Points Bookshelf: “Imperial Twilight” by Stephen R. Platt

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, an associate professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

Screenshot 2019-09-05 at 8.18.45 AMWithin the field of Chinese history, the Opium War, fought in the southern port city of Canton (Guangzhou) and its environs from 1839-1842, is among the most exhaustively researched of topics. Scholars have long argued for the significance of this nineteenth-century clash between the British and Chinese empires, representing it as the beginning of the latter’s infamous “century of humiliation” at the hands of the great powers. Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of the China’s Last Golden Age (Knopf, 2018) does not dispute this view of the conflict as a watershed marking British ascendancy and Chinese decline. However, Stephen Platt’s highly readable and original book does overturn various longstanding assumptions about the events leading up to the war. In particular, he shows how small moments of frustration and miscommunication changed the course of history. 

First, a couple of disclaimers about what this book is not. Perhaps of greatest relevance for the Points audience: Imperial Twilight makes little attempt to apply the contributions of drug studies to the analysis of the Opium War. In Platt’s depiction, opium is an all but featureless product, not robustly differentiated from tea, spices, cars, or any number of items over which nations and empires have battled each other. The drug is not even mentioned until p. 193, nearly halfway through the book. Although the author makes a strong case that the Opium War arose from a misunderstanding over trade, examining opium as a casus belli without considering its peculiarities does not do justice to the complexity of the commodity or, more importantly, to the victims of this abysmal episode in global history.

If opium is not of interest here, neither is the Opium War itself. As Platt writes, the conflict was “relatively small and contained” (xxiii). It produced none of the large-scale social dislocation of the White Lotus and Taiping Rebellions, which cost tens of millions of Chinese lives in the nineteenth century. Perhaps reflective of the military engagements themselves—one lasted “effectively less than ten minutes” (412)—the description of combat consists of no more than a few paragraphs. In the single chapter narrating the years between 1839 and 1842, Platt is more concerned with peace overtures and surrender negotiations than with combat. Nor does he devote much attention to the aftermath of the Opium War, which has been extensively elaborated by Chinese historians and others. 

Instead, Imperial Twilight is better described as a consummately engaging diplomatic history of the events, both large and small, leading up to 1839. Using archival sources from China, Great Britain, and the United States, it narrates the fateful breakdown of relations between the two most powerful empires of the nineteenth-century world. Notably for this type of work, most of its primary actors are not diplomats. Rather than focusing on such well-known figures such as Charles Elliot, the British superintendent of trade in Canton, and his Chinese counterpart Lin Zexu, Platt focuses on actors whose role in Sino-British relations was less celebrated but equally critical. These include the conciliatory Canton merchant Houqua, one of the wealthiest men of his day; the soft-spoken China expert George Staunton, consulted and ignored by Parliament; Robert Morrison, the British missionary who single-mindedly devoted his life to the production of the first Chinese-English dictionary and Chinese translation of the Bible; and Karl Gutzlaff, his Prussian-born colleague who preached the gospel from an opium clipper. 

Platt uses these and other lively and compelling characters not to argue (as historians often do) that the Opium War was rooted in a long chain of contingent events, but rather the opposite: that the breakdown of Sino-British relations was a “sudden departure from decades, if not centuries, of generally peaceful and respectful precedent” (447). Far from an inevitable clash of civilizations whose course was set in the mid-eighteenth century (when the book opens), the war emerges as the catastrophic outcome of relatively minor and shallow misunderstandings. Through close readings of intimate sources such as journals, diaries, and letters, Platt traces, much in the manner of a novel, how disagreements among divergent personalities resulted in tragic consequences for their empires.

Platt’s characters are flawed individuals, some endearingly so, like the British trader who, unable to part from his (exceptionally attractive) new wife, provoked an international incident by sneaking her into the Canton trading station from which women were barred. Yet blame for the ultimate breakdown of Sino-British relations attaches not so much to any individual(s) than to their general inability to communicate efficiently and effectively. None of the agents in 1830s Canton were authorized by their respective governments to act on their own authority. In responding to events, they had to choose between making decisions in real time, risking their livelihoods and even their necks should the sovereign disagree, or seeking instructions and permission from faraway London or Beijing, which could not be counted on to understand the local situation or to react in an urgent or helpful manner. 

An even greater obstruction was the lack of a common language. In the 1780s, when Great Britain petitioned China for an expansion of its trading privileges, only a handful of Chinese speakers could be found on the European continent. Fifty years later, the situation was scarcely improved. In Canton, many communicated in pidgin, a functional but not terribly symbolic mode of communication lacking many nuances of tone and reasoning. Alternatively, negotiators relied on translators, typically Englishmen whose unusual circumstances had enabled them to learn Chinese, and who possessed no other qualifications for diplomacy. The result, Platt concludes sadly, was an unanticipated, unnecessary, and avoidable war that forever changed the balance of power in East Asia and the world.