Quick Review: IMPERIAL TWILIGHT by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf/Atlantic Books)

PlattSR-ImperialTwilightUSA fascinating re-examination of the causes and consequences of the Opium War

As China reclaims its position as a world power, Imperial Twilight looks back to tell the story of the country’s last age of ascendance and how it came to an end in the nineteenth-century Opium War.

As one of the most potent turning points in the country’s modern history, the Opium War has since come to stand for everything that today’s China seeks to put behind it. In this dramatic, epic story, award-winning historian Stephen Platt sheds new light on the early attempts by Western traders and missionaries to “open” China even as China’s imperial rulers were struggling to manage their country’s decline and Confucian scholars grappled with how to use foreign trade to China’s advantage. The book paints an enduring portrait of an immensely profitable — and mostly peaceful — meeting of civilizations that was destined to be shattered by one of the most shockingly unjust wars in the annals of imperial history. Brimming with a fascinating cast of British, Chinese, and American characters, this riveting narrative of relations between China and the West has important implications for today’s uncertain and ever-changing political climate.

Stephen R. Platt’s Imperial Twilight is a substantial, highly readable history of the causes and consequences of the Opium War. This is an extremely fine history: exhaustive, fascinating, and engaging from beginning to end.

As Platt mentions in his introduction, so often the histories of the Opium Wars are presented as rather one-sided. For example, it was the fault of a vicious cadre of British merchants, exploiting a weak China. Or, it was the fault of a stubborn Chinese regime blinded by custom and made rotten by corruption. What Platt has done with Imperial Twilight is provide a more nuanced history of how the Opium War happened. Effectively, the author has merged the various narratives to show how it was a confluence of events and factors that led to the clash between the UK (and other Imperial powers) and China.

PlattSR-ImperialTwilightUKAs a result, this is a richer history of events — readers will come away with a broader understanding of the times, the politics and the cultures involved. Platt is unrestrained in his criticism of the British (and is often amusing), but nor does he shy away from the weaknesses inherent in the Chinese regime. The author gives readers plenty of context for both sides, and over the course of the book weaves a narrative of a conflict that has its roots decades before it took place.

Platt examines the misplaced arrogance of the British and Chinese leadership; the corruption that crippled China’s ability to combat the foreign and domestic opium dealers; the Machiavellian British traders who bided their time and manipulated politicians and others to support their desire to “open” China to greater free trade, not to mention end the East India Company’s monopoly. The author paints this compelling picture using the stories of British, Chinese, American and other nationals, famous and not.

I could write an extensive (exhausting) review of this book, however I think it is best for readers to just read it themselves. Imperial Twilight is a fascinating, even-handed history of an important event in relations between China and the West. It is a must-read for history readers of all stripes.

Very, very highly recommended.


Stephen R. Platt’s Imperial Twilight is out now, published by Knopf/Vintage in North America and Atlantic Books in the UK.

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