The reason for Great Britain’s war against China in the First Opium War (1839-42) is often taken as a given. British merchants wanted to...

The reason for Great Britain’s war against China in the First Opium War (1839-42) is often taken as a given. British merchants wanted to “open” trade beyond the port of Canton (Guangzhou) and continue dealing in the lucrative commodity, opium. Historian Stephen R. Platt’s book, Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age (Knopf, 2018) proves that the path to war was not so simple. Internal rebellions weakened the Qing military and stretched resources thin. British themselves debated the merits of the Canton system that restricted all Western foreigners and their trade in China to a single port. Some Qing officials considered opium a wholly domestic issue while others considered how best to resolve opium smuggling–by legalizing opium or ejecting foreigners from Canton. Platt traces the narratives of figures who played significant roles in the mounting conflict and identifies lynchpin moments when the history of China and the West could have turned out much differently.

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