Reading Log 2019, #7: The Boxer Rebellion and The Great Game In China, by David J. Silbey

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After the glorious triumph that was The Opium Wars, I was in the mood to keep reading about this period of Chinese history, and knew that the Boxer Rebellion was the next epochal event, so I went looking for a book that covered that. Silbey's tome here is what seemed to be the most recommended, so I went with it.

It was... fine. I finished it like two months ago and am already struggling to remember it in any great detail, unlike Ms Lovell's masterpiece, which should tell you something.

It covers the details well, even if it focuses too strongly on the Western and Japanese perspectives instead of the Chinese. It also spends too much time in the military weeds and not enough giving a perspective on the greater impact of events.

Starting off with a pretty thin grounding of how the Boxer Rebellion started and its initial path (which, unfortunately, focuses too much on its impact on the Western communities in China rather than, say, its own inherent goals or impact on the Chinese people themselves), it then goes into great, nay, exhaustive detail on the Western military response to the Boxer Rebellion.


And that's the problem; this is more a ground-level history of a specific military campaign than it is an exploration of a collision between two major civilizations that has had direct repercussions into two World Wars and relations between the two biggest powers on Earth to this day. And I feel like the jacket sells it as more of the latter than the former.

If you just want a military history of the Western campaign, such as it was, to rescue the westerners trapped in Beijing, it tells that story very well. But it's quite uninterested in telling the wider story of how it ties into the wider scope of Chinese history, or even the more-specific story of Western Imperialism in China and that impact on current Sino-Western relations. The Lovell book about the immediately preceding Opium Wars discusses all of that quite well, which makes The Boxer Rebellion disappointing.

So maybe it was just a matter of my expectations, but those derived from the back copy and press around the book to begin with, but it didn't quite do the job I wanted it to. Again, if you want a pretty tightly-scoped history of the actual interactions between the Boxers and the Western armies that fought them, this book will be your jam. I, however, am going to continue to look for something that gives this event a more widely-scoped treatment.

Quick Aside on The Reading Log

You may have noticed that I tend to give a pretty good review to every book I've read so far this year. That is true, and not a sign of me not having any discretion when it comes to books; it's a sign of me having zero patience for books I don't like. If I finish it (and I don't review books I haven't finished), it's because I liked it at least enough for finishing it to not feel like a waste of time.

I've long since hit the point to where I know I'm going to die with books unread; if I'm being honest with myself, given my annual reading pace, I've already got 2-3 years worth of unread books in my library right now.

So, I have no patience for books I find bad. If I'm forty pages in or so and just absolutely struggling to find a reason to keep going, if I'm constantly ditching the book to stare listlessly at Reddit for an hour instead, that book goes into the "Did Not Finish" pile and I move on.

I've no desire to be the Gene Shalit of book reviews, so I wanted to make that point clear. I've at least started a LOT of books that sucked, and I no longer feel obligated to stick with them. The reviews you'll actually see here will therefore generally be on the positive side.

Just wanted to make that explicit.

Reading Log 2019, #6: The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of Modern China, by Julia Lovell

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The modal American knows fuck-all about The Opium Wars. Maybe one in a hundred could tell you they involved China, maybe? One in a thousand could possibly identify the other participant, Great Britain. The number who could go into any amount of detail on the war beyond the phrase "treaty ports" would surely not tax the capacity of a minor-minor league ballpark in one of those flyover states whose borders were drawn by a government bureaucrat having only a ruler and a time limit.

Point being, a book like this, in English, is a massive undertaking. The author basically cannot assume any level of background knowledge on behalf of her reader; you have to cover EVERYTHING. Which probably leads to my one, quite thin, complaint with the book; I'd love to have seen it cover the Second Opium War in as much detail as the first, which is the actual topic of this book. It's a thin complaint because a) the book quite specifically states that it is primarily about the first war and b) it still manages to cover the second in decent detail anyways.

But I get ahead of myself... The Opium War is a magnum opus, the finest history of the event available in English. It is more than just a history of the rather brief conflict that ran from 1839-1842 between a Britain that was essentially bullied into the conflict by her own merchant class and a Chinese Empire so vast, so decadent, and so dismissive of foreigners in every possible way that its court was, for most of the conflict, not even aware that it was at war.

The conflict itself is covered extremely well and in great detail. More importantly, though, is the back third of the book, which covers how the various Chinese governments since the war have viewed the war and presented it to their governed populace. If the phrase "Century of Humiliation" means nothing to you, this book might be a good place to start, and it's something you should want to understand because undoing it undergirds the entirety of the Chinese government's foreign policy.

The bad reviews I've seen of this book tend to come from, well, Chinese nationalists... they dislike some of the lightness with which Lovell occasionally treats the topic, but let's be honest: some of the happenings in these events WERE comically absurd, period. She doesn't stint on mentioning the awful, hypocritical nature of British rapaciousness in their conduct of the war, nor does she try to short-sell the deaths that resulted on the Chinese side. I feel it's a balanced look at the causes and blame all around.

For a pretty obscure (in the West) topic, I think that this is a great book to pick up if you're at all interested in rendering it not obscure for yourself, personally. A fascinating read on a frankly fascinating event.