressed by the country’s social, economic, and cultural vitality. By 1850 a noticeably poorer and militarily weaker society was about to suffer thirty years of history’s bloodiest civil wars: above all the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864), but also the Nian Rebellion (1853–1868), the Guizhou Miao Rebellion (1854–1873), the Panthay Rebellion (1855–1873), and the Northwest Muslim Rebellion (1862–1877), which all told may have taken as many as fifty million lives. (The Taiping alone probably took twenty million.) Yet the years between glory and desperation have been understudied. Indeed, Stephen Platt’s Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age may be the first book for general readers about the decline of the Qing before 1850.1

The exception to this scholarly neglect has been the Anglo-Chinese Opium War (1839–1842). The involvement of the West explains much of the fascination with the Opium War compared to the bloodier Chinese civil conflicts mentioned above, or even the White Lotus Rebellion (1796–1805). But scholars have also seen the Opium War as showing how global processes—for example, the emergence of capitalism and the spread of imperialism—abruptly changed China’s historical trajectory.

Platt rejects explanations of the Opium War that are based on such broad abstractions, but he too gives the war pride of place in explaining China’s social, economic, and political unraveling, and the deepening imperialist incursions of the century from 1843 to 1945. He deals with major trends in China’s domestic economy, political system, and environment, along with some internal uprisings, but only briefly; his focus is on Sino-British relations. He concludes that had war been avoided in 1839, “we might be looking back on very different lessons from this era” for East–West relations, but he does not try to show that China’s later decades of crisis could have been avoided.

Much about the war is well understood. From 1759 through 1839, all non-Russian Westerners trading with China were supposed to confine themselves to a “factory” at Canton (Guangzhou), where they dealt exclusively with a small guild of licensed Chinese merchants responsible for their welfare and conduct. Any request to Chinese officials went through those merchants; foreign countries had no representatives in Beijing. Some Europeans resented these and other restrictions. But trade was brisk, customs duties modest, and everyday disputes (over, for example, payments for sailors’ haircuts or delinquent loans) usually resolved without government involvement. In retrospect, liberals (and many Marxists) would paint “the Canton system” as highly restrictive and thus inevitably doomed by globalizing forces, but most participants around 1800 felt differently. In Platt’s words, the Chinese and British merchants at Canton had “far more common ground than conflict.”

The factors that destroyed this system are also easily enumerated, though their relative importance remains disputed. The English East India Company (EIC), a state-licensed monopoly, dominated eighteenth-century trade; thus each side effectively had a body that could represent and discipline its members. But the American Revolution brought increased competition to the Canton trade. Subsequently, parliamentary reforms eroded the EIC’s privileges in Canton and ended them completely in 1834; thus the factory now also housed British merchants whom the EIC could not control. The foreign merchants—including growing numbers of strident “free-traders” convinced that only Qing obstructionism separated them from an enormous market—became less and less governable. British emissaries to China in 1793, 1816, and 1834 failed to improve diplomatic relations. The reasons varied, but the British increasingly alleged that China was ritually humiliating foreigners.

Meanwhile, more and more of what Westerners sold at Canton was opium. That Chinese were uninterested in foreign goods is a myth. But Western traders nonetheless had trouble finding enough exports (other than silver) to balance soaring tea imports. Especially after 1820, opium increasingly filled that need, even though it was illegal in China. Most opium originated in the EIC’s Indian territories, but it was sold by non-EIC merchants from boats that anchored away from the factory, which gave the EIC deniability. Chinese officials did not vigorously fight this smuggling, partly because it indirectly subsidized legal trade, to the profit of merchants and officials on both sides.

Opium addiction spread rapidly, though the precise dating and dimensions are unclear. Platt cites estimates that there were about 300,000 addicts circa 1839, but vastly higher numbers are plausible; other scholars have made estimates as high as 8.5 to 12.5 million (among roughly 380 million people). Chinese imports of opium by 1839 were forty times what they had been in 1767 (and two hundred times their 1729 levels); soldiers and government clerks were particularly heavy users, which greatly alarmed Beijing. Moreover, many Chinese officials believed (not entirely accurately) that exporting silver to pay for opium was destabilizing China’s currency system and producing deep economic distress.


