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.


I asked a young man watching his male friends scramble over the guns what he felt visiting the place: ‘I . . . er . . . don’t know. I haven’t thought.’ I tried goading him a little: ‘I’m British, you know.’ ‘Really? I hear Britain’s very advanced.’ I gave him another opening: ‘British as in “The Anti-British Invasion Museum” [another nearby site of Opium War-period patriotic education]. Wouldn’t you like me to apologize?’ ‘Oh, that. That’s just history.’ Even the flagship monument to National Humiliation – the ruins of the Summer Palace – is patchy in its effects. ‘Oh, yes, I’m very angry,’ one male student visitor told me. A few minutes later, he tapped me on the shoulder to ask what country I was from and what opportunities there were for studying law in England.

-Julia Lovell: The Opium War

The Meeting of Foes on Level Ground

Contra most narratives of Western imperialism as oppressing other cultures and peoples, the Chinese themselves have a complex, somewhat dialectical relationship with the British. One of the main reasons is that China itself was, and is, a great civilisation, and as such, it is a lot harder to blame unfair advantages in how they beat us.

Despite the attempts by the Chinese state to paint the British as the “bad guys” who used treachery and underhanded means to defeat China, most of the Chinese themselves recognise that we lost, fair and square, due to as much our own fault as it was the British. Here’s another passage from Julia Lovell’s book:

… students were invited to debate why China was defeated, and the influence that the war had had on the country. One classroom wag hauled himself to his feet: ‘As Chairman Mao said . . .’ he began, in a deliberate parody of political correctness. Once his classmates’ and teacher’s gusts of laughter had died down, he made his point: ‘We lost because we were too weak, too closed up.’ His classmates agreed: ‘The problem with us Chinese,’ another went on, ‘was that we had no backbone; we were all high on opium the whole time.’ ‘Our weapons were three hundred years behind the West,’ observed a third, ‘and we had no experience of naval war. We were too cowardly, too backward, too isolated.’

Despite the impressive efforts of the Propaganda Department to construct a China-as-victim account of modern history, commemoration of the Opium War is still saturated with self-loathing. ‘We made The Road to Revival,’ its director (a suave forty-something called Ren Xue’an) told me, ‘because although we’ve solved the basic problem that led to the Opium War – that the isolated will be backward, and the backward will take a beating – there are lots of other things, such as national wealth and strength, democracy, harmony and civilization, that we haven’t achieved yet. We’re not obsessing about this period of history just for the sake of it, but in order to march forward, to tell the Chinese people to keep studying new things . . . the war opened up the rest of the world to us, and we began to learn from it.’

Views are, in fact, very divided about the impact of Patriotic Education. History teachers on the front line of the crusade fret that, despite diligent reminders of the ‘Century of Humiliation’, ‘the youth of today aren’t very patriotic’, as the teacher I saw in action complained. ‘They’re selfish. They have no sense of responsibility– they don’t worry or think about things like Unequal Treaties. Some of them don’t even know what the Boxer Indemnity is! Nothing matters to them, except passing the university entrance examination. If you tell them to be patriotic, they don’t take any notice.’ After one class, a group of Beijing sixteen-year-olds told me they hated modern history – it was so dark and oppressive. ‘They all prefer ancient history,’ their teacher told me. ‘They like the sense of culture and the emperors.’

As such, the Chinese do recognise that our own weakness and underdevelopment is partly to blame for our defeat. There is a grudging, and sometimes not even grudging, respect for a foe who defeated us, and as such, is worthy of imitation and study by us. There is an odd therefore bond which has been created as such between a defeated and a victorious, but gracious victor.

Yet it could be argued, was not the Opium War an unjust war, a war fought to force a poisonous drug unto China? Was it not therefore fundamentally unfair and an unworthy cause? For too long this question has been considered from the Western point of view who, retroactively one might add, was unanimous in their verdict that of course opium trade and production was an evil thing that no nation ought or should tolerate. However what we need is to consider this question from the Chinese side, did they so deem opium to be such an evil that it is an unqualified evil to have it pressed upon them?

The Long Tradition of Opium Use in China

Perceptions on the effects and benefits of opium was all over the place before the 19th century. It was not a self-evidently evil drug until the 19th century itself. As Lovell notes:


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…

It is also important to note that opium has been used widely in China since the Ming dynasty in the 14th century. Even though the Qing dynasty would make it illegal in 1729 (four hundred years after one might add), by the 19th it had already been very well integrated into Chinese culture and was considered a luxury contraband by China’s wealthy.

In fact, up to the Opium War the Chinese Empire itself contained many opium farms and was producing it in great quantities. They were of poorer quality compared to imported opium but nevertheless they were an invaluable cash crop for the poor Chinese peasant and could earn them many more times compared to other crops. In certain provinces the Chinese people had difficulty thinking of opium as a “foreign” drug because local production has long surpassed imports. It should also be noted that the distribution of opium in China would not have been possible without the complicity of hundreds of Chinese and Manchurians taking the opium from the British and sending it everywhere.


It is therefore clear that opium use and production has a long history of use within China itself. It is important to grasp the point that opium was not some unprecedented evil which the British forced unto China but was something which already existed in China itself for a very long time and in vast quantities.

China’s Own Opium Trade

However, it maybe argued, even if the Chinese themselves did use opium, trade and even manufacture it, there is a qualitative difference between a vice freely chosen, and a vice which has been forced upon oneself despite one’s attempts to be free from it via governmental action.

My reply to this would be to point out that it wasn’t merely the British who resisted this governmental action, it was resisted by the Chinese populace itself.

A better way to understand opium use in China would be like that of alcohol in America. As we saw in the previous section, opium has been used and made in China widely for a very long time. What happened in the 19th century was a sudden outburst of puritan righteousness against a drug blamed for all kinds of civic evils, just as in the early 1900s Americans began to blame alcohol as an evil poison which must be purged from the nation. Thus the Qing government began cracking down on opium trade and production in earnest, sort of like an American Prohibition.

Police Emptying Beer Barrels During Prohibition
ca. 1920’s — Barrels of beer emptied into the sewer by authorities during prohibition. Undated photograph. BPA2# 4180 — Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS

However the Chinese own populace and officials themselves resisted the crackdown, either openly when the peasants attacked the officials who tried to destroy the farms, or secretly, when the officials were bribed. The only difference between the British and the Chinese opium makers is that when it came to the vast opium farms in the south of China, officials were either careless or corrupt, not seeing to its thorough destruction and were mostly superficial in their efforts. (One must not forget that the capital was all the way in the north and China was vast, so vast that officials could even lie to the Emperor systematically and get away with it.) But for the British the Chinese government was a lot more determined and thorough, to naturally disastrous results.


Therefore the British was simply doing what everyone else in China was doing, protecting their own trade and business. The only difference is that the British did it with a louder bang and thunder, and a lot more efficaciously one might add. Thus there wans’t really a British versus China narrative. It was simply a “War on Drugs” which the Chinese government lost because its own populace itself was not on board with the program.

The Chinese Government’s Own Profits from Opium

If opium was an issue upon which China itself was divided upon, then this division was not merely between that of a benign enlightened government seeking to better its people but was thwarted by those mean British, it was an issue upon which the government itself was divided.

The irony is that the Qing government itself began imposing duties and taxes upon opium, recognising its necessity in providing cash they need to purchase arms to suppress the Taiping Rebellion and fight other civil wars. Lovell again:

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.

Thus, opium was not seen to be some evil drug which the Westerners forced upon China, the Chinese were concerned about a lot of other things than the fact that Britain fought to protect its own opium investments in China.

Perhaps the great irony, or hypocrisy depending on how one looks at it, was that even as both the Nationalists and Communist government used the Opium War as propagandic ammunition against the Western imperialists, they were growing it themselves to supplement their coffers. Lovell writes:

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.


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.

The long and short of it is that the opium trade and business was quite fair game when it came to advancing national objectives, whether it is by the British or Chinese, and the fact that the British did it more efficaciously was not an intrinsic evil, it was simply fair play in a game of national power plays. Perhaps we are annoyed with the British, not so much because they engaged in the opium trade, but simply because they did not share the proceeds with us.

Conclusion: All’s Fair in Love and War

Beneath all the moralistic self-righteous posturing the Chinese recognised a worthy foe who had beaten them fairly and squarely in the great game of national or civilisational clashes. They did not cheat or use any means which the Chinese themselves would not have employed. It was a game which we lost, not because of some intrinsic evil or unfairness on the part of the British, but simply we were the worse opponent, and our victors were the better.

As such the Chinese lives in a dialectical relationship between the façade of their self-righteous “victim” image and the deeper, and more substantively felt, admiration and respect for the West. In an odd way, we might even feel grateful to the British for having opened our eyes to the wider world, for having forced us to develop and advance out of our primitive lethargy when they blasted our gates open.

I have observed before that there are many great points of similarity between British and Chinese cultures. A respect for conventions and customs, a public-private distinction, a legalistic respect for rules and laws, etc. However I think the British culture is simply an advanced version of the Chinese, in that it has one thing which took it to greater fullness and completeness: Christianity. The problem is that China never developed an ironic attitude towards its conventions and customs, which leads to great hypocritical posturing and an obsession with appearances. Christianity, which teaches us to prize the heart over the outward, to place conventions and customs in their penultimate context, taught the British to adopt an ironic posture towards their conventions and customs. They were necessary for social order, but they are not to be taken as ultimate or salvic, they are to be respected, and laughed at at the same time. Most of all, Christianity taught the British forgiveness when we slip up on our performances of these customs, keeping always in mind their penultimate nature and that nothing critical or fundamental hinges upon their perfect performance, to always distinguish outward action from inner intentions and to be charitable in our construction of others, especially when the outward seems to be out of sync.

These, amongst many other things, the British can teach us, giving the similarity of our cultures, and I believe that it is Providence which has to brought our two peoples together, who are on the same path of development, save one is more ahead than the other, due entirely to the blessings of Christ. And I pray that Britain may yet fulfil her role, to teach my peoples the ways of Christ, that our culture grow unto fullness and completion in Christ.


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