China Taking Advantage of SJW Logic to Silence Western Critics
Unorthodox reappraisals of the Opium Wars can jangle high-level political nerves. In 2006, the government closed down China’s leading liberal weekly, Freezing Point (Bingdian), because it ran an article by a philosophy professor called Yuan Weishi challenging textbook doctrine on (amongst other things) the second Opium War, which ‘viciously attacked the socialist system [and] attempted to vindicate criminal acts by the imperialist powers in invading China. It seriously distorted historical facts; it seriously contradicted news propaganda discipline; it seriously damaged the national feelings of the Chinese people . . . and created bad social influence.’ (To offer a roughly equivalent anglophone analogue: imagine Prospect being shut down for running a revisionist article on the Scottish Clearances or the Irish Famine.) Around this same moment, the government decided to replace the soporific lectures in Marxism-Leninism compulsory across undergraduate courses with classes in modern Chinese history – beginning, of course, with the Opium War – ensuring that China’s brightest and best emerged from their university careers with a correct understanding of the past, and its relationship to the present.
At the time that it was fought, by contrast, most of the Chinese empire – including a number of those who were supposed to be directing proceedings – had some difficulty acknowledging an Opium War with the English was happening at all. 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. He had little clue as to why English guns were pummelling his empire’s east coast until the second week of August that year, when the fleet sailed in to Tianjin, the nearest port to Beijing, to deliver a letter from the British foreign secretary to ‘the Minister of the Emperor’. After the conflict’s existence was at last officially acknowledged, the emperor and his men still had trouble dignifying it with the term ‘war’, preferring to name it a ‘border provocation’ or ‘quarrel’ (bianxin), atomized into a series of local clashes along China’s maritime perimeter. Even while they were routing, with the newest military technology of the day, badly trained and directed Chinese armies, the British were identified in court documents of the time as ‘clowns’, ‘bandits’, ‘pirates’, ‘robbers’, ‘rebels’ (occasionally, the ‘outrageous rebels’) – temporary insurgents against a world order still firmly centred in the Qing state. This, in the eyes of China’s rulers, was just another aggravation no more worrying than the other domestic and frontier revolts the government was struggling to suppress around the same time.
Yet somehow, in the century and a half since it was fought, the Opium War has been transformed from a mere ‘border provocation’ into the tragic beginning of China’s modern history, and a key prop for Communist One-Party rule. This contemporary recasting of the conflict conveniently reminds the Chinese people of their country’s victimization by the West, and of everything that was wrong about the ‘old society’ before the Communist Party came along to make things right again. When the West tries to criticize China, most often for its human-rights record, or for its lack of an independent judiciary and press, Chinese voices – both inside and outside the government – can fight back with the Opium War. A 2004 reader’s comment article for the China Daily (the government’s English-language newspaper) denounced the whole business as ‘treachery by the West on a scale never before experienced . . . the use of the drug opium set the standard of the mistakes of the west for the next 150 years . . . The Western bigots and zealots, however, have never ceased to have designs on China and on China’s wealth and prosperity, even today . . . If the West and their running dogs of war now expect mercy from China for all these past invasions and thefts, they are seriously mistaken.’
-Julia Lovell, The Opium War
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. I seriously lol when I read the last part.
This is why I will never understand the pathological self-loathing of the West. I mean, come on, with your persistent self-flagellation you’re just asking to be taken advantage of and of course the Chinese are experts of emotional blackmail. The minute you try to criticise us we’ll drag every tiny infraction from ten thousand years ago to shut you down. Seriously man.
Do the Ends of Preaching the Gospel Justify the Means of Blasting Open Nations Hostile to it?
Matheson and his colleagues were joined in their impatience by the Protestant missionary community. The London Missionary Society had sent out their first man to south China, Robert Morrison, in 1807. Not long after his arrival, he had been asked whether he hoped to have any spiritual impact on the country: ‘No,’ he responded, ‘but I expect God will’. Thirty years later, he and his colleagues found themselves unable either to name or enumerate more than a handful of converts.
Ill, depressed, stalled on the edge of the mainland, frustrated missionary observers of the 1830s spoke a pure dialect of imperialist paternalism: ‘China still proclaims her proud and unapproachable supremacy and disdainfully rejects all pretensions in any other nation to be considered as her equal. This feeling of contemptible vanity Christianity alone will effectually destroy. Where other means have failed, the gospel will triumph; this will fraternize the Chinese with the rest of mankind . . . [linking] them in sympathy with other portions of their species, and thus add to the triumphs it has achieved.’
The missionaries became natural allies of the smugglers: when they first arrived on the coast of China, they docked among opium traders on the island of Lintin; they interpreted for them in exchange for passages up the coast, distributing tracts while the drug was taken onshore; and in the Chinese Repository, Canton’s leading English-language publication, they shared a forum for spreading their views on the urgent need to open China, by whatever means necessary. By the 1830s, merchants and missionaries alike favoured violence. ‘[W]hen an opponent supports his argument with physical force, [the Chinese] can be crouching, gentle, and even kind’, observed Karl Gützlaff, a stout Pomeranian missionary who would, during the Opium War, lead the British military occupation of parts of eastern China, running armies of Chinese spies and collaborators. The slightest provocation would do. In 1831, traders had written to the government in India, demanding a fleet of warships to avenge the Chinese authorities’ partial demolition of a front garden that the British had illegally requisitioned.
-Julia Lovell, The Opium War
Wah the British Protestant prophesies so powerful siol, they say the Gospel will impact China and it really happened. With help from British guns of course. >:)
But anyway, this passage made me think about a parallel situation in the ISIS. What justifies other world powers’ attempt to destroy the ISIS? If one simply says that that’s because they persecute Christians within their land and that we must make the land free for the spread of the Gospel, then this would also justify the British blasting open China to allow their missionaries to enter and enable the free spread of the Gospel. If we want to go by the logic of leaving China alone even if they don’t allow Christianity within her, wouldn’t the same logic apply to the ISIS as well, and that the fact that they don’t allow Christianity in their midst is no justification for trying to wipe them out?
If one says that the ISIS are persecuting pre-existing Christians who are already there then the obvious solution would be to evacuate them and not to instigate regime change. So what really justifies our destroying the ISIS? The fact that they have horrible practices? Doesn’t Saudi Arabia have them as well? But that doesn’t justify us trying to level them.
In the end, I do not know what the answer is here. Here I invoke my moral particularist/nihilist credentials and simply fall silent. However I think I can say with a reasonable amount of confidence that if Britain did not blast open China, Christianity would be as extinct in China as it would be in Japan, virtually a tiny minority spreading at snail’s pace. For good or bad, the British forcing China open to the West has allowed Christianity to flourish there today. As a Chinese, I choose to enjoy the side benefits of the Opium War, and leave the judgement of the actors to God.
Did the Chinese themselves thought that Opium was an Unqualified Poison?
Opium has been an extraordinary shape-shifter in both the countries that would fight a war in its name in the early 1840s. In Britain and China, it began as a foreign drug (Turkish and Indian, respectively) that was first naturalized during the nineteenth century, then – at the end of that same century – sternly repatriated as an alien poison. For most of the century, neither popular nor expert medical opinion could agree on anything concerning opium, beyond the fact that it relieved pain. Was it more or less harmful than alcohol? Did it bestialize its users? Did it make your lungs go black and crawl with opium-addicted maggots? No one could say for sure. ‘The disaster spread everywhere as the poison flowed into the hinterlands . . . Those fallen into this obsession will ever utterly waste themselves’, mourned one late-Qing smoker, Zhang Changjia, before observing a few pages on, ‘Truly, opium is something that the world cannot do without.’ The clichéd image of opium-smoking is of prostration and narcolepsy; to many (including Thomas de Quincey, who walked the London streets by night sustained by laudanum), it was a stimulant. China’s coolie masses would refresh their capacity for backbreaking labour with midday opium breaks. One reverend in the late-nineteenth century observed that such groups ‘literally live on the opium; it is their meat and drink’. Things were little different in the Victorian Fens: ‘A man who is setting about a hard job takes his [opium] pill as a preliminary,’ wrote one mid-century observer, ‘and many never take their beer without dropping a piece of opium into it’. To add to the confusion about opium’s effects, British commanders in China between 1840 and 1842 noticed that Qing soldiers often prepared themselves for battle by stoking themselves up on the drug: some it calmed; others it excited for the fight ahead; others again, it sent to sleep.
