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

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  399 ratings  ·  76 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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Connie G
Aug 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
An American ship first sailed into a Chinese port in 1784. The Chinese would allow very regulated foreign trade only in the Southern port city of Canton. The people believed China was the "Middle Kingdom" between heaven and the other countries of the world. They considered foreigners to be barbarians. The foreigners especially valued Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain.

The Americans traded ginseng, furs, sandalwood, cotton, and silver to the Chinese. Seals and otters came close to extinction since
Kelly Buchanan
Aug 20, 2012 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
Sep 11, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: historians and readers with a serious interest in the period.
Shelves: history, nonfiction, china
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
Tony Taylor
Oct 30, 2012 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.
Jul 30, 2013 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 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
Sep 16, 2012 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
Scott Kardel
Sep 02, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
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
Nov 28, 2014 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
Sep 10, 2014 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
Ethan Cramer-Flood
Aug 24, 2015 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
Cathy Doyle
Jun 10, 2012 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.
Aug 28, 2012 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.
Jan 03, 2014 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.
Jan 24, 2013 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.
Jul 08, 2016 rated it liked it
Interesting chronology but no central thesis or point to this book. I didn't realize that America always had a trade deficit with China.
Alexander Hult
Mar 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Dolin has a captivating writing style for history, and offers a great balance between facts and stories. I came away with an incredible amount of knowledge about the history of trade and much more. I can't think of an author I consistently enjoy more. Also, the amount of effort that goes into his books really warrants five stars. So much thorough research went into this book, and it shows.
Yishen Kuik
Jun 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Great perspective on the US-China relationship and how far back it goes - right to the beginning of the US.
Lisa Redfern
Mar 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
The smooth flowing narrative leads the reader through the history of trade with China.
Nov 09, 2018 rated it it was ok
Overall I thought it was just ok.
There was a moderate amount of redundency in information and themes presented.
David Lamb
Jul 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Tons of great info and context for the modern world. A brisk read!
Ginny Koenig
Oct 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
Very interesting. I had no idea that the US was involved trade with China since its inception and it expanded beyond tea. Very interesting facts about the Golden Ghetto.
Feb 26, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating account of the origins of US/China trade. Although tea does not figure much in the narrative, drugs and money do. Of particular import is the light shone on America's ignominious role in the opium trade that led to the Opium Wars between Britain and China as well as the role played by America in the "coolie" trade. These are parts of history not well known in this country; but they ought to be. Overall a fine contribution to the popular literature.
Dec 31, 2012 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
Oct 21, 2012 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
Nov 21, 2012 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
Apr 21, 2013 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
Joe Carpenter
Dec 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
It's a good overview of how the west opened trade with China. Though in the book you can't help but feel America was such a minor player in the China trade that it should have been titled "When the West met China" as it very much focuses on the British trade (which is much more interesting than the minor role the Americans played which generally just followed European trends.)

Interesting bits for me included:
America's relationships with Hawai'i and Fiji while trying to procure sandalwood for Chi
Nov 01, 2012 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
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I love telling dramatic, sometimes wondrous, and often tragic stories about people, commerce, maritime history, 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 is Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America's Most Notorious Pirates (Liveright (a division of W. W. Norton), September 2018

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