Thinking about The Opium War by Julia Lovell

Julia Lovell’s The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of China is generally a successful, highly readable history, especially in how it seems to collect every humorous detail about the Chinese war effort (not humorous to all, of course) in one place.  Lovell has a talent for capturing the war’s ironies, both as they relate to subsequent Chinese history and the British Empire of the time.  Where the book may fall flat is in being a classic history of the Opium War (her stated purpose), not in her discussion of the war itself, but of contemporary Chinese nationalism, which seems tacked on and out of place, and will no doubt seem dated in a decade.  Stylistically, her discussion of British images of China (especially the Yellow Peril) did not seem very well integrated, and toward the end, her use of the Opium War as “spectator” in the events of 20th century, popping up at odd moments like Forrest Gump, often seemed forced and inadvertently funny (as though Gump really had been at the center of everything).  Nevertheless, the book provides a good framework for discussion in our book club of a number of broader, enduring issues.

One bundle of issues can be summarized under the heading of state capacity.  Lovell makes abundantly clear what we tend to forget about what being a modern state really means: having an effective bureaucracy, where the military listens to the orders of the state and doesn’t lie to its superiors, choosing military staff according to some institutional procedure instead of personal loyalty to the emperor, being able to summon the human and societal resources theoretically under its command instead of being surprised when the army melts away, and above all having a civilian population bound together through some sense of collective feeling such that it will see that it too has a stake in opposing foreign aggression.  China had none of this in the Opium War.  The simplest one-sentence explanation for why a few thousand British soldiers and a few dozen ships could defeat 400 million Chinese under the Qing is that China had no state capacity.  If we understand this simple fact, and moreover understand that this is the exact way in which the Chinese and the CCP have understood China’s “century of humiliation,” we will then better understand why China had to “break so many eggs” to “make the omelet” of the post-1949 regime and its now fantastically successful economy.  This is not as easy as it sounds for those of us (especially Anglo-Americans) with deeply-rooted liberal-democratic worldviews.  Just as the Chinese project onto us a conspiratorial worldview such that the state has much more power to manipulate events than it really has, we demand of the Chinese state a moral worldview fundamentally at odds with the requirements of most countries which have seen a need to develop a strong state to oppose or catch up with the West, some in reaction to colonialism (Japan, China), some less so (Germany, the USSR).  Our cherished freedoms did not grow out of sense of grievance, vulnerability, or shame, and could not have arisen from a narrative in which a “strong state” was equated with national “freedom” (from the dominance of stronger powers).  Now, in order to maximize their capacity, all organizations, including the state, need a strong sense of integrity (or what Huntington calls “cohesion”).  If every local Qing official on the east coast of China is taking a cut of the opium trade, or the citizens of Guangzhou (in whose name the Qing is supposed to fight) prefer to trade rather than fight, then the organization that is the Chinese state lacks integrity (in not being able to motivate compliance).   The same holds true if the U.S. Defense Department sells its secrets to the highest bidder, or for that matter, if the managers of a biotech company hatch a plot to jump ship with that company’s intellectual property.  Organizational integrity requires some way to convince members that they have duties to the organization and that they ought to be fulfilling those duties.  Companies may use a mission statement.  In the 20th century, the Chinese used nationalism and state-sponsored ideology (whether of the KMT or the CCP variety).  Very interestingly, as Lovell discusses at length, the original recipe of Yan Fu and other 19th century thinkers for “awakening” the Chinese people” and thus promoting state capacity was to emulate British liberal-democratic institutions to make the Chinese people feel that they had a stake in the government and would therefore act as a strong, unified people. One irony of today’s China is that the government seems to have arrived at high state capacity with ingredients diametrically opposed to those advocated by many original observers of China’s defeats in the 19th century.

Another bundle of issues has to do with anti-imperialism as a basis of legitimacy.  Lovell does a great job of detailing the vicissitudes of the historiography of the Opium War:  from relative lack of blame of foreigners in the 19th century and relative lack of interest (no standard name for the war, or even for “China”), wedging the Opium War between various “internal and external troubles of the 19th century,” to the KMT reinterpretation of the Opium War as a turning point in China’s 5000 year history inaugurating its coming defeats and consequent need to be unified under nationalism, to the CCP emphasis on the Opium War as an imperialistic act of Marxist exploitation marking the beginning of the “century of humiliation” ending in 1949.  Thus, when Mao told the Chinese nation at Tiananmen Square that “China has stood up,” the CCP had already done some ideological preparation such that China could be seen as having been “beaten down” by the foreign imperialists and the CCP seen as closing the chapter on all that. Subsequent efforts to interpret the Opium War in CCP ideology have only become more pervasive, especially since the 1990s, as Lovell shows.   A large part of ideological education today (taught in required classes in university and in high school) drills into students that ideas that the “weak will be beaten down,” and that Mao successfully opposed the three “great mountains,” of “feudalism,” “bureaucratic capitalism,” and of course, “imperialism.”  This narrative serves to legitimate the CCP regime, and implies that all of the sacrifices that the Chinese people have made in the last 60 years are justified by the immensity of those pre-1949 obstacles from which only the CCP could have rescued China.  China is generally considered to be a “capitalist” country by the West today, based empirically on its pattern of economic organization, but such a characterization is at odds with CCP ideology and the views of many (perhaps a majority) of ordinary Chinese today.  If, in the minds of the Chinese, socialism is not thought of primarily as a form of economic organization, and the CCP has so confused the terms “socialism” and “Marxism” that most people simply equate them with whatever the CCP has told them they mean in school (e.g. making little distinction with the anti-imperialism of Lenin and Mao), then perhaps China really still is a “socialist country.” Whether the characterizations of outsiders should be taken more seriously than the interpretations of ordinary Chinese upon which rest the legitimacy of the regime is an interesting issue, accounting for much confusion in the West about contemporary China and the future of China (e.g. the idea taken seriously by many in China that today’s market economy is just the first stage on the way to socialism, as according to orthodox Marxism, and that China must “go down its own road” ideologically distinct from the West).  All of this having been said, Lovell does point out that in addition to anti-imperialism there remains an undercurrent of shame and self-loathing in today’s memory of the Opium War, and that this expresses itself in popular nationalism today.  That China could have been beaten by a few thousand British soldiers and a few dozen ships is cause for shame because the government was weak and the people divided, and so popular nationalism is vigilant about even the slightest signs of government weakness.  The subconscious mantra would seem to be that the Opium War should never be repeated, the shame and self-loathing transformed into anger by some process of rationalization as a way of concealing and purging that shame.

