Anglo Chinese War the Historical Discussion Research Paper

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¶ … Anglo Chinese War

The historical discussion of the First Anglo-Chinese War (frequently referred to as the First Opium War) included a variety of competing perspectives even as the war was still being fought, because either side viewed the war in entirely different contexts.

In largely the same fashion, for years the historiography of the first Anglo-Chinese war developed independently in the East and West, and it was not until relatively recently, when Mao Zedong relaxed restrictions on access to Chinese documents and collaboration between historