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The Opium War Comes to America (the Book, That is): A Q & A With Julia Lovell

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

This week’s China Blog interview is with Julia Lovell, a British specialist in Chinese studies who teaches in London, lives in Cambridge, and has made her mark in several distinctive arenas.  She’s a distinguished translator of fiction (e.g., Zhu Wen’s short stories); she writes lively reviews and short essays for leading newspapers and literary reviews (including this one); and she pens scholarly yet accessible books about China’s past.  I caught up with Julia by email this summer, after talking with her in Cambridge, to ask her some questions about her activities wearing the third of those hats.  More specifically, her book about the Opium War, which came out in other countries beginning in 2011 and which Isabel Hilton described as telling the tale of the events in question “lucidly and compellingly”, is due out next month in its first American edition.  Here below are her answers to my question about a book that was short listed for the Orwell Prize and won France’s Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in 2012.

 

JW: Since first editions of the book appeared in other parts of the world a few years ago, you’ve given talks on it in and been reviewed by the media of several countries.  What has been most interesting to you about the way response has varied between, say, India and the U.K. and both of those places and Hong Kong?

JL: In mainland China, as is well known, the opium trade and the wars that Britain fought to defend it in the mid-nineteenth century remain a traumatic national memory. But other territories – Hong Kong and India, to name only two – were also directly affected by these historical events. Hong Kong would not exist as it does today without the opium trade and the wars that Britain fought for it. Without opium (which was not made illegal in Hong Kong until 1942), the colony would not have been economically viable for much of its first century of existence. Until the 1920s at least, duties on the trade in opium dominated all other sources of revenue on the island. It was in India, meanwhile, that British overseers managed the opium monopolies that generated exports of the drug to China through the nineteenth century. As late as the 1850s, more than a fifth of the Raj’s income came from opium; this represents the systematic exploitation of India’s natural productivity to enrich the British government and private individuals. Yet during my travels to Hong Kong and India – both of which are equally entitled to feel fury at Britain’s misdemeanors – I was struck by how comparatively detached from, or even forgetful of, this history that audiences and residents seemed to be.

I was severely discomforted by the remarks of one Hong Kong woman, who told me that “the Opium War was the best thing that happened to China in the last two hundred years” (presumably meaning that this event led, eventually, to the sheltering of Hong Kong from the worst ravages of Chinese communism). This doesn’t mean that Hong Kongers are in the least nostalgic for British rule; but it does illuminate ongoing tensions between the territory and the communist government in Beijing. While in India, meanwhile, I tried to explain the resentment that memory of the Opium War and the “century of humiliation” between 1842 and 1949 can provoke in China, and asked if there was similar anger directed at India’s own experiences under British rule and exploitation for the opium trade. The response that I often received borrowed from the language of psychoanalysis: “India’s over it,” one woman – born two years after Independence – declared. Coming from a Chinese studies background, I was amazed at the nonchalance about this history apparent in some parts of Indian society. For example, in Mumbai I spotted a chic bar called The Opium Den, filled with fashionable urbanites.

JW: I know you wrote your book in part because you found it curious that, as newsworthy as the mid-nineteenth century military clashes between China and Britain were at the time, many Britons now don’t know much at all about them or about the opium trade.  The same could be said of Americans, with the added twist that some in the U.S. likely think, erroneously, that the opium trade was something that Britain got involved in but not America.  In fact, though American forces weren’t involved in the clashes of 1839-1842, there were many merchants from the U.S. who had a stake in the trade.  Can you think of other parallels and divergences between how the story you have to tell might speak to American as opposed to British readers?

JL: The story of the Opium War certainly has contemporary geopolitical resonances still for the UK, as it tries to define and justify a post-imperial international role for itself; and it raises issues that may apply to the U.S. also, as Obama moves away from the kinds of international military interventions characteristic of the Bush era.

Here in the UK, debate is ongoing about whether Britain can and should still play a global role, and how it should interact with, for example, a rising power such as China. Some, I think, assume that Britain has a moral right to be a key international actor still – an assumption inherited from Britain’s past as a global empire. But the history of the Opium War reminds us that Britain’s global power was originally financed by sales in an illegal, addictive narcotic, and was made possible by illegal wars fought to protect this drugs trade. It’s important to bear this dubious imperial history in mind today when Britain considers its entitlement to global influence, and particularly when considering the way that the UK interacts with countries affected negatively by its drug-trading past (China, India, and nations in southeast Asia).

JW: Continuing with the geographical progression, has there been a mainland China response?  A Taiwan one?  Any plans for Chinese language editions?

As you would expect from such a diverse and lively readership, I’ve received a variety of interesting responses from mainland China: from orthodox patriotism, to surprising ruminations on historical counterfactuals (for example, if Britain had colonised China, as it did India), via musings on the economic and political impact of imperialism in China. A Chinese translation is currently in the pipeline. It’s very tough to translate a book with so many endnotes, so my great appreciation goes out to my Chinese translator.

JW: Just to complete the global circuit, any response in France, other than the prize I mentioned in my lead-in to this interview, or any place else I’ve left out?

JL: I’ve just signed a contract for a French translation, so it will be interesting to see the response when that edition comes out. I’ve recently been looking into France’s own experiences of colonisation and decolonisation in Asia (namely, in Indochina), so I’d be fascinated to know more about post-imperial French attitudes to their history of empire.

JW: Switching gears a bit, I know you are working now on a project about Maoism, with a focus on its reception in places outside of China.  Do you see this as a complete shift in direction or are there things that link it back to the Opium War project?

JL: I’m currently working on a book about global Maoism: about the way that Maoist ideas and practice travelled beyond China from the 1940s, to become an international political force. Among some non-Chinese audiences between the 1950s and the 1970s, for example, China enjoyed perhaps its greatest international soft power since the Enlightenment – arguably, in all its thousands of years of history. The culture and politics of Maoist China permeated global radicalism during these decades. Mao and his ideas of continuous, peasant revolution appealed to left wing rebels, and civil-rights and anti-racism campaigners in the US, Australia, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Norway and Sweden. Across the developing world (in Asia, South America, Africa) Maoist politics inspired post-colonial nations with idioms such as self-reliance, party rectification and revolutionary spontaneity. The list of those who found in favour of Maoist China is a bewilderingly various one: Quakers, sinologists, French philosophers, Venezuelan pirate revolutionaries, West German Dada hippies, Congolese feminists, Algerian guerrillas, and Shirley MacLaine.

Historically, of course, there is a strong link between Maoist ideas and the history and historiography of the Opium War. Mao, in his essays, was careful to keep the history of the Opium War, imperialism and China’s Century of Humiliation at the front of Chinese memory. For him, it was a crucial way of building Chinese nationalism and of mobilizing the populace against non-Communist forms of authority. By emphasizing the malevolence of China’s foreign antagonists, Mao’s Communist Party legitimized its own use of violence, against both imperialists and their alleged Chinese allies.

But apart from this intellectual link, there are also thematic connections between the two projects. Like my book on the Opium War, my new project will move between China’s own dramatic modern history and its collision with the world beyond its borders – to understand the story of modern China, you have to understand its international dimension. Both projects focus on events or forces that have shaped or driven Chinese nationalism, and on their interactions with the outside world.

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