I’ve recently slowed down a bit with respect to my reading, writing and posting – partly due to a busier than normal daily schedule – work, kids, a whole host of things – but partly due to a detour I’ve decided to take for the short term. As any of you who have followed this blog know, my mainstay is Science Fiction and Fantasy – more broadly speculative fiction – a term that hadn’t really entered my lexicon until recently – likely a reflection of my age and my failure to spend time reading about the art of writing over the years. I’d guess that a good 75% of my posts focus on old and new works of science fiction and fantasy. Every once in a while, however, I have to step away and move to more academic fare.
If you’re read my About Me Page, you’ll know that I have a second literary love – history, current affairs and political science. While it doesn’t receive as much of my reading time as it should, I nevertheless return to it from time to time. I’ll go for months reading nothing but speculative fiction and enjoying it immensely. Ultimately, though, it never fails – I always seem to hit a point where I feel compelled to read something that actually leaves me a better informed, more educated individual. When I hit that point, my reading inevitably slows as I feel the need to put real time into the books I’ve chosen. These are academic works, I’m reading them to further my education and they cannot be given short shrift if I really want to benefit from the experience.
You can see that tendency to swerve back to history in my posts on books like “The Templars”:
Or the time I took to read “The Forgotten War” – a book I commented on but have yet to review – largely because I found it informative but not particularly satisfying. I may eventually get to the point where I’m ready to put a few observations on this one into a post – but I’m not there yet.
I hit that point last week – after finishing “The Black Council” by S.M. Stirling – maybe due to its focus on the First World War. Around the time I was finishing that book, I ran across both the topic of this post on Amazon – “Imperial Twilight: The Opium War And The End Of China’s Last Golden Age” – and “Autumn In The Heavenly Kingdom: China, The West And The Epic Story Of The Taiping Civil War” – both by Stephen R. Platt. These books drew me in – partly because the episodes in history were ones that I knew little to nothing about – and partly because the reality of China as a geopolitical competitor to the United States has been weighing on me recently. A fair fraction of my professional life has been focused on Asia – initially as a Diplomat and later as an employee of a large company that offered me multiple opportunities to live and work in the region.
My last opportunity to live and work in Asia ended in 2004 when I repatriated from a 3 year assignment in Malaysia and Singapore. At that time, China was an emerging offshore destination for western manufacturing of low value products. Since then, it’s become the United States’ leading competitor in the areas of science, technology, military power and global influence. The country should be a focus of concern for any American who thinks critically about the role our country has played in the world and the constructive, liberal global leadership we’ve supplied since the end of WWII. As a result, I felt compelled to buy and read both books. I was able to finish “Imperial Twilight” last night and thought I should post a few thoughts.
I have to say – from the beginning – that this was an exceptional work of history. Platt has laid this narrative out in a particularly accessible way, his research and scholarship shines through and his decision to drive the narrative via the very personal stories of the individuals involved makes it a particularly enjoyable read. He benefits from the enormous amount of source material available – drawing from the records of the British East India Company, communications and records from the Qing Imperial Court, transcripts from British Parliamentary debate, contemporary histories, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets and the journals of the individuals involved. He manages to bring the history of a relatively expansive period of approximately 50 years to life in a very tangible and colorful way. His style makes this book extremely easy to read.
I don’t plan to provide a summary of the book – only to say that it details the history of trade relations primarily between Britain and China – from the early days when it was conducted through a highly regulated system centered in Canton and consisted primarily of tea and silk from China being traded for English cotton and woolen textiles to the time when it evolved into a free and open trading system that came to be dominated by the English export to China of Indian opium. Despite the reference to the Opium War in it’s title, the book actually spends little time on the conflict. It spends most of it’s time – starting in 1759 with the journey of James Flint up the coast of China from the British East India’s sole China outpost in Canton – describing the state of the Qing Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, the perceptions of that Empire back in Britain and how Britain’s emergence as the pre-eminent world power in the wake of its victory over Napoleon began to change those perceptions, the system of trade in place between China and the West and the importance that trade had for both China and Britain. The actual conflict is ultimately seen as nothing more than a sad and – in retrospect – an entirely avoidable episode that further weakened an already declining Imperial system in China and cemented Britain’s place as a military and commercial power in Asia. It also left them burdened with the corrupting responsibility for an opium trade that was both reviled and yet too profitable and far too significant a source of revenue for the government to eliminate. Like so many histories of this type, it’s characterized by imperfect communication, inadequate mutual understanding, occasional critical miscalculations and human failure and incompetence.