Even now, after far more than a century of modern medicine, much remains unknown about opium’s influence on the human constitution. Whether eaten, drunk or smoked, the drug’s basic effects are the same: its magic ingredient is morphine…
Opium began life in the Chinese empire as an import from the vaguely identified ‘Western regions’ (ancient Greece and Rome, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Persia and Afghanistan); the earliest Chinese reference (in a medical manual) occurs in the first half of the eighth century. Eaten or drunk, prepared in many different ways (ground, boiled, honeyed, infused, mixed with ginger, ginseng, liquorice, vinegar, black plums, ground rice, caterpillar fungus), it served for all kinds of ailments (diarrhoea and dysentery, arthritis, diabetes, malaria, chronic coughs, a weak constitution). By the eleventh century, it was recognized for its recreational, as well as curative uses. ‘It does good to the mouth and to the throat’, observed one satisfied user. ‘I have but to drink a cup of poppy-seed decoction, and I laugh, I am happy.’ ‘It looks like myrrha’, elaborated a court chronicle some four hundred years later. ‘It is dark yellow, soft and sticky like ox glue. It tastes bitter, produces excessive heat and is poisonous . . . It enhances the art of alchemists, sex and court ladies . . . Its price equals that of gold.’9 Opium was supposed to help control ejaculation which, as sexological theory told it, enabled the sperm to retreat to feed the male brain. Opium-enriched aphrodisiacs became a boom industry in Ming China (1368–1644) – possibly contributing to the high death-rate of the dynasty’s emperors (eleven out of a total of sixteen Ming rulers failed to get past their fortieth birthday). In 1958, as part of a final push to root out the narcotic in China, the new Communist government excavated the tomb of Wanli, the hypochondriac (though long-lived) emperor of the late Ming, and found his bones saturated with morphine. Enterprising Ming cooks even tried to stir-fry it, fashioning poppy seeds into curd as a substitute for tofu. Opium was one of the chief ingredients of a Ming-dynasty cure-all, the ‘big golden panacea’ (for use against toothache, athlete’s foot and too much sex), in which the drug was combined with (amongst other things) bezoar, pearl, borneol, musk, rhinoceros horn, antelope horn, catechu, cinnabar, amber, eaglewood, aucklandia root, white sandalwood; all of which had first to be gold-plated, then pulverized, turned into pellets with breast-milk, and finally swallowed with pear juice. (Take one at a time, the pharmacological manuals recommended.)
It was yet another import – in the shape of tobacco from the New World – that led to the smoking of opium. Introduced to China at some point between 1573 and 1627 (around the same time as the peanut, the sweet potato and maize), by the middle of the seventeenth century tobacco-smoking had become an empire-wide habit. As the Qing established itself in China after 1644, the dynasty made nervous attempts to ban it as ‘a crime more heinous even than that of neglecting archery’: smokers and sellers could be fined, whipped and even decapitated. But by around 1726, the regime had given up the empire’s tobacco addiction as a bad job, with great fields of the stuff swaying just beyond the capital’s walls. And somewhere in the early eighteenth century, a new, wonderful discovery had reached China from Java, carried on Chinese ships between the two places: that tobacco was even better if you soaked it first in opium syrup (carried mainly in Portuguese cargoes). First stop for this discovery was the Qing’s new conquest, Taiwan; from there it passed to the mainland’s maritime rim, and then the interior.
It was smoking that made Chinese consumers take properly to opium. Smoking was sociable, skilled and steeped in connoisseurship (with its carved, bejewelled pipes of jade, ivory and tortoiseshell, its silver lamps for heating and tempering the drug, its beautiful red sandalwood couches on which consumers reclined). It was also less likely to kill the consumer than the eaten or drunk version of the drug: around 80–90 per cent of the morphia may have been lost in fumes from the pipe or exhaled. Through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, China made opium-smoking its own: a chic post-prandial; an essential lubricant of the sing-song (prostitution) trade; a must-have hospitality item for all self-respecting hosts; a favourite distraction from the pressures of court life for the emperor and his household. Opium houses could be salubrious, even luxurious institutions, far from the Dickensian den-of-vice stereotype (like an ‘intimate beer-house’, a surprised Somerset Maugham pronounced in 1922 – a mature stage in China’s drug plague), in which companionable groups of friends might enjoy a civilized pipe or two over tea and dim-sum.
Somewhere near the start of the nineteenth century, smokers began to dispense with the diluting presence of tobacco – perhaps because pure opium was more expensive, and therefore more status-laden. Around this time, thanks to the quality control exercised by the diligent rulers of British India (who established a monopoly over opium production in Bengal in 1793), the supply also became more reliable, no longer regularly contaminated by adulterants such as horse dung and sand. A way of burning money, smoking was the perfect act of conspicuous consumption. Every stage was enveloped in lengthy, elaborate, costly ritual: the acquisition of exquisite paraphernalia; the intricacy of learning how to cook and smoke it (softening the dark ball of opium to a dark, caramelized rubber, inserting it into the hole on the roof of the pipe bowl, then drawing slowly, steadily on the pipe to suck the gaseous morphia out); the leisurely doze that followed the narcotic hit. The best families would go one step further in flaunting their affluence, by keeping an opium chef to prepare their pipes for them. The empire’s love affair with opium can be told through the beautiful objects it manufactured for consuming the drug, through the lyrics that aficionados composed to their heavy, treacly object of desire, or in bald statistics.
-Julia Lovell, The Opium War: Opium and China
This provides some very important context to the Chinese attitude towards opium use. If it wasn’t self-evident that it was an unqualified poison, then opium use would be as much an internal conflict as it was an external imposition.
The Chinese Mainlander “Might-is-Right” logic that Imperial China deserves to get beaten by the British
And today, many Chinese people waste little time fuming over British gunboat diplomacy when left in peace by the state’s patriotic education campaign. Ask Beijing taxi-drivers (an overworked, underpaid labour-force more than entitled to a generalized sense of grievance against the world) what they think of Britain, and you are more likely to get a sigh of admiration (about how modern and developed Britain is, relative to China) than vitriol. Ask them about the Opium War, and they’ll often tell you what’s past is past; they’re too busy thinking about managing in the present (or they don’t listen to anything the government says). Even as secondary-school history textbooks and examinations still strive to indoctrinate young minds with the ‘China as Victim’ account of modern history, always starting with the Opium War, classroom discussions of the Opium War easily lapse out of anger towards the West, and into disgust at nineteenth-century China’s corruption and military weakness. Start a conversation about the Opium War and someone, sooner or later, is bound to come out with the catchphrase luohou jiu yao aida – a social Darwinist sentiment that translates as ‘if you’re backward, you’ll take a beating’; China, in other words, had it coming. Beneath the angry, hate-filled narrative of the Opium War and its aftermath told by Chinese nationalism, then, lies a more intriguing story: that of a painfully self-critical and uncertain, but open-minded quest to make sense of the country’s crisis-ridden last two centuries.
-Julia Lovell, The Opium War
I am rather pleased at how much of the Chinese Legalist mindset, e.g. dismissal of the past, focus on presentist concerns, efficacy as legitimacy reasoning, has been and still is fundamentally entrenched in the Chinese psyche.
The Moral Posturing Humbug of the Chinese with Respect the Opium Trade
But foreign traders of the early nineteenth century had only a partial role to play: distribution deep into the mainland was carried out by native – Chinese, Manchu, Muslim – smugglers. The clippers sailed up to Lintin, a small, nondescript island about a third of the way between Hong Kong and Canton. There, they discharged their cargo onto superannuated versions of themselves: retired hulks serving as floating depots. Long, slim Chinese smuggling boats – known in the trade as ‘centipedes’, ‘fast crabs’ or ‘scrambling dragons’, and rowed by twenty to seventy thoroughly armed men apiece – would then draw up, into which opium was loaded, to fulfil orders purchased at the factories in Canton. From here, the drug entered the empire’s circulatory system: along the south coast’s threadwork of narrow waterways, and into Canton itself – amid consignments of less contentious goods, under clothes, inside coffins. At every stage, there was employment for locals: for the brokers, couriers and ‘shroffs’ (who checked for counterfeit silver) on board European vessels and in European pay; for the tough Tankas who made the dragons scramble; for the smugglers who brought it ashore; for the Cantonese middlemen; for the proprietors of opium shops, restaurants, tea-houses and brothels.
And every stage in the trade required officialdom to look the other way – which for the most part they obligingly did, even as the traces of the business surrounded them. One of Matheson’s Calcutta associates put it nicely, wondering sarcastically that the agency’s opium clippers ‘have ever been able to trade at all. A European-rigged vessel gives the alarm against herself whenever she appears, and lodges an information in the hands of every individual . . . Only think of the Chinese going to smuggle tea on the coast of England in a junk!’ Generally, all that was required to land opium was cash outlay and sometimes a touch of doublespeak. If an opium consignee was lucky, the responsible mandarin would simply demand a businesslike bribe per box of opium – like a species of duty, as if the cargo were nothing more controversial than cotton, or molasses. If he were less fortunate, he would suffer a lecture administered first on the evils of the opium trade, or perhaps a personal reading of the emperor’s latest edict on the subject, then be allowed to hand over the bribe. But connivance – because of the profit to be made from it – seems to have been the basic rule: one exploratory trade mission by the EIC up the north China coast in 1832 was greeted by disappointment all the way, as the ship, the Lord Amherst, had neglected to bring opium.
-Julia Lovell, The Opium War: Opium and China
This is why I said before, we’re not annoyed that the British smuggled opium in China but that they managed to do it more effectively than us and for a larger cut of the profits.
For regardless of the “official” position of both the British and Chinese government on the opium trade, at the local level the peoples on both sides were more than happy to profit from it.
This honestly reminds me a lot of why we are annoyed with the Americans. It isn’t that they were more treacherous or immoral than the rest of us. It’s simply that they tend to engage in more insufferable moral posturing which makes the dissonance of their less than perfect behaviour irritating. Likewise the pathological self-loathing of the West and the British with regards the opium trade is simply because they have a much higher opinion of their own moral standards and treat their “fall” from it with greater loathing and disgust. The rest of us merely have a much more lower and pragmatic attitude towards morality which is why our no less dastardly deeds gets a free pass while the West gets the endless blame of the academia.
More Hypocritical Moral Posturing and Humbug by the Chinese on the Opium Issue
When – and only when – the clippers were safely unloaded and preparing to return to India, Qing government ships would, one sardonic observer of the mid-1830s noted, at last mount a sham pursuit: ‘twenty or thirty Chinese men-o-war junks are seen creeping slowly . . . towards them . . . never close enough to be within reach of a cannonball, and if, for the sake of a joke, one of the clippers heaves to, in order to allow them to come up, they never accept the invitation, but keep at a respectful distance . . . a proclamation is [then] issued to the entire nation, stating that “His Celestial Majesty’s Imperial fleet, after a desperate conflict, has made the Fan-quis [foreign devils] run before it, and given them such a drubbing, that they will never dare show themselves on the coast again.”’ Thus, summarized an American trader of the 1830s, ‘we pursued the evil tenor of our ways with supreme indifference, took care of our business, pulled boats, walked, dined well, and so the years rolled by as happily as possible.’
When the Communist Party – while publicly denouncing their rivals, the Nationalists, and Western imperialists for profiting from the drug trade – secretly grew opium to make ends meet in north-west China in the early 1940s, they generated another couple of euphemisms: ‘special product’, and sometimes ‘soap’.
By the time of the Opium War, the empire was not just importing and domesticating this prized foreign drug; it was producing it, in tremendous quantities. (Nonetheless, although native opium appealed because of its cheapness, it was always a poor cousin to the foreign product, due to the greater potency of the latter.) Where it grew readily (especially in southwest China, but also along the east coast, and in Shaanxi, Gansu and Xinjiang to the north-west), it was the wonder crop: it sold well, and grew on the same land in an annual cycle alongside cotton, beans, maize and rice. Almost every part of the plant could be used: the sap, for raw opium; the leaves as a vegetable; the stem for dye; the seeds for oil. For southern peasants in the late 1830s, growing opium earned them ten times more than rice. By the time of the Opium War, the trade had spread across the entire empire: smoked (extensively) in prosperous south-eastern metropolises; trafficked; and cultivated (all along the western rim, from the mountain wildernesses of Yunnan in the south, to Xinjiang in the north).
Opium simply refused to go away: when the state moved to crack down on opium along the south and east coast by banishing smokers and smugglers to the frontier zone of Xinjiang, they merely brought their habit to the north-west. If domestic poppy-growing was cut back in south-western provinces such as Yunnan, civil servants predicted that coastal imports would increase to fill the market space made available. In 1835, officials optimistically announced that the poppy had been eradicated from Zhejiang, in east China; five years later, further investigation revealed that government representatives had lopped only the tops of the plants, carelessly leaving the roots still in the ground. That same year, thirty-four peasants fought officials sent to destroy their crops properly.
-Julia Lovell, The Opium War: Opium and China
LOL, I seriously laughed out loud when I read the first part. Wah lau, this is super wayang lor! We take covering up and putting on a show to the nth degree. And the thing is that it’s such a Chinese thing. Normally if Westerners are evil or nasty they would be rather upfront, crude or brutish about it. Or if they were corrupt, they would simply discreetly pocket the brown envelopes or bribes.
We take covering up a bribe to the nth degree with an elaborate spectacle to boot. It might have something to do with the way we are able to compartmentalise our minds and maintain many faces at once. I guess this is why I’ve never taken moral posturings or outrageous seriously. Being Chinese, moral posturing is normally a theatrical act invoked to disguise our true motives or to accomplish some very specific agendas. I prefer to simply objectively observe facts without feeling the need to indulge in pretentious moral posturing.
On the Importance of Logistics in the Opium War
But why did the Qing fail to capitalize on their numerical superiority over the British? Theoretically, the dynasty commanded the largest standing army (800,000-strong) in the world at the time – 114 times more numerous than the 7,000-strong British force dispatched to China. In reality, however, most of these 800,000 soldiers were scattered through the empire, far too busy with domestic peace-keeping duties (suppressing bandits or rebels; carrying out disaster relief; guarding prisons; policing smugglers) to be spared for the quarrel with the British. In August 1840, when the British fleet glided up to Tianjin, to hand Palmerston’s official letter of complaint to the emperor, the imperial representative reported that a mere 600 of the 2,400 soldiers theoretically on the rolls could be mustered for immediate service. Almost every province of the empire had to contribute reinforcements to boost local forces: in the course of the war, some 51,000 soldiers found themselves in transit around the country, headed for the southern or eastern coasts. But they moved too slowly to be useful: troops from a neighbouring province took thirty to forty days to reach the front line (about the same amount of time it took the British to fetch reinforcements from India); those further away took ninety or more. In June 1840, the British fleet took only thirty-five days to sail up and capture Dinghai; the following year, the Qing took five months to rally a counter-offensive against the island – five months in which the British rested and reorganized, while reinforcements straggled in from distant corners of the empire. (By the time the last batches arrived, the Treaty of Nanjing was already being toasted in cherry brandy.)
-Julia Lovell, The Opium War
Money are the Sinews of War
Military discipline was another problem for the Qing. British accounts of Opium War engagements were scattered with admissions that forts were adequately planned, placed and supplied, and would have cost the invaders many lives to capture – if only the Qing troops had fought, and not fled. The conquest of the empire had been achieved by creating a hereditary military: an elite minority of Manchu, Mongolian and Chinese Bannermen at the top, with the professional Chinese Green Standard Army (about three times the size) taking on basic garrison duties through the country. For the Bannermen, the state provided a stipend of rice, cash and land, in return for army service. But by the middle decades of the eighteenth century, the Banners were suffering from price rises just like everyone else in the empire – the level of stipends had been set in the early years of the conquest, long before the inflation of the Qianlong period set in. When handouts failed to keep up with inflation, or even shrank, soldiers protested, went on strike, ran away or took civilian jobs. As the nineteenth century approached, the system was rotten with corruption: superiors squeezed inferiors in exchange for the promise of promotion, while families concealed deaths (and invented births) to maintain stipends.
Equipment budgets and military esprit de corps were the principal casualties of the fiscal deficit. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, musketry and artillery practice were phased out across many garrisons, because ammunition was too dear. One of the east-coast garrisons in 1795 requested permission from the Board of War to cancel the spring artillery practice, for fear that the noise would disturb the well-being of profitable silk worms; so much grazing land had been sold or rented out that the number of horses dwindled to almost nothing. In the Canton garrison, half-naked Manchus on drill practice were observed dragging rusty swords and elderly bows about.
Repeatedly during the war, Qing armies of thousands would be routed by a few hundred, or even a few dozen well-disciplined British troops with functioning artillery and battle-plans.
During the Opium War, Qing politicians of the pro- and anti-war faction could agree on only one thing: that their army was hopeless. Travelling east from Canton to Zhejiang in 1841, Lin Zexu bluntly analysed the reasons for the army’s lack of interest in fighting the British. ‘The most coveted positions in the Guangdong garrisons were in the naval fleet, where one per cent of salaries was drawn from the grain and silver stipend, and the rest from opium-smugglers’ bribes. Once we banned opium, ninety-nine per cent of the navy’s income went up in smoke. How could we expect them to resist the English rebels?’ ‘Our soldiers cheat everyone’, echoed Qiying, the emperor’s chief negotiator at the close of the war. ‘They refuse to pay full prices, gather in brothels and gambling dens, corrupt the sons of good families and handle stolen goods.
-Julia Lovell, The Opium War
Shudda have listened to Han Fei Zi on the motivations of self-interest even in the military. I find it rather hilarious that the very naval defences are funded out of the opium trade, hahaha…
China: That Nation of Merchants and Shopkeepers? On the Chinese Fluidity of Loyalties
What many people don’t realise about the last imperial dynasty of China is that the Qing were technically not Han Chinese but northern Manchu “barbarians”. Thus there was in fact a considerable amount of racial tension between the Han Chinese and the Manchurians during the Qing Dynasty where the former was systematically discriminated against.
However, what is of interest is how fluid the loyalties of the Han Chinese were before and after the Qing dynasty. As Julia Lovell observes:
Bao Peng, this opium-smuggler turned imperial diplomat, offered a particularly colourful example of Chinese collaboration with the British, but he was only one of many who betrayed the Qing by helping the empire’s attackers: not out of conscious ideological choice, but simply because they needed to make a living, and the British were employers like any other.
According to both English and Chinese sources, locals defected back and forth between the two sides depending on which offered them the most reliable source of income. After the opium trade dried up in the late 1830s, those who had drawn a living from transporting, unpacking, supplying and peddling were recruited (at the wage of six dollars a month) into anti-British defence militias – a strategy that Lin Zexu described as ‘fighting traitors with traitors, poison with poison’. When these bands were disbanded in late 1840 as part of the ‘soothing’ process, their members quickly changed sides again. ‘Once they found themselves unemployed,’ recalled one Cantonese observer, ‘they took to wandering up and down the coast. The foreigners relied on two of their dastardly leaders, who incited others to go over too . . . Without this help, the British would not have known anything – this was how Charles Elliot found out how slack the defences leading up to Canton were.’ When the British fleet returned to the south, seasoned Cantonese boatmen offered their services to the British, with all the importunate matter-of-factness of taxi drivers touting for trade outside a railway station. ‘How four-piece ship no wanchee pilot’, one local navigator shook his head, on being rejected.8 Everywhere the British went, they were dependent on local willingness to provide them with fresh food and water. When the Elliots returned south in late November 1840, and docked their fleet on the eastern side of the mouth of the river up to Canton, a floating Chinese township kept them well supplied with fresh food, even at the risk of persecution by officials. When the names of this impromptu comprador community were taken down by a group of police spies, the businessmen besieged and set fire to the police boat. ‘These poor wretches were literally roasted alive, their persecutors preventing their escape with long bamboos’, recalled an English lieutenant. ‘What a most extraordinary nation this is! … They will trade with you at one spot, while you are fighting, killing and destroying them at another!’
Perhaps the Chinese Legalist thinking of Han Feizi does run deeper in the Chinese psyche than we would care to admit. Our “might is right” attitude of selling our services to whoever is the most powerful, our pursuit of self-interest and disregard for macro-political or national loyalties and forces, etc.
Of course lest the Qing Manchurians complain about our treachery, the fact that is the Qings themselves could not have conquered China without that very same Chinese treachery. Julia Lovell again:
The architects of the Qing conquest, Nurhaci and his extraordinarily tough son Hung Taiji, had been notably pragmatic in their hungry quest to build an empire, attracting and rewarding literate Chinese immigrants to the north-east to run the increasingly complex machinery of their rising state (formally established in 1616). The Manchu armies that conquered China to establish the Qing dynasty in 1644 were dominated by Chinese collaborators and weapons.
This incidentally explains my Anglophilia and my indifference towards the racial or national identity of my rulers. Just as for the mainland Chinese it is a matter of indifference who actually rules China, the Manchurians or Ming Chinese or the British, it is a matter of indifference to me who actually runs Singapore, whether it is the Governor-General of the British Colonial office or the People’s Action Party. I am quite pragmatic, at least when it comes to civil affairs, the question is merely who can perform their function well, not the racial or national identity of the person in charge. Whoever can maximise our collective economic self-realisation efficiently, be they British or Singaporean or Chinese, commands our loyalty.
Chamber Pots versus British Cannons
Yang Fang’s first assessment of the situation after entering Canton gives an idea of his fitness for purpose. ‘The foreigners’ cannon’, he announced, ‘always strike us, but ours cannot strike them back. We live on solid ground, while the foreigners float back and forth on the waves. We are the hosts, they are the guests – why have they been so successful against us? They must be making use of the dark arts.’ Fortunately, he had a counter-attack in mind. Every ten households, Liang Tingnan recalled, ‘was to collect together all the women’s chamber-pots they could find, place them on wooden rafts, and send them out to defend the city.’ It’s hard to know exactly how Yang Fang judged the military capabilities of chamber-pots, but perhaps, given the low status of women in Confucian society, their toilet-buckets seemed to Yang Fang quite the most potent weapon of destruction available against the supernatural force of the British guns.
-Julia Lovell, The Opium War
I don’t even-
The Cantonese Support of the British
The image of Qishan’s [the official formerly charged with handling the British] departure back to Beijing in manacles must have haunted Yishan and Yang Fang [the new officials sent by the emperor], as they tried to persuade the emperor to allow trade. Daoguang [the emperor] was having none of it, his vermilion scrawls over his representatives’ memoranda raging at any suggestion of compromise or delay: ‘We only know one word: “Attack!” . . . We are angry in the extreme! . . . It is imperative that not a single rebel sail should escape . . . Tremble! . . . We only await the news of victory with the greatest impatience.’ The usually parsimonious emperor had decided that now was not the time for half-measures: he was going to throw money and men at the problem. Accordingly, in the first three months of 1841, he had ordered some 17,000 troops from seven different provinces to converge on Canton, and voted three million ounces of silver to finance the recovery of Hong Kong. Surely, he thought, simple force of numbers would triumph. Theoretically, the few thousand British troops off the south coast should be swallowed up by official troops and by patriotic local populations. Daoguang’s expectations were built, however, on a simple misassumption: that his subjects viewed the conflict as a war between the Qing ‘us’ and the British ‘them’ – that they unanimously desired revenge for ‘the great numbers of our soldiers killed by these rebels’.
