The Opium War

Julia Lovell gives a mythbusting account of a shameful episode in British-Chinese relations

Rana Mitter

Painting: two Chinese opium smokers

An unfolding tragedy … gouache showing two wealthy Chinese opium smokers Photograph: Wellcome Images/Wellcome Library, London

The newly refurbished National Museum of China opened in March 2011 in Tiananmen Square, adorned with groundbreaking technology and architecture. But the story it tells is far less innovative than the design. In the museum’s narrative, China’s modern period of history opens with the opium war, the original sin of western imperialism in East Asia that forced China to open itself to a century of humiliation, conquest and exploitation until Chairman Mao came to sweep all that away. It’s titled "The Road to Rejuvenation", but it could just as easily be called "1842 and all that". This version of the past says more about contemporary Chinese politics, still drawing on China’s history as a victim of western imperialism, than it does about the reality of the clash between the 19th century’s greatest land and naval empires. Even in a 21st-century museum, the stain of a history more than 150 years old is central.

Yet not all the simplified views are on the Chinese side. One of the most persistent excuses for the British invasion of China, when it is discussed at all, was that it opened up a closed, xenophobic empire to the outside world. Actually this was never true. The China of the Qing dynasty was at the heart of an international system looking west and east, expanding its territory by conquest and by treaty in central Asia, and building contacts with Korea, south-east Asia and even Japan (never quite as closed as its shogun rulers would have liked to believe). China also took part in an intellectual and commercial network that went beyond Asia, as the influx of blue-and-white pottery in English country houses in the 18th century easily demonstrates. And long before the British arrived, China was even ruled by outsiders, the nomadic Manchus who had galloped in from the north-east. By the time of the opium war, they had spent nearly two centuries combining traditional Manchu culture at court with the Chinese traditions of governance across the empire.

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