Emily Walz reviews Imperial Twilight by Stephen R. Platt
The outlines of the Opium War are familiar to many: from centuries ago, the Chinese had tea. The British, with their superior navy, wanted to trade opium for it. The meeting of these two sides brought about a literal trade war in the 1830s, forcing a treaty from China that allowed the opium trade to flourish and allowed foreigners to live in port cities like Shanghai. This series of events beget the reluctant “opening” of China, and set a pattern in which foreign powers would use violence to wrest concessions from China. Historian Stephen R. Platt’s newest work, Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, is the story of how Britain came to believe it could “demand peace by force of arms,” as read the inscription on one medal designed to commemorate what would become the first of two so-called Opium Wars.