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.
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.