This is the last of an informal three-part series on violence and historical memory in China. It wasn’t my original intention to write a series, but the past week or so has seen several anniversaries of great significance in Chinese history. Last week was the 110th anniversary of the Qing government’s tacit declaration of war against the foreigners during the Boxer Uprising of 1900; last Friday was the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War; and 170 years ago this week the British launched the first major offensive of the Opium War against the Qing Empire.
While there were land and naval skirmishes starting in 1839, it was on June 28, 1840 that an expeditionary force of 16 warships and about 4000 troops reached the China coast and began to bombard the area around Guangzhou before turning northward to other, less well protected, cities. The fleet took the island of Zhoushan and threatened Tianjin before the Qing court dispatched the Manchu official Qishan to parley with the British forces. Negotiations broke down and the war continued until finally the Treaty of Nanjing was signed by Qing officials — quite literally at gunpoint from British ships parked in the adjacent river — in 1842.
It seems like one of those pretty clear-cut moments in history. The British (and the Americans and other European traders) were importing opium into China as a way to balance the trade in tea, silk, and other goods. The Chinese, after much debate at court and among the officials and literati of Guangdong, decided to take a hard line against the the import and sale of opium. When the famed Commissioner Lin Zexu ordered the confiscation of all the opium in the foreign ‘factories,’ the opium smugglers simply signed it over to the British superintendent of trade thus making it the”Queen’s opium”. After Lin’s troops burned the contraband and washed the ashes out to sea the British then demanded “appropriate compensation” for the destruction of their property. The Qing court reacted exactly the same way the US DEA might if the government of Colombia demanded cash restitution for all the cocaine seized from Lindsay Lohan’s last house party. Faced with such ‘intransigence,’ parliament then authorized a naval expedition to see what could be done about…uh…helping old Lin Zexu find his pockets.
Again, seems like a shameless excuse for a war and it was. But apparently not shameless enough for the textbooks in China’s “Patriotic Education” curriculum. Most of what I just mentioned above is in there, but there are one or two things left out. First of all, many religious organizations, including most of the missionaries stationed in Guangdong at the time, were opposed to the trade. It was also religious organizations in England who put the most pressure on members of parliament to vote against going to war.* Many MPs were understandably a little squeamish about a measure that amounted to turning Queen Victoria into the world’s largest narco-baron. In the end — with a little bit of persuasion and a whole lot of money from Messrs. Jardine and Matheson and the like — the vote passed…narrowly. The debate in parliament was actually given a whole two minutes in the historical epic “Opium War” (released in 1997 just in time to coincide with the handover of Hong Kong**) but in this high school history textbook it simply says that: “When news of the destruction of the opium reached London, the English government swiftly launched a long-premeditated war to invade China.”
Now there’s simplification for heuristic purposes — especially in high school history classes — and then there’s the need to reduce events to Manichean dichotomies, oversimplifying events to paint a picture which has far more relevance to the insecurities of today’s politicians than to the complexities of the past.
Interestingly, given that the war was primarily about the trade in opium, there is also surprisingly little said about the history of the drug in China. In an essay on opium in China Roundabout, Jonathan Spence theorizes that the destructive power of opium — which had been in China for centuries — was unleashed when it went from being a medicine that could be diluted and taken orally to something that could be refined and smoked. Tobacco had first been introduced to China back in the 17th century by foreigners trading with South China and with the islanders on Taiwan. The habit was quick to catch on. As anybody who has ever sat in the ‘non-smoking’ section of a Beijing restaurant can attest, people love to smoke here, and before too long — like 14-year old boys the world over — Chinese smokers looked at their pipes and asked, “what else can we put in here and blaze up?” Soon mixtures of opium and water were being blended with tobacco, a concoction that was then eventually replaced by balls of nearly pure opium. The latter could be smoked for a stronger, longer-lasting, and much more addictive buzz and were also easier to ship (or smuggle), store, and sell. It was a moment in history not unlike the shift from powder cocaine to crack in the inner cities of the United States, or from amphetamines to meth in rural areas. Suddenly anyone could get high and nearly everyone was. And it was not only foreigners with taels of silver in their eyes, by the time of the war’s outbreak a great deal of the opium sold in the Qing Empire was grown locally by enterprising Chinese farmers. In fact, the proportion of domestic opium sold in China grew steadily throughout the 19th century, though the local stuff was always considered an inferior product.
