Imperial Twilight

Imperial Twilight

The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age

Book - 2018
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As China reclaims its position as a world power, Imperial Twilight looks back to tell the story of the country's last age of ascendance and how it came to an end in the nineteenth-century Opium War.

As one of the most potent turning points in the country's modern history, the Opium War has since come to stand for everything that today's China seeks to put behind it. In this dramatic, epic story, award-winning historian Stephen Platt sheds new light on the early attempts by Western traders and missionaries to "open" China even as China's imperial rulers were struggling to manage their country's decline and Confucian scholars grappled with how to use foreign trade to China's advantage. The book paints an enduring portrait of an immensely profitable--and mostly peaceful--meeting of civilizations that was destined to be shattered by one of the most shockingly unjust wars in the annals of imperial history. Brimming with a fascinating cast of British, Chinese, and American characters, this riveting narrative of relations between China and the West has important implications for today's uncertain and ever-changing political climate.
Publisher: New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2018
Edition: First edition
ISBN: 9780307961730
Branch Call Number: 951.033 P6977i 2018
Characteristics: xxviii, 556 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm


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Aug 30, 2019

The book was well-researched. Platt systematically illustrated two sides of the issue and viewpoints and concluded with his own point of view on the Opium War (1839-1842,) a war he considered could have been avoided, a point he repeatedly emphasized. Yet throughout the 556 pages, he missed the most crucial point by not probing the fundamental question: “Was the Opium War a just war?”
Despite illustrating all the different views expressed from the two countries, this very question was ignored. Instead he ended his last numerous pages criticizing the Chinese Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu for not giving Elliot, the British Superintendent in Canton, a chance to prevent the war. In his view, Elliot had tried to avoid a war (in my view, a war should not even have been raised in the first place.) And Lin was painted as the cause of an avoidable war—for confiscating a massive quantity of contraband opium, threatening to execute the British smugglers and the shutting down the trade at length. In fact, Lin Zexu was dutifully enforcing the laws of the very land where the Indian opium was trafficked by the British in a frightful quantity—according to Platt, it reached 18,956 chests in the early 1830’s. (It’s no different from how Pablo Escobar was put behind bars and eventually killed for smuggling Colombian cocaine into the United States. What if the Colombian government had backed Escobar instead and had invaded the United States? Would we look for excuses to justify the Colombian government’s action?) This made Lin Zexu truly “the pioneer in the war against drugs” as was inscribed on the pedestal of his granite statue in New York’s Chinatown. But in Platt’s conclusion, Lin was the cause of the Opium war; in the end, it sounded like the Chinese were to blame. And Platt was cautious, cleverly quoting words from a Chinese scholar to prove his point.
I do not agree with Platt’s “If Only” theory of history. I don’t believe the war could have been avoided. Even if the British had not invaded China in 1939, they would eventually have found other excuses, like how they launched the second Opium War in 1860 and later another war in 1899.
As for the name of the war—the Chinese have called it the “Opium War” since the Republic revolution in 1911, a name that couldn’t be more appropriate. But I rarely saw this name being used in most English language history books until the seventies. It took Western historians more than a century to use its rightful name—Opium War. I noticed, thankfully, that Platt not only used it in the sub-title of his book, but also throughout the text.

Sep 25, 2018

This book is very readable. It gave me a new perspective on China in the 19th century.


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