Author adds nuance to Chinese history

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 August, 2011, 12:00am


Every great political enterprise is founded on a great crime, according to Machiavelli. There is no dispute that British colonisation made Hong Kong prosperous after the Opium Wars. But this does not absolve the British from committing outright aggression to further its drug trade, or make China wrong for emphasising the humiliation and national decline that followed.

Yet increasing numbers of overseas writers and politicians, through widespread distrust of China's rise, have come to question the Chinese version of this history.

A new book by British historian and translator Julia Lovell, The Opium War, offers a more nuanced interpretation. It is most welcome in these confusing times. A star author at the recent Hong Kong Book Fair, Lovell told Young Post how raw the wound still is in contemporary China.

Lovell does not dispute the legitimacy of China's historical version. What she criticises is its lack of balance. Likewise, she castigates the readiness of British people today to overlook that shameful chapter in their own history when they have repudiated their past racism, mass slaughters and other wars in the imperial realm.

Lovell notwithstanding, Chinese are entitled to their version of the history of the Opium Wars no less than the North American Indians are entitled to their version of their dispossession and suffering during the expansion of the American West, or Africans of their version of the slave trade and European colonisation.

Today, historians like Niall Ferguson like to point to the universal public good brought about by Western imperialists.

They are not wrong. But those who were colonised and wronged should not forget their crimes, either.