Blundering into War

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…

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