Picador, £25, 458pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Opium War, By Julia Lovell

Just as history for Europeans is divided in two by the birth of an Asian, Jesus, so the history of China written over recent decades has been divided by the deeds of a handful of British merchants and military men. They came not to save China but to sell opium: in the official view of the current regime, China was only saved in 1949 with the birth of the People's Republic.

Click here to get money off this book from at Independent's bookshop

The Opium War of 1840 still marks the first blow imperialism dealt to the old China, the moment of the onset of modernity. Julia Lovell, whose background is as much in literature as history, tells the story of the war and its long aftermath so as to make it both intelligible and readable, while her access to both British and Chinese sources makes for a more rounded account than many.

She is well aware that recent research suggests opium was seen less negatively at the time than later, and even had some medical value. But a global economy allowed a British appetite for Chinese tea that had to be paid for somehow. Disastrously, only foisting the drug on China could correct the trade imbalance.

Since 1644 Manchu invaders had ruled the land, and they - perhaps influenced by long-standing fears about narcotics and subversion - banned its import. The flouting of this ban cannot be justified whatever view is taken of opium itself, or of the general benefits of free trade. Prohibition in the US was an unwise policy, but had the Canadian navy attacked Chicago on behalf of Mr Capone and his friends, comment would surely have been adverse.

Some had been spoiling for a pretext to take the Chinese down a peg. In 1817 Byron's publisher, John Murray, complaining to him of Chinese contempt for Britain, wrote "I do hope we shall have a war with them" – the sort of demand from an expanding power towards an older one to take it seriously that more recently caused such calamities as Pearl Harbor. The Japanese, as it turned out, were about the only ones to benefit from the episode.

Fact and fiction about the British aggressors were eagerly lapped up there – the rumour that the Chinese had managed to capture a British princess seems to have piqued particular curiosity – so that thinking about how to deal with the rampant expansion of the West was further stimulated in Japan in good time for reforms to be initiated. The Manchus, by contrast, soon found they had much more on their hands, as Protestant missionaries – not always foes of the opium traders – inadvertently precipitated massive internal uprisings, triggered by converts to a messianic Chinese reconfiguration of their message: the Taiping Rebellion.

Opium dogged Anglo-Chinese relations well into the 20th century, when the fall of the Manchus allowed Chinese historians under their beleaguered nationalist regime to look back in justified indignation at the whole sorry tale. This book shows both how this sense of indignation came into focus, and how it lived on after 1949. "Young friends! You probably don't know what sort of thing opium is," declares one pamphlet from the Cultural Revolution – and they probably did not, if they had spent the morning beating up their history teacher. Even so, they still needed to be clear about China's victimisation by imperialists.

Britain managed to forget its crimes by turning attention to the Chinese opium addict spreading the contagion of decline back to the imperial centre. Fears of this Yellow Peril were distilled into creating Fu Manchu, a literary stereotype embodying Britain's worst nightmares about a figure capable of secretly rousing the subject peoples of the world. The mysterious anti-imperial genius was not new – Captain Nemo would be one precedent.

But Fu encapsulates also imperial Britain's intense loathing for the mandarin. After all, it was during the 19th century that both civil and military service here saw the introduction of recruitment through examination, as in China, rather than the traditional British interview - in which it was possible to establish, without any bother about intellect, what accent a chap had, and who his relatives were.

So this is an unedifying spectacle for the British reader, and one posing a major question. Suppose the balance of globalisation swings heavily in favour of China once again. Now it is China that feels its way as a new power, demanding to be taken seriously. How then to teach our school history?

The slave trade we teach, as it tells us who we are, but at least abolitionists like Wilberforce give the narrative something like a happy ending. No minister, however, is likely to recommend a version of British history that offers space to all the episodes that have left a sense of grievance around the globe. Should this be an exception? Discuss. Please read this book before answering the examination question fully. You have no time at all.

TH Barrett is professor of East Asian history at SOAS, London

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine