Category Archives: nationalism

U.K. vs. U.S. Views of Alliance with China, 1941

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 33-35:

China’s willingness to hurl millions of its own people into a long, bloody war was a major asset to its new American and British allies. “The stubborn resistance of the Chinese,” a US State Department memorandum declared, “destroys Japan’s claim that she comes to emancipate either China or Asia!”19 At the same time, a track record of having stood up to Japan for more than four years prior to Pearl Harbor gave China new confidence. This was in evidence shortly after the outbreak of the Pacific war when Archibald Wavell, the commander-in-chief of British forces in India, visited Chiang Kai-shek in Chongqing, carrying only news of endless defeats and setbacks. “You and your people have no idea how to fight the Japanese,” Chiang told his British guest in language that was only slightly mitigated by the nervous translator. “Resisting the Japanese is not like suppressing colonial rebellions… For this kind of job, you British are incompetent, and you should learn from the Chinese how to fight against the Japanese.”

China was a prominent issue dividing the United States and Britain from the outset. Churchill and Roosevelt did not see eye to eye. On his trip across the Atlantic for the Arcadia Conference, the first summit on British-American strategy after the US entry into the war, the British prime minister later said, “If I can epitomize in one word the lesson I learned in the United States, it was ‘China’.” Britain’s lukewarm attitude towards the Chinese friend was a mirror image of its denigration of the Japanese foe, partly borne out of more than a century as a colonial power in Asia, which had led to an ingrained feeling of cultural and even racial superiority. In conversations with Roosevelt in Washington DC, Churchill stretched as far as he thought he could on the issue, which was not much: “I said I would of course always be helpful and polite to the Chinese, whom I admired and liked as a race and pitied for their endless misgovernment, but that he must not expect me to adopt what I felt was a wholly unreal standard of values.”

The two leaders and their governments had entirely different views on the value of China as an alliance partner. United States envisaged a major role for China in the war in East Asia and expected it to become one of the predominant Allies setting the tone for the entire effort to defeat Japan. Britain, on the other hand, expected little from China and often treated it as something in between an annoyance and a strategic competitor. When China offered to send two armies to the British colony of Burma, which had up to then largely escaped Japanese aggression, Britain initially turned down the offer. This was based on the belief that Japan was too tied up elsewhere to attempt a major offensive onto Burmese territory. In this perspective, a Chinese presence on British-controlled soil was a price not worth paying considering expectation of only meager payoff.

In spite of the British reservations, Sino-American cooperation was beginning to materialize in a small way, even as Roosevelt, Churchill, and their aides were talking in the US capital. For Claire Chennault, the former Army aviator who had been hired to head a group of American volunteer pilots in China, the time had now come to put his men into action. One morning a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, staff at his airbase near the city of Kunming in southwest China received reports from a network of Chinese observers on the ground that ten unescorted Japanese bombers were heading in his direction. He ordered one squadron of P-40 planes in the air to intercept the approaching aircraft. “This was the decisive moment I had been awaiting for more than four years,” Chennault wrote in his memoirs. “American pilots in American fighting planes aided by Chinese ground warning net about to tackle a formation of the Imperial Japanese Air Force, which was then sweeping the Pacific skies victorious everywhere.”

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Retreat from Burma, 1942

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 69-70:

The retreat out of Burma into India was a race against time, as it had to be completed before the onset of the monsoon. The troops made it, just. The last stage of the British withdrawal was bogged down by torrential rains, which began in May. Pearl “Prue” Brewis, a British nurse, was on a train that managed to travel 65 miles in six days, since movement could only take place at night. On the sixth day, while the carriage was sitting idly on the tracks, a senior railway official entered and offered a ride up north on his train. It was crowded, but fast. “Standing room only, you know,” Brewis said about the 100-mile ride north. “Actually, we got the last plane to leave Burma because the next day the aerodrome was bombed.”

