A war of words

A war of words

A British historian challenges the view of the 170-year-old Opium War as being a big humiliation for China

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Julia Lovell, author of 'The Opium War'
Julia Lovell, author of 'The Opium War'
Photo: Piers Allardyce
Every student either here or on the mainland has heard in school about the Opium War in 1839. Yet that does not mean that nothing new can be said on the subject.

Julia Lovell has plenty to say that is new. She is a historian and teaches modern Chinese history at Birkbeck College, University of London. In her new book, The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China, she revisits the landmark event in Chinese history.

"In the 170 years since it was fought, the Opium War has been transformed from a mere 'frontier quarrel' into the tragic beginning of China's modern history and a key prop for communist one-party rule," Lovell says.

The author grew up in a well-read family with a fondness for languages. She began to study Putonghua and Chinese history as a student in Cambridge.

A few months after the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, Lovell went to study in Nanjing, where the treaty concluding the Opium War was signed in 1842. There she watched a film that portrayed the war as a tragic humiliation of the country.

"At the Museum of the Nanjing Treaty, a caption beneath an exhibit read: 'Great Britain extended its aggressors' claws and outrageously launched a war against Chinese'. I was struck by how open the wound of the Opium War seemed to be."

She began studying the period "to find out whether the war really was the heroic struggle against foreign invaders that appears in Chinese history books, films and museums", she says.

She drew upon both Western and Chinese materials for an even-handed picture and concluded that both Chinese and British sources misread the situation. "The accounts seem to want us to believe that our political leaders at the time knew exactly what they were doing and were well-informed of the situations," she notes.

However, that was not true. The two sides couldn't express themselves clearly in each other's languages and the period's slow means of communication meant it would take Britain up to six months to report back to London and get feedback. "Imagine how awfully frustrated and ill-informed people were," she says.

Lovell believes sheer chance played a big role in sparking war. What fascinated her during her stay in Nanjing was the way that the historical event became politicised. "War-time 'humiliation' was used to remind today's generation of their country's victimisation and an [alleged] ongoing Western conspiracy against China."

To see what young people really thought, she visited classes and talked to students. Many did not care much about the subject. Others attributed China's loss to its weakness.

In Beijing she met an angry young person who railed against Britain's role in the war. "Yet soon ... he began to ask my advice on his application to study in England," she says.

"The world is changing and we're opening up more and more to other cultures. I think pragmatism as much as patriotism has been a key force in shaping today's China and Hong Kong."

Yet the Opium War can still serve as a lesson for us.

"All nations tell their stories of the past to shore up their identity and self-esteem, but I think it's important for us to explore the historical realities behind our national myths."

Additional reporting by YP cadet Pearl Chan

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