Friday, December 01, 2006

Opium and Relations with Japan and China


I was reading an account by Reverend James Legge from a speech he made in 1872 about his having lived in Hong Kong since 1843. He had some fascinating insights about why relations between China and the West had gone so badly, and why relations with Japan at that time were so positive. It would be an oversimplification to say that the Chinese unwillingness to emulate Western organizations, technologies and methods in the 19th century were due to the Opium War, but the Rev. Legge certainly makes a plausible case:
...we have given the Japanese little reason to do anything but love us, while we have given China much reason to fear us and hate us. I am not here tonight to express my views on the opium traffic, but I may surely ask, without giving offence to any one, whether, if we had forced that traffic on Japan as we have done on China, the relations between Japan and 'foreign' nations whould be what they are to-day. If there be a man here who thinks that there does not glow in me as true a British patriotism as in himself, I only say he does not know me; but I thank God that the United States preceded us in the opening of the Japanese Empire. Their treaty of the 29th July, 1858, recognizes the prohibition of the importation of opium, and that made by Lord Elgin [who prosecuted the 2nd Opium War for Britain - Ed.], on the 27th of the following month, does the same, and with a very stringent addition. Thus one thing which has embittered and fettered our intercourse with China, and will continue to do so, so long as it exists, has had no place in our intercourse with Japan; and the result has been accordingly.
It is interesting to note also that Rev. Legge must have felt that his strong statement would have caused offense in at least some of his listeners, because it was considered 'unpatriotic' to think of the Opium War as an unjustified impression of British commerce upon an unwilling China. It reminds me of American liberals circa 2003 having to defend their patriotism while at the same time opposing the Iraq war.

As my late, great professor of colonial history, Robin Winks, once said, so much of relations between races and civilizations depends on first contact. If today we still find those hostile to Westerners in China, those feelings may have their sad beginnings in 1839, the year the Opium War broke out and brought the existence of Western 'barbarians' to the attention to China at large.

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