More than a million Indians lived in Burma prior to the war, but most still considered India their home. When the Japanese launched their invasion, there was a mass exodus of Indians, and soon most major Burmese cities were virtually emptied of them. The senior medical officer, Brigadier Short, described the Indians who arrived at the town of Ledo in easternmost India in the summer of 1942: “Complete exhaustion, physical and mental, with a disease superimposed, is the usual picture… all social sense is lost… they suffer from bad nightmares and their delirium is a babble of rivers and crossings, of mud and corpses… Emaciation and loss of weight are universal.” Slim watched how an Indian woman died from smallpox, leaving behind her small son. He and his staff bribed an Indian family to take the boy with them. “I hope he got through all right and did not give smallpox to his new family,” Slim wrote in his memoirs.

In the manner of Dunkirk, the defeat in Burma was in a way turned into a victory by the British. “The Army in Burma,” the official British history says, “without once losing its cohesion had retreated nearly one thousand miles in some three and a half months—the longest retreat ever carried out by a British Army.” The American assessment of the British record was less kind: “Though there were cases of individual heroism and desperate fights by small isolated forces, the main body of the British made little or no efforts to stand and give battle,” an official US military report on the Burma campaign said. “The piecemeal defense was a piece of stupidity which resulted in tens of thousands of casualties to the troops, the complete destruction of every town and city in Burma, and the loss to both the Chinese and the British of a vast amount of irreplaceable installations and equipment.”

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British vs. Japanese Tactics in Malaya, 1941

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 22-24, 40:

The first troops which the Japanese encountered when disembarking on the Malay coastline were Indians, and Indian units remained their main opponent throughout the campaign. Britain used one part of its empire to defend another. Out of 31 Commonwealth battalions deployed on the Malay Peninsula, 18 were Indian, six were British, six were Australian, and one was Malay. A large number of Indian troops had originally been earmarked for the Middle East and had undergone training in Australia, specializing in tactics suitable for desert warfare. Now they were in the jungle. “One could argue that the Commonwealth troops in Malaya failed to unlearn the lessons of desert warfare in tropical conditions,” Indian military historian Kaushik Roy writes, “and failed to adopt the required tactical techniques for fighting effectively in the different ecological landscape.”

The poor preparation of the Commonwealth troops made the preparations carried out by the Japanese seem all the more impressive. As a matter of fact, the Japanese campaign in Malaya was a rush job, planned in less than a year by a small group of dedicated officers operating on a minimal budget, seeking information from whoever in the Japanese Empire might be a good source. An old sea captain who had spent many years plying routes in the areas Japan planned to invade provided details about weather patterns and coastal conditions. The Ishihara Mining Company had useful information about the geography of the Malay Peninsula. Professors at Taiwan University filled the group in on hygiene in the tropics and measures against malaria.

The Japanese, whose main experience with war had been on the Mongolian steppe and the rice fields of China, were no more used to jungle warfare than their Western counterparts, but they went into battle better prepared because of the questions that the planners asked, and found answers to. “What alterations had to be made in the organization of troops and the type of weapons and equipment used on the Siberian and Manchurian battlefields at twenty degrees below zero to meet requirements for fighting in the dense jungles of the tropics?” asked the planners, led by the capable but brutal officer Tsuji Masanobu. “How should tactics and strategy used against the Soviet Union be revised for action against British and American armies, and what comparisons could be made between the tactics, equipment and organization of Soviet, British, and American troops?”

The preparations paid off. The Japanese soldiers landing in Malaya were equipped for quick, decisive movements through terrain where modern roads were only sparse. They had light tanks, light trucks, and first and foremost bicycles. An Australian staff officer, C. B. Dawkins, concluded that the Japanese had, in fact, understood what the Westerners had not: “Jungle, forest and rubber areas are par excellence infantry country—every move is screened from air and ground observations, the value of fire of weapons of all natures is very limited, and troops on the offensive can close to within assaulting distance unmolested.”

By Christmas, Lieutenant General Arthur Ernest Percival, the overall commander of Commonwealth forces in Malaya, had to revise many previously held views of the Japanese foes, as he explained later: “It was now clear that we were faced by an enemy who had made a special study of bush warfare on a grand scale and whose troops had been specially trained in those tactics. He relied in the main on outflanking movements and infiltration by small parties into and behind our lines… his infantry had displayed an ability to cross obstacles—rivers, swamps, jungles, etc.—more rapidly than had previously been thought possible.”

Faced with a terrifying foe, the Commonwealth defenders went from underestimating the Japanese foes’ quality to overestimating their quantity. “A British soldier is equal to ten Japanese, but unfortunately there are eleven Japanese,” an injured Tommy told American correspondent Cecil Brown. The British Army in Malaya could not believe it was being beaten by the Japanese, and its members had to conjure up superior numbers to explain what happened to them. In fact, there were about twice as many British-led soldiers as there were Japanese. In Malaya as in all other major land campaigns that the Japanese waged early in the war, they invariably fielded numerically inferior troops, which nevertheless excelled in all other parameters.

National differences came out more clearly in the harsh jungle. The stiff pecking orders of the British military were maintained even in the primitive conditions, whereas the flat hierarchies of the Australians appeared to some observers more suited for the new strange environment. “The Australian Army is undoubtedly the world’s most democratic, and the troops in Malaya prove it,” wrote American correspondent F. Tillman Durdin, reporting how the salute resembled a “Hi, there” gesture. “An Australian officer can command his men only if he proves himself as good a man as any of his unit.”

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Origins of the Union Pacific Railroad

From From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War That Made the West, by John Sedgwick (Avid Reader / Simon & Schuster, 2021), Kindle pp. 35-37, 47:

The first train to venture into the uncharted West was the Union Pacific, a new railroad company that had been created by Congress solely for the purpose. Extending out from the Midwest, the UP had linked up with another federal creation, the Central Pacific, coming in from California. Together, they created that first transcontinental, the Pacific Railway. May 10, 1869, was a glorious day for the young country, as it marked the occasion when the two lines met at Promontory Point in the Mormon country north of Salt Lake City. It was a fantastic engineering achievement and a triumph of heroic perseverance, especially by the track layers, mostly Irish going west, mostly Chinese coming east, who engaged in a spirited competition to outdo the other. (That honor fell to the Chinese.) But when judged purely on commercial terms, the line was a dismal failure. It was the moonshot of the railroad era, an accomplishment that was only symbolically significant. It was all too telling that when Leland Stanford, one of the four powerful money men behind the Central Pacific, tried to slam home the Golden Spike with a monstrous hammer, he missed it entirely. This was especially embarrassing since the blow was to complete an electric circuit that would automatically send the thrilling news out over the telegraph wires that accompanied the tracks. A telegraph operator had to key in the word that flew around the world—“DONE!”—setting off a chorus of bell-ringing all across the country, led by Philadelphia’s cracked Liberty Bell. In San Francisco two hundred and twenty cannons boomed forth; Washington, D.C., fired a hundred more. Chicago greeted the news with the biggest parade of the century. And so it went, total jubilation all around the country. It was as if these intrepid Americans had discovered a new continent, come up with a spectacular invention, or won a world war. And, indeed, they had done all of these. What they had not done was find a sound business rationale for the endeavor.

A railroad to the Pacific had first been proposed by a New York merchant, Asa Whitney, back in 1844, and was long championed by the visionary engineer Theodore Judah. But it was the former railroad lawyer Abraham Lincoln who pushed the initiative through as president in the war year of 1862. Lincoln had also set the width of track for the railroad, establishing the peculiar distance of four feet eight and a half inches as the national standard for a train system.

[Endnote:] Previously, American trains ran on a maddening hodgepodge of track widths. When Lincoln went by train from Springfield, Illinois, to New York City to receive the Republican presidential nomination for president in 1860, his trip took four days because of all the delays in transferring to trains on five different widths of track. If he had ridden a single width of track, the trip would likely have taken one.

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Nationalizing the Opium Trade

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 446-447:

With the advent of a free, legal, and open Asian commerce in opium, the native merchants of India and China moved to dominate the trade, squeezing out the Europeans who had acted as go-betweens in the past. By the 1870s, the India-China opium trade was so firmly locked up in the hands of native traders on both sides that there was no longer much money to be made by the Western firms that had pioneered the “country” trade in the early part of the century. In the face of declining profits, Jardine, Matheson & Co. (now run by a slew of nephews and other descendants of the founders and their partners) pulled almost entirely out of the opium trade in 1873, joined by other large Western firms. Domestic production in China, meanwhile, kept rising—ultimately to such stupendous heights that it would dwarf the continued imports of the drug from India. The dawn of the twentieth century would find China producing ten times as much opium internally as it imported from abroad, an explosive abundance of cheap domestic narcotics that would create a public health emergency worlds beyond even the most exaggerated estimates of what had existed in the 1830s prior to the Opium War. So much for the virtues of legalization.

In spite of the best efforts of moral activists at home, the British government would ultimately do nothing to scale back the dependence of British India on opium revenues or otherwise try to help prevent the growth of the drug’s use in China. Meanwhile, the Qing dynasty would continue in its failure to suppress or even regulate the use of opium by the general public in China, wallowing in a quagmire of official corruption it could not escape. Up to the twentieth century, though, Britain’s role in that process would be dwelled upon more by westerners than by the Chinese. It was the English-speaking world that condemned it as “the Opium War” from the beginning, while Chinese writers through the nineteenth century, including Wei Yuan, simply referred to it as a border dispute or foreign incident. To them, opium was a domestic problem and the war was a minor affair in the grand scheme of China’s military history. Only after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 did historians in China begin to call this war “the Opium War” in Chinese, and only in the 1920s would republican propagandists finally transform it into its current incarnation as the bedrock of Chinese nationalism—the war in which the British forced opium down China’s throat, the shattering start to China’s century of victimhood, the fuel of vengeance for building a new Chinese future in the face of Western imperialism, Year Zero of the modern age.

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Parliament Debates the Opium War

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 405-407:

The motion finally came to a vote at four o’clock in the morning of April 10 [1840] after three grueling nights of debate. Five hundred and thirty-three weary parliamentarians filed out into the division lobbies, and when their votes were tallied, it turned out that Palmerston had prevailed by the slimmest of margins. A majority of just nine votes—271 to 262—allowed Melbourne’s government to escape censure and effectively gave Palmerston’s war in China a sanction to proceed as planned. The outcome was so close that if the very cabinet ministers whose conduct was on trial had not been permitted to vote in their own favor, the motion to condemn them would have passed. For that reason it had been said that if the majority were fewer than ten votes, Palmerston and the other ministers would still agree to resign. It was, but they did not.

It is impossible to measure exactly how much influence George Staunton had on that outcome, but at least seven or eight of the Whig lawmakers had openly expressed their willingness to defy their party and oppose the China war if the debate should convince them it was morally unjust. If Staunton had declined to support Palmerston, or even had spoken against him, it would have taken just five of those waverers to change their votes and the entire outcome would have been reversed. James Graham’s resolution of censure would have passed, Melbourne’s government would have been brought down, and the Opium War might have been prevented.

An angry opposition press hunted for parties to blame. Some faulted Graham for couching his resolution in such political language of “negligence” rather than targeting the war head-on: if the Conservatives had “proposed to stop the war at all events, and to prevent every infraction of the laws of China with respect to opium—so surely would Parliament have gone along with them, in censuring the conduct of the Ministers,” said the Spectator. Another paper observed that though the ministry survived the vote of censure (barely), nevertheless “they are condemned by two hundred and sixty-two of the people’s representatives, and by the nation at large the principle of the war is all but universally condemned.” A majority of just nine votes out of more than five hundred “would have been fatal to the existence of any preceding Administration,” said one critic, “and it argues a contempt of the opinion of Parliament, and a degree of assurance never equalled, to persevere in plunging the country into war on the strength of such a vote.”

Any lingering hopes that the closeness of the vote in the House of Commons might still derail the war were destroyed a month later with the failure in the House of Lords of a much more explicit motion to blame the crisis on British opium traders. Palmerston’s Conservative antagonists had a clear majority in the upper house, and the motion was expected to pass until the elderly Duke of Wellington—the general who had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, Britain’s greatest living military hero, a former prime minister, and a Conservative—broke with his party to deliver an adamantly pro-Palmerston speech that silenced the motion’s supporters and sent it to a quick death.

