- - Tuesday, September 11, 2018



By Stephen R. Platt

Knopf, $35, 553 pages

Stephen R. Platt, professor of Chinese history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is that modern-day rarity, a highly-qualified academic historian who is also a first-rate writer.

As such, his work is always as rich in style as it is solid in substance. “Imperial Twilight,” his latest book, is set in a place and a period worthy of his pen, the vast and still-wealthy Chinese Empire under the corrupt, alien Manchu dynasty as it staggered into an increasingly likely — but not necessarily inevitable — decline and fall in the closing years of the 18th century and the early decades of the 19th century.

The story begins with the mission of Lord George Macartney to the court of Emperor Qianlong, the still-powerful but aging ruler of Quing Dynasty China. Undertaken on behalf of both the British Crown and the British East India Company, it is a fascinating episode more fully treated in Alain Peyrefitte’s excellent 1991 work, “The Immobile Empire,” for those interested in a more detailed account.

The Macartney mission was doomed from the start, not because of any vast historical forces, but because of the stiff-necked attitude of superiority that both sides of the negotiations held for their opposite numbers. The British, already the masters of much of India, tended to think of the Chinese emperor as one more rich, gullible oriental potentate — admittedly the biggest of the bunch — who would be so awe-struck by British technology and maritime might that he would eagerly sign on as a client-partner in Britain’s vast overseas commercial enterprise.

For his part, the Qianlong Emperor, ruler of the ancient Inner Kingdom (or, as he saw it, the only truly civilized part of the world), while viewing his British visitors with veiled curiosity, saw them as insolent, if mechanically clever, barbarians. Far from being impressed by their refusal to kowtow, he considered it evidence of their arrogant unworthiness to be taken seriously as diplomatic or trading partners. The mission failed and Macartney returned to London a bitter man.

Bitter, but not stupid. During his time in China he had noticed a thing or two and concluded that the creaky old empire was like a vast, decayed wooden battleship, “which a fortunate succession of able and vigilant officers has contrived to keep afloat for these hundred and fifty years past; and to overawe their neighbors merely by her bulk and appearance.”

“She may perhaps not sink outright,” he concluded, “she may drift some time as a wreck but she can never be rebuilt on the old bottom.” Although these words were written by a man who had only traveled in the country for a few months and was embittered by the failure of his mission, Mr. Platt wryly concedes, “he would turn out to be more correct than he had any right to be.”

The rest of “Imperial Twilight” takes us through the troubled, tortuous path of corruption, rebellion and cultural-political stasis that, in retrospect if not in fact, seems inevitably to have led to the “Opium War” of 1839-182, which, in turn, led to Chinese humiliation at the hands of the British, and a blight of mass addiction that worsened the fate of already suffering millions. It also laid the groundwork for massive, growing commercial and territorial incursions on the part of the major European powers and Yankee traders.

The story is rich in colorful characters, dramatic events and more than a little amusing irony. And the catalyst for much of it couldn’t be more timely: opium, the mother of all opiates, just as the Chinese opium disaster was the mother of all opioid epidemics. Bad as it was, Mr. Platt debunks the myths about China and the opium trade that have grown up on both sides of the historic divide, especially modern Chinese claims of passive victimhood in a drug trade that was carried out largely by non-European traders dealing with Chinese middlemen and dealers including many corrupt government officials.

He also reminds us of just how capricious history can be. “The Opium War was not part of some long-term British imperial plan for China but rather a sudden departure from decades, if not centuries, of generally peaceful and respectful precedent. Neither did it result from some inevitable clash of civilizations.”

Far from it. It was one of all too many historic turning points caused by accident, ignorance, arrogance, pettiness, greed and misread intentions on both sides. How sad that so little has changed in the intervening 179 years.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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