Things did not look so straightforward on the ground, where many of those involved in the defence of Canton eyed each other with suspicion, and often violent hatred. The fight for the city – across the sweltering month of May 1841 – would turn out to be a vicious, even cannibalistic civil rout. The tone was set by the leadership, who seem to have suffered from extreme distaste for the civilians they were ostensibly protecting from British depredations. In their reports, the imperial commissioners were careful to emphasize the unreliability of the locals: partly because they genuinely distrusted them, and partly because it was always useful to have a scapegoat at the ready, in case the emperor accused them of failure. (Disdain for local populations was not restricted to Canton. That March, Yuqian, the sabre-rattling governor who would lead a hopeless defence against the British later in the year on the south-east coast, described local volunteers all the way up and down the south coast as ‘bandits . . . To use them against the foreigners would be to use poison against poison. If they are wounded or killed, there will be no regret; thus there will be no injury to Heavenly prestige and, at the same time, a local evil can be removed.’)
Almost as soon as Yishan arrived in the city, he made the following diagnosis of the situation: ‘The trouble lies within, not without, because every merchant has got rich through the foreigners, and even the lowest orders make their livings from them. All the merchants and people who live near the coast are fluent in the foreigners’ language. The craftier of their number are spies, and know everything that is going on around the government offices, and are quick to pass it on.’ The going rate for information, he reported, was twenty dollars – for which locals were so avid that they regularly fabricated reports for the foreigners. All the losses of January through to March were, he argued, down to treachery and cowardice – ‘and that is why I say we need to defend more against the people than against the pirates.’ As Yang Fang and Yishan procrastinated about war through April, they busied themselves instead putting up threatening notices about the dangers of collaboration, ‘to curb the traitors’ hearts’. Yishan’s feelings were fully reciprocated by the Cantonese. ‘Yishan had no interest’, one local writer commented acidly, ‘in logistics, battle-plans, the lie of the land, about strategies for victory and defence, for subduing the enemy and resisting foreign aggression – and neither did he have anything to contribute. The only thing he was good for was buying watches and woollens, and giving or attending great banquets.’
There was, quite likely, a deal of truth in official suspicions about the loyalty of the Cantonese, whose interests were financial rather than patriotic. Howqua, the richest of the merchants, was happy to inform his old British friends of recent developments on their return to the Canton factories at the beginning of March: about Qishan’s dismissal, about the appointment of Yishan and Yang Fang, and so on. ‘The locals’, Liang Tingnan pronounced, ‘were perfectly used to the foreigners . . . and in any case were unable to understand complicated things. Feeling that the whole business would not hurt them, they quietly sympathized with Elliot.’ As British trade operations in Hong Kong prospered at surprising speed through the autumn and winter of 1841, the island’s newly founded Gazette remarked complacently that well-to-do Cantonese merchants were already flocking towards the free-trade port. ‘What do we care for this so-called war?’ the message seemed to go. ‘There’s money to be made.’
-Julia Lovell, The Opium War
The last sentences. >:)
Did the Qing Armies Destroy more of Canton than the British?
[It is important to remember that the huge reinforcement which the emperor sent to Canton were drawn from distant provinces of the Chinese Empire.]
By 26 May, the city – and its defenders – were in spectacular disarray. The British bombardment alone had done terrible damage. ‘The cannon did not fall silent for a single moment’, wrote Liang Tingnan. ‘When night fell, the fires burned as bright as day… Neither officials nor soldiers dared come out to help – all you could hear was the noise of burning and death.’ But the Qing armies were almost as destructive. Discipline had fallen to pieces as soon as the first assault had failed on the night of 21 May, and the troops had taken out their disappointment by thoroughly plundering and destroying the foreign factories. Soon, 7–8,000 of the rank-and-file soldiers from other provinces fell back inside the city gates. In the meantime, all those who could do so travelled in the opposite direction, with such reckless panic that women and children were trampled underfoot. In the chaos, non-Cantonese soldiers – from far-away corners of the empire, finding themselves in a strange city, probably not understanding the local dialect, and seeming almost as terrifyingly foreign to local populations as the British themselves – were isolated from their own regiments and officers, and crammed into tents fifteen at a time. As a result, morale collapsed: ‘they broke and fled’, recorded Wei Yuan, ‘indulged in mutual recriminations, began to complain about their pay [and] looted just as they liked.’ The officers were similarly undisciplined, scattering into abandoned civilian houses, leaving their commanders clueless as to their whereabouts. ‘You never saw them except on payday,’ remembered Liang Tingnan.
Commanders either refused outright to leave the city to fight, or strenuously dissuaded others from doing so. ‘I’ll get them!’ roared old Yang Fang, preparing to lead a 2,000-strong column out of the northern gate to do battle until his colleagues forcibly prevented him. At one point during these desperate days, Yishan was importuned by a handful of labourers who wanted to know what, precisely, he was planning to do to save the city. He responded by having their leaders immediately beheaded. ‘Innumerable bodies strewed the streets’, observed one resident. ‘All discipline was gone, and the roads were filled with clamour and confusion. Everywhere, I saw plunder and murder. Thousands of our soldiers ran away, having loaded themselves with stolen goods, then pretended they had lost their way pursuing the enemy.’ When the British started to fire on the commanders’ former headquarters, Liang Tingnan scornfully remarked that ‘the fleas had already jumped’.
As banditry spread through the province as a whole, the threat of civil war loomed over the city. Tensions were particularly bad between the Hunanese reinforcements – concentrated around the east gate – and local fighters. Many of the Hunanese had apparently passed the time by sleeping with female lepers, who gave the disease to them – the folk belief was that if a woman could pass the affliction on to a man, she would recover and be able to get married. Another folk belief told that eating the flesh of a child would cure the sickness and so, allegedly, some stole and cooked children in their camp. Outraged local soldiers then went on a murderous rampage against the Hunanese child-eaters. ‘The bodies were piled high on the drill-ground’, remembered Liang Tingnan.57 ‘Traitors! Traitors!’ screamed local militiamen, chasing back inside the city any victims who tried to escape. An uncorroborated British account reports that some imperial troops ate the flesh of irregulars from Hubei.
-Julia Lovell, The Opium War
Perhaps there is a basis for the Chinese baby eating rumours after all.
Sigh, I am starting to see why the Chinese themselves believed that we deserve to get beaten during the Opium War. It was a foolish and utterly unnecessary war if the Emperor had exercised a little bit more pragmatism towards the British. Sometimes it may really be better to be ruled by foreigners than to be protected by one’s “own” idiots. This book is causing me to re-evaluate my recent more sympathetic attitude towards China.
Pax Britannica may not be that bad an idea after all.
Was the Opium War a War against the Chinese or just the Manchus?
Just as at Zhapu a month of so earlier, or at Sanyuanli the previous year, the only effective opposition to the British in the Opium War fought not for patriotism or even profit, but for their own women and children. As they died inside the city, the Bannermen may have wondered why no reinforcements from the camps to the west of the city were coming to their aid. These troops from western and central China had fled south at the first exchange of fire with Britain – this was not their fight. The casualty statistics for the day tell the story well enough. 30 per cent of the garrison’s resident Banner troops died on 21 July, while only 1.6 per cent of the Chinese reinforcements from Hubei, Sichuan, Henan and Jiangxi lost their lives. The war was, British observers now noted, ‘a Manchu and not a Chinese affair.’ And once the Manchus were laid low by the British, their persecuted Chinese subjects took vengeful advantage of their disarray. After Zhapu, British intelligence officers observed, ‘the Chinese populace fell upon the helpless families [of Manchu soldiers], committed every enormity and carried off every moveable article worth taking.’ (Reprisal, perhaps, for the Qing army’s own brutality against civilian Chinese populations in previous decades’ suppressions of religious rebellions – which had left tens of thousands dead.) In Zhapu, at least two separate accounts claimed, the Manchus had so badly antagonized Chinese soldiers that the latter became fifth-columnists for the British: ‘As the Manchu garrison had been in the habit of calling the Chinese disloyal, the Fujian braves sided with the enemy and set fire to the town. The foreigners then scrambled in over the wall’.
