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Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age

Stephen R. Platt

Alfred A. Knopf, Penguin Random House LLC., 2018 

The Opium War of 1839 brought China into a fateful battle with Britain, as Britain launched hostilities in part fueled by its free-trade agenda and domestic politics. Stephen R. Platt’s new book Imperial Twilight explores the history of this conflict, pulling together a narrative of the preceding half-century to ultimately explain “how the Opium War came to be.” Platt depicts the events leading up to the war with an eye on the characters involved — taking into consideration smugglers, policy-makers, and critics from Britain and China alike. As Platt examines how the liberal Western empire came to back drug smugglers in a war against an esteemed economic power, he successfully challenges common perceptions that the Opium War was the unavoidable result of circumstance or a grand imperial scheme. Platt’s writing establishes the setting, characters, and struggles of both sides, weaving together a compelling take on a critical moment in China’s history, especially as the country seeks to shrug off “the century of humiliation” and take on a global leadership role. This commentary on the intersection between trade and politics remains relevant today, especially as modern economic aggression and conflicts of perception appear to be driving a wedge between East against West once again.

  • Readers of Mr. Platt’s book will find themselves marveling at how similar many of the pivot points of debate remain today, despite dramatically changed circumstances. As the risk of U.S.-China conflict intensifies, both sides would do well to study the lessons of how pride, disenchantment, economic aggression and perceived unfairness sent Britain and China lurching toward war in a prior era—and to remember, in our own time, that the future of the U.S.-China relationship is not foreordained.

    Julian Gewirtz

    The Wall Street Journal
  • At a moment when the demagogic Trump is making confrontational noises about Chinese “protectionism”, his administration would do well to read Imperial Twilight. It vividly evokes both the tragic consequences of British impatience over trade with China, and the stories of the many westerners and Chinese people who pragmatically coexisted and cooperated for decades before the declaration of war.

    Julia Lovell

    author of The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China
  • As the West’s entanglement with China has deepened since the 1990s, so too has fascination with the Opium War, and every China-watcher will want to read Stephen R. Platt’s fascinating and beautifully constructed new book.

    Ian Morris

    The New York Times
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