Opium was the Opium of the People - River of Smoke and The Opium War


River of Smoke
by Amitav Ghosh
John Murray, 522pp, 2011, 978-0-7195-6898-5

The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China
by Julia Lovell
Picador, 458pp, 2011, 978-0-330-53785-8
When I first started in the investment industry, I had responsibility for looking at a number of industries or 'sectors', one of which was tobacco. It was a world like no other, inhabited by gravelly voiced, Hemmingwayesque salesmen and pretty young women who spent their days arranging things.  Cigarettes were ubiquitous. Company results meetings happened beneath a pall of smoke - on a clear day, you could see the chairman. Disembodied voices to the front boomed out the corporate message with no regard to political correctness. The salvation of the industry, we were told, lay with the Chinese - the Chinese were good little smokers.

Such views were not new to British commerce. The First Opium War, 1840-42, was fought by the British to open Chinese markets to the sale of opium grown in British India.  Tobacco was no innocent bystander even then.  Whilst opium had been known (and probably used) in China since at least the eighth century, it was the combination of opium syrup with tobacco sometime in the early eighteenth century which first facilitated the Chinese smoking of opium. 

Illegal from 1729, the market for opium grew significantly, particularly in the early nineteenth century, facilitated by British merchants and local mainland distributors.  Julia Lovell states that in 1780, a British East India Company ship could not break even on a single opium cargo shipped to Canton yet by 1839 imports were topping 40,000 chests. To the Chinese authorities opium seemed to be everywhere, debilitating the population and draining the country of silver.  In this context the Chinese Emperor, Daoguang, decided to act, appointing Lin Zexu, a Fujianese official, as Imperial Commissioner for Canton, to bring the trade to an end. 

Lin’s determination to end the trade, to the disbelief of both the foreign merchant community in Canton and the Hong, a cartel of indigenous merchants with monopoly rights on trade with the foreigners, led in due course to war.  Lin confined the merchant community to its enclave, confiscated opium and took a range of harsh measures against local participants in the opium trade.  Taking these and other Chinese actions as a causus belli, after six months of inconclusive diplomacy, Britain responded with violence, both with local forces and in the despatch of a Palmerstonian military expedition from India.  Effectively the muscle for a group of international drug runners, British forces made war up and down the Chinese coast until August 1842.  Hostilities were concluded in the treaty of Nanjing, when China paid a substantial financial indemnity, ceded Hong Kong to Britain and agreed to the opening and granting of consular rights in five key trading ports. Whatever else it was, here was imperial extortion on a grand scale.
Julia Lovell and Amitav Ghosh approach the subject of the Opium War from different perspectives, but have elements in common.  Each book is both very readable and slightly disjointed.  Lovell is a historian of China and Chinese culture whose previous works have featured the Great Wall and the Chinese search for a Nobel Prize for Literature.  The Opium War is in two principal parts, the first a history of the war itself, the second a discussion of the part played by the war and by opium in the western invention of the ‘yellow peril’, and conversely in China’s interpretation of its own troubled modern history and ongoing historical myth making.
The latter subject is dealt with at the gallop by Lovell, with the remarkable pace of the last hundred pages sitting at odds with the measured detail of the book’s opening chapters. Sun Yat Sen, Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Tse Tung are barely allowed a pause for breath in the development of Chinese nationalism. Meanwhile, as China struggled through an extraordinary range of convulsions, developing views of China in the West rarely progressed beyond the construction of stereotypical villainy.  Fictions such as Fu Manchu came to prominence, and still he lingers on, perpetuating cultural misunderstanding in each new generation with a longevity befitting his evil genius. 

Amitav Ghosh is a widely celebrated Indian author writing in English.  His previous novels include The Glass Palace, an epic historical novel beginning with the British deposition of King Thebaw of Burma in 1886, and extending well into the twentieth century, and Sea of Poppies, the first in the Ibes trilogy of which River of Smoke is the second volume.  Historically, River of Smoke takes us deep into the developing conflict between the Chinese authorities led by Lin and the foreign merchant community in Canton as the authorities crack down on the illegal trade, but stops before military hostilities commence. 

The book’s principal thread concerns the progress and final ruin of an Indian opium merchant, Bahram Modi, a Parsi from Bombay.  Characters from Sea of Poppies continue their progress through River of Smoke.  Paulette Lambert, for example, participates in a botanical expedition to China led by Fitcher Penrose.  Occasionally, the various strands of the novel are aligned awkwardly, particularly in the representation of Robert Chinnery, who features principally through his correspondence with Paulette. This said, the letter form gives Ghosh another means of sharing his knowledge of period detail, which is extensive and impressive, and modest difficulties of structure are comfortably overwhelmed by the principal narrative.

Bahram inhabits two worlds – the family business world of Bombay and the fluid, polyglot world of the Chinese trade.  Crowded with Western, Chinese and Indian characters, ebbing and flowing with rumour, factionalised and fractious, Ghosh conveys the intimate energy of the merchants’ enclave (fanqi town) and its surroundings brilliantly.  Drawing heavily on contemporary sources, he surrounds Bahram with a host of period detail and a fine cast of players.  Historical and fictional characters walk side by side and several protagonists from The Opium War participate in Ghosh’s narrative; Lin, Howqua the most senior of the Hong, Charles Elliot the British Superintendent of Trade in China, William Jardine (co founder of Jardine-Mattheson) and the merchant Lancelot Dent are all present. An element of complexity conveyed in River of Smoke, immersed as it is in the personal, eludes the extended narrative of confrontation which forms The Opium War. Lovell frequently notes mainland connivance with the British and highlights the significant variation in the performance of Manchu and Chinese troops, in terms of bravery if not results. This said, occasional aspects of Chinese behaviour remain difficult to understand and consequently appear  nonsensical or as parody, reinforcing the sense of an inscrutable monolith which Lovell is keen to undermine.  Why did the Emperor swallow the lies of a series of senior officials sent to wage war against the British?  Why did a senior Chinese official expect womens’ chamber pots floated out on rafts to be effective against British warships? Why, at the final banquet to seal the Nanjing Treaty, did Qiying, the Chinese chief negotiator, insist on flicking large sugar plums from some range into the reluctantly open mouth of his opposite number, Sir Henry Pottinger?  A private joke perhaps?

However difficult to deal with historically, these oddities underline the deep sense of mutual misunderstanding and ignorance that permeated relations between the parties, and which Lovell argues convincingly remains alive today.  At the time of the war, the Chinese repeatedly described the British as rebels and robbers, drawing on a Sino-centric view which emphasised the tributary status of barbarian peoples.  Over the Twentieth Century, the Chinese response has modified.  At an official ideological level the opium war has been used as a foundation stone on which to build a modern history that selectively rejects aspects of early modern Chinese society, fingers opium as a key factor in China’s subjugation to the world and emphasises a protracted struggle for national fulfilment.  At the street level and online, an element of popular nationalism has become a factor to be reckoned with in China, in part critical of the status quo within, in part militantly championing the national interest without, as the recent demonstrations against Japan underline.  Some things have changed, some have stayed the same.  Few in China would now think of the imperial British as rebels.  But as robbers – perhaps that’s a different matter.

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