cover image Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age

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

Stephen R. Platt. Knopf, $35 (592p) ISBN 978-0-307-96173-0

Platt (Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom), a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, provides a fresh perspective on the first Opium War, the conflict that allowed Western merchants to pry open China’s riches and gain unprecedented trading privileges. Far from an inevitable conflict, Platt posits the Opium War (1839–1842) was the unexpected and bloody culmination of a long period of peaceful relations between British traders and China under the Qing emperors. Moreover, it marked a decisive shift in British attitudes toward China; from being viewed as a mighty empire and civilizational equal, China was now a subordinate Eastern nation, just another feather in the Royal Navy’s cap. Platt provides a highly textured account of the decades leading up to the Opium War, detailing the gradual penetration of the China trade by a series of British adventurers whose antics were more buffoonish than brilliant (when George Macartney first arrived at the Chinese court he donned an outlandish velvet suit and feathered cap in a misguided attempt to impress the emperor) and whose efforts only succeeded because of the severe pressure placed on the Qing empire by peasant uprisings. The narrative is slow-moving and only comes to life in the last chapter, when the breakout of the Opium War provides some much-needed action. That said, Platt’s research is impeccably presented in this winning history of British and Chinese trade. (May)