Even as desperate struggles went on inside and around the city, many of those removed from the front line carried on with their lives, apparently unconcerned about what might be happening to their compatriots a few hundred yards away. To reach the city, Granville Loch and his column – under and returning fire – had to cross a village in easy sight of Zhenjiang. Far from escaping the theatre of war, its inhabitants were standing, spectating, in the streets, ‘coolly employed eating their bowls of rice . . . although they were viewing a contest between foreigners and their fellow-countrymen, and in danger themselves, from their position, of being shot’.
-Julia Lovell, The Opium War
Reminds me of this amusing anecdote during the American War of Independence when an English aristocrat discovered that a British merchant was trading with the Americans.
“But we are at war with them!” the aristocrat cried.
“No,” the merchant replied, “the King is at war, but I have no quarrel with them.”
Tricking the British with Fake Imperial Authorisation
[The British demanded proof that the Qing officials present had been authorised by their emperor to act as plenipotentiaries, and the following hilarious incident ensued.]
Both sides’ accreditations were examined, with particular attention paid by the British to the emperor’s edict investing Qiying and Yilibu as plenipotentiaries. The mystical object was ceremoniously produced, remembered Loch, from ‘a little shabby yellow box badly made and worse painted’. An official ‘carried the roll of yellow silk in both his hands and proceeded – his eyes reverentially fixed upon it – with slow and solemn steps towards the table . . . I was greatly amused watching the anxious and horrified faces of the various Chinese when Mr Morrison touched the commission’. Loch assumed this was down to the intense respect that all Chinese had for the Imperial Word, and to disgust at the idea of such a sacred object being polluted by alien hands. His diagnosis was probably some way off the mark. For the edict was almost certainly a forgery, cobbled together in panic the previous evening. Major Malcolm, the secretary of the British legation, proudly displayed to the Qing representatives his Royal Patent, inscribed on a square of duck-egg-blue card and embellished by Queen Victoria’s Great Seal of the Realm. Perhaps the closest equivalent that Qiying and Yilibu possessed was the emperor’s scratchy 27 July memorandum, admitting that they could ‘Act as circumstances require’. The Qing unease at seeing the British examine their concoction so closely probably sprang not from a horror of lese-majesty, but rather from fear of their deception being discovered and the British storming out of the negotiating room and back to their howitzers. That evening, after it was all over, Zhang Xi vomited (repeatedly) with sunstroke, and perhaps stress.
-Julia Lovell, The Opium War
Karl Marx’s Analysis of the Opium War
The series of articles on the subject that he composed for the New York Daily Tribune had little good to say about Palmerston and his ‘Christianity-canting and civilisation-mongering’ government, or about the merchant interests who were, by 1857, driving the two sides towards ‘this most unrighteous war’ that will lead the Chinese ‘to regard all the nations of the Western World as united in a conspiracy against them.’ For China, Marx decided, the first Opium War had been an epochal catastrophe: ‘The tribute to be paid to England after the unfortunate war of 1840, the great unproductive consumption of opium, the drain of the precious metals by this trade’ had broken the country. Worse than that, the British had calculatingly poisoned an empire, for ‘the opium seller slays the body after he has corrupted, degraded and annihilated the moral being of unhappy sinners, while every hour is bringing new victims to a Moloch which knows no satiety, and where the English murderer and Chinese suicide vie with each other in offerings at his shrine.’
Yet at the same time, Marx was unable to muster much admiration for China, this
‘giant empire, containing almost one-third of the human race, vegetating in the teeth of time . . . contriving to dupe itself with delusions of celestial perfection . . . Before the British arms the authority of the Manchu dynasty fell to pieces; the superstitious faith in the eternity of the Celestial Empire broke down; the barbarous and hermetic isolation from the civilised world was infringed . . . That isolation having come to a violent end by the medium of England, dissolution must follow as surely as that of any mummy carefully preserved in a hermetically sealed coffin, whenever it is brought into contact with the open air.’
The inevitable result of this clash was ‘one formidable revolution… afforded by the English cannon forcing upon China that soporific drug called opium . . . It would seem as though history had first to make this whole people drunk before it could rouse them out of their hereditary stupidity.’
There was little that was original in Marx’s conclusions about China and its Opium Wars. Key elements of his analysis – in particular, his scorn for the decadence of the Chinese empire – are to be found scattered across previous China-watchers’ accounts. Heavily influenced by earlier European sinophobes of the nineteenth century, Marx propounded a vision of China that stripped it of both complexity and agency: that saw it as an inert empire capable only of being ‘woken’ by the West in the Opium War. The one novelty that Marx added to the standard racist repertoire of Victorian commentaries on China was a similarly intense disgust for Western imperialism.
-Julia Lovell, The Opium War
This is why Zizek has shrewdly noted that communism is a “Western” thing and these observations render inexplicable the odd alliance between post-colonialism and Marxist analysis.
China has been the way it was for thousands and thousands of years and there would be no inevitable rise of the proletariat against the Chinese imperial arrangement from within. The only way a proletariat revolution could occur is if an imperialist foreign power blasts it open and thereby enable the spread of communist ideas within. Thus Marx himself ends up paradoxically supporting the British mercantile motives for forcing China open to his ideas.
As a friend of mine has already very insightfully noted, for communism to work, certain material conditions must be met, and more often than not, those conditions are created by forces which one finds highly distasteful, if not outright opposed to one’s system, e.g. the material wealth created by capitalism or the war mongering policies of the imperial powers. Throughout my readings on the Opium War I am ever conscious of the uncomfortable fact that Christianity would likely not have flourished if the Chinese imperium had remained in tact, a fact which I have constantly been preoccupied with. The commies on the other hand seems completely oblivious to the problems which their narrative poses.
Would the Chinese have Cared for the West if Britain had not Blasted them Open?
Up to this point, Yan Fu’s education and career – with its loyalty to Chinese tradition and dedication to modern military science – bear passing resemblance to Rohmer’s paranoid hypotheses about ambitious Orientals conspiring to beat the West at its own game. But here, Yan’s life story departs from the Yellow Peril narrative. His decision to study Western science was not part of a grand, premeditated scheme – it sprang from economic necessity. After his father died when Yan was thirteen, the family finally abandoned all hope of supporting the boy through studying for the civil-service exams – in later life, Yan Fu recalled how his mother toiled at needlework to keep the family fed and clothed, and how he would be woken through the night by the sound of her weeping. The Fuzhou Shipyard, by contrast, could offer attractive incentives: free board and lodging, and a stipend of four silver dollars a month (with a bonus of ten silver dollars to students who came top in the quarterly exams).
The bribery was necessary, for in late-nineteenth-century China a Western education remained a disreputable life choice. ‘Only the truly desperate stooped to studying Western sciences’, remembered the writer Lu Xun, who took classes in medicine at one of the east-coast academies in the 1890s. ‘By following the course I had fixed upon, I would be selling my soul to foreign devils’. To praise the modernity of Western methods, to seek employment in the new Qing Foreign Office or (even more unthinkably) in an embassy abroad, was to court career catastrophe. Guo Songtao, the Qing ambassador to London during Yan Fu’s time in Britain, was a case in point. For his pro-Western views, he was physically assaulted, multiply impeached and eventually dismissed and sidelined from politics, while his house in China was vandalized. ‘The empire cold-shoulders him’, ran one contemporary scrap of doggerel. ‘He cannot serve human beings / So how can he serve demons?’
