The story of the Opium Wars in mid-19th century China has been told in many ways, but the account which has always stayed with me is the short one given by W.G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn. In just a few pages, and with his novelist’s eye for arresting detail, Sebald portrays the European incursion into the Celestial Empire as a tragic meeting of two hubristic and uncomprehending civilisations.
The Opium Wars unfolded amid efforts to keep China open to European commercial interests, after the Chinese had tried to limit the British opium trade through Canton. In the Second Opium War of the 1850s, the British, soon to be joined by the French, sent an expeditionary force to make the ailing Qing Emperor Hsien-feng come to terms. The Europeans, Sebald notes, saw themselves as the righteous bearers of those necessary conditions for progress, “Christian evangelism and free trade.” Having marched inland from Canton, however, they were baffled when the Emperor’s delegates demanded they pay homage, in order to fulfil “the immemorial obligations toward the Son of Heaven of envoys from satellite powers.”
If the Europeans felt any sense of superiority, they were disabused of it when they came across the glorious Yuan Ming Yuan gardens near Peking; Sebald speculates that the horrific looting and destruction they carried out there may have been driven by shame at the achievements of the Chinese. But a steeper fall from grace awaited the decaying Qing court, where although “the ritualisation of imperial power was at its most elaborate: at the same time, that power itself was by now almost completely hollowed out.” Sebald portrays the decline of the Qing as an increasingly empty and deluded going-through-the-motions of imperial splendour — a fate illustrated by the magnificent yet miserable funeral cortege of Hsien-feng, which bore the Emperor’s body on foot for three weeks through a rugged, rain-lashed autumn countryside.
I often think of these scenes when there are debates over the European stance towards China, as in December when the EU concluded its investment deal, and again last week with the publication of the UK’s new foreign policy review(which also acknowledged the importance of economic relations with China). The question, we like to think, is whether we ought to be trading with an authoritarian state which has just crushed…