Julia Lovell’s new history of the opium war is a welcome piece of myth-busting. It uses a wealth of Chinese and British sources to tell, in her words, a “tragicomedy” that is “far more chaotically interesting” than the ideological positions on both sides might suggest. The tragedy part is as simple as it was in 1839. British opium from East India was brought into China in huge amounts from the early 19th century. In the 1830s, concern about the drug’s effects on the population and economy led the Qing dynasty to ban it, and they ordered a senior official, Lin Zexu, to blockade British opium ships in Canton harbour until they agreed to hand over their cargo. In Britain, this was seen as an insult to the Crown (much of the opium was produced by the East India Company), and a fleet under Admiral Charles Elliot was sent out to teach the Chinese a lesson. British military technology soon smashed through Chinese defences, and after three years of coastal fighting, the war ended with the Nanjing treaty of 1842 which handed over Hong Kong island and opened up the interior to trade and Christian missionaries. For the next century, China would be subject to further invasions and humiliations, which ended only with the termination of special western rights in China in 1943 under Chiang Kai-shek (not under Mao in 1949, as the Chinese Communist party tends to suggest).
China & The Opium Wars in the 19th Century
Here we learn about the humiliations suffered by China in the 1800s. School children are taught about these humiliations along with a story about king Goujian. The story of king Goujian who slept on sticks and tasted gall is as known to the Chinese as George Washington and the cherry tree are to Americans. He has become a symbol of resistance against the years of colonial humiliation inflicted by the West.
In the end king Goujian avenges the years of humiliation by bidding his time until he is strong enough, facilitating weakness in his enemy (By helping him to rack up debt), then finally defeating and killing his enemy. Does that sound like China today, except we haven’t gotten to the final part yet?
King Goujian (Yue) was defeated by King Fuchai (Wu) and taken prisoner. He worked in the royal stables and gradually won the respect of Fuchai. Later he was allow to govern his old kingdom under Fuchai. Goujian quietly bided his time and hide his capabilities over eight years until he was strong enough to finally attack and defeat Fuchai. During the eight years he quietly undermined Fuchai and facilitated Fuchai’s growth of debt.
Taken like that, the parable of Goujian sums up what some people find alarming about China’s rise as a superpower today. Ever since Deng Xiaoping set about reforming the economy in 1978, China has talked peace. Still militarily and economically too weak to challenge America, it has concentrated on getting richer. Even as China has grown in power and rebuilt its armed forces, the West and Japan have run up debts and sold it their technology. China has been patient, but the day when it can once again start to impose its will is drawing near.Sponsored Ads
War Between Wu and Yue
The war between Wu and Yue comprised several separate phases. It was started when a Yue princess, who was married to one of the princes of the neighbouring State of Wu, left her husband and fled back to the country of Yue. This became the spark for the war to come.
Upon the death of Yunchang and the accession of Goujian, King Helü of Wu seized the opportunity and launched an attack on Yue. At the Battle of Zuì L? (????), however, Yue defeated Wu, and King Helü was mortally wounded; before his death he instructed his son, King Fuchai of Wu, “Never forget Yue!” Yue would be defeated three years later by a resurgent Wu, and Goujian captured, to serve as Fuchai’s servant for three years until he was eventually allowed to return to his native state.
Upon resuming his rule King Goujian quickly appointed skilled politicians as advisors, such as Wen Zhong and Fan Li, to help build up the kingdom. During this time, his ministers also worked to weaken the State of Wu internally through bribes and diplomatic intrigue.
All the time, whilst ruling his kingdom, Goujian never relished in riches as a king, but instead ate food suited for peasants, as well as forcing himself to taste bile. This way, he could remember his humiliations while serving under the State of Wu. There is a Chinese idiom, ???? (Pinyin: wò x?n cháng d?n, literally “sleeping on sticks and tasting gall”), the second half of which refers to Goujian’s perseverance.
After ten years of economic and political reforms the last phase of the war began, by which time the State of Yue had come a long way from its previous defeat; as described in the Shiji, Ten years of reforms; the state is rich, the warriors well-rewarded. The soldiers charge in the face of arrows like thirsty men heading for drink… making use of Fuchai’s expedition to struggle with Jin for hegemony Goujian led his army and successfully attacked the Wu capital, killing the crown prince. In the 24th year of his reign (473 BC), Goujian led another expedition, laying siege to the capital for three years before it fell; when a surrender from Fuchai was refused he committed suicide, and Wu was annexed by Yue. After his victory, he ruthlessly killed Fuchai’s scholars and his own scholars who helped him, not allowing himself to make the same mistake Fuchai did by letting his enemies live.
King Goujian’s army was known for forcing their front line, composed of criminals sentenced to death, to commit suicide by decapitation to scare their enemy before battle.
Would China really attack America? Let’s look at some statistics.
Great power rivalries in history:
1. Spain versus Holland in the 16th century. [War]
2. Holland versus England in the 17th century. [War]
3. Britain versus France in both the 18th and 19th centuries. [War]
4. France and Britain versus Germany in the 20th century. [War]
5. Germany versus Russia in 1914. [War]
6. Germany versus Russia (Soviet Union) in 1941. [War]
7. Soviet Union versus the US and its allies in the Cold War after 1945. [No War]
That’s not a good sign. The probability of war when an empire is confronted by another rising power is 6 out of 7.