Wellington said he had looked into the cause of the war and was positive that “it could not be opium.” The lanky, seventy-one-year-old “Iron Duke” argued that it was entirely about the protection of British lives in the far corners of the world, an unquestionably fair use of military power. The dispatch of a naval fleet was the only fitting and just response, he believed, to the rash and violent actions of Lin Zexu against Elliot and the British merchants.

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China’s Silver Shortage, 1830s

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 304-307:

There was nothing the government could do about the weather, but the root cause of the economic turmoil in the 1830s, and the problem from which many of the others grew, was a human one: China’s monetary system had gone haywire. It was mainly a problem of currency, of which the Qing dynasty had two primary forms: copper for small transactions and silver for large ones. Copper came in minted coins (with holes through the middle so they could be strung on a loop for convenience), while domestic silver—nearly pure and known in English as “sycee”—was unminted, traded by weight in units of measurement called taels that were just under an ounce. In normal times, a tael of silver was worth a thousand copper coins, and, value for value, the excessive difficulty of moving large amounts of copper between provinces meant that silver was the medium through which all long-distance trade was conducted within the empire. Silver was also, significantly, the basis on which tax quotas were assessed. By contrast, copper was the medium of the rural marketplace and menial wages. Nearly all of the income and savings of the lower classes of China—farmers, hired laborers, craftspeople—were in copper coins.

The crisis was that the value of silver had begun to rise sharply, and as it rose the exchange rate between silver and copper skewed out of control. From the ideal rate of 1,000 copper coins per tael of silver in the eighteenth century (even less at times, which was a boon for peasants since it meant their copper money was worth more), it had risen to 1,200 by the time Daoguang came to the throne. By 1830 it reached 1,365 copper coins per tael of silver and showed no signs of stopping. Since taxes were assessed in a fixed amount of silver, which had to be purchased with copper currency, this meant that by the early 1830s the peasants of China had suffered a nearly 40 percent increase in their effective tax burdens for reasons none fully understood. And as with nearly every problem in the empire, the corruption of officials made a bad situation even worse, as tax collectors commonly charged even higher rates of exchange so they could pocket the proceeds. By the late 1830s, some regions were reporting copper–silver exchange rates as high as 1,600 to 1, with tax collectors independently demanding as much as 2,000 copper coins per tael of silver owed. This dramatic decline in the worth of copper currency was disastrous for the general population, piling economic hardship on the poor who could scarcely bear it and sparking widespread tax protests that layered on top of all the other sources of dissent against the government. But although the emperor could occasionally grant tax amnesties to regions afflicted by floods or drought, the government quite desperately needed every tael of revenue it could get and so the exactions continued.

Even with that outflow of sycee silver, however, the inflow of Spanish dollars to purchase tea and silk at Canton should have been able to maintain a relatively steady overall silver supply in China (and in fact, since the late eighteenth century Spanish dollars had been preferred even over native sycee in some of China’s most important domestic markets). But on that count, a range of forces far beyond China’s borders came into play. First, it had been American merchants who brought most of the silver to China in the early nineteenth century (fully one-third of Mexico’s entire silver output between 1805 and 1834 was carried to China by Americans). But a shift in U.S. government monetary policy in 1834 made silver more expensive for American merchants, so they switched abruptly to using bills of exchange—which were acceptable to the Hong merchants but resulted in a decline in the amount of tangible silver entering the country from abroad. With the drop in American imports, China, which for centuries had been the world’s largest net importer of silver, unexpectedly turned into an exporter of the metal.

