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The Inner Opium War

March 19, 2010

James M. Polachek. The Inner Opium War. Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1992.

Brent Haas (2004)

Since Frederic Wakeman welcomed his readers to engage in local history in 1966, historical scholarship of China has moved its focus from center to periphery, court to locality, elite diplomacy to peasant experience. By paddling against academic currents to revisit the factional “‘court politics’ of foreign policy” (p. 3) during 1835-1850, Polachek’s Inner Opium War makes a forceful case for the continued salience of elite bureaucratic decision-making upon the Qing “non-response” to Western imperialism.

Scholarship has paid much attention to the question of nineteenth century “Chinese conservatism,” and Polachek’s revisionist narrative objects to two major interpretations of this issue. The first posits a sort of theoretical blindness to the realities of international politics, springing from either the “Chinese World Order” (Fairbank) or the nature of Confucian statecraft (Schwartz). The second view, the “domestic distractions approach” (p. 5) (Wakeman; Wong), argues that rebellion and local strife in Guangdong hindered the dynasty’s reform efforts. This account of the rise and fall of a “power-oriented pro-treaty system leadership” during the 1840s (p. 10) problematizes the first interpretation and minimizes the influence of distant Guangdong by firmly situating the foreign policy debates within the capital. Instead, Polachek places the origin of nineteenth-century “Chinese conservatism” in the political system’s need for consensus and consequent openness to exploitation by the politically ambitious.

Two interwoven tales compose this tightly-argued yet dense monograph. The first focuses on the web of personal relationships and political patronage in Han literati organizations, the Xuannan Poetry Club (1814), the Spring Purification Circle (1829), and the Gu Yanwu Shrine Association (1843). The author utilizes membership rosters, ritual regulations, poetry collections, memorials and personal writings to illustrate the symbolism and political influence of these associations, which connected disillusioned Han scholars in Guangdong with political patrons at the court in Beijing. One reviewer called it “perhaps the most illuminating survey yet available of Chinese political and literary life” for the period (JAS 53.2).

The second narrative traces court debates over how to respond to the fiscal and diplomatic crises of opium smuggling and British military threat. The widespread official skepticism towards a trade embargo and the suppression of the opium trade in the 1830’s is noteworthy. Furthermore, the depiction of Manchu and Mongol high officials’ reformist aspirations contradicts Chinese nationalist historiography. Likewise, factional manifestation of the simmering resentment of Han degree-holders towards the Manchu-Mongol domination of political power offers new perspectives on intra-Qing ethnic interactions. Polachek points to the fall of Manchu Muchanga’s conciliatory government in 1850 as a watershed event, representing the eclipse of Manchu leadership by Han officials.

Polachek’s work is thought-provoking if flawed. Reviewers found problems with its prose, described as “Victorian in length but not in clarity.” Further criticism focused on a tenuous connection between the themes of the Opium War and literati factionalism (Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs 31[Jan, 1994]). Nevertheless, The Inner Opium War is an important reassessment of old yet essential questions, and its contribution to our understanding of the literati in the first half of the nineteenth century remains clear.

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