Imperial Twilight

A few weeks ago I was on a social media platform talking back and forth with a few young American-educated Chinese now living in Shanghai. They started off explaining that mainland Chinese people feel justified in not doing anything to stop Fentanyl deaths in the USA, because of their ‘memory’ of the Opium Wars. i got a bit “Ya’ll need a history lesson” on them.
I read a handful of books on the Opium Wars back in the 1990s. But none of those books addressed the massive Anti-American propaganda campaign around this issue in the Chinese education system and news-propaganda.

The fact that these young people I was talking to were educated in the USA, made me doubt my own memory of the Opium Wars, but it also made me worry that the Chinese government has infiltrated our educations system through Confucius Institutes and other forms of indoctrination and publication.

So I was delighted to pick up a copy of Stephen R. Platt’s Imperial Twilight. It is a fun read that covers the 30 year lead up to the Opium Wars in under 556 pages. I recommend it as a fun read, but also to arm yourself for the future of ideas, as China tries to take control of our narratives. It is a fascinating time (1810-1845) to study. The Chinese government basically had a ‘zero-communication’ policy. Not smart. But the take away for our times is summarized in this paragraph:

In spite of the best efforts of moral activists at home, the British government would ultimately do nothing to scale back the dependence of British India on opium revenues or otherwise to try to help prevent the growth of the drug’s use in China. Meanwhile, the Qing dynasty would continue in its failure to suppress or even regulate the use of opium by the general public in China, wallowing in a quagmire of official corruption it could not escape. Up to the twentieth century, though, Britain’s role in that process would be dwelled upon more by westerners than by the Chinese. It was the English-speaking world that condemned it as “the Opium War” from the beginning, while Chinese writers through the nineteenth century, including Wei Yuan, simply referred to it as a border dispute or foreign incident. To them, opium was a domestic problem and the war was a minor affair in the grand scheme of China’s military history. Only after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 did historians in China begin to call this war “the Opium War'“ in Chinese, and only in the 1920s would republican propagandists finally transform it into its current incarnation as the bedrock of Chinese nationalism—the war in which the British forced opium down China’s throat, the shattering start to China’s century of victimhood, the fuel of vengeance for building a new Chinese future in the face of Western imperialism, Year Zero of the modern age.

Let’s not stop there. Stephen R. Platt has a review in the Wall Street Journal (pay wall) of a book called Everything Under the Heavens by Howard W. French, with this awesomely dark quote!

That confident worldview of Tianxia [Roughly: Rule the World] is, however, balanced by a separate and far more resentful theme from China’s recent history, namely “humiliation”: specifically, the desire to recover territory lost in the country’s era of weakness during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is from this latter impulse that we get the famous “nine-dash line” that delineates China’s maritime claims, which first appeared in 1947 and can now be found on all maps made in China. The nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek was so obsessed with this territorial issue that he wrote “avenge humiliation” on the top of every page of his diary for 20 years. A “Map of National Shame” created during his rule in 1938 outlined the territory China must recover to regain its past greatness—territory that included, alarmingly enough, not just the more familiar island claims of today but also Mongolia, Korea, Indochina, Singapore, and even parts of India and Pakistan.