In the even bigger picture, though, what the Chinese scholars who blamed foreign trade and opium for the scarcity of silver in China did not realize was that it wasn’t just a Chinese problem: by the 1820s, silver was becoming scarce everywhere. Most of the world’s supply at this time had come from mines in Spanish Mexico and Peru (thus the importance of the Spanish dollar), but national revolutions in Latin America that began in the 1810s shut down those mines and choked off the world’s largest fonts of the precious metal. Global production of silver declined by nearly half during the 1810s—the same time its value began to creep upward in China—and it continued to decline during the decade that followed. The ramping up of the opium trade in 1820s China thus coincided fatefully with the onset of a global slump in silver output that would last for the next thirty years.

Regardless of where the specific blame lay, it was a devastating confluence of economic forces for China: the loss of sycee through the opium smuggling trade, the global scarcity of silver after the Latin American revolutions, and the drying up of American silver imports into China together helped cause a catastrophic decline in the empire’s supply of the metal. And it was a vicious cycle, for as silver became more valuable in China, wealthy families and businessmen would hoard it, removing even more from circulation and making the problem worse.

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China’s Decline Under Daoguang

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 302-304:

Conditions in China were getting worse under Daoguang’s reign. By the time he took the throne, and to some degree beginning even with his father, Jiaqing, it becomes easier to speak of the empire each sovereign inherited rather than what he created or built. They, and the emperors and regents to follow, would have their successes—the dynasty would, after all, survive into the early twentieth century—but rarely did they leave China in a more solid position than they had found it. By the early nineteenth century, an inexorable process of decline was setting in, the slow setting of a sun that had reached its zenith under Qianlong in the late 1700s. Jiaqing had done his best, making strong efforts to rein in the corruption of the military and suppress the White Lotus and other rebellions. But under the rule of his son Daoguang, new problems would plague the empire even as old ones kept coming back in different forms.

Patronage, bribery, and embezzlement were the accepted norm among civil officials, especially in the lower orders. Population pressures on the land continued unabated, and Han Chinese settlers seeking an escape from the crowding continued to move into mountainous regions of the empire that had long been home to indigenous peoples, sparking incidents of ethnic violence. A breakdown of trust between the government and peasants worsened. The military was weakened by Jiaqing’s cost-cutting measures after the White Lotus campaigns. Through the 1830s, internal rebellions erupted in different parts of the empire with regularity, every year or two—some led by religious sects similar to the White Lotus, others by rebel factions bonded together by regional or ethnic ties. The many divisions that ran naturally through a vast and diverse multiethnic empire were turning more frequently and more visibly into fractures.

Opium wove its way right through the tattering fabric of this restive society, the single most visible symbol of the Chinese government’s inability to control its people. In spite of Daoguang’s strong desire to control the drug, coastal enforcements on smuggling had failed so completely that by the later 1830s when a foreign ship materialized near the coast it would find not naval patrols but thousands of buyers standing along the shore and whistling to it in hopes that it would drop anchor and sell to them. A major north–south land transport route for opium through Hunan province formed the locus of a series of uprisings that took place in central China in 1836, and imperial troops transferred inland to pacify them turned out to be such heavy users of opium themselves that they could barely fight. Ironically, they had acquired their drug habits in the course of their previous mission, which was to police the smugglers on the coast near Canton.

China’s rising domestic unrest caught the attention of foreigners in Canton, who worried about damage to tea and silk production from the disturbances in the interior. However, some of them also sensed opportunity in the ones that took place on China’s periphery. In 1833, an explosive revolt of aborigines on Taiwan threatened Qing imperial control of the island for several months, in the midst of which it was announced in Britain’s parliament that Taiwan had “declared its independence of the Chinese.” Some foreigners had already begun touting Taiwan as a potential British colony, a base from which they could conduct their trade with China free from the restrictions of Canton. They argued that, morally speaking, to take control of Taiwan would be nothing like trying to seize territory on the Chinese mainland, because Taiwan had been a Dutch possession prior to its conquest by Qianlong’s grandfather Kangxi, so they judged it to be merely a colony of the Qing Empire rather than essential Chinese territory. According to one Canton English-language newspaper, the Taiwanese were a conquered people, “vassals of China; not willingly, but in consequence of bloody wars,” and so even foreigners who opposed aggression toward China shouldn’t object to the British taking control of the island, which the paper judged would be praiseworthy even if only for the sake of “ridding its people of the tyranny of the Chinese.”

