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When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail

3.77  ·  Rating Details  ·  284 Ratings  ·  66 Reviews
Brilliantly illuminating one of the least-understood areas of American history, best-selling author Eric Jay Dolin now traces our fraught relationship with China back to its roots: the unforgiving nineteenth-century seas that separated a brash, rising naval power from a battered ancient empire. It is a prescient fable for our time, one that surprisingly continues to shed l ...more
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published September 10th 2012 by Liverght (division of W. W. Norton)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,111)
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Sep 15, 2012 Kelly rated it really liked it
Shelves: first-reads
Dolin has done an admirable job of shedding light on a fascinating aspect of American history about which we do not often hear. We have in this book an engaging cultural and social history, as well as an economic one. Yes, Dolin focuses on the exchange of goods in trade between the China and the West, beginning in the late 18th century and following the thread through to the start of the 20th century, but the stories here are so much broader than that. Dolin works from the perspective gained fro ...more
Tony Taylor
Nov 15, 2012 Tony Taylor rated it it was amazing
Very, very interesting overview of America's early relations with China from the American Revolutionary period through most of the19th century. This book offers a very informative history lesson that offers an insight as to how China reponded to the rush in trade between, not only America, but also much of Europe.The feudal methods employed by the Chinses including the way they "looked down" on Westerners and peoples from other Asian nations. America got a late start in trading with the Chinese, ...more
Mary Alice
Interesting as far as it goes, but it's padded with off- topic information (like stories about the short history of clipper ships that didn't figure in the Chinese-American trade). We can see from this book how Americans saw China but not how the Chinese viewed America. The most interesting parts of the book are about the Opium Wars and the Chinese Coolie trade, where Americans were not among the protagonists.
Nov 28, 2014 Martin rated it liked it
The author is enthusiastic about his subject, but I did not find it infectious. He goes in several different directions, giving a brief history of China's maritime trade, explaining why trade was restricted to Canton, and finally getting into the British and American trade. He tackles each trade subject thoroughly and sequentially, moving from one major trade item to the next, starting with seal and otter pelts, along with sandalwood (all nearly depleted within a generation), tea, sea cucumber, ...more
Scott Kardel
Sep 29, 2012 Scott Kardel rated it really liked it
Eric Jay Dolin's book When America First Met China is an important look back at U.S. China relations. The book, complete with detailed end notes, spans the years from the American Revolution to just after the U.S. Civil War and recounts the story of U.S. trade relations with the Middle Kingdom.

There can be no question that relations with China will take special focus in the years to come and will be influenced by our past dealings.

While America was not the central player in dealing with China
Mar 22, 2013 Kris rated it really liked it
Someone please tell me Dolin did NOT just defend foot binding after giving a graphic and nauseating description of the process.

The book is highly readable and written in a very non scholarly fashion even though it is footnoted and sources listed in the back. Dolin's style is chatty and laconic with just a touch of humor. The title is a little misleading since the POV switches to the British when he approaches the Opium War of 1844. Dolin also talks about the human trafficking that went on betwee
Aug 09, 2013 Zahir rated it liked it
Even though I told myself I was taking a break from non-fiction, I couldn't resist this one. When America First Met China is probably one of the most fascinating analyses and discussions about the global economy involving China in the late 18th century, and throughout most of the 19th century. I had no idea what a huge part the China trade played in the development of the US both before and after independence.

The strongest part of this book is that Dolin writes in a non-academic manner, but has
Dec 12, 2013 DW rated it really liked it
This book was readable, and it covers a time and place that I knew little about, so I learned a lot of cool stuff. I feel like this book is good background knowledge for books written or set in Britain or America in the 19th century. I never understood quite what the Opium Wars were or what the British East India Company was before I read this book.

Here are some random facts I learned that I'm writing down so I don't forget them once I return the book to the library:
Originally China required for
Jan 21, 2013 Ms.pegasus rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: historians and readers with a serious interest in the period.
Shelves: nonfiction, china, history
The China trade conjures exotic images: Graceful clippers like the Sea Witch and the Flying Cloud; the import of silk, fine porcelain, furniture and artwork; the port of Canton bustling with foreign ships and traders intermingled with Chinese junks and sampans, and Canton's “golden ghetto.” Author Eric Jay Dolin explores the economic underpinnings of that era through an extensive reading of primary sources. His story focuses on America's involvement, which began immediately after the conclusion ...more
Ethan Cramer-Flood
Aug 24, 2015 Ethan Cramer-Flood rated it liked it
An easy and engaging read; heavy on the small US-centric stories rather than the global trends of the times, as advertised. A braver title would've been "When Boston met Canton..."

Ultimately disappointing that he chose to stop in the 1860s, just when things were getting interesting. The ending felt abrupt, and without the remaining story of the US-Qing relationship the reader can't fully apply history's lessons to today's G2. Would it have been so hard to go up to 1912? Fifty more pages could've
Sep 10, 2014 Kyashar rated it liked it
The author is clear that part of his intent in writing this book is to help readers to understand the history of US-China relations and trade relations in particular to inform our understanding of current issues in US-Sino relations. I definitely walked away with a better grasp of that history and how it might inform contemporary Chinese perceptions. While focused on telling the tale of the development of trade relations between the two countries, he manages to tell a tale of greed and its overw ...more
Jan 04, 2014 Art rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
I heard a lot about this time period on The China History Podcast (well worth listening to if you are interested in the subject)I thought this book was very interesting and covered the China U.S. trade very well. I have to admit that I really had not thought of it in 18 and 19th century terms but it was eye opening when I did. It's gotten me the urge to maybe read a little more on the subject, and that's the mark of a good book.
Cathy Doyle
Jun 10, 2012 Cathy Doyle rated it it was amazing
A good description of the initial phases America's trade with China. After the Revolutionary War China was one country that was open to American traders, with enormous profits to be made on successful voyages. Even in these days, however, the world ran an account deficit with China, which continues to this day. The book ends with the Opium Wars of the mid 19th century, which are still much in the minds of the Chinese today when they negotiate with the West. A good summary of the subject.
Sep 08, 2012 Jackie rated it really liked it
I got this book as a Goodreads giveaway. I don't usually read this type of historical book, but, being a recent resident of Salem, I thought it would give me some insight into the cities' history. At one time, Salem was the wealthiest city in America, due to the China trade. I did not learn much about Salem, but did learn a great deal about China and its history. I really enjoyed the book. The maps and illustrations helped.
Apr 30, 2014 Nick rated it it was ok
Picking up this book I was excited at the thought of finding out about a lesser known set of characters and happenings beyond the traditional story of the Opium War as one of British greed. However, I was disappointed to find that a large percentage of the book was a recounting of the traditional story of the Opium War and British trade with China. Americans involved in the China trade such as Robert Morris, the Astors, Asa Whitney, Peter Parker, etc. are discussed but only as secondary characte ...more
The Bookloft
Bookseller: Linda

Young America, after the revolution of 1776, began to explore for trade; and so The Empress of China, a unique ship, began international commerce with China.
All was not smooth sailing, as competition from European countries was strong. The Chinese considered their country special, the Middle Kingdom between Heaven and Earth, so all others were barbarians. It could be seen that way, as greed and ego were the guiding forces of exploration. After the War of 1812 was the rush to go
Jan 24, 2013 Trina rated it really liked it
Fascinating and well-written account of trade relations between China and the United States from post-Revolutionary War through the 1800s. Loving history and economics as I do, this didn't disappoint.
Apr 21, 2014 Yagian rated it really liked it
I have read Eric Jay Dolin’s books, “Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America” and “Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America,” which are really interesting.

This book also has a very good point to make.

After American Revolution, Americans first sent a merchant ship to China. At that time, we could find every feature of the relationship between America and China, which has been enduring until now.

“Americans had long dreamed of the day when the hundreds of million
Joel Neff
Apr 07, 2014 Joel Neff rated it really liked it
When America First Met China is a fascinating look at the golden age of sail as it grew from the remnants of the 18th century and into the 19th and how the rise of trade with China directly affected and influenced both America and Britain in their quests to build a country and maintain an empire. The book explores the initial trading of fur seal pelts and silk and how through expeditions and politics, diplomacy and warfare, the trade eventually turned to opium with all its consequences, both ant ...more
Feb 09, 2013 Matthew rated it liked it
I received this book as a part of the Goodreads giveaway program. It was an Advanced Reader Copy and was an uncorrected proof prior to publication. This was the first book by this author that I have read.

The book was enjoyable because I like both history and anything related to the sea. The author did a good job of detailing the intracacies of trade between China and America with a good deal of British influence thrown in as well. I was particularly interested to see the similarities between the
Aug 26, 2013 Christopher rated it liked it
Shelves: history
I feel a bit like this volume was driven more by a publisher than by an author. I don't mean to imply that Eric Jay Dolin doesn't know his stuff, but more that there was an editor somewhere going "Hey, there's a market of people trying to understand Chinese history and scared about Chinese-American trade. This guy can write a book about that and it'll sell!"

There's a lot of good information here. The break-down of the Canton-system with all it's baroque twists and turns is really interesting. Th
Mar 11, 2013 Kate rated it really liked it
This was an easy, interesting book about trade between the US (really, the western world, including Britain) and China between the late 1700s and early 1900s.

You meet interesting characters from every side: American trade merchants, American captains, British captains, Chinese traders and Chinese bureaucrats. The stories about life in Canton - where all trade between China and the West took place was good, though not AS detailed as I've read in similar books.

The impact of Chinese goods on Americ
Jan 09, 2014 Crysta rated it really liked it
Shelves: history-politics
I really enjoyed Dolin's look at a little-known piece of history: how revolutionary America began trading with China. Dolin (logically) writes from a western perspective, often comparing how Britain vs the fledgling US differed in their approach and relationship with China. This was well-written and fun to read, with lots of little tidbits about the history of tea consumption, opium's changing role, and how sailing itself changed in the mid-19th century.

The tale ends in the mid-19th century, sh
Benjamin Cooper
May 23, 2015 Benjamin Cooper rated it really liked it
Good background on America's-China relationship. Helps showcase the cultural and legal differences between China and the West, and the ethnocentrism apparent with both the British and the Chinese. And then how this filtered down to all Western parties - America in particular.

Illustrates how some cases and issues just had no "right" answer, and how this pent up tension would occasionally erupt into violence and brutality.
Apr 20, 2014 Ivy rated it it was amazing
A very interesting and pertinent work on the origins of America's relationship with China. This book lays out how sea otters, tea, and opium are all related and how trade characterizes American-Chinese interaction in the past as well as the present. A great read for anyone looking to have a better understanding of China and its history with the West.
Sep 02, 2014 Jim rated it liked it
Dolin has illuminated a subject on which I was pretty much in the dark—America’s early commerce with China. The biggest revelation for me was the direction of the opium trade. Prior to reading this work I thought that China exported opium, but now I know this was not the case. The Opium War was a series of battles fought by England against China in 1840 in which the British Navy proved far superior to the Chinese. The purpose of these battles was to stop the Chinese from enforcing their own laws ...more
Jun 02, 2015 k rated it did not like it
This books gave me the impression that the author had a lot of knowledge on whaling and trade during the age of sail, as evidenced by his earlier books, and someone said, well why don't you write a book on China? China's topical! There is almost as much info about America meeting the South Pacific as there is about America meeting China.
Alex Krembs
Feb 20, 2014 Alex Krembs rated it liked it
Eric Dolin is a good story teller, who captivates his audience with his popular writing style.

I most enjoyed when he uses specifics to get to the heart of the story. For example he details America's first ship employed in the China Trade after US independence is formally acheived, some of the trade and conflict in the Canton system, or mutinies in the coolie trade.

I was fascinated by his detail in the development of shipping building in the form of earliest clippers built for the China trade,
Dec 03, 2012 Heather rated it liked it
Shelves: goodreads, history, 2012
Very informative and a definite recommendation for anyone who has any interest in learning about the formative years of trade between China and America. Really sheds light on how/why our trade has evolved into what it is today between China and America.

I must say I wasn't able to really get into the first few chapters. There was so much information being bounced around in different orders that it was a bit overwhelming. I don't mean to imply it should be elementary history level, but I feel it c
Apr 23, 2013 Emilade rated it liked it
Shelves: social-science
I read this to get a better understanding of some Amitov Ghosh books, namely River of Smoke, although the facts gave a little insight to Sea of Poppies as well. In the last few pages, Dolin kind of scolds people for not knowing more about the Opium Wars. Which I guess is why he spent so much time on them without providing much contextualization from the American perspective (mostly from the British perspective). But mentions in the end that it is important to understand the Opium Wars because it ...more
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I love history, nature, and telling dramatic, sometimes wondrous, and often tragic stories of how people treat themselves, each other, and the environment. My goal is to entertain and inform, and leave people glad that they took the time to read one of my books.

My most recent book, When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail (Liveright (a division
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