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Dr Julia Lovell speaks on "The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China". In this lecture, Dr Lovell recounts the reasons for and the extraordinary tale of the Opium War, an event that arguably launched the modern period of China's history and whose consequences still reverberate. Dr Lovell believes this event, together with succeeding related wars, has come to define China's imagination of itself and of the West, and how a messy, failing empire became the world power that we know today.
The facts of The Opium War of 1839–42 between the United Kingdom and the Qing Dynasty of China are relatively clear, though the interpretations of the participants could not be more different. The war was fought over the participants' conflicting viewpoints on diplomatic relations and trade. Chinese officials wished to stop what was perceived as an outflow of silver, to control the spread of opium and to rein in beneficiaries of the trade such as their own Viceroy of Canton. The British objected to Chinese trade barriers to the import of foreign manufactured goods needed to purchase tea from China, which had resulted in trade deficits and a British shortage of silver. The result of the war was the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, which opened five treaty ports, and the ceding of Hong Kong Island, thereby ending the trade monopoly of the "Canton System" which had been in place since 1756.
In October 1839, the Chinese Imperial Commissioner, Lin Zexu, dispatched the confident words to the Emperor: 'On the outside, the foreigners seem intractable, but inside they are cowardly although there have been a few ups-and-downs, the situation as a whole is under control'. They could not have been more wrong: a cabinet meeting in Windsor of another great Empire, which was anything but cowardly, agreed to hostilities with China if necessary. The conflict which ensued was rich in tragicomedy, in bureaucratic fumblings, military missteps, political opportunism and Chinese collaboration.
In this lecture, beginning with the dramas of the war itself, Dr Lovell explores the war's background, causes and consequences, interweaving the curious stories of opium's promoters and attackers. At the time that the war was fought in the middle of the 19th century, it was in the eyes of the Chinese emperor and his officials something of a sideshow, a 'frontier quarrel' no more worrying than the other domestic and frontier revolts the government was struggling to suppress around the same time. Yet over the past 170 years, this strange tale of misunderstanding, incompetence and compromise became the founding myth of modern Chinese nationalism: the start of China's heroic struggle against a Western conspiracy to destroy the country with gunboat diplomacy. Thus the lecture also tells the story of modern China, starting from this first war with the West, to an analysis of the country's contemporary self-image.
Dr. Julia Lovell is a lecturer in modern Chinese history at Birkbeck College, University of London. She has published two previous books "The Politics of Cultural Capital: China's Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature" and the best-seller "The Great Wall: China Against the World 1000 BC-AD 2000", which has been translated into more than ten languages. She is a prize-winning translator of 20th-century Chinese fiction: her translations include Han Shaogong's "A Dictionary of Maqiao", Eileen Chang's "Lust, Caution", Zhu Wen's "I Love Dollars and Other Stories of China" and most recently Lu Xun's "The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China". She writes on China for The Guardian, The Independent and The Times Literary Supplement.