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  • Deadly Dreams: Opium, Imperialism, and the Arrow War (1856-1860) in China
  • Thomas D. Reins (bio)
J. Y. Wong. Deadly Dreams: Opium, Imperialism, and the Arrow War (1856-1860) in China. Cambridge Studies in Chinese History, Literature, and Institutions. Cambridge (England) and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xxx, 542 pp. Hardcover $69.95, ISBN 0-5215-5255-9.

John Wong's study of the Arrow or Second Opium War provides almost everything one expects to find in consequential historical scholarship: prodigious research, acute analysis, methodical organization, evenhanded judgments, and lucid writing. Deadly Dreams seeks to establish the causes of that conflict by painstakingly untangling the tortuous thicket of interests, events, and personalities that surrounded Anglo-French hostilities with China between 1856 and 1860. A Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Sydney and the author of numerous articles and monographs (including a biography of Imperial Commissioner Ye Mingchen [Yeh Ming-ch'en]), Dr. Wong brings a wealth of experience and insight to this study, which has involved more than a quarter century of searching out pertinent evidence and thinking through prevalent Western and Chinese explanations for the War. Arguing that existing investigations (which he ably surveys) are flawed by either historical inaccuracies, political correctness, monocausal interpretations, or narrow perspectives, Wong examines the Arrow War in order to understand "the way British imperialism expressed itself" (p. 2). That expression was principally economic, considerably strategic, geographically global, frequently ego-driven, and ultimately empire-sustaining.

In the first two parts of this seven-part book, Wong endeavors "to find out what actually happened" (p. 42). He begins by chiding former British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd's The Arrow War: An Anglo-Chinese Confusion, arguing that the confusion of the subtitle is endemic in research and suggesting that a good historian unsnarls the complexity of events. As it pertains to the Arrow War, this first involves determining what really happened to the lorcha Arrow, built, owned, and manned by Chinese but registered in Hong Kong and captained by Irishman Thomas Kennedy—and thus granted British protection.

Was its flag torn down by Chinese authorities? Highly unlikely, argues Wong, though historians continue to assume that it was; this claim merely served as a pretext for starting the conflict. Nor did the War commence due to a clash of cultures, because of Britain's desire for diplomatic recognition, on account of the imperialism of free trade, or as a consequence of Cantonese xenophobia, though these and other issues certainly were bones of contention at the time. Instead, the War occurred primarily because of the British conquest of India, "a conquest sustained to a large extent by the fast-growing net revenue from opium sold in China" (p. 39). [End Page 555]

Wong next examines (in parts 3 and 4) the principal actors on the scene in China and producers of public policy in Britain who influenced the decision for war. Acting Consul in Canton Harry Parkes, British Minister Plenipotentiary in the Far East and Governor of Hong Kong Sir John Bowring, and Imperial Commissioner Ye Mingchen constituted the crucial authorities in China whose beliefs and behavior substantially determined relations between Britain and the Middle Kingdom. Wong characterizes Parkes as a young hothead advocating hostilities against China, ostensibly because Chinese marines had, on October 8, 1856, illegally boarded a British-registered ship, taken away most of its Chinese crew, and hauled down the Union Jack, which Parkes labeled "an insult of a very grave character" (p. 47) in a communication to Ye. Actually, the genuine insult occurred when Parkes attempted to secure the return of the detained Arrow crew and was assaulted by Chinese authorities. Parkes convinced British authorities to bombard Imperial Commissioner Ye's residence in Canton in retaliation, claiming that the Chinese had no intention of redressing British grievances. "Step by step," asserts Wong, "[Parkes] had brought Great Britain into a state of undeclared war with China" (p. 80). However, Bowring worked with Parkes not so much to redress the alleged wrongs surrounding the Arrow incident but to achieve British entry into Canton and to redress an insult he had received upon arrival as Consul in 1848. Military action might well force Ye...


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