End of Empire8 min read

Emily Walz reviews Imperial Twilight by Stephen R. Platt


The outlines of the Opium War are familiar to many: from centuries ago, the Chinese had tea. The British, with their superior navy, wanted to trade opium for it. The meeting of these two sides brought about a literal trade war in the 1830s, forcing a treaty from China that allowed the opium trade to flourish and allowed foreigners to live in port cities like Shanghai. This series of events beget the reluctant “opening” of China, and set a pattern in which foreign powers would use violence to wrest concessions from China. Historian Stephen R. Platt’s newest work, Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, is the story of how Britain came to believe it could “demand peace by force of arms,” as read the inscription on one medal designed to commemorate what would become the first of two so-called Opium Wars.

The first war itself (1839-42) wasn’t particularly significant in its destruction, duration, or carnage. As Platt notes, “There weren’t even that many battles fought.” It wasn’t notable for displacing large portions of the Chinese population, or for almost toppling the ruling Qing dynasty – it was contemporaneous internal rebellions that threatened to do that. For this reason, very little of the war’s action makes it into the book. “But,” Platt warns, “the symbolic power of the Opium War is almost limitless.” It would become, in his words, “the very foundation of modern Chinese nationalism,” the moment Chinese textbooks define as the start of China’s modern history, and the Century of Humiliation – an era often invoked as the foil for China’s past and future glory, and what Xi Jinping seeks to counter with his “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

“The first Opium War came to be known to history as a time when Britain ‘unleashed its navy on a nearly defenseless China in order to advance the interests of its national drug dealers.’”

Given the retrospective significance of the first Opium War, Platt’s book sets out to meticulously reconstruct the events leading to it: a few hardline personalities unwilling to compromise, a dose of miscommunication, imagined slights to national honor, and a currency crisis sparked by all the silver flowing out of China into opium traders’ hands. In so doing, he demonstrates how the story is more complicated than commonly imagined, and shows that war was never inevitable.

To start his story, Platt steps back a century to the so-called Canton Era, named for the massive southern walled city (modern day Guangdong) that was the center of Euro-American trade with China. Set on the Pearl River, Canton boasted granite-paved streets and dense brick houses with sloping tiled roofs, and a standard of living that outstripped most of Europe in the 1700s. After describing what lies inside the city walls, Platt explains, “As a foreigner, you are stopped at the gate and turned away.” Europeans had come to Canton to trade, but they were barred from entering the city proper.

Instead, Platt guides the reader through its suburban alleys filled with shops – tailors, cabinetmakers, porcelain-sellers – narrating the sounds, smells, and humid air, bringing the reader slowly outward, toward the edge of the city. “Now we come to the factory district at the edge of the river,” he writes. “This is where you belong.” Meaning, where the foreigners lived. His choice to align the reader with the foreign is a deliberate setting of perspective that informs most of the book. For the most part, Platt’s story chronicles the attempts of the British to expand trade and establish diplomatic relations with China. There are times when he pulls back the curtain to illuminate developments in Qing China and how they shaped Chinese policy and action – the White Lotus rebellion; the corruption of officials; their perspective on the British delegations; the debates among scholars and ministers over how to handle the growing opium scourge – but it is the British whose stories form the central narrative of the book.

Platt pulls these strands together into a story whose suspense escalates over time. Chafing at their confinement to a single southern outpost, British officials tried time and again to get around local officials and go straight to the emperor to establish a more favorable trade relationship. As a rule, these efforts didn’t end well: the first in the series came in 1759, when a man named James Flint sailed north with an appeal about a senior customs official demanding bribes. He landed in prison for his trouble.

Thirty-some years later, in 1793, British sent its first formal embassy to Beijing, under the direction of Lord Macartney, with a long and aspirational list of requests. Booted unceremoniously from the capital after a few days at the imperial palace, the delegation managed only to offend the emperor by refusing to kowtow, and accomplished none of its goals.

In 1816, Britain decided to try again. By then, even more foreigners crowded China’s southern coast and the British were more confident in their military power after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. William Pitt Amherst, a well-connected man with no China experience, was picked to lead the embassy. With him went George Staunton, a man of superior expertise who was bitter over being passed over for the top job; the missionary Robert Morrison, who had done much of the work in creating the first Chinese-English dictionary; and Thomas Manning, an enigmatic explorer with a fondness for Vietnamese silk robes who had sneaked into Lhasa years earlier and become enchanted with the boy Dalai Lama before being deported from Tibet. There were also the unrepentant imperialists among them, such as Amherst’s secretary Henry Ellis, who thought backward Asian civilizations needed British commerce and progress to jump-start them. The attitudes of these individuals mirrored larger shifts in popular British opinion of China: “Where Macartney had seen a brave new world, Morrison saw a country of dark heathens,” writes Platt.

This diplomatic mission failed in spectacular fashion. Platt recounts how the group traveled through the night around the locked city of Beijing, only to be told when they arrived at dawn that Amherst was late to see the emperor, who was even then stepping up to his throne. The weeks of debate over the ceremonial kowtow that had threatened to derail the audience proved irrelevant, as would the particulars of the embassy’s requests. Amherst – tired, disheveled, lacking his ceremonial robes and the letter from the prince regent of Britain – refused to see the emperor until later. When the emperor’s brother-in-law made to pull him along by force, Amherst shoved him, nearly sparking a skirmish in the waiting chamber. Ultimately, the brother-in-law took pity on the trapped foreigners, hemmed in by a crowd of ministers, and seized a guard’s whip to beat them a path out. Amherst never saw the emperor, and they went away convinced that he was, in the words of Amherst’s physician, a “capricious despot.” In reality, the emperor had been working to ensure that the visit would be a success, directing his ministers to be flexible on issues of ceremony.

From that low point, relations sank even lower as private traders (in flagrant violation of Chinese law) grew rich and increasingly belligerent in smuggling opium from India. Into this scene entered the famous Lin Zexu – the Chinese official mythologized for destroying vast quantities of British opium, still celebrated in China as a morally upright figure. His March 1839 edict ordering the traders turn over their opium would prompt a chain of events that led the British prime minister to acquiesce to the hardliners and send a naval fleet to China to seek reparations.

By the time the book reaches the war in 1839, it is almost anticlimactic. Platt shares with Julia Lovell’s 2011 book The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China a partial cast of characters, and a few memorable episodes such as an abortive Chinese attempt to weaponize monkeys by attaching firecrackers and launching them at British ships. But unlike Lovell’s work, Platt devotes only a few dozen pages to the fighting and its aftermath. The book winds down with only the barest mentions of the second Opium War that would follow (1856-60), bringing a bellicose Britain and France into an alliance that continued and amplified the European attack on China. In Platt’s writing, the true heart of the story lies in what came before – how the first Opium War came to be known to history as a time when Britain “unleashed its navy on a nearly defenseless China in order to advance the interests of its national drug dealers.”

As the defeated general Napoleon cautioned, the war compelled China to strengthen its defenses. Two hundred years have lapsed since his pronouncement; the People’s Republic now boasts a navy that Britain would no longer dream it could capture using “a small fleet of six or seven ships,” a buildup fueled in part by nationalist determination to avoid the military weakness of the nineteenth century. But today, with a contemporary trade war sparking tensions between China and a Western power, drug traffickers again have a part to play: this time, the drug is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid whose variants can be thousands of times more potent than heroin. More than 90% of the drug and its derivatives are estimated to originate in China, flowing outward to the rest of the world. ∎


Stephen R. Platt, Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, Knopf (May, 2018).
Header image: contemporaneous sketch of Macartney’s first meeting with Qianlong, from Wikimedia Commons.