The Qing knew how difficult stopping imports would be and considered alternatives, including legalization—rumors of which pleased foreign traders in the mid-1830s. Nonetheless, suppressionists prevailed. They belonged to an ascendant network of moralistic, militant Confucians who would have outsize influence on Chinese policy for the next quarter-century, and in some ways resembled their hard-line Victorian adversaries. In 1839 their champion, Lin Zexu (1785–1850), became an opium-suppression commissioner with broad discretionary powers. By cutting off trade and services to the Westerners at Canton, Lin managed to confiscate £2 million worth of British-owned opium—for which a Crown representative, Charles Elliot, imprudently promised the traders compensation. Since Westminster would not pay for this, Elliot’s only recourse was a war that would force the Qing to compensate the British merchants; by exaggerating Lin Zexu’s threat to Britons in Canton, Elliot produced one.

Elliot was no warmonger, at least initially. Having served as protector of slaves in Guyana shortly before emancipation, he had practice restraining greedy, abusive fellow Britons; he also knew that compensating slave owners, however distasteful, had helped speed abolition. These experiences undoubtedly affected his decision to cooperate in Lin Zexu’s opium seizure while promising reimbursement. Though much better informed than his predecessors, thanks to local translations of Qing edicts, he kept expecting opium legalization long after the Qing had reversed course. And when Lin Zexu blockaded recalcitrant foreigners in the factory, Elliot became much more alarmed than the merchants themselves, precipitating both his pledge of compensation and his urgent request to London for military support. Though he had repeatedly advocated accommodating the Chinese opposition to opium, he probably did more than anyone else to provoke the war.

The name “Opium War” came from British antiwar broadsides. Supporters of the war in Britain denied that it was about opium. They sometimes spoke of “opening” China, and more often about protecting Britons and avenging insults to their flag. For later scholars and politicians who did see opium as central to the conflict, Lin Zexu came to represent China’s legitimate, if perhaps imprudent, assertion of its sovereignty, and thus a step toward “standing up” (after a remark of Mao Zedong’s) as a modern nation among nations. Many Western anti-imperialists—from Chartists, left liberals, and evangelical opium opponents in 1839 to Vietnam War–era “revisionist” historians—shared this focus on China’s righteous resistance to drug trafficking. Twentieth-century Chinese nationalists did the same.

Supporters of the war eventually updated and broadened their original insistence that Britain had gone to war to avenge “insults” to its honor, but they kept much of its content: they saw the ritual-obsessed Qing as obstructing the world’s progress toward freer trade and diplomacy among equal nations. Whiggish centrists of the time and later apostles of Western-led modernization, including many cold war liberals, took this view. The narrative favored by leftists and nationalists was about imperialism awakening anti-imperialist nationalism; the one favored by pro-Western classical liberals and Cold Warriors was about capitalist progress and proto-globalization versus xenophobia. Either way, the war exemplified fundamental dynamics of the modern world and so seemed inevitable.

Platt, by contrast, sees an unpopular war that erupted when the two governments made numerous blunders and overlooked grounds for agreement. He thus recasts Britain’s pro-war party in a way that resembles how James Polachek’s landmark The Inner Opium War (1992) treated China’s Confucian prohibitionists. Both authors demote self-proclaimed tribunes of a straightforward “national interest” (whether, in Britain’s case, that meant promoting free trade and enlightenment or sordid money-grubbing) to dogmatic minorities selling energetic but counterproductive policies. For the British, choosing war did not mean painful defeat, but many at the time considered it a moral disaster. Platt argues that both sides ultimately lost, since propagandists later made the war

the bedrock of Chinese nationalism—the war in which the British forced opium down China’s throat, the shattering start to China’s century of victimhood, the fuel of vengeance for building a new Chinese future in the face of Western imperialism, Year Zero of the modern age.

