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BOOK REVIEW: ‘When America First Met China’
For centuries, the United States and China have had a multifaceted relationship. These two countries, with different histories, political systems and traditions, have traded goods, traveled the high seas and increased their economic and military might. While the mystery and intrigue of those early meetings has long since past, the nations regularly meet along the road to power and success — and this will continue for the foreseeable future.
Yet it’s rather surprising that so little has been written about the early period of U.S.-China relations. Eric Jay Dolin, an acclaimed author who has blended history, wildlife and the environment in previous works (“The Duck Stamp Story,” “Leviathan” and “Fur, Fortune, and Empire”), was up to the challenge. His new book, “When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail,” is a well-written account of two nations far from each other and the sea by which they forged an uneasy — albeit profitable — financial arrangement.
Mr. Dolin’s book starts at an intriguing time in America’s history. One ship, the Edward, was traveling down the East River “delivering what could arguably be called the birth certificate of the United States.” Meanwhile, another ship, the Empress of China, was “making a very important statement of its own, announcing to the world that this new nation was ready to compete in the international arena.” The irony? Both ships set sail on Feb. 22, 1784 — George Washington’s 52nd birthday. As Mr. Dolin writes, while this “was just a coincidence, it was particularly fitting that the infant nation’s first foray to the Far East should have commenced on the birthday of the man who had done more to found the United States than any other person.”
The Empress was funded by prominent financiers, including Robert Morris, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, who established the first national bank. The ship carried a huge amount of cargo, including spirits, fur, ginseng and lead, as well as nearly $20,000 in Spanish silver coins, which “would be most welcome in Canton.” The ship’s captain, John Green, was an imposing figure at “six feet four inches tall and nearly three hundred pounds.” When the Empress finally weighed anchor on July 22, the young nation’s history was about to change, as “Americans were finally entering the Middle Kingdom.”
A talented researcher and wordsmith, Mr. Dolin has the ability to bring important historical accounts to life. With China, he paints a portrait of an ancient empire that “viewed itself as a beacon for humanity, and it expected other countries to accept willingly its elevated position.” Trade with European countries was indirect at first because “the Chinese were wary of Europeans … the new European barbarians were often violent, unpredictable, and at times seemed as intent on gaining Christian converts as they were on bartering for goods.” Although this guarded position dropped over time, it showed that China wanted to trade and build relations on their own terms.
What about the United States? Most colonists “knew nothing about China” and, according to Mr. Dolin, regarded it as “an imperial, exotic empire that remained shrouded in myth.” Even though some Europeans had less palatable views of the Chinese, many educated Americans — including those in the American Philosophical Society — remained positive. In contrast, China “had never heard of the United States, and [was] not quite sure what to make of the Americans, at first thinking that they were Englishmen.” As the Chinese learned more about the Americans, “the more intrigued they became” and eventually dubbed them the “New People.”
Economic relations between the Pearl of the Orient and the revolutionaries soon took off. American voyages across the sea to China increased, with merchants like John Jacob Astor, Stephen Girard and Elias Hasket Derby taking the lead. Mr. Dolin writes, “New ships had to be built for the burgeoning China trade, bringing shipyards back to life and employing thousands of men in various trades.” While these voyages were “fraught with many dangers,” including the loss of life, the taste for the Middle Kingdom’s wares was nearly insatiable.
In “When America First Met China,” many chapters are spent detailing the growth of industries like silk and flowers. The opium war also exploded, much to the chagrin of Emperors Qianlong and Jiaqing. Foreign factories were built throughout Canton to meet the high demands of imports and exports. Even novelty acts, such as Chang and Eng, the “Siamese Twins,” became popular attractions in the United States.
America and China knew little about one another two centuries ago, and much has obviously changed. Mr. Dolin’s book of historical facts, unique tales and financial success in the glorious age of sail opens an important passageway into little-known America-China relations of the past that may also provide some guidance in the present.
Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a columnist with The Washington Times.
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