But here’s the thing — does the fact that some opium was produced domestically, or that not every person in England and America supported the war, or that there was a loud ‘legalize it‘ movement in the Qing establishment change anything about how we understand the war today? I don’t think so.*** It’s hard to write a history of the Opium War that doesn’t make the British, American, and other foreign traders and governments seem — at the very least — like amoral opportunists willing to use violence to protect a profitable trade in illegal narcotics. It’s a story that spins itself, it doesn’t need a lot of help so…why bother?
The goal of the “Patriotic Education” curriculum is to have all history conform to a salvation narrative which leads inexorably from a ‘century of humiliation’ at the hands of the foreigners to a glorious ‘national liberation’ made possible only through the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. In this endeavor, complexity and messiness — that which makes history so interesting in my opinion — are eschewed in a rigorous and relentless attempt to stay ‘on message.’ After all, there’s nothing like nuance to muss up a well-crafted teleology, is there?
“Patriotic education” has been part of the curriculum for nearly two decades and it harks back to the dark days of the early 1990s. In his book, The Pessoptimist Nation, William Callahan writes: “While many saw the 1989 mass movement in Τiananmen Square as a possible solution to the problem of the brutality of the Chinese state, Deng Xiaoping felt that this ‘counter-revolutionary rebellion’ was best explained as a catastrophic failure of the CCP propaganda system.” Callahan argues that in the wake of 1989, the humiliation/salvation narrative gave the CCP an opportunity to deflect concerns away from domestic troubles and refocus that attention on a common enemy: the past ghosts of foreign aggression and the continuing specter of their possible return.
This narrative continues to provide an important source of legitimacy for the Party, but the CCP is certainly not the first to use the history of imperialism in service of the present. Sun Yat-sen — trying to form a nation out of “400 million grains of loose sand” — saw the story of foreign aggression as an important unifying force. Beijingers and Shanghainese might hate each other, thought Sun, but both shared a legacy of oppression at the hands of the rapacious foreign devils. Chiang Kai-shek talked of making China strong enough to repel the foreign invaders — though he was saying this even as he was cashing American checks as quickly as he could get his hands on them. It is important to remember, as Peter Hays Gries suggests, that “the ‘Century of Humiliation’ is neither an objective past that works insidiously in the present, nor a mere ‘invention’ of present-day nationalist entrepreneurs. Instead the ‘Century’ is a continuously reworked narrative about the national past central to the contested and evolving meaning of being ‘Chinese’ today.”
Patriotic education continues to be taught in China’s schools and this narrative certainly plays some role in the recent rise of an aggrieved and angry nationalism such as was on display during the torch relay in 2008 and, occasionally, also in the comments section of this blog. But as I have written throughout this little series, when you use history education as a bulwark for political legitimacy in the present, then what you’re teaching isn’t really history and it sure doesn’t qualify as education no matter whether the directives originate in the Chinese Ministry of Propaganda or from the Texas Board of Education.
*Actually, parliament stopped short of declaring war on the Qing Empire, in a move that was far ahead of its time, the British government authorized a military intervention on behalf of its national commercial interests without all of the hassle and hullabaloo of formally issuing a declaration of war.
** Funny story here…following the initial round of talks both negotiators were fired over Hong Kong. The Daoguang emperor was furious at the concessions made by his representative, Qishan, including the cession of Hong Kong. British PM Lord Palmerston was equally irate that his negotiator had failed to exact harsher conditions on the Qing Empire, calling Hong Kong “a barren rock with barely a house on it.” (Cited in Spence, 1999) Both representatives were dismissed — Qishan just barely kept his head — and hostilities resumed.
*** For a very well-written perspective on historical memory, patriotic education, and Chinese textbooks see Professor Yuan Weishi’s 2006 essay 现代化与历史教科书 / “Modernization and Chinese History Textbooks.” As most people remember, this rather academic article was responsible for the temporary closure of the journal Freezing Point and the sacking of its editor Li Datong.
Sources and further reading:
William A. Callahan, China: The Pessoptimist Nation. (Oxford University Press, 2010)
Peter Hays Gries, China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy. (University of California Press, 2005)
Immanuel C.Y. Hsu, The Rise of Modern China, 6th Edition. (Oxford University Press, 1999)
Michael C. Lazich, “American Missionaries and the Opium Trade in Nineteenth-Century China.” Journal of World History, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Jun., 2006), pp. 197-223
Glenn Melancon , “Honour in Opium? The British Declaration of War on China, 1839-1840.” The International History Review, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Dec., 1999), pp. 855-874
R. K. Newman, “Opium Smoking in Late Imperial China: A Reconsideration.” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Oct., 1995), pp. 765-794
James Polachek, The Inner Opium War. (Harvard University Press, 1991)
Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, 2nd Edition. (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999)