Early encounters between Britain and China are best known for igniting the First Opium War. Yet they also produced an enormous archive of writings by Britons who spent time in China. Frustrated with the restrictions imposed by the Manchu rulers of the Qing Empire, and unable to live or travel elsewhere apart from Canton and Macao, these diplomats, traders, missionaries, travelers, and military officers devoted thousands of pages to understanding China, its people, and their civilization.
In China Hands and Old Cantons, John M. Carroll draws on this wealth of memoirs, ethnographic studies, travel accounts, narratives of military action, translations, and newspaper articles to trace Britons’ wide-ranging, often thoughtful perspectives on China, long before anyone considered going to war. They discussed almost everything they saw and speculated about much of what they could not see—including the size of China’s massive population, the extent of infanticide, the origins and practice of foot binding, and the legality and morality of the opium trade. They claimed that only those who had been there could truly understand the Middle Kingdom and that their firsthand experience gave them and their publications an advantage over those in Britain and elsewhere. Carroll brings a seminal period in the Anglo-Chinese relationship, which revolved around tea and opium, to life through the words of those who experienced it intimately.
John M. Carroll is professor of history at the University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Edge of Empires: Chinese Elites and British Colonials in Hong Kong, A Concise History of Hong Kong, and Canton Days: British Life and Death in China.
1 The Crying Abuses: Explanations
The Tartars and Their Empire
Not Entirely Unreasonable
Themselves to Blame
2 The Crying Abuses: Solutions
Visitors Weigh In
Intimidation or Restraint?
Improving Their Own Situation
3 Being There
Challenging the Jesuits
A Peculiar Monopoly
Opinions Grounded upon Experience
The Terms Controversy
Setting the Record Straight
War, Hong Kong, and Beyond
4 Sizing Up China
An Immense and Unparalleled Population
A Horrid Practice
So Extraordinary a Custom
Footbinding and the War to Open China
5 The Opium Debates
Opium in the Press
Setting the Record Straight, Again
Opium and War
Epilogue: China Freed
As the drums of war once again rumble in the background, John Carroll presents a comprehensive and relevant survey of British views and delusions about China leading up to the Sino-Western hostilities of two centuries ago.
Drawing upon a vast array of both archival and printed sources, John M. Carroll has constructed an authoritative and meticulous history of British views of China from the Macartney embassy of 1793 to the First Opium War and its aftermath (1839-1842) that will be invaluable to all scholars working in this vibrant area of study. This extremely timely book covers a substantial body of British writing by diplomats, traders, missionaries, travelers, natural historians, and soldiers demonstrating the often contradictory and conflicted range of opinions held by those Britons then actively working, visiting, traveling and, latterly, fighting within the 'celestial empire'. Carroll engages with a variety of sources including correspondence, political papers, printed tracts, and, especially, the nascent print culture of the new and burgeoning anglophone journals such as the Canton Register, Canton Press, and the American owned Chinese Repository. Among the many crucial subjects covered are: the notion of the 'Chinese character’; commerce; the trades in tea and opium; foot binding; and the debates about how to communicate and influence the often puzzling and recalcitrant political entity that was early nineteenth century Qing China. Carroll demonstrates how British opinion about China, though often bellicose and partisan, was never simply a monolithic entity, but a surprisingly contested and frequently hesitant body of writing.
In vivid and engaging prose, John M. Carroll offers a magisterial overview of the British presence in South China before the First Opium War. As the book pulls together various kinds of writings by merchants, missionaries, and government officials, it portrays British identity as complicated and conflicted. Drawing on his deep archival knowledge, Carroll reanimates and inspirits a host of colorful ‘China Hands’ and ‘Old Cantons.’ Their names become fresh voices of impassioned debates over the ethics and opportunity of trafficking opium. As his interpretations of the debates among the China Hands highlight complex inter-imperial tensions, Carroll offers keen insight into diplomatic challenges relating to the projection of international commercial power that endure today.