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Commissioner Lin and the Opium War

January 29, 2010

Chang Hsin-pao. Commissioner Lin and the Opium War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Sigrid Schmalzer (2000)

In this treatment of the Opium War, Chang sees not one but several causes of what for him was the inevitable path to hostilities and war between China and Britain. One cause was cultural: the Qing and British governments were characterized by vastly different value systems and institutions, leading to conflict over such issues as extradition, diplomatic conventions, and the freedom or restriction of trade. A second cause was economic: while the Qing state struggled with an alarming outflow of silver as a result of trade (and specifically opium trade), the British state and merchants were intent on increasing their profits in Asia, a commitment which only opium seemed capable of fulfilling. The final cause was moral in nature: as a Chinese person who “witnessed hundreds of my countrymen and my closest relatives become its [opium’s] victims” (p. xi), Chang insists that historians recognize that opium trade was a trade in opium, and that the moral implications of this commodity were central to the unfolding of events that led to war. He argues that, contrary to some assessments, many western people of the 1830s did consider opium use and trade to be immoral (p. 94-5).

Chang’s stated goal in writing this book lies in clarifying the roots of the “Sino-Western friction” as it was understood in 1964, and so paving the way for a more harmonious relationship (xi). In pursuing this goal, Chang stands between apologists of imperialism on one side and communist historians who (according to Fairbank’s foreword to the book) cite the Opium War “not only as evidence of inveterate iniquity, but specifically as proof of the Marxist-Leninist theorem that free-enterprise capitalism leads to aggressive ‘imperialism’ which allies with reactionary ‘feudalism’ to the detriment of the common people everywhere” (vii).

Unlike Fairbank in this passage, Chang is comfortable using the word “imperialism” without quotation marks. However, he takes both the Opium War and the subsequent modernization process as inevitable and perhaps even necessary. He perceives Commissioner Lin’s role in history to be one of modernizing foreign policy and trade “to make preparations for an unavoidable increasing contact with the West” (p. 217). The Opium War itself takes on a surprisingly positive light in his closing remarks (surprising when contrasted with his earlier bemoaning of the evil legacy of opium in China): “The roaring guns of the Opium War awakened the empire from centuries of lethargy. This ushered in a new era in Chinese history, and the people were started on the path toward modernization… In a way are not the Chinese today still treading this path as a response to the continued challenge from the West?” (p. 217) Thus the “response to the West” has been suddenly transformed in the last few pages from the noble defense of a victimized culture into an opportunity to shed a stagnant tradition and embark upon a glorious new road to modernity.

Given these contradictory messages, it is perhaps not strange that one contemporary reviewer (Stanley Spector in Journal of Asian Studies, 24.3:501-2) understood Chang to be making a strong condemnation of British imperialism, while another (Earl H. Pritchard in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 26:285-90) praised Chang for seeing that Chinese “arrogance” and general backwardness, rather than “British perfidy” (p. 286), stood as the main cause of the war. In fairness to Chang, the fundamental disagreement voiced in these two reviews (both published in 1966) likely reflects in no small way the bitter politics of nationalism and imperialism engendered by the United States’ involvement in Vietnam.

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