The Opium War once ranked among the most studied events in Chinese history. In English alone, it inspired monographs by Hsin-pao Chang (1964), Frederic Wakeman (1966), and James Polachek (1992), as well as a translation-based classic by Arthur Waley (1958).9 Yet even as historical interest in opium as a commodity and narcotic has increased in past decades, that in the events of 1839–42 and their consequences has notably declined. This is surely due to skepticism among Western historians of the once-prominent thesis that the war marked the first in a series of cascading crises that triggered the collapse of “traditional” China and thus could be seen as the inaugural event in its “modern” history.

Julia Lovell suggests two compelling reasons to return attention to this conflict. First, coverage of the war in English has surprising lacunae. Although specialized studies abound, she notes that “[a]t the time of writing, there...

You do not currently have access to this content.