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Book Review


Forgetting and Remembering: New Books on China and the West in the Nineteenth Century

Robert Bickers, The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832–1914 (London: Allen Lane, 2011).

Julia Lovell, The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China (London: Picador, 2011).

Stephen R. Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War (New York: Knopf, 2012).


     Visit practically any university library in the United States and you will find a number of forgotten books on China's nineteenth century. These dusty volumes, composed by Western missionaries, diplomats, and early scholars of Chinese history, are generally devoid of Chinese sources or perspectives and emphasize the Western half of Sino-Western interactions during the Qing dynasty's final century. As Paul A. Cohen surveyed the field in 1984, he listed some of the topics that had been most popular among historians before the 1970s: "the Opium War, the Taiping uprising, Sino-foreign trade, treaty port life and institutions, the Boxers, Sun Yat-sen, diplomatic relations, the missionary enterprise, Japanese aggression, and so on."1 With the advent of "China-centric" scholarship in the 1970s and the opening of mainland Chinese archives in the 1980s, English-language Sinologists moved away from such large-scale histories in favor of localized, in-depth studies of Chinese politics, society, culture, and institutions. While China's encounter with the West during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has remained important to the field, in the past few decades the notion of writing a big, sweeping history of Sino-Western relations has also seemed somehow quaint or old-fashioned—the type of work epitomized by those long-forgotten books in the library.

     Yet in the past year, three scholars have returned to this older type of book; the works they have produced, though, bear little resemblance to previous big histories of China and the West. Though Robert Bickers, Julia Lovell, and Stephen R. Platt each cover an "old-fashioned" topic (diplomacy and treaty port life, the Opium War, and the Taiping civil war, respectively), the questions directing their work are decidedly up-to-date. Rather than approaching the nineteenth century as a time when "the West" exerted influence and "the Chinese" responded to it, Bickers, Lovell, and Platt consider how disparate interests within each of those umbrella terms experienced moments of cooperation and conflict in their interactions with each other. They also all emphasize the chaos and contingency of Sino-Western relations during the nineteenth century—relationships often marked by misperceptions, misunderstandings, and a lack of common goals. And all three, but particularly Lovell, grapple with questions of historical memory and myth, asking how the stories that have been told about China and the West remain important to both self-perception and international relations up to the present day.

     The older view of late imperial China as a closed-off and xenophobic land, an ancient civilization demonstrating knee-jerk hostility to the advances of the West, has largely disappeared from scholarly monographs. It is still, however, easily found in undergraduate textbook discussions of the nineteenth-century world, many of which begin by quoting the Qianlong emperor's 1793 letter to England's George III to impress upon students the Chinese resistance to change.2 But in fact, as Platt explains, "The Qing Empire was deeply integrated into the world's economy through trade, and there were thousands of foreigners living in Hong Kong and Shanghai" by the 1850s (xxiii). While those foreign residents did have moments of conflict with their Chinese neighbors and business partners, individuals from both sides just as frequently worked together to achieve complementary goals. Bringing a more nuanced understanding of Sino-Western interactions into the world history classroom is a project that Chinese historians can contribute to by producing, as Bickers, Lovell, and Platt each have, well-researched and well-written books accessible to non-specialists.

     In the early nineteenth century, trade served as the key point of contact between Chinese and Westerners, and conflicts over trade could easily grow from local disputes into international confrontations. Never was this more true, as Julia Lovell demonstrates, than in the First Opium War (1839–1842).3 In the People's Republic of China (PRC), the Opium War now stands as the founding point of modern Chinese history, the beginning of a "century of humiliation," during which Western commercial interests and imperialist designs came together in an effort to victimize China. The Opium War is at the forefront of the PRC's Patriotic Education campaign, which was implemented in the early 1990s by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as it struggled to retain legitimacy after the Tiananmen Square protests and June 4th Massacre. Teaching students that the CCP victory in 1949 had concluded the century of humiliation,4 the Party recast itself as "defender of the national interest against Western attempts to contain a rising China" (Lovell 342). The CCP hopes that by reminding Chinese citizens of past foreign injustices, it can convince them that keeping the Party in power is the only way to prevent a repeat of previous foreign incursions. The problem with the Party line, as both Bickers and Lovell argue, is that the Opium War's origins, importance, and legacy are all far more complex than it seems.

