Having been engrossed by Michael Wood’s documentary series The Story of China over recent weeks, I fell asleep ten minutes before the end of tonight’s final episode (I’ve been up earlier than usual several times this week and I find making excuses very easy.)
Tonight’s episode was about the Qing* Dynasty, who started off as brutal Manchu invaders (yet more barbarians from the north – seems the best place in the world to live would be Svalbard, then you’d never have to worry about being troubled by barbarians from the north since polar bears and the odd lunatic Arctic explorer don’t count) but then produced the very best of emperors and a good time was had by all. Until, that is, the British turned up in the 18th century and set about trying to turn the Chinese into a bunch of opium addicts.
So why did the good old Brits do this? Well, just standard good old British trading tactics really, and all very innocent. The Brits, you see, wanted China tea and lots of it because Mr Wedgwood had invented the teacup and Brits had gone ape over these new things called ‘hot drinks.’ Ah, but in order to avoid an imbalance of trade they needed to sell something back. Problem: being a much older and more sophisticated culture than anything in Europe, there wasn’t anything the Chinese wanted to buy. They were quite happy to sell us tea, but they declined to buy Wedgwood vases in return because they said Ming ones were better, which they probably were.
Such rank unfairness was not to be tolerated, and so some Brit or other came up with a good idea. ‘I know,’ he said, ‘let’s get them hooked on opium. They haven’t got any of that, have they?’ And so they hadn’t, but the British had lots of the lovely stuff because they controlled the opium fields in India. What a good idea…
…only the Chinese authorities didn’t like it. Having their good people turned into a nation of smack heads was simply not cricket and so they set about giving the Brits a bloody nose, at which point I fell asleep just when it was getting interesting. I suspect, however, that the bloody nose precipitated general fisticuffs and probably had something to do with the Boxcar Rebellion, whatever that was. And it’s probably why the British invented the prejudice that the Chinese are inscrutable, which isn’t true. Chinese eyes are every bit as expressive as European eyes, only in a more subtle way. Learning to read the emotional outpourings of Chinese eyes has been a source of much delight to me over the past few weeks and continues so to do. And now for the footnote:
* I went onto a forum concerned with Chinese pronunciation to find out how Qing should be pronounced. There were five answers given, all purportedly coming from Chinese people. They were:
Ching (which was Michael Wood’s preferred option.)
I suppose there’s a reason for the variation, but life isn’t getting any easier.