David Cameron’s poppy controversy was only the most recent example of the antagonisms, misunderstandings and distortions that the Opium War has generated over the past hundred and seventy years. Since it was fought, politicians, soldiers, missionaries, writers and drug smugglers inside and outside China have been retelling and reinterpreting the conflict to serve their own purposes. In China, it has been publicly demonized as the first emblematic act of Western aggression: as the beginning of a national struggle against a foreign conspiracy to humiliate the country with drugs and violence. In nations like Britain, meanwhile, the waging of the war transformed prevailing perceptions of the Middle Kingdom: China became, in Western eyes, an arrogant, fossilized empire cast beneficially into the modern world by gunboat diplomacy. The reality of the conflict – a tragicomedy of overworked emperors, mendacious reality of the conflict – a tragicomedy of overworked emperors, mendacious generals and pragmatic collaborators – was far more chaotically interesting. This book is the story of the extraordinary war that has been haunting Sino-Western relations for almost two centuries.
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