As I read the book, I couldn’t help but be struck by similarities to issues we’re struggling with today – testament to the fact that there really are no new problems. Times and technologies may change but the basic complexities and problems that we humans create remain the same. By way of example – I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities between Britain’s opium merchants – the sponsors of a destructive drug trade that ravaged Chinese society – and the international drug cartels currently smuggling and selling drugs into the United States. I also found it fascinating that – towards the end of the period described in Platt’s book – the Qing Emperor and his government engaged in a very robust debate regarding the merits of simply legalizing the drug trade instead of continuing it’s aggressive efforts to criminalize it and stamp it out via harsh punishment of end users – so similar to the debates we’re currently seeing in this country today. The retrospective conclusion alluded to in the book is that a decision to legalize the trade – had it ultimately been made – would likely have addressed at least the tensions that led to the actual conflict and may have given China greater ability to control the negative impact that opium use had within the Empire. I was struck by the degree to which poor communication, incomplete information, inadequate understanding, pride, arrogance, greed and – at times – simple foolishness can, over time, wreck a system that – while not perfect – was nevertheless working well for most involved and wreck it so completely that it resulted in an unnecessary war. I couldn’t help but think back – as I was reading – to the comedy of errors – both personal and political – that led us to invade Iraq. Finally, the background narrative of a grand but declining world power and culture being displaced by a new and ascending one is all too relevant in today’s world.
Along those lines – I have to include one quote from the book – a statement actually made by Napoleon who – at the time was serving out his exile on St. Helena. In discussing one of more provocative diplomatic British expeditions to the Qing court prior to the actual outbreak of war, Napoleon commented to his Irish physician: “It would be the worst thing you have done for a number of years to go to war with an immense empire like China. You would doubtless, at first, succeed, but you would teach them your strength. They would be compelled to adopt measures to defend themselves against you; they would consider and say, ‘we must try to make ourselves your equal to this nation. Why should we suffer a people, so far away, to do as they please to us? We must build ships, we must put guns into them, we must render ourselves equal to them.’ They would get artificers, and ship builders, from France and America, and even from London; they would build a fleet and, in the course of time, defeat you.” I sometimes fear that Napoleon was wrong only in the timing of his prediction.
Overall, this was a magnificent book – superbly researched and beautifully written – an extremely accessible and enjoyable account of what – to most of us – would be a relatively obscure historical event. It is truly worth the time and I would recommend it to anyone.
One last comment – and I’ll try not to sound too preachy – but I do want to provide encouragement to anyone reading this post to do something out of the ordinary. I don’t meet many people who have a passionate – or even a passing – interest in history and it saddens me. The time I’ve spent learning about what’s come before us has always made me a better judge of people and left me better able to sift through the chaff that pervades today’s political and policy debates. Particularly in a time like the one we’re living through today, every citizen has a responsibility to be as well educated on issues as they possibly can be and part of that responsibility – in my mind – involves a reasonable understanding of history, geography and economics. No one loves fiction more than I do but I feel a responsibility – on a regular basis – to pull myself up out of the cotton floss of science fiction and fantasy and work on my continuing education. I would urge all of you to do the same – it can’t help but make a difference.
I enjoyed this one enough so that I’ve already moved on to “Autumn In The Heavenly Kingdom”. I also have three titles from Max Boot that I’ve been meaning to read. I don’t know how much of this I’ll get through before slipping back to my first love but – by way of an advance apology – I may be boring you all for at least another week with reviews focused on works of history. Please be patient with me and have a great week.