As the West’s entanglement with China has deepened since the 1990s, so too has fascination with the Opium War, and every China-watcher will want to read Stephen R. Platt’s fascinating and beautifully constructed new book ... Unlike most accounts of the Opium War, Imperial Twilight focuses not on the conflict itself but on its background, going back to the Chinese decision in the 1750s to restrict Western trade to the single port of Canton. The usual highlights, like Lord Macartney’s trade embassy of 1793, are all here, but so too is a parade of less well-known but equally important episodes and a procession of gloriously eccentric characters ... Good men do bad things, roads to hell are paved with good intentions and golden opportunities are missed. In short, Imperial Twilight is a ripping yarn.
As Stephen R. Platt describes in his masterly Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, Chinese commerce with Western countries has been consistently defined by the dynamics of flattery and scorn, wonder and chastisement, fairness and greed. Mr. Platt, a historian at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is careful not to project the concerns of the present back onto the past. But the resonances are inescapable, and his book is important reading not only for those interested in China’s history but also for anyone seeking to understand the explosive intersection between trade and politics today ... Mr. Platt’s goal is to pick apart the complex and fascinating historical strands that led to the war. He tells his story through both Chinese and Western eyes, portraying a torturous history of misunderstandings and miscalculations ... Readers of Mr. Platt’s book will find themselves marveling at how similar many of the pivot points of debate remain today, despite dramatically changed circumstances.
Stephen R. Platt’s excellent new history of China and its relations with Britain and the U.S. in the 50 years up to 1839 could hardly be more timely. One of the best anglophone historians of late imperial China writing today, Platt immerses the reader in the friendships and frustrations, pleasures and hazards of a formative period in Sino-western relations ... Platt writes beautifully, with a novelist’s eye for detail. He skilfully weaves through the book a cast of eccentric characters who mediated between China, Britain and the U.S. ... It vividly evokes both the tragic consequences of British impatience over trade with China, and the stories of the many westerners and Chinese people who pragmatically coexisted and cooperated for decades before the declaration of war.
The main takeaway from Stephen R. Platt’s wonderful new book ... is that little, if anything, is fated. In the end, people, not impersonal forces or economic classes, make history, Platt argues. If there’s a lesson from that period for today, it is that leaders matter, as does a deep understanding of the interests and the history of the other side ... a fast-paced story that focuses on the individuals who made the history. Platt’s cast of characters includes Americans, Britons, Parsee Indians and Chinese, and he makes them come alive. Even minor figures are unforgettable ... Platt does especially well depicting the Chinese, portraying them not as one-dimensionally arrogant xenophobes but as profoundly human.
Stephen Platt’s Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age may be the first book for general readers about the decline of the Qing before 1850 ... So what happened? Platt’s story highlights blunders, personal dramas, and other contingencies, especially among the British. As more systemic explanations, he notes an increasing British obsession with 'national honor,' especially after Napier’s death, but places the most emphasis on a broader shift in attitudes toward China, from near awe in 1759 to near contempt by 1839 ... a close-up view like the one Platt offers is not necessarily the most useful, and is insufficient by itself. Some meanings that later commentators imposed on the war...are historically inaccurate and perhaps politically harmful as well. Other wide-angle views, however, remain quite illuminating ... Platt’s book adds many interesting details to the drama of 1839, but it does not greatly change the larger story of Western intrusion or of Qing decline.
Readers will find a variety of perspectives represented ... While the story concentrates on the colorful cast of British and Chinese, it also offers interesting vignettes of Indian merchants and the relationship between American John Murray Forbes and Hong merchant Wu Bingjian (known as Howqua in the West), the world's wealthiest man at the time ... This thoroughly researched and delightful work is essential for anyone interested in Chinese or British imperial history.
A deeply researched study of an early clash of civilizations, when England attempted to impose its will on East Asia ... A fluent, well-written exercise in revisionism, one of interest to students of modern geopolitics as well as 19th-century history.
...a fresh perspective on the first Opium War ... 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.