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The Opium War

3.75 of 5 stars 3.75  ·  rating details  ·  193 ratings  ·  34 reviews
This title tells a story of drugs, distrust, greed and rebellion. 'On the outside, [the foreigners] seem intractable, but inside they are cowardly...Although there have been a few ups-and-downs, the situation as a whole is under control.' In October 1839, a few months after the Chinese Imperial Commissioner, Lin Zexu, dispatched these confident words to his emperor, a Cabi ...more
Paperback, 458 pages
Published 2011 by Picador
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Fascinating account of the first Opium War and its consequences in China through to the present day. It overturns much of the self serving PRC historiography that saw the country’s defeat as the result of a cunning imperialist conspiracy. Actually the British were (as usual) more worried about the money and the Qing dynasty simply too inept and dysfunctional to resist a modern military. Even though the conduct of say the Belgiums in the Congo or the Germans in southwest Africa was far more distu ...more
The Opium War started with Britain's addiction to tea and China's rigid attitude towards trade (they wouldn't accept anything but silver in exchange for the popular leaves).

The huge consumption of tea by its citizens put the British state deep in the red. Britain needed to claw back its money or go bust. And Opium, which had become popular in China during the three preceding decades, was the perfect product to do it with.

As Britain peddled more and more Opium into Canton (which was sold under mo
Erez Davidi
The Opium War is a very balanced and accessible account of a not-so glorious period of British history. The British went to war mainly to open up China to trade in general, and to keep the profitable opium trade in particular, which the Chinese were trying to shut down due to the horrendous effect opium had on the country's population. Interestingly, the British mostly justified the war by saying they were librating the Chinese people, who wanted to trade, but were reluctant to do so because of ...more
Meredith Allady
Full disclosure: this is probably the first book on Chinese history I have ever read, and I only did so knowing that it was going to be strongly mixed with 19th century British History, which is obviously my preference. This being said, there is much more Chinese than Western history here, and the author seemed to me admirably impartial in handing out blame to both parties involved in the affair. A rather grim subject, the author's unexpected and rather slyly humorous turn of phrase was very wel ...more
I enjoyed this book very much.
The Opium War (or wars) were complex and tragic events for Britain China, and India. Britain was persuaded to wage this despicable war against China by muddled headed military leaders encouraged by immoral merchants who made fortunes from opium. Once initiated, the war was excused as a means to "civilise" the inscrutable and alien Chinese race. Ignorance of the culture of China by Britain was matched by Chinas ignorance of Britains demands. China had a remote ruler
If Lovell had distilled the section of the first Opium War and covered in the same amount of detail the second war, this would have been a highly readable and enjoyable account. Instead, she has crammed in too many tangents and expanded the scope of the book beyond what allows for a natural flow. Depictions of racist attitudes towards the Chinese and opium dens in early 20th century England are but two examples of how Lovell deviates wildly from anything remotely related to the war. The result i ...more
Fascinating and addictive history of a deeply embarrassing chapter of British history. Lovell is equally scathing of both the British and Chinese in this story and very rarely is there a character in this history who does not meet with some of her witty cynicism. Highly detailed and when there is dispute about the truth she always presents both sides.
Hub Masaq
Accessible, and takes time to mention the issues behind the war. Fascinating in a horrible way really to think the British empire went to war to sell what we know of today as raw heroin and yet still manage to moralize while invading.

Particularly enjoyed a few comments on the rise of the prohibition lobby (who in many ways are still with us today, albeit in a different form) and the types of characters that championed it. I think this type of background information may well of taken up some of
E. Kahn
Four stars - with serious misgivings.

The book is eminently readable. Unlike some of the other reviewers, I don't think a short overview of racist fantasies about the "Yellow Peril" is off-topic (in fact, I found that chapter far too short), and the chapters on Chinese history post-Opium Wars were not superfluous either. The Second War and subsequent Western invasions could have been covered at much greater length and detail, which would have earned the book its fifth star from me.

The stars, howe
Gives you a new perspective to Chinese culture and current situation. The book is written by an American historian and (in my point of view) takes into account the perspectives of both sides and how they differ. She analyses also the reactions in both countries (China and Britain) to the war all the way from the 19th century till today.