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Opium Culture in Qing China

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 225-229:

It is unclear how many Chinese smokers of opium in the early nineteenth century were what we might call addicts. Some certainly were, but given how much was being imported they could not have been many relative to the size of the empire. By the start of Daoguang’s reign in 1820, the nearly five thousand chests being imported from India each year were enough to support about forty thousand average habitual users empire-wide, or as many as one hundred thousand of the lightest daily smokers, so at most a few hundredths of a percent of the population. Furthermore, most users at this time seem not to have been terribly debilitated by opium—they led productive lives and were not outcasts from their families or professions. Indeed, opium smoking was a generally open, public act and there were many socially encouraged reasons to take part in it. Medicinal reasons aside—and there were dozens of those—businessmen smoked opium to focus their minds and help them make smarter deals (at least they imagined that was the effect). Students smoked it for the clarity it brought, thinking it would help them succeed on the civil service examinations. For the stylish it was a relaxant to be offered to guests after dinner. For the privileged with little to do, like the eunuchs of the Forbidden City or Manchu courtiers with few responsibilities, it was an escape from boredom.

Opium was, in other words, perfectly acceptable in respected circles. An aesthetic culture of gorgeously wrought pipes and other accessories grew up around its use by the wealthy, the very expense and extravagance of those tools elevating the act of smoking itself. The Chinese fashion for smoking, moreover, was quite profligate in comparison to the eating of the drug that went on in Britain; much was wasted in the process, and a smoker could easily go through an amount of opium in one day that would kill someone who ingested it directly. For those in more humble situations who couldn’t afford to smoke it themselves, employment in the opium trade still provided a chance for income as couriers and petty dealers.

From a purely economic standpoint opium had its advantages. Valuable and easy to carry (it was worth more than three hundred times its weight in rice), foreign opium was a very good business proposition for Chinese merchants in Canton. Being illegal, it could be turned around quickly for a profit in silver—within a few days in most cases, as compared to tea, which involved large cultivation and transportation networks, and generally took half a year or more to produce a return on each year’s investment. Since the Canton traders made more back from their customers inside China than they paid to the foreign suppliers, trading in opium also served as a convenient way for them to increase their own silver stocks, which they could then use to procure tea for sale to the foreigners. And though they had to pay bribes to officials, the illegal trade was otherwise, de facto, free from taxes.

There is no evidence that the moral exhortations of the Daoguang emperor caught on with the general public in any meaningful way. The widespread public opposition to opium on moral and public health grounds for which China would be known in the twentieth century was at this time entirely absent. Though perhaps the public’s resistance to imperial moralizing was only to be expected; in the early seventeenth century, the Ming dynasty had tried to suppress tobacco for reasons very similar to the Qing dynasty’s ban on opium—even to the point of ordering execution for anyone who cultivated or sold it—but they did not succeed. By the time of the Qing dynasty, those prohibitions were long forgotten and tobacco was an accepted staple of daily life in China. There was no reason the Jiaqing or Daoguang emperors’ edicts against opium should have been more likely to find success.

The Chinese of the early nineteenth century are often described as being uniformly insular and scornful of anything foreign, thanks mainly to an overly literal reading of the boilerplate language in Qianlong’s edict to George III where he claimed that he did not value foreign things. But this was not really the case. For wealthy urbanites in China, Western goods were all the rage by the 1820s—furs, glass, intricate clocks, cotton textiles, and other products of the Canton import trade, which were highly sought after by those with sufficient money to buy them. Far from encountering any kind of disdain for foreign objects, Chinese retailers in the early nineteenth century found that attaching the adjective “Western” to their merchandise was in fact the key to a higher selling price.

