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The 2013 Cundill Lecture


The 2013 Cundill Lecture, From 2012 Cundill Prize Winner Stephen Platt

The Opium War, or First Anglo-Chinese War, of 1839-1842 has long served historians as the chosen starting point for China’s modern history, the launching point of its “century of humiliation” from which successive governments have promised redemption. But such treatment sets the war in stone, as if China’s military weakness and Britain’s predatory aggression in Canton were eternal and unchanging facts. If, instead, we view the Opium War not as a starting-point but as an ending, as the culmination of global forces decades in the making, we can find that a different sort of story emerges.

This lecture will trace a broad sweep of the history of China and its foreign contacts, from the 1790s to the 1830s, to plot the Qing dynasty’s struggle against growing internal threats to its control – massive sectarian uprisings and bureaucratic corruption chief among them – against Britain’s rising naval power and the shifting nature of foreign trade at Canton. Such a perspective will help us to escape the illusion of the war’s inevitability and explore instead how the Qing dynasty – which began this period as one of the most powerful and admired empires in the world – came to be sufficiently weakened (and Britain sufficiently emboldened) that such a lopsided war, widely condemned at the time as immoral, could have been fought in the first place.

McGill Faculty Club, 3450 McTavish.