If you like history or want to understand China better, read it. If you think history is boring, why are you even reading my review of a history book?
Samuel Rajkumar
While the 'first' opium war was described in great detail, the second was dismissed in a few pages. In fact Dr. Fu Manchu got more pages than than the second opium war. I would have loved to know as much about the key players in the second war as the author provided for the first. Otherwise this is a very informative and well written book.
Painfully long but for the history buff, perfect with its exceptional detail and understanding. Stimulating in places but overall a slow read.
After having read two very academic historical novels about modern China and Taiwan, I wanted to explore Chinese history further back in time. ""The Opium War" is written like a novel and is easy to read. The book strikes a lot of chords in Chinese society because it symbolizes a period of foreign exploitation and the inability of the insulated Chinese society to cope with European gunboat diplomacy. I found that the author, Julia Lovell, went out of her way to paint a balanced picture of both s ...more
very informative and accessible
Tim C
Reading this book I couldn't help but think of the Rudyard Kipling line: "East is East and West is West ..."

This is a very ambitious book which seeks to show how in many senses the Opium Wars were an event of epochal change, in many senses they are the root of all that China has become in the modern era; this is essentially the story of how China has struggled as much with itself as with the outside world. Lovell shows how the confrontation between the Chinese empire and the forces of Western i
Emmanuel Gustin
This is the story of the First Opium War and how it influenced the relation between China and the West. Lovell describes the First Opium War in great and fascinating detail. This notorious conflict was a lot more complex, and far more confused, than the traditional potted history allows for, and its story would have been almost comical if the Chinese people had not suffered so much in this war. A war which was fundamentally a power struggle between the British invaders and the Manchus, themselve ...more
I will admit I came to this after finishing Flashman and the Dragon, so with a sort of context.

"The Opium War" though is a very readable account of an often overlooked part of British and Chinese history that brings no credit to either side, and has had long lasting implications, I enjoyed it. Lovell is clearly an expert, but doesn't overwhelm. She describes the wider context, both historically and at the time very well giving a great picture of an unjust war fought against an incompetent and co
Terry Quirke
Sadly disjointed book which isn't really true to its title. Lovell provides good coverage of the first opium war but then covers the second in one chapter and spends the remaining exploring different tangents including racism and how the opium wars have been used as a convenient cover to distract attention. Didn't live up to my expectations considering the rating the book has on Goodreads.
John Scott
Informative and a sometimes riveting narrative style delivery but verged at times to sarcasm aimed at both the Chinese and the British. No doubt deserved but maybe a little too obvious for my liking. I would add that the 2nd Opium War received one far too short chapter.
The final couple of chapters, consisting of discussion on how the Chinese used the Opium Wars for propaganda purposes, was interesting but were far too long when there was a very good story of the entire wars to be told. Maybe th
Gerhard Greyvensteyn
A fascinating (hi)story, told with great enthuasiasm, attention to detail, and most of all, a wry and ironic tone-of-voice. An absolute delight.
Oct 13, 2012 Adrian added it
The history of the two opium wars between Britain and China. Lovell shows in careful detail what a mismatch they were; from an organizational and military point of view. The Chinese reaction to invasion was horrendous at points with hundreds taking their own lives certain they would be tortured. Lovell also deals with how the opium wars have been used by Chinese governments up to the present day for a variety of nationalistic purposes, and how the era of 'Yellow Peril' in the west came directly ...more
Very enjoyable book. The history was told in a compelling and entertaining way, pleasantly free from polemic. The Chinese history was fascinating, particularly the overall message that to understand China's interaction with foreigners, you have to understand the internal politics of China. I hadn't appreciated how much a relatively small incident in British history is still impacting Chinese relationships today. Highly recommend this.
I was disappointed in Julia Lovell's Opium book. She should have stuck to the topic rather than add in the more recent history of China. I also thought she should not have talked about Karl Marx and his family without further research especially reading 'Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution'. I don't plan to read anymore of Julia Lovell's books.
A solid primer on the first Opium War. Only marred by the use of keyboard warrior comments as a source of modern feeling on the matter. Well worth the price if the subject interests you.
Julian Walker
All the history you didn't get taught at school in England as it isn't quite cricket. She brilliantly brings this story to life in a thoroughly enjoyable read.
Essential reading for those interested in seeing how the events of the Opium Wars 170 years ago continue to shape modern China's response to the West today.
excellent book about the opium war, it has complete maps and exciting story-telling. It is well-written and very informative.
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