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The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China

3.82 of 5 stars 3.82  ·  rating details  ·  292 ratings  ·  49 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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Band of Brothers by Stephen E. AmbroseBlack Hawk Down by Mark BowdenLone Survivor by Marcus LuttrellUnbroken by Laura HillenbrandFlags of Our Fathers by James D. Bradley
Best Non-fiction War Books
293rd out of 845 books — 1,099 voters
People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd ParryArguably by Christopher HitchensBloody Sunday by Douglas MurrayThe Opium War by Julia LovellA Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead
The Orwell Prize Long lists 2012
4th out of 17 books — 4 voters


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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,087)
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Joe
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
Andy
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
...more
Max
Jan 24, 2015 Max added it
Lovell's well-written and masterfully researched THE OPIUM WAR undercuts much received wisdom about the War, its causes, and its effects.

For example: Lin Zexu, the Qing official celebrated for seizing and burning illegal shipments of British opium in Guangdong in 1839, is commonly described as an anti-opium crusader; Lovell makes a good case from contemporary sources that Lin was in fact a driven Qing official hoping a successful resolution of the opium problem would lead to his being promoted
...more
Matthew
For example, it was during the period surrounding the Opium Wars that the West's opinion of China changed to a vast, homogenuous, insular and static despotic state. Basically, the sick man of the East. China's rejection of free-trade was deemed archaic and backward, its insistence on pomp and ritual affronted British honor because it put Britain in a subordinate position, its destruction of private property was also an affront to British honor, and because of all these things Britain was justifi ...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
David
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
...more
George
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
Mike
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.
Slackjaw

A clear, easy to read history of the first Opium War, and how it has resonated throughout relations between China and the West ever since it occurred. From the turn of the 20th century's 'Yellow Peril' depictions of the Chinese, to the Nationalist and Communist Party's use of the incident as a watershed moment in Chinese history, the Opium Wars have largely defined how the two civilizations have viewed each other.

The book is largely a blow-by-blow of the First Opium War, and often pauses in its
...more
Chuck
The Opium Wars by Julia Lovell is about the history of the West and China in the mid-Ninteenth Century. In particular it covers the two Opium Wars, the lead up to them, and the history afterwards.

While the book occasionally is not the easiest of reads, I found it fascinating. It covers subjects that I have not found ready access to.

Most importantly, I was completely impressed with the ability of the author to bridge and present two very different cultures and views of the issues. And then to pr
...more
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
...more
Mari
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?
Sajith Kumar
China is one of the few great civilizations that keeps the continuity of its ancestral civilization to the present. Any narrative of an event in Chinese history is hence bound to be extrapolated to the current day. Julia Lovell, a professor of history in London, has authored many books on China besides translating several works into English. As a Chinese scholar herself, the book narrates the history of Opium Wars in its two installments and examines the legacy of the war that ended China’s iso ...more
Tony
THE OPIUM WAR. (2014). Julia Lovell. ****.
This is the best history of the Opium Wars that I have found so far. The author, who is obviously knowledgeable in the area, also provides a narrative that is relatively easy to read and linear in its approach to the topic. Chinese history can become very confusing, if only when you begin encountering Chinese proper names. Keeping them all straight is a real trial. The author somehow avoids this usual confusion and keeps the story going without losing th
...more
Kamil
Far more interesting then the tragically one-sided "war" is its legacy over the following century and half, on which Lovell elaborates in detail throughout the second half of the book. I learned a lot about the modern history of China, and how this history has been manipulated by the government to further its own causes. The book also made me reconsider perceptions that I had of China - as Lovell demonstrates, the West has a tendency to feel like China is deliberately working against it, while t ...more
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.
Kyle
Painfully long but for the history buff, perfect with its exceptional detail and understanding. Stimulating in places but overall a slow read.
Nicole
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
Stefano
very informative and accessible
Nithya
This book has taken me, whole two months, to finish. Assimilating and digesting the facts, and doing research and mapping the events back home, about impact of the opium production,as we were one of largest producers, and it covered most of our gangetic plains. Precisely, Lucknow, from where Ganga becomes deep, fit enough for some major water navigation and utilised to the core for transportation and export goods, via Calcutta. And some dig into, the Indian beneficiaries who were involved in tha ...more
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
...more
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
Sambasivan
The recent events in China attracted me to reading this book which was long pending in my shelf. What a bravura achievement! The far reaching significance of the Opium war is now clear. The author has comprehensively researched the annals of the Chinese history with both primary and secondary resources to narrate the telling tale of the fight against the British imperialism by the Chinese. The level of deception by the Chinese Generals to keep the Emperor in the dark of the goings on during the ...more
Tim
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
...more
Daniel Farabaugh
This is a topic that I really only knew the bear bones about so I was happy to find a book to fill in the details. It does a good job with the causes and events of the war. It gets a bit slow when it discusses the legacy of the war.
Erin
The first part was solid, the last parts were almost stream of consciousness, which is hard for non-fiction. There was a lot of good info and insights into a piece of history that I knew little about.
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.
k
The later sections become summaries with a lot of editorializing, but still a good book on the first Opium War, especially from the Chinese perspective.
4ZZZ
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
...more
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.
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