This consumer fashion for foreign products helps explain why the opium from British India became so popular in China. Against latter-day nationalist claims that the British came and forced opium down the throats of helpless Chinese consumers, there was in fact an existing system of domestic opium production in China already in place to compete with the import market at Canton (especially in the empire’s western and southwestern provinces). There were also separate avenues for importing the drug overland from Central Asia—and opium from all of those sources was much cheaper than the Indian opium the British brought to Canton. But opium was a luxury good, and its wealthy consumers weren’t looking for a bargain; they were looking for status. Fashionable users of the drug in urban China preferred the opium from British India (the Patna, with its East India Company seal of quality) largely because it was “Western” and therefore seen as far more sophisticated to buy and smoke.

By the late eighteenth century, when British traders began carrying Indian opium in meaningful quantities to Canton, they did so because they knew a market was already waiting for them there. They could not force the drug down anyone’s throat—indeed, they couldn’t even get themselves into the country; all they could do was to carry their opium to China’s southern coast and sell it to Chinese agents. Everything from there on into the Qing Empire was entirely in Chinese hands. Moving forward into the nineteenth century, the extensive smoking of opium emerged as an almost uniquely Chinese social custom, the Canton market for the drug growing to become, primarily for domestic reasons, the most demanding in the world. If opium was illegal in name, it was almost never so in practice, a fact as apparent to outsiders calling at Canton as to insiders within the Qing Empire. As one British dealer testified to a government committee in 1830, “Every now and then there is a very strong edict issued against the trade; but, like other Chinese edicts, it is nearly powerless. It imposes a little difficulty perhaps for the moment, and enables the Mandarins to extort from the dealers.”

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China Envy in Late 1700s

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 9-11:

There were good reasons why the East India Company did not do anything else that might put their little foothold in China at risk. In the eyes of Europeans in the late eighteenth century, the empire of the Qing dynasty was an unequaled vision of power, order, and prosperity. It had long been, as Adam Smith described it in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations, “one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous countries in the world.” Smith believed China to have been at a stable climax of development for eons—at least as far back as Marco Polo’s visit in the thirteenth century—which meant that although it did not have the capacity to develop any further (an advantage he reserved largely for Europe), it nevertheless showed no signs of retreating from its pinnacle of prosperity. “Though it may perhaps stand still,” he insisted, “[China] does not seem to go backwards.”

Enlightenment champions of reason saw in China the model of a moral and well-governed state that needed no church—a secular empire, founded on rational texts and ruled by scholars. “Confucius,” wrote Voltaire with admiration in his Philosophical Dictionary of 1765, “had no interest in falsehood; he did not pretend to be a prophet; he claimed no inspiration; he taught no new religion; he used no delusions.” In reading extracts from Confucius’s works, Voltaire concluded, “I have found in them nothing but the purest morality, without the slightest tinge of charlatanism.” The state that had been founded on those works was, he believed, the oldest and most enduring in the world. “There is no house in Europe,” he observed, “the antiquity of which is so well proved as that of the Empire of China.”

China’s political unity in the later eighteenth century was dazzling not just to British economists and French philosophers but to Americans as well, once they began to emerge as a nation of their own. In 1794, a U.S. citizen of Dutch descent, who had served as interpreter for an embassy from the Netherlands to China, dedicated the published account of his voyage to George Washington, celebrating in particular “the virtues which in your Excellency afford so striking a resemblance between Asia and America.” China was for him the standard by which Western countries could be measured: Washington was virtuous because he exhibited some of the qualities of a Qing dynasty emperor. The highest hope that the writer could muster for the future of his new nation was that Washington, in his “principles and sentiments,” might procure for the United States “a duration equal to the Chinese Empire.”

These were not just Western fantasies. China in the eighteenth century was not only the most populous and politically unified empire on earth, but also the most prosperous. The standard of living in its wealthy eastern and southern cities was easily a match for the companion regions of western Europe, as was life expectancy. To measure by the consumption of luxury goods such as sugar and tea, the quality of life in eastern China in the 1700s appears to have left Europe behind. At the same time, however, due to the Qing government’s tight strictures on foreign trade and residence, China was also seen from outside as impossibly guarded and remote, “the only civilised nation in the world,” as one British writer put it, “whose jealous laws forbid the intrusion of any other people.” The immense riches of the empire were—to the eternal frustration of westerners—always just out of reach.

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