Drugs for the dragon

In India promoting her latest book, The Opium Wars, Julia Lovell is intrigued by the silence that surrounds the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars.

books Updated: Aug 20, 2011 11:59 IST
Sonakshi Babbar
Sonakshi Babbar
Hindustan Times

The Opium Wars: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China
Julia Lovell
Rs 499 pp 480

Julia Lovell can't help raving about the beautiful saris on display at a Delhi Mall. Straight-backed, smartly but staidly dressed in black, with a summery scarf around her neck, she has the sharp-eyed look of an eminent sinologist. As we reach the end of the mall in search of a noiseless nook, she unhesitatingly perches herself on the rather dusty ledge near the parking lot.

In India for the promotional tour of her latest book, The Opium Wars, the British author, is fascinated by the silence that surrounds the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars in India, "I have been closely following the reception of Amitav Ghosh's novel River Of Smoke (set in the period leading up to the wars) in India and what really struck me was the silence that surrounds the Opium Wars in India. Both China and India are equally entitled to feel angry with the Opium War and with the opium trade - in the case of India, the opium trade represents the systematic exploitation of India's natural wealth for the enrichment of the British empire. And yet in China, these events are a national wound, every school child knows about it, while here no one talks about it."

Does this indifference to history anger you? "Certainly, indifference to history does not anger me." She nods her head vigorously in denial. "I'm fascinated by the histories that countries choose to remember and choose to forget. I'm intrigued by this difference in public memory, and while in India I sought to understand it better."

While the wars ended in the 19th century, Lovell is quick to point out their implications today, "I stress this point because what happened during the war still resonates in the political and economical relationships between the two countries."

She's referring, of course, to the turbulent Opium Wars, which have affected the contemporary relations between Britain and China. The Opium Wars, 1839-1860 was a great battle, which ensued after China enforced prohibitions on the import of opium and destroyed a large quantity of opium confiscated from British merchants at Guangzhou (Canton). Great Britain, which had been looking to end China's restrictions on foreign trade, responded by sending gunboats to attack several Chinese coastal cities.

The Opium Wars - the mammoth sized book (458 pages to be exact) gives the impression that, the author who has previously written two books on China, must have spent endless days in libraries to research such an overlooked historical event. But she surprises me.

" Soon after I arrived in China, I watched the historical blockbuster, Xie Jin's The Opium War - at the time, the most expensive film ever made in China. It's a dark, brooding tale of plotting foreign imperialists and patriotic Chinese resistance, which portrayed the war as the first, tragic humiliation of modern China - a humiliation expunged only by the Handover of Hong Kong. I was struck at the time by how open the wound of the Opium War seemed to be, how it continued to resonate in contemporary China, and still shaped China's relationship with the West. This was my first practical experience of China's intense relationship with history - a relationship that has no real analogue in the West."

She confesses that in Britain she didn't know that much about the wars, "In our busy imperialist 19th century, the Opium War is seen as a sideshow, relative to exploits in India, say, or Africa. In China, the past has an extraordinary contemporary political relevance and potency. It made a deep impression on me, and I'd always wanted to return to this foundational episode in modern China to investigate it for myself."

As the idea developed in her mind, she went backpacking through the country, scourging the archives for facts. But unlike most historians, Lovell resorted to less conventional sources to get firsthand insights into the basic misunderstandings and mistakes that bedeviled contact between the two sides during the war.

Her eyes light up when she talks about the process of research, "The most exciting, eye-opening part of the research was going into Chinese schools and museums, to understand how people in China today see the Opium War. I discovered a set of responses that was far more complex than the views suggested by public history in China today - by textbooks, museums and documentaries."

She's obviously itching to speak about it, as I ask her to tell me what happened. "I attended a lecture where the high-school history teacher was giving a talk about British aggression against China, I expected it to generate anger against the British, but the responses showed more anger at Chinese themselves. These young students blamed their Chinese for being weak and of allowing themselves to get addicted to opium."

With such contending views within China itself, not to mention the differences in Britain and China's historical records of the wars, Lovell had to don the detective's hat to discern fact from fiction. "Sometimes the differences between the various accounts were so great that I had to produce both versions and let the reader decide."

After being on a Sino diet for years, I ask her to unravel the mystery of China - the dragon country's people, government, and modern politics. "That's a very big question. A short answer is that contemporary China is endlessly complex and fascinating: a country that is undergoing radical transformations, while retaining unmistakable links with its political and cultural pasts. The key lesson that I learnt while researching the Opium War is how complicated this place we call China is: how even a seemingly straightforward act of invasion and aggression by a foreign power (Britain) can generate among the Chinese people a great variety of responses."

A self-confessed tea addict, I would say China is the flavour she looks for in ever thing. Not one to tire, Lovell, who teaches Chinese history at Birkbeck College, University of London, is geared for her next book already - a history of international Maoism, about how Maoism traveled beyond China to become a global political force. "I'll be looking at the embrace of Maoism as radical chic in 1960s-70s Europe and America, but also at more contemporary case-studies, in particular Nepal and India."

With India being and important part of her next project, is she looking forward to spending more time in the country? It's too early to say," she says before entering Fab India to buy some ethnic Indian jewels for her family back home.

First Published: Aug 19, 2011 23:01 IST