A final bundle of issues has to do with relevance to the present and future of China.  One question we may ask is whether the problems exposed in the Opium War (whether seen as cultural or as problems of “national character”) continue to haunt China today, and whether they may hinder China’s rise (as the CCP seems to worry).  History has a tendency to be very “sticky,” for example in how nations at the technological forefront tend to stay at the forefront over the long-term (e.g. the U.S.), and enduring national strengths, even when obliterated by total defeat in war, tend to crop up again and reveal themselves over long periods of time (e.g. Japan and Germany after World War Two, and the recreation of a system of European economic integration perhaps not so different from what Germany would have achieved had it not lost two world wars). The Opium War revealed a number of weaknesses in Chinese culture (ones generally recognized by Chinese themselves).  One weakness can be characterized as the problem of neihao, or “internal consumption” (somewhat related semantically to the problem of “people eating people”).  Time and time again, as Lovell shows, the Qing seemed more intent on rooting out internal enemies than fighting the British (i.e. in focusing on those “collaborators” whose treachery made possible British victory and excused the Qing of responsibility for defeat), and this would only continue when the Nationalists focused on the Communists instead of the Japanese in World War Two.  The idea of neihao is that the energies of the “supremely talented” Chinese people are all too often used up in internal competition, whether in warlordism, the workplace, or competition for places to study abroad, and that this therefore wastes the potential of the Chinese people (and is supposed to explain why Chinese succeed so “spectacularly” when abroad, outside their own poisoned native soil).  A second weakness has been called the “Ah-Q Syndrome” by the Chinese themselves.  Just as the character in Lu Xun’s story slaps himself on the face after experiencing humiliation so as to deceive himself that it’s not a big deal, the generals in the Opium War didn’t care about the consequences of their lies, preferring to deceive themselves into thinking that everything would turn out okay (e.g. when they signed treaties and told themselves not to worry because later obfuscations could fix everything).  A third weakness would be the famous indifference of the Chinese people (an observation, in this case, made as much by foreigners as the Chinese themselves).  The indifference of ordinary Chinese who not only didn’t fight the British but abetted their aims for small sums of money is paralleled by the Chinese tourist Lovell talks to outside an Opium War museum, whose sunbathing is completely untroubled by the meaning of the war.  What the CCP sees as continuing indifference to recent Chinese history and its role in that history goes some way toward explaining why it has doubled-down on ideological education since the 1990s.  Finally, this indifference is highly related to the problem of official corruption revealed by the Opium War and of utmost concern to the regime today.  Among the most valuable contributions of Lovell’s book may be how it helps us see why the CCP should be so concerned about the pervasiveness of corruption and the “moral vacuum” that is said to enable it today.  If it was corruption that set into motion the events that would bring down the last dynasty, then (the thinking goes) such an enduring “character fault” of the Chinese people is all too likely to bring down the current regime as well.

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One Response to Thinking about The Opium War by Julia Lovell

  1. Raff says:

    Well, with regards your final point, I wonder if a difference now is the greater sense of ethnic harmony and homogeneity that you find in China. As the book shows, the Guangdong-ren feel absolutely no loyalty towards their Beijing masters, something that I feel has shifted now given the greater sense of nationhood that seems to exist. This is not to say that they feel some sort of strong pull towards the central leadership, but there is maybe a stronger sense of country than there was before.

    I think the other point that the book highlighted quite well, was the strong sense of obsession with what goes on inside the country to the detriment of focusing in any meaningful way on what is going on in the outside. So China grossly misjudges the capacity of the British, in much the same way that it seemed to have misjudged how its actions on the world stage would be perceived a year or so ago. Part of this is the sense of having to control a huge empire at home already, before even beginning to think about one outside. The subsequent problems that this approach can engender are only magnified in today’s world.

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