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.

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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

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