- Merchants of War and Peace: British Knowledge of China in the Making of the Opium War by Song-Chuan Chen
As the title suggests, Song-Chuan Chen's new monograph, based on his Cambridge Ph.D. dissertation, is not just another retelling of the nineteenth-century military engagements between Great Britain and the Qing empire but rather an inquiry into the contexts and motives that led to the outbreak of war in 1839. Chen reframes the path to war for a twenty-first century audience familiar with the publicity campaigns and lobbying that accompany global military interventions. The road to war in nineteenth-century Canton was no different. Advocates of war consciously understood the necessity of waging an "information war" to support their agenda. They directed their persuasion and propaganda towards fellow merchants, the British authorities and public, and even the Chinese public. Their goal was to convince these audiences of the legitimacy of a British-centered "profit order" in greater China and to denigrate the Qing-centered "profit order" in Canton that had been established by the Qing state. As Chen argues, the slogans and interpretations of the pro-war cause have had an outsized effect in influencing scholarly and popular understandings of the causes and meaning of the first Opium War (1839-1842).
In Merchants of War and Peace, Chen emphasizes that in order to understand the preamble to the Opium War, we must unpack the terms and concepts used by participants, rather than interpreting them according to modern or inherited interpretations. The author argues that terms familiarly associated with the Opium War, including "free trade," "barbarian (yi)," "national honor," "opening China," and even "Opium War" itself were subject to contestation in the lead-up and aftermath of war. Most were coined by war advocates in the effort to persuade the British authorities and public of the cause for war. The controversies associated with some of these terms (like yi) will be familiar to most scholars, and this book does not contradict the prevailing narrative. However, Chen's painstaking readings of newspapers, pamphlets, and other publications of the British print-based public sphere shed valuable light on the intersections of sociability, profit, and politics at play. [End Page 51]
In 1830s Canton, the so-called Warlike and Pacific parties argued for and against war in the pages of the port's burgeoning English-language press. On the pro-war side were the majority of British private merchants in South China, backed by major players in the maritime and opium trade like James Matheson and William Jardine. More diffuse in social position than their Warlike counterparts, the Pacific party scorned the Warlike party's willingness to sacrifice principle and morality for profit in its participation in the opium trade and calls for military force. Not only did Pacific advocates point out that contemporary free trade economists viewed the Canton system as fitting their definition of free trade, but they also used Chinese sources to argue that Confucianism and trade were compatible rather than opposed (pp. 30-31). Already by the mid-1830s, these debates had participants beyond Canton, as the circulations of papers like the Canton Register and Canton Press far exceeded the local English-speaking population.
In the 1830s, merchant demands for war grew urgent, and they capitalized on contemporary party politics in London in order to appeal to domestic audiences. Again, terms mattered. In chapter 5, Chen addresses the politics of translation through a case study of the term yi (夷). Chen proposes a re-interpretation of this historical and historiographical debate by considering the implications of the term for the Qing officials that used it. Following Lydia Liu, he points out that early Qing officials predominantly used alternate terms to refer to Europeans not because they welcomed foreigners, but because yi, as the counterpart to "civilized" hua (華) connoted dangerous anti-Manchu sentiments.1 Furthermore, although early Qing accounts used a more complex form of...