Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age

by Stephen R. Platt (author)

Hardcover, 2018



Call number



Atlantic Books (2018), Edition: Main


Describes how nineteenth-century British efforts to open China to trade set in motion the fall of the Qing dynasty and started a war that allowed for the rise of nationalism and communism in the twentieth century.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Stbalbach
Imperial Twilight concerns the period 1800-1839 leading up to the Opium War. It's not about the war itself which is covered in a few pages at the end. Rather it seeks to understand how such a bizzare historical episode came to be - while the British were emancipating slaves, they were enslaving
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millions of Chinese to an addiction (opium at the time was illegal in China). It's a multi-generational story centered on Canton, the only Chinese port where Western companies could do trade. There are lessons relevant to today, namely when a few corporate entities are making ungodly amounts of money they will do anything to keep it going, even if means destroying entire countries, or indeed the planet. The Chinese today see the event as the start of the modern era, when outsiders began meddling in their affairs from which they are still recovering a rightful place as the greatest country in history. Platt undermines that narrative somewhat showing it as mostly a series of unintended consequences and contingencies with both sides at fault. However if there is a bad guy it would be the British for deciding to go to war to maintain a reprehensible trade. This is serious but readable history, Platt has done considerable research on a key period.
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LibraryThing member Shrike58
While is a very worthwhile chronicle of how the British relationship with Qing China curdled over time, however, maybe ten percent of this work deals with the actual war. Essentially, Platt traces the decline from the zenith of British respect in the 1790s, to the point, where, in the 1830s, a
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naval campaign seemed like the logical response to what was essentially a local misunderstanding by the nations' responsible officials on the ground in Canton. For most of this book, Platt examines either the perspective of a Chinese government that was surfing chaos with less and less success, or the position of the community of merchant adventurers in Canton, who longed for a more robust status. In the end, if this war was about anything (the opium trade was, at most, the fuse to the conflict), it was about the inability of the Chinese and British governments to previously establish channels through which to work out their issues; making this one of those rare occasions where a war broke out by something that looked like an accident. However, once that war did break out, there is no denying that the UK Whig government of time was prepared to make the most of the situation that they could. Also, while this war remains the event where it all went wrong in the estimate of modern Chinese patriots, at the time, Lin Zexu (the responsible official cracking down on the use and trade of opium), was held to have overplayed his hand, and gave the British an excuse for war.
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LibraryThing member Sammelsurium
A book that does a great job of clearly laying out a very complex historical event. Focuses on the history of trade leading up to the first opium war more than the war itself, but it makes a worthwhile picture of Chinese-British relations and trade. There were a lot of small details and colorful
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quotations that were interesting enough to make me want to look up and dig into the primary sources he cited--"Confessions of an English Opium Eater" and the letter from the official Lin Zexu to Queen Victoria, for instance--and for me that makes a history book a great success.
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6.69 inches


1786494868 / 9781786494863
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