Platt is correct that few Britons were itching to impose “free trade” on China; after all, trade in Europe faced many barriers, too. Moreover, even some free-traders supported China’s right to ban opium, distinguishing drugs from other goods; some also believed that opium was sopping up Chinese purchasing power and harming other British exports. A “warlike party” based in Canton lobbied tirelessly for aggressive action, but the factory also housed a “pacific party” with roughly comparable resources.2

At any rate, neither merchants nor manufacturers dominated British policymaking. Aristocrats ruled, and few were ardent free-traders. Even most opponents of EIC privileges agreed that some institution overseeing Canton traders was needed after the EIC lost its privileges there in 1834. Britain dispatched a “chief superintendent of trade,” Lord Napier, to fashion new arrangements, which would require Chinese consent.


Napier lobbied hard for this post, including with the king. He proved a fateful choice. Before leaving for Canton, he fantasized about blockading China’s coastal trade, to “raise a revolution and cause them to open their ports.” His instructions, however, were simply to prevent the post-EIC vacuum from disrupting trade. He failed, mostly because Chinese officials recognized a need for new arrangements but could not create them without consulting Beijing. Since meeting Napier directly would itself constitute change, they delayed.

Napier died of fever three months after arriving. Hard-line merchants—notably James Matheson of Jardine, Matheson, the biggest opium traders—and Napier’s extremely well-connected widow blamed his death on Qing “insults”; they called for gunboats, but unsuccessfully. In 1838, Whitehall rejected Elliot’s proposal for closer policing of British sailors because it would infringe unacceptably on Chinese sovereignty. In short, Britons flouting Chinese authority were empowered by London’s neglect, not by its support.

The Qing were also less rigid than claims of inevitable conflict suggest. Even after they rejected proposals to legalize opium, most officials—knowing, among other things, how weak China’s navy was—preferred to target domestic smugglers and consumers rather than confront foreigners; that strategy was making progress, though Platt is probably too optimistic about what its long-term prospects might have been. Napier had refused to seek compromises, but Elliot, who had become chief superintendent of trade in 1836, was more flexible.

So what happened? Platt’s story highlights blunders, personal dramas, and other contingencies, especially among the British. As more systemic explanations, he notes an increasing British obsession with “national honor,” especially after Napier’s death, but places the most emphasis on a broader shift in attitudes toward China, from near awe in 1759 to near contempt by 1839. He therefore focuses on Britain’s handful of China “experts.” The book opens with the story of James Flint, the first Englishman known to have learned some Chinese; it also profiles Robert Morrison and Thomas Manning, who spent years in Canton intensively studying the language. But Sinology and policy intersect most poignantly in George Staunton.

Staunton’s life has received little attention, but it fits Platt’s narrative beautifully. When he was eleven years old, his father brought him on George Macartney’s 1793 embassy to China and arranged Chinese tutors for him when no Briton knew the language; he spoke briefly to the emperor during Macartney’s audience. Sent to Canton in 1800, he took a menial EIC job and continued learning Chinese. He rose slowly in the EIC, also worked as an interpreter, and published, in 1810, a translation of the Qing legal code. This established Staunton as Britain’s leading China expert, but it did not, as he had hoped, increase respect for China, which he considered the most civilized non-Christian society. Instead, many readers concluded that Chinese law should never be applied to civilized people; one reviewer said it proved that the Chinese were an “unimprovable race.”

In April 1840, seven months after war had begun, Staunton’s knowledge would again have the effect of authorizing Sino-British hostility, when the House of Commons debated censuring the Whig government for having given inadequate instructions to Elliot during the run-up to the conflict. This debate provides the dramatic climax of Platt’s book. The shy, awkward Staunton had been an MP since 1818, but he had given only one speech: in 1833, when he unsuccessfully moved to continue the EIC’s supervisory role at Canton until new arrangements could be made with the Qing. His reputation as a China expert remained unsurpassed, however, and observers assumed he would again counsel patience. After all, his 1833 warning had proved prophetic: without a negotiated system of governance, some Britons flouting Chinese law had caused trouble for everyone. Therefore, Platt argues, Staunton “had a pulpit, and a moment, from which he could steer Britain back toward a more peaceful and respectful relationship with the Qing empire.”

But Staunton supported the government, and the war. Personal gratitude to the foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, a political patron, probably had a part in his decision. After insisting in his speech to Parliament that he “yielded to no Member of the House” in his opposition to opium trafficking, Staunton invoked the by-then familiar argument that Britain merely sought equal relations with China, which could only be secured by responding vigorously to unacceptable treatment. Like many others, he also predicted problems elsewhere if Britain showed “weakness” in China, arguing that it would shake Britain’s control of India.