     The basic explanation for the Opium War goes something like this: the war's roots lay in an economic tug-of-war between the Qing and the British, as each side sought to achieve a trade surplus over the other. In the late eighteenth century, the Chinese had enjoyed a trade surplus over the British, as tea and other Chinese goods flowed to England in return for silver. By the early 1830s, though, the growth of British opium sales to China had tipped the balance of trade in England's favor and the Qing struck back by launching an anti-opium campaign. The most theatrical moment of this came in June 1839, when Lin Zexu, the Chinese anti-opium czar, ordered 20,000 chests of the drug dumped into the Canton River. The British demanded compensation for the destroyed opium, the Chinese refused, and by the end of the summer, the two sides were at war.

     Though the Opium War might seem a purely Sino-British trade dispute, Lovell points out that China's integration into global flows of silver served to intensify the trade imbalance it was experiencing at the hands of the British. South American independence movements in the 1810s and '20s had reduced the amount of silver mined in the region, and China, its economy dependent on silver supplies acquired through foreign trade, was hit hard by the downturn in production. This suggests, Lovell writes, that "while opium imports certainly had an impact on China's silver reserves, the effect would not have been so crippling if the first boom-period for imports had not coincided with a serious contraction of the world silver supply" (37–38). Far from being isolated or indifferent to global trade, the Chinese were in fact so deeply integrated into the world system that any tick up or down presented very real complications for its economy.

     At the same time, the emperor and Qing officials in Beijing were occupied with governing a large, multi-ethnic empire with troubled frontier zones in the west; they did not initially concern themselves much with the demands of British traders nibbling around China's southern coast. In fact, Lovell notes, "The emperor had practically no idea he was supposed to be at war until the end of July 1840, almost a year after the British judged that armed hostilities had commenced" (11). The Qing court knew that opium smuggling was a problem in southern China, and it wanted to stem the flow of silver out of the country—but it regarded what became known as the Opium War as no more than a border skirmish, a disorganized local conflict resembling the disputes that tended to crop up wherever borders lay. The British, on the other hand, construed China as "a rogue state: a massive, militarized, alien, hostile nation that refused to play by the rules of the international game so recently invented by Europe" (80).

     This British vision of a unified China standing fast against the West presumed a much greater coherence among the Chinese than actually existed. The Manchu Qing dynasty ruling from the north was far removed, both geographically and culturally, from the Cantonese traders whom the British dealt with in the south. Even after hostilities began, Lovell writes, no abstract sense of patriotism propelled Chinese forces to fight the British; most of them took up arms only in response to specific British attacks on their home villages (162). Men fought to redress individual grievances, not to defend their country's sovereignty against Western aggression.

     Chinese historical memory of the Opium War maintains this disconnect between the Qing and the Cantonese by vilifying the Manchu court for failing to respond appropriately to the Western threat. If the court had only paid more attention to what the British wanted, the thinking goes, it could have taken a stronger stance against the foreigners and perhaps prevented the century of humiliation from ever taking place. While Western imperialism certainly does not escape contemporary Chinese criticism, Lovell finds it remarkable "how much of the venom in the Chinese version of these events has been reserved for characters on their own side: and in particular, for the perceived corruption, indecision, and incompetence of the Qing court" (119).

     What, in the end, came out of that combination of British aggression and Qing incompetence? The two sides fought sporadically, as "Bouts of fighting were interspersed with parleys and negotiations" (Bickers 81), with Chinese coastal defense forces proving little match for British military technology. Even with British troops frequently suffering from disease, by the summer of 1842 they had captured control of the lower Yangzi River and the Qing agreed to end hostilities with the Treaty of Nanjing. The British considered this a decisive victory: the treaty gave them control of Hong Kong island; established five "treaty ports," where the British and other foreigners could trade; granted extraterritoriality to foreigners in China, who would be overseen by their own consuls; and relations between China and England were to be conducted on "a footing of perfect equality."5 But while the British celebrated their Asian gains, "the Qing state, and its bureaucracy, did not much appear to recognize that the Nanjing Treaty and defeat in the field really meant very much in the great scheme of things" and did not make any significant adjustments in Chinese treatment of the British (Bickers 86). From beginning to end, the two sides viewed the Opium War through different lenses, and it is only in retrospect that Chinese nationalism has assigned the conflict the same weight that the British did at the time.

     Though it may not have initially done much to change Qing treatment of Westerners, the war did give rise to the treaty port system. The treaty ports were a string of cities along the Chinese coast where foreigners (at first British, Americans, and French, later joined by Italians, Germans, and Japanese) could reside free of Chinese oversight and build small communities that mimicked those of their homelands. Bickers traces the history of those treaty ports (particularly Shanghai) and explores the lives of those foreigners (particularly the British) who lived in them. Bickers, like Lovell, rejects the "conspiracy theories" that position Western expansion in China as "a long-plotted land- and resources-grab, driven by industrial expansion and greed" (Lovell 61). While he points to "consistent inclinations and responses among actors in the story" to explain common aspects of foreign responses to the Chinese, Bickers also emphasizes that "contingent event, opportunity, and even defeat, gave equally as much shape to the world that developed" (11).

     This was certainly true when foreigners involved themselves in the Taiping civil war that raged across the lower Yangzi River region between 1851 and 1864. While the Opium War receives perhaps more attention than is deserved, in both Chinese and Western historiography, the Taiping civil war—likely the bloodiest civil war in history—has left a fraught legacy in China and, oddly (given the Christian side of the story) rarely merits a mention in the West. Led by Hong Xiuquan, a charismatic failed scholar-official who had visions that convinced him he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, the Taiping movement spread across south China in the early 1850s and captured the city of Nanjing in 1853, establishing a capital only a few hundred miles from the treaty port at Shanghai. The Taiping were militantly anti-Manchu and hoped to overthrow the Qing, yet the movement was also infused with a curious version of Christianity, which won it some Western support—until the foreigners realized that Taiping Christianity bore little resemblance to what was preached in London and Boston.

     When it is discussed in Chinese history survey courses, the Taiping civil war has generally been treated as an almost purely domestic event in nineteenth-century China and as either a rebellion or proto-revolutionary movement. While Western influence played a role in the development of the movement, and Western mercenary soldiers trained and led an "Ever-Victorious Army" of Qing troops between 1860 and 1864, the international nature of the war has rarely been explored. Stephen Platt addresses this oversight in his Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, an evocatively drawn history of the Taiping's final years and examination of the role that global events—most importantly, the contemporaneous civil war in the United States—played in convincing the British that they had to side with the Qing and help to end the war in China.

     British intervention on the Qing's behalf came as an especially surprising decision given that 1860 had witnessed what still stands as the most culturally violent and symbolically aggressive Western attack on China, the destruction of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. The Qing and British had been fighting the Arrow War (or Second Opium War) since 1858, chiefly due to British attempts to revise the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing and expand its trading rights in China. Convinced that the only way to achieve its goals was to deliver a punishing blow to the Qing, Lord Elgin (son of the man who had brought the Greek Elgin Marbles to the British Museum) led an invasion force of 24,000 British, French, and Indian troops (with an additional 3,000 men from Canton serving as a support force). They ravaged north China and marched toward Beijing in the summer of 1860; the Xianfeng emperor fled the city, causing widespread panic. When Elgin's troops arrived at the Old Summer Palace and found Xianfeng gone, they looted the complex—then burned it down. Its ruins still stand in Beijing today, an object lesson in the violence of imperialism (though one that is practically forgotten in the West).

     It therefore struck many as odd that the British, though officially bound to a policy of neutrality in the Taiping war, found ways to intervene on the side of the Qing. But, as Platt argues, British actions in the Taiping civil war were rooted not in support for the Qing, but in concerns about British economic interests. When the U.S. Civil War began in 1861, it threatened to unravel England's carefully constructed global web of trade. With cotton from the American South rising in price, British textiles became so expensive that domestic Chinese textile manufacturers were able to undersell them for the first time, and British exports to China plummeted. Simultaneously, the green tea that British merchants purchased in China and sold to the United States began to accumulate in warehouses as American demand dropped off. Prices and profits both sank, and the British realized the severity of their situation:

     Had the China trade existed in isolation, the British might have weathered the outbreak of war in the United States with only passing concern—just as they had abided the chaos in China while the United States still remained at peace. But the two countries' markets were, for them, so deeply and intimately connected that by the late spring of 1861 the simultaneity of the two wars threatened ruin for the British economy (Platt 233).

     England's economic salvation, many of its merchants and government officials realized, relied on opening new markets—which would be possible if the British could develop an inter-treaty port trade in China. But with many of the treaty ports situated in the Taiping war zone, the first order of business was to bring an end to the civil war.

     A faction in Britain called for alliance with the Taiping, arguing that the Qing was clearly a moribund dynasty ripe for replacement by the nominally Christian and seemingly pro-Western Taiping. It was by no means obvious that the Qing would defeat the rival state that had arisen within its borders, and perhaps England should cast its lot with China's next ruling dynasty. But descriptions of atrocities the Taiping had committed in battle eroded support for them in England, where The Times of London painted a Taiping victory as a gateway to anarchy–which would surely be bad for business. While no one was certain that a Qing victory was truly preferable, the British inserted themselves in the fight against the Taiping: they sold arms to the Qing, allowed British officers to serve in the Qing military, and invoked "British interests" whenever they needed to justify participating in battle, in violation of England's declaration of neutrality.

     Still, when the final defeat of the Taiping came in July 1864, it was at the hands of Qing general Zeng Guofan, a scholar-official with no previous military experience who had risen to the occasion when the emperor called on him to lead an army of Qing troops. Yet though the British were not part of the Taiping defeat, Platt argues that their "haphazard" intervention had played a crucial role in bringing it about (359). By fighting in parallel to Zeng's army, the British had, in effect, forced the Taiping to wage a two-front war, which proved too much for them. Though the Qing were also fighting on many fronts—rebellions raged in the west and across the north China plain—foreign intervention in the Taiping civil war provided enough support to save the dynasty.

With the Qing still in power and foreign rights in China newly expanded after 1860's Treaty of Tianjin, British, Americans, French, and other Westerners set about making the most of their lives in the treaty ports. They founded schools, churches, and cultural institutions like orchestras; they built parks and racecourses; they created departments of public health and trained police forces modeled on those in Europe and the United States. Although China had never been as closed off as Westerners depicted it, this post-1860s encounter with the West brought parts of China—the treaty ports—more deeply into global networks and more visibly in sync with Western concepts of modernity and progress than had been the case prior to the Treaty of Tianjin. And though this change took place on Western terms, by the late nineteenth century, a "self-strengthening movement" had grown influential in Chinese government and educational circles. Determined to prevent China from becoming fully colonized by Western states, the self-strengtheners sought to promote "Western-style" learning and technology and thus enable China to compete with the West on equal terms. It was a hopeless endeavor; as Bickers writes, the self-strengtheners, like colonial modernizers elsewhere, soon ran into foreign condemnation of their efforts:

     As China 'modernized', as it adopted some of the reforms long insisted on, foreign observers changed the rules. The old was glorified, and romanticized. New China was losing its soul. What was once a symbol of decay and stasis mutated into something wholesome. The old had integrity and soul, and reform came to be seen as something deracinating, un-Chinese, vapid (221).

     Bickers points out, however, that the Western foothold in China was significantly more fragile than foreign pomposity would indicate. Living, for the most part, in small communities ringing the country's eastern edge, foreigners felt vulnerable, plagued by "an insecurity which added a note of armed hysteria to treaty port life and politics" (Bickers 309). They also relied on Chinese assistance—not just that of domestic servants, but also assistance in business, which would have likely been impossible without local connections. Imperialism—even haphazard, uncoordinated, informal imperialism—was "a condominium enterprise," requiring Chinese employees, capital, and expertise as much as it did foreign privilege and ties to global networks (184).

     What is remembered about Sino-Western interactions in the nineteenth century, and what is forgotten? Which stories are told, and why? Bickers, Lovell, and Platt all grapple with these questions, and through their answers we can see more clearly the historical baggage that dogs Sino-Western relations today. "We cannot understand," Bickers writes, "the resurgence of China now, and its sometimes quiet, sometimes raucous and foul-mouthed anger at the world, unless we understand the traumatic century which followed the first opium war, however much it might seem mere history" (10). Though in retrospect the Westerners who populate the pages of these three books often seem to have made ill-informed and shortsighted decisions, their individual choices can collectively be arranged into a narrative of aggression and imperialism, of Chinese sovereignty violated and Western arrogance triumphant. The perception that Westerners today would prefer to forget, or at least downplay, this history only serves to turn it into a weapon that the Chinese government can turn against foreigners when tensions rise. Confronting past actions, but also understanding why individuals and governments made the decisions that they did, stands as the first step in reconciling Chinese and foreign accounts of the nineteenth century. Robert Bickers, Julia Lovell, and Stephen Platt have all made significant contributions toward that effort—worthy replacements for those long-forgotten books in the library.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is a PhD candidate in modern Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine and a fellow at the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. Her writing has appeared at Time Asia,,The Nation, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Ms. magazine blog. She can be reached at



1 Paul A. Cohen, Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010 reissue), 1–2.

2 "Emperor Qian Long: Letter to George III, 1793," available at

3 For useful classroom materials on the First Opium War, see MIT's Visualizing Cultures module on the subject, available at

4 In actuality, most of the foreign privileges in China had ended during World War II, as gestures of goodwill from the British, French, and Americans toward their Chinese allies.

5 Treaty of Nanking, Article XI, available at



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