Secondly, Yan Fu had little interest in waging war on the white race. Quite the opposite: through his study of science and English, he fell in love with the West – and not just with the iron-plated steamers and guns that he was supposed to be studying, but also with its thinkers, writers and political and legal institutions. This, Yan concluded during his years abroad, was the foundation of Western strength. ‘The reason why England and the other countries of Europe are wealthy and strong is that impartial justice is daily extended’, he declared to Guo, during one of their Sunday conversations. ‘Here is the ultimate source.’ Yan Fu remains a celebrity in China today for a remarkable series of translations that he completed after his return from England: Smith’s Wealth of Nations, J. S. Mill’s On Liberty, Montesquieu’s L’Esprit des Lois. Yan Fu sought an idiom that would convince China’s educated elites of the profundity of Western thought, rendering canonical texts of the modern West in the pure classical Chinese of the first millennium BC. ‘The books with which I concern myself are profound and abstruse’, Yan Fu reasoned. ‘They are not designed to nourish schoolboys’. But he is famed also as a leading representative of the first generation of Chinese men after the Opium Wars to launch upon a pointedly introspective quest – one of the country’s key intellectual shifts of the nineteenth century – to understand China’s weakness, and Western strength.
In their long discussions in London, Yan Fu and Ambassador Guo whiled away the hours assessing the virtues of the West and bemoaning the sins of China and the Chinese. For according to his diary, Guo shared with Yan Fu an extravagantly high opinion of China’s imperialist adversaries (and of Great Britain in particular) – a fact that was all the more extraordinary given the discourteous reception that he received in Britain. On his arrival in London, Punch ran a cartoon and seven poetic stanzas of impeccable offensiveness, in which Guo was caricatured as a monkey (‘With his eyes aslant, and his pigtail’s braid / Coiled neatly round his close-shaved head . . . As stubborn as pigs and as hard to steer / With a taste for cheap buying and selling dear’), peering at the stately lion of the British empire. A week later, the magazine devoted a whole page of tasteless doggerel to the bound feet of Guo’s wife, whom it christened ‘the tottering Lily’ and depicted as a décolleté Geisha.
Yet Guo’s enthusiasm was undented. Even on his voyage to England, during which he suffered constant discomfort (in addition to seasickness, he was afflicted by a sore throat, laboured breathing, dizziness, swollen gums, toothache, a smarting nose and heart pain), he sportingly retained an appreciation for everything Western that he saw: the Europeans’ ‘ceremonial
courtesies’ he found ‘refined and civilised’, their navigational techniques extraordinarily commendable. ‘That country certainly produces admirably talented men’, he remarked, observing German officers seeking exercise in a game of leapfrog. ‘Admirable!’9 Given Great Britain’s not particularly creditable record in China, Guo also took a surprisingly positive view of its long-term intentions towards his country. The British have, he considered, ‘surrounded China and press close upon
“With their hands reaching high and their feet travelling far, they rise up like eagles and glare like tigers . . . Yet for all this, they have not the slightest intention of presuming on their military strength to act violently or rapaciously . . . the nations of Europe do have insight into what is essential and what is not and possess a Way of their own which assists them in the acquisition of wealth and power . . . Their governmental and educational systems are well-ordered, enlightened and methodical.”
If Great Britain and the West were a repository of all that was worth emulating, the (in Guo’s view) stupid, smug Chinese were by contrast a source of disgust. ‘Surely this is not the time for China to indulge in highflown talk and vain boasting in order to aggrandise herself!’ he sighed on the subject of anti-European prejudice. ‘After thirty years of foreign relations, our provincial authorities still know nothing . . . The weakening of the Song and the downfall of the Ming, were both the outcome of the actions of such irresponsible and ignorant people.’
-Julia Lovell, The Opium War
It is creepy the way my own outlook and motivations so strongly converges with these Chinese officials a hundred years before.
Was China Paradoxically Dependent on Opium for its Functioning?
Even as opium remained a Chinese aspirin for the under-medicated masses, a fuel (as stimulant and appetite suppressant) for armies of cheap labour and a pleasure-giving narcotic for those with money and leisure, elite moral opinion was starting to move against the drug.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, in cities and towns across the country, opium-suppression societies denounced the drug in parades, meetings, journals and pamphlets. Hundreds of thousands of dens were shut down, while crowds gathered to attend burnings of confiscated opium and pipes. Investigators raided suspected illicit dens by night; vigilantes set upon inveterate smokers.
The truly unfortunate were locked up, abruptly deprived of the drug and dosed with strong coffee. ‘Opium took us to paradise’, scrawled one unfortunate on the wall of a late-nineteenth-century clinic. ‘Now we are tortured in hell.’ Those too poor or overworked to find an alternative, one missionary reported, simply died of the shock: ‘When the opium dens were first closed the mortality among the poorer people was dreadful, for the opium smokers lived from hand to mouth, and, as they could not work without their usual opium, they died, partly of starvation, and partly from sudden deprivation of the drug.’
In a province like Sichuan, in any case, locals had some difficulty in viewing opium as a foreign commodity, because local production had long outstripped imports. Since 1860, opium duties had bought boats, guns and ammunition to help the Qing government suppress civil wars such as the Taiping Rebellion. After 1874, Li Hongzhang had argued that domestic cultivation should openly resume, while piously declaring that the ‘single aim of my Government in taxing opium will be in the future, as it has always been in the past, to repress the traffic – never the desire to gain revenue from such a source.’ Nonetheless, during the 1870s south-west China alone began to produce more opium than the country was importing. Anti-imperialist passions in late-Qing China were often directed at issues other than opium. Through the 1900s, many regions of China were in the grip of a passionate Rights Recovery Movement, opposing European and American attempts to buy up the country’s nascent railway system and Qing willingness to sell it: students threatened to starve themselves to death, soldiers wrote letters of protest in blood and one academic allegedly died of sadness on hearing the news that the government had accepted a massive foreign loan to build one stretch of track.
And despite the anti-opium fury generated across the fin-de-siècle empire, plenty of people seemed unable to make up their minds about it or to treat it as a serious problem. The inconsistency of Sun Yat-sen, acclaimed on both sides of the Taiwanese straits as guofu (the father of the modern Chinese nation), was exemplary. ‘Opium has caused more harm than war, plague and famine in China for more than ten years’, he pronounced in the 1920s, perhaps forgetting that back in 1894 he had advised the Qing leadership to exhort the people to grow their own poppies to squeeze out the foreign competition, informing them that he had enjoyed much success persuading farmers in his home village in Guangdong to do just that. The bouquet of his local variety, he commented with authority, was ‘even better than that of Indian opium, and far superior to that of Sichuan and Yunnan.’ Shanghai guidebooks vacillated over opium, exclaiming on one page about the wonders of the city’s opium halls, while attacking the drug as a poison on another.
But our best example of early twentieth-century China’s ambivalence towards opium is perhaps Yan Fu. Aged twenty-eight, he acquired – to the tremendous disappointment of his later nationalist biographers – the opium habit himself, thirteen years before he would begin to characterize it as one of China’s most pernicious customs. He struggled guiltily with the habit for the rest of his life – even though his breathing problems gave him a sound medical reason for taking the drug as a cough suppressant. In 1921, a year after he had finally succeeded in giving up his opium pipe, he died of asthma.
-Julia Lovell, The Opium War
The Chinese Nationalist and Communist Spin on their own Opium Farms
In Nationalist declarations, opium was legally and morally beyond the pale: in 1928, Chiang’s new government announced a ‘total prohibition’ (juedui jinyan). Unofficially, however, the Nationalists – like the warlord regimes they fought through the 1920s and 1930s – needed the opium trade for revenue. Between 1927 and 1937, the Nationalist government strove (often with surprising success, given appalling obstacles such as Japanese invasion and worldwide depression) to transform an impoverished, fragmented country into a modern unified state: creating national ministries, commissions, academies; building roads, railways, industries, dams. In the absence of crucial resources such as income tax, opium duties would have to do instead. For the creative tax-collector – and Republican China was full of them – there was a wealth of surcharges to be extracted from opium: in duties on the drug itself (plus its transport and retail); and licences to sell and smoke it. The state even maintained a monopoly on opium-addiction cures. The citizens of the republic dodged these taxes with comparable ingenuity: one filial individual smuggled opium between west and east China by concealing it not just inside his father’s coffin, but inside his father’s skull inside the coffin.