He made two more novel claims as well. One, which Platt calls “perverse,” was that only war could end opium trafficking, since only war could lead to treaty-based Sino-British cooperation. The other was that Lin Zexu’s actions—not soaring opium imports or Britain’s unilateral abolition of self-regulation via the EIC—had destroyed a satisfactory status quo at Canton. Significantly, both arguments contradicted how later apologists characterized the war: as a bold stroke eliminating a backward despotism’s obstruction of free trade, transnational interaction, and progress.3

Censure failed in Parliament by a vote of 271–262, and it could conceivably have changed British policy. (Probably not, though. As Macaulay, the secretary at war and quintessential Whig historian, emphasized, the censure motion criticized only Elliot’s original instructions; and when the Tories took power, they continued the war.) So few Britons knew anything about China that Staunton stood out to a degree unimaginable today; he might have swayed four other MPs. Still, his speech probably reflected large trends in Sino-Western confrontation more than it altered them.

If Staunton might have prevented the war, others might have, too. For instance, the opium trader William Jardine had met with Palmerston before he chose to fight and convinced him that victory would be easy—no small matter for an unpopular government mired in other foreign policy crises, including a much-criticized Afghan war. Moreover, the censure motion that Staunton opposed had been expected to pass the Tory-dominated House of Lords, but support withered when the Duke of Wellington strongly opposed it. Like Staunton and others, Wellington praised the old order at Canton, rather than embracing the negative image of China found in the free-traders’ propaganda (and in much later historiography). But he insisted that China had destroyed that system through insults and threats, which had to be avenged. He, too, claimed that opium was irrelevant, and justified war by appealing to “honor,” not “progress.”

So among immediate events and causes, Staunton’s speech merits attention, but other acts, by more powerful people, may merit more. Understanding how the stage was set for them also requires looking beyond what Platt highlights. By 1839, some Britons—particularly, but not exclusively, certain Canton merchants—had for decades been aggressively promoting the notion that Chinese behavior toward Westerners was “insulting” and that an easy war would humble the Qing. After Napier’s death, they had increasing numbers of aristocratic allies.

This propaganda was plausible thanks to more general ideas about China, which had turned negative earlier and more strongly than Platt allows. In his introduction, Platt says that the story of the war’s origin is,

to a significant degree, the story of how the grand mystery of China faded in the cold light of knowledge as British subjects first began to learn the language and explore the interior…and…how the admiring Western views of China that were so prevalent in the late eighteenth century came to be eroded [emphasis added].

But those changes had begun significantly earlier. Voltaire and a few others continued praising Chinese political and social institutions after 1750, and some Chinese arts remained popular. But most major Continental social thinkers—Montesquieu, Rousseau, Kant, and Herder, to name a few—had decidedly negative views of China, though they had little substantial new information about it. Even Montesquieu, the most empirical among them, based a climatic determinist theory of eternal Chinese despotism on a single erroneous claim that China (and Asia generally) had no temperate zone. What mattered were internal European issues: a well-governed China might support Voltaire’s visions of “enlightened despotism” in Europe, while a hopelessly benighted China bolstered Montesquieu’s insistence on a separation of powers.

Perhaps because neither “enlightened despotism” nor Voltaire’s largely Jesuit sources were viewed favorably in Britain, intellectual Sinophilia was never as pronounced there, and receded more quickly and decisively than on the Continent. As early as 1719, Daniel Defoe was denigrating China and ridiculing Sinophiles in both his fiction and his pamphlets. For Malthus in 1798 China epitomized overpopulation and poverty; James Mill in 1809 asserted that there was “not one of the arts in China in a state which indicates a stage of civilization beyond the infancy of agricultural society.” Platt himself suggests that once-positive views of China had been replaced by cynicism “by the end of the Napoleonic Wars”—twenty-five years before the Opium War. Even that probably puts the date too late.

