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The Opium War through Chinese Eyes

January 29, 2010

Arthur Waley. The Opium War through Chinese Eyes. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958.

Sigrid Schmalzer (2000)

In this 1958 book, Arthur Waley broke new ground in English-language studies of the Opium War by using Chinese sources to paint a picture of the conflict “through Chinese eyes.” Waley’s is not a typical history book. There is no introduction, no conclusion, and no overarching argument beyond that the Chinese participants deserve more respect than other English-language accounts have given them. Instead, Waley brought his formidable skills in the classical Chinese language to play by interweaving lengthy segments of direct translation from Chinese diaries with concise explanatory passages. By including details from the diaries on aspects of daily life (weather, illness, religion, eating and drinking), Waley enhances the readers’ sense that they are learning “what the war felt like on the Chinese side” (p. 5).

The first part on Commissioner Lin is by far the longest. A man of culture, religion, friendship, and determination, Lin (though often wrong) was not the ignorant, rash, and unfathomable personage other English-language accounts have reportedly portrayed him to be. (While Waley and reviewers of the book alike attest to this shortcoming in the literature, none mention specific examples of such accounts.) His failure to stop the opium flow into China resulted from the sheer imbalance of military power rather than from any failing on his part.

The following three sections are in some ways even more intriguing for the windows they provide into the experiences of more “ordinary” Chinese people in the Chinese attack on Ningbo, the English capture of Shanghai, and the fall of Jinjiang, respectively. The final section provides an amusing set of short biographies on Gutzlaff (the Prussian magistrate of Ningbo) and a number of known Chinese traitors.

Contemporary reviewers agreed that the greatest contribution Waley made with this book was the introduction of important Chinese sources on the Opium War to Western readers. Hsin-pao Chang (Journal of Asian Studies, 19.1:67-71) also understandably appreciated Waley’s unprecedented sensitivity to the Qing state’s perspective in which the seizure of British opium reflected an equal application of the law on foreigner and Chinese alike. On the other hand, Chang noted a number of minor translation errors and factual mistakes and complained about sometimes spotty evidence and a general lack of footnotes.

J. Chester Cheng’s critique (Pacific Affairs, 33.1:68-9) focused more on the content of the book. For Cheng, Waley’s neglect of the emperor, Grand Council, and other policy-making bodies in favor of the relatively powerless Lin created an unbalanced account. He was further frustrated by Waley’s failure to ask the big question of how an approach to the foreign threat different from Commissioner Lin’s might have allowed China to “have sooner embarked upon the path of modernization and industrialization” (p. 69).

While I disagree that modernization theory should have played a significant role in the book, I, too, find that Waley’s evidence points to conclusions he does not explore. In particular, he could have made a strong case for the idea that the Opium War was simultaneously a struggle between the Chinese and British states and the Chinese state with the Chinese people. His materials show that deceit and corruption ran rampant through the military and security forces. Chinese troops also often had terrible relationships with the peasants, and urban people as well seemed to have little faith in the Chinese military leaders. Furthermore, the state’s opium-suppression policies met with intense resistance from opium smokers, farmers, and merchants, particularly once the negative effects of trade cessation began to be felt. Their anti-British sentiment was only aroused when they began to experience British war atrocities (p. 88).

In short, while the Qing state’s confrontation of British imperialism was of course central to the events of the Opium War, so too were the efforts of the Qing to bring the Chinese people under tighter control economically, politically, and physically (with regard to consumption of opium). Other readers would no doubt come to other conclusions about the information presented in the book. What Waley does not provide is a big enough historical argument to do justice to his abundant and fascinating data. Perhaps, for his purpose, he does not need one: the book’s literary qualities certainly stand on their own.

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.

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