Opium Wars sparked off Chinese nationalism: Writer Julia Lovell

August 1st, 2011 - 11:30 am ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Aug 1 (IANS) The 19th century Opium Wars between China and Britain over the opium trade constituted the founding event of Chinese nationalism and marked the beginning of its troubled relationship with the West, says noted British scholar, translator and writer Julia Lovell.

But India’s role in the war, though strategic in terms of cultivation of opium and as the hub of the East India Company activity, is overlooked in the Chinese consciousness, Lovell said.

Indian soldiers who fought the Opium Wars for Britain were victims of casual racism in the hands of Chinese and British armies, the writer added.

The first Opium War of 1839-42 between Britain and China was sparked by a Chinese crackdown on opium trade by the British East India company. The second war of 1856-60, known as the arrow war, was an Anglo-French attack on China aimed to legalise the drug trade, expand coolie trade and exempt all foreign imports from internal transit duties.

Lovell’s new book, “Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China”, published by Picador, was released in India last week.

“In China today, the Opium Wars seem relevant for a couple of reasons. One reason is related to the kind of place that China is,” Lovell, who teaches modern Chinese history at the University of London, told IANS in an interview.

“On the one hand, it seems a confident place, a rising superpower and on the other hand, it can sometimes seem troubled by insecurity and also suspicion that the West is trying to contain China to keep it down,” she said.

Lovell said the First Opium War of 1839-42 was the “first emblematic clash between China and the West”.

Her book narrates the story of modern China, beginning with the war against the West and moves to analyse the country’s contemporary image.

It probes how China’s national myths influence its interactions with the world and how the country can still seem defensive while opening itself up to ideas from the West.

“If you talk to ordinary Chinese people about the Opium Wars, a phrase they will often come up with is ‘if you are backward, you will take a beating’,” Lovell, author of several books about China, said.

“Running very powerfully in Chinese discussions on the war is the idea that China allowed itself to become backward in the 19th century and therefore suffered,” she added.

The Opium Wars are the founding event of Chinese nationalism, Lovell said. The period between 1842 to 1942 is known as the “century of humiliation” in contemporary Chinese history.

“The negative example of this century is used to spur the Chinese people on to greater achievements,” the writer said.

The book tries to tackle two issues.

“The first two-thirds is a narrative history of the war, while the remaining discusses how the war has played out in the western imagination of China and Chinese imagination of the West.

“I wanted to take the story out to the present day to show how the war has resonated in the subsequent 170 years since it broke out,” Lovell said.

The idea to write the book came from a movie that Lovell watched in Hong Kong in 1997 on her first visit to the country.

“One of my first cultural experiences while I was in China was to watch a film entitled the ‘Opium War’. This very dark and brooding tale of the Opium War made a deep impression on me,” she said.

Lovell said that she had read a lot about Indian author Amitav Ghosh’s book, ‘River of Smoke’, on the same subject.

“Ghosh felt that there was this extraordinary silence about the opium trade in India - this was a trade that was overlooked in Indian history,” Lovell said, adding that she has tried to address a similar gap in English narratives about the wars.

“There have been wonderful books written about the Opium Wars in English, but they tend to focus on the British rather than Chinese sources,” she said.

The author went on to say that students in China are now beginning to question the knowledge passed on about the war.

India is at the heart of Lovell’s new project. “It’s a global study of Maoism and how it has travelled beyond China to Europe, Nepal and India,” she said.

(Madhushree Chatterjee can be contacted at madhu.c@ians.in)

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