The strong shift of opinion despite a lack of new evidence—either from translations or travel inside China—suggests that powerful European intellectual trends were responsible. Growing faith in progress eroded respect for a polity supposedly governed by ancient Confucian principles; economic liberalism scorned interventions such as government-funded flood control and various efforts to spread agricultural know-how, for which earlier thinkers had lauded China; constitutionalism eroded (and reactions to Napoleon finished off) any remaining interest in finding models for enlightened despots. An increased focus on mechanical inventions and labor-saving supplanted older concerns for maximizing employment even when resources were limited—for which China had also often been praised.

While this increasingly negative view of China covered many topics, it returned repeatedly to assertions that the Qing were pompous, obsessed with rituals and with the appearance of being powerful, wealthy, and virtuous, but were militarily weak. (The latter point was valid, at least at sea: thus Napier’s 1833 fantasy and the 1839 war plan, based on shelling coastal cities and threatening south-to-north grain shipments.) This made it easy for supporters of the war to argue that particular Chinese acts and phrases were deliberately insulting and to advocate military responses. In addition, devotion to national “honor”—much like “credibility” in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—could make it seem proper, or even necessary, to overlook the fact that for most in Britain the material interests at stake were relatively narrow and the activity being protected deeply distasteful.

This created an opportunity for the “warlike party” among Canton merchants—and their allies in Britain. For many of them, the stakes were considerable. Some would have gone bankrupt without compensation for the opium Lin had seized; many more had become or were becoming rich in the Canton trade. (Matheson, of middling origins, became the UK’s second-largest landowner.) Others, well beyond Canton, benefited in other ways from opium: taxing it provided 15 percent of total British Indian government revenues from 1839 until 1889. (The future prime minister Robert Peel cited those revenues to defend the opium trade during an 1830 debate.)

Many British merchants and manufacturers also hoped to gain from a “forward policy” of “opening” China, which the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, at Matheson’s urging, had endorsed by 1836. As Platt notes, some free trade advocates worried that opium purchases would displace Chinese demand for their goods, but the quasi-official view presented on behalf of exporters was positive. The Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow Chambers of Commerce noted that India earned about £3 million annually from exports to China (principally opium), “which enables our Indian subjects to consume our manufactures on a largely increased scale.” That sum exceeded Britain’s average annual current account surplus for 1836–1840.

Platt may be right that war was far from inevitable in August 1839; but war sometime soon was nonetheless likely. The war had many critics, as he shows; but this was hardly the first or the last time that a determined minority pushed through a war they had long wanted. The odds were stacked in their favor, given the increasing disdain in Britain for China generally and its military capabilities specifically, as well as the widely held assumption that for a great power to be either “tough” or “weak” in one place would affect its potential adversaries worldwide.

Platt demonstrates, then, that the stakes we have retroactively assigned to the Opium War were not those that the people at the center of British decision-making spoke of. They only rarely invoked the theme of progress and openness versus backwardness and xenophobia that later Westerners often raised; still less, of course, did they speak of imperialism and nascent Chinese nationalism. Platt also shows that potential supporters for a different path existed. (It is less clear, however, what that path might have been, unless China capitulated on all major points.)

But a close-up view like the one Platt offers is not necessarily the most useful, and is insufficient by itself. Some meanings that later commentators imposed on the war—especially the “necessary destruction of archaic restraints,” but also the “first awakening of Chinese nationalism”—are historically inaccurate and perhaps politically harmful as well. Other wide-angle views, however, remain quite illuminating. For instance, many Britons opposed the war, as Platt notes, precisely because it seemed clear to them that opium was at the heart of it, and war was likely to cause harm far outweighing any vindication of “national honor.” Moreover, while the promoters of various China-focused agendas beyond opium—freer trade, access for missionaries, extraterritoriality—could not have brought on the war by themselves, they nonetheless represented increasingly important elements in British society and were certain to keep pushing their agendas regardless of how events in Canton played out.

Similarly, the currents pulling Britain toward a more hostile and dismissive view of China—making it more acceptable to make war there for less than persuasive reasons—were deep and broad, and they owed more to ongoing transformations within Europe than to any of the few new facts, texts, or reports emanating from China. Platt’s book adds many interesting details to the drama of 1839, but it does not greatly change the larger story of Western intrusion or of Qing decline.