In 1928, drug revenues helped keep the country’s armies – at a total of 2.2 million, the largest in the world (costing $800 million a year) – standing. A 1931 cartoon entitled ‘Shanghai business’ pictured three figures: to left and right two dwarfs labelled ‘industry’ looked skyward at the towering colossus between them – Opium. In 1933, the size of the opium traffic in China was estimated at $2 billion annually (5.2 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product). In many regions and contexts, opium was as good as, if not better than, money, and an essential commercial and social lubricant – ‘light the lamps’ was standard Chinese for ‘let’s talk business’; opium pipes were offered at weddings as conventionally as wine. The country literally reeked of the stuff, thanks to the vats of the drug publicly boiled in the streets of towns and cities: by the 1930s, China may have had as many as 50 million smokers (around 9 per cent of the population).
In the meantime, the Nationalist government identified offices for collecting opium tax as ‘opium suppression bureaus’, while opium merchant guilds could be euphemistically labelled ‘medicinal merchants’ friendship associations’.54 ‘Millions have been raised out of opium’, remarked the International Anti-Opium Association in 1928. ‘Nationalist Government monopolies exist in every large centre, and are so efficiently organised that enormous revenues result. And although the evil of the so-called “Opium Wars” has invariably been referred to on every Nationalist platform and in every proletarian demonstration, the Government is raising the very last cent out of the cultivation and use of opium.’ Not for nothing did the Cantonese have the saying, ‘Opium addiction is easy to cure; opium tax addiction far harder.’
Anti-opium activists reviled the government’s pragmatic efforts to generate useful, state-building money out of the drug: ‘As we look around at the conditions within China, opium is everywhere, how sickening! HOW SICKENING! We truly hope that the government authorities will . . . completely prohibit opium, and earnestly eradicate it in order to save the tarnished reputation of our country and forever consolidate the foundation of this nation.’ The government gave earnest public pledges that it ‘will absolutely not derive one copper from opium revenue. If anything of this sort is suspected . . . we can regard this government as bankrupt and place no confidence in it.’ ‘If we want to save China,’ Chiang Kai-shek added, ‘we must begin with prohibiting opium, and that prohibition must begin with the highest echelons of the leadership . . . Prohibit the poison if you want to save the country, the people, yourself, your sons and grand-sons.’ ‘The opium evil’, he explained elsewhere, ‘constitutes a greater menace to the nation than foreign aggression, because the former leads to self-degeneration and self-suicide, whereas the latter is invited by mutual dissension, weakness and degeneracy.’ In private, the regime did its best to silence inconvenient opponents by frightening off their sponsors, by smearing them with accusations of drug-smuggling, by sending them death threats; or simply by planting bombs in their houses. In 1931, the government was buffeted by one of its biggest drug scandals, when a group of Shanghai constables intercepted an opium shipment that a company of Nationalist soldiers were busy unloading. The men of the law were promptly taken prisoner until the precious drug had found its way to its gangland destination.
For decades, Communist propaganda held that the Maoists worked their way out of their predicament through frugality and popular democracy (by introducing rent reduction and cooperative farming practices), until a historian called Chen Yung-fa noticed at the end of the 1980s that account books for the period were scattered with references to a ‘special product’ that rescued the Communists from their trade deficit of the early 1940s and that, by 1945, was generating more than 40 per cent of the state’s budget. A little more detective work revealed that this was opium, processed in ‘Special Factories’ and transported south and west to generate export revenue for Communist armies. (‘Since opium entered China’, a Communist editorial of 1941 explained, ‘it has become the greatest source of harm to the Chinese people, inseparable from imperialist invasion . . . Imperialism has used opium to enslave and oppress the Chinese people. As the Chinese people have become ever weaker, ever poorer, opium has played a most detestable and poisonous destructive role.’86) But in 1945, as an American mission flew in to inspect Mao’s kingdom, it found itself gazing over nothing more controversial than swaying fields of sorghum and wheat. The opium poppies had been uprooted just in time to maintain – for the next forty years at least – the propriety of the Chinese Communist wartime image.
-Julia Lovell, “The Opium War”
To be honest, this is an incredibly depressing book to me personally. As much as I may have ranted against Confucian hypocritical moral posturing, but our race takes spin, lying, and sheer deception to a whole new level. With one side of our mouths we lecture the West about their opium trade with the other side we discreetly give orders for their taxation and farming.
I feel the last vestiges of my recent sinophilia dying with this book, and perhaps along with it any remaining belief in strong authoritarian nation-states. Reading about the futile wars for the reunification of China and the lengths of hypocrisy which people will go to to make it happen, I cannot help but wonder whether the British had a good point about localism after all.
It is my incredible good fortune or divine mercy for me to have been born a Singaporean where English rule of law and fair play is respected.
I will need to think very carefully the implications of this book in the days to come. Perhaps it would be a mercy for God to wipe out the very idea of the Chinese race itself and have us all assimilated into the West.
The Chinese Obsession with the British and Some Personal Final Thoughts
Having finished Julia Lovell’s The Opium War, I would highly recommend it as a good introduction to the topic. It has an easy to read flowing narrative and it is one of the few books on the topic to draw from Chinese sources and perspective on the topic itself.
One of the more interesting insights to come out of the book is that while the Chinese would naturally blamed the foreign devils for their unjust invasion, the Chinese would in fact blame themselves more than the foreigners. There is a sort of self-loathing to the point of pathological in Chinese reflections on the topic whereby they blamed their own backwardness, their own moral weakness, their outdated political systems, science or philosophy, etc, for their defeat by the Western imperialists.
Consciousness of these facts has generated a very dialectical to the point of contradictory love-hate relationship between the Chinese and the West. On the one hand, the West are loathed for their invasion and humiliation of China, on the other hand they must have gotten something right which is precisely why they could beat us, leading to the need for us to emulate and copy their ways that we might partake of their strength and success. Lovell notes in her book the ironic posture of fervent young Chinese nationalists who would swear at the British at one moment and then ask her how might one go about studying in Britain at the next.
For myself, I occupy an ambiguous position on this issue. I am racially Chinese in touch with the more kitschy popular elements of my culture, and yet I am by citizenship and nationality, Singaporean, and to add to that mix, a city which spent 144 years of its life as a British colony and only 50 as an independent country.
In many ways we are still dependent upon Britain more so than most other Anglophone nations. We still take the GCE Cambridge examinations for example, where our papers are examined by British markers in England. Not more than twenty years ago our highest court of appeal remained the privy council in the UK. Given our young and short national history, our history textbooks begins with the founding of Singapore as a colony by Sir Stamford Raffles and the bulk of our history is still British colonial history.
However, unlike many other parts of the former British Empire (Jamaica, Hong Kong, Zambia, etc) , there is no real desire on our part to return back to Britain. We have succeeded spectacularly as an independent nation. Why go back to worse times and to be subject to a nation which by many indicators are faring worse than us?
It is hard for me to know how much of what we are as Singaporeans is the product of being Chinese and how much of it is the product of being a British colony. A friend of mine who recently visited Singapore said that we were used well mannered and polite. I don’t know if this comes from reading Enid Blyton and being taught manners or our government’s aggressive courtesy campaigns to teach us to behave well in public. We also fine people for spitting in public too, imagine my horror when in the US I witnessed Americans doing it so openly and nonchalantly.
I have and will always remain an Anglophile. And yet ironically my sanguine view of the British may have a very Chinese basis to it. Lovell’s book speaks of how the average mainlander Chinese considers the Opium Wars to be a thing of history and are more concerned with trying to imitate and partake of Western superiority and success. In the end, there’s a sort of Chinese pragmatism, which maybe rooted in our Chinese Legalist subconsciousness, which is focused upon presentist concerns and finds ancient historical grievances a waste of time. What relevance do events which occurred donkey years ago have upon our present situation?
The difference between the mainlanders and I is that I am already partially Anglicised. English is after all my first language and I take British examinations. However for both of us, the pragmatic question is the state of the world now, and now I am very much well pleased with my Anglicised situation. I am and will always be proud of Singapore’a achievements, but I cannot help but note that it would not have been possible without us continuing the ways of England here.
Ironically perhaps, this pragmatic outlook which the Chinese have may itself be a very “practical” English virtue.