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

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  866 ratings  ·  101 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 ...more
Hardcover, 458 pages
Published May 7th 2012 by Picador USA (first published January 1st 2011)
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Average rating 3.90  · 
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Maitreya
Dec 27, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people interested in learning western interpretations of Chinese interpretations of the Opium Wars.
Shelves: reviewed, history
The author dismisses Chinese sufferings in the Opium war as a child's tantrum. She calls it a "tragicomedy" and a "useful event" in Chinese history - an event that is apparently used by the CCP to justify its rule. The following is an excerpt from my detailed book review originally published here.


Britain is a sunny place, but acceptance of its imperialist crimes is rather chilled. For example, to this day, Britain refuses to return many of the treasures that it stole from its colonies (and
...more
Laurie Anderson
VERY detailed account of the first Opium War. I learned a lot and enjoyed it. Was pleasantly surprised at the end when she demonstrated how various regimes in China have manipulated Opium War propaganda to their own ends.
Joe
Sep 09, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 Belgians in the Congo or the Germans in southwest Africa was far more ...more
Qiong
May 25, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I waited a day to write this review. I needed time to sort out my thoughts on it.

I liked it, generally. Especially chapters that focused on the Opium War itself. How and when it started, what China and Britain was like respectively prior to the war. Lovell's outstanding knowledge and grasp on the whole incident totally blew my mind.

But, yeah, here comes the but, which is also why I only gave the book three stars. I didn't like the conclusion part so much. Or rather, I don't agree with
...more
Dmitri
Feb 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: china, europe
This is a very readable account of the First and Second Opium Wars. The author, a lecturer at the University of London, offers a blend of scholarly research and entertaining storytelling. Accomplishing both within the same covers is an unusual achievement. Lovell has a witty way of writing, without becoming glib or unsympathetic towards the often tragic circumstances described. If the reader is seeking a moral allegory embedded in past events, it may well be found in the folly of men.

One of the
...more
Andy
Dec 13, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
...more
Shane Parrish
Oct 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book describes the mid-19th century conflict between Great Britain and China and the reverberations that remain to this day. From the official summary: "Beginning with the dramas of the war itself, Julia Lovell explores its causes and consequences and, through this larger narrative, interweaves the curious stories of opium’s promoters and attackers. The Opium War is both the story of China’s first conflict with the West and an analysis of the country’s contemporary self-image. It explores ...more
Max
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
George
Aug 10, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Matthew
Aug 11, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Jarvo
Jan 18, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
In 1839 Britain went to war to force China to continue importing the opium it was growing in India. Not that many people in the UK seem to be aware of this, everybody in China is and this is in itself something of a problem. This is a good book, which offers an excellent account of the first opium war (we repeated the trick a bit later) and then a more muddled discussion of the war's long and troubled legacy. The war was other relatively quickly , and was very one sided. The British were more ...more
arkadi cloud
Sep 02, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Solid book about a very important time in China. The book is a bit tricky to follow at times because the author jumps around the timeline a bit because of the sheer scale of things going on. The book isn't as strong in the last two chapters when it tries to explain the significance of The Opium war to the Chinese sense of nationalism and being wronged by the West.
Chris
May 07, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Explains a lot about how and why China is acting in the way it is now. Not much glory in English imperialism and Christian missionaries. But demonstrates that China is not as homogeneous as we tend to believe. Entertaining and revealing historical treatise.
Louise Bray
Feb 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was a fascinating read. I really appreciated the way the author not only explained the events surrounding the Opium Wars in meticulous detail, but also the effect it still has on modern China. It explained a lot.
Patrick
Feb 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating and balanced reexamination of what was a relatively minor historical incident, and how it continues to scar China's national psyche, as well as affect its relationship with the outside world. The concluding chapter, detailing how the Communists, beginning with Mao, exploited and manipulated the Opium Wars to stir up nationalistic feelings as well as to confirm its own political legitimacy, gives some wonderful insights into the thinking of the contemporary Chinese leadership. A ...more
Andrew Guthrie
Nov 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Essential reading for anyone interested in the history of modern China and western imperialism, let alone the relative ethics of any given nation when applied to the "outsider" or "foreign" nation. One can easily castigate the British for trading and enforcing the trade of a highly addictive recreational drug, the only product they could find that Imperial China had any interest in (besides clocks). Imperial China felt it had everything it could possibly need and/or want at that time besides the ...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
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E. Kahn
Nov 27, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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,
...more
Meredith Allady
Sep 18, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Kat
I read chapters of this book in researching a novel which features the second Opium War. It's fascinating to see how the opium trade in the Victorian era impacted politics and international relations. Essentially the catalyst for starting a second war was to further establish free trade. This book is full of interesting factoids and characters; did you know that the Arrow War was the first war to be documented by a photographer, Felix Beato? I got a lot from referring to Lovell's end notes and ...more
Mari
Aug 05, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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?
Michael Keerdo-Dawson
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.
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.
Jordan
Jul 06, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I doubt most people would want to know this much about the opium war and how it sets the stage for future misunderstandings between the west and China.
Julian Walker
Dec 06, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Kyle
Jan 03, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Painfully long but for the history buff, perfect with its exceptional detail and understanding. Stimulating in places but overall a slow read.
Stefano
Mar 18, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: essays
very informative and accessible
Sajith Kumar
May 15, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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 ...more
Shawn Ritchie
Mar 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The modal American knows fuck-all about The Opium Wars. Maybe one in a hundred could tell you they involved China, maybe? One in a thousand could possibly identify the other participant, Great Britain. The number who could go into any amount of detail on the war beyond the phrase "treaty ports" would surely not tax the capacity of a minor-minor league ballpark in one of those flyover states whose borders were drawn by a government bureaucrat having only a ruler and a time limit.

Point being, a
...more
Mark
I found myself interested in the Opium War(s) after reading "All the Tea in China," a narrative of the British industrial espionage surrounding stealing the means to grow and process tea from China in India. I did not understand the connection between tea, opium, and the East India Company's lose of their monopoly on the China trade. Once I gained understanding of the tea/opium/East India Company connection I wanted to know more about the Opium War(s) itself.

Lovell's work on the Opium War is
...more
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Julia Lovell has worked at Birkbeck since 2007. Before then, she was Junior Research Fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge. She completed her undergraduate and graduate studies at Emmanuel College, Cambridge; she also studied for a year at the Hopkins-Nanjing Centre for Chinese Studies. She has translated many works, as well as writing insightful works into the history of China.

She has written
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“This culture of pressure and rivalry tended to produce two, highly contrasted species of official: the creatively corrupt libertine, and the puritan. And it was the tension between the two that helped produce the Opium War, with all its unfortunate consequences.” 0 likes
“Almost wherever Chinese communities went, they were accused of vice, violence and mutiny, of being a secretive, alien, xenophobic community that refused to integrate with Anglo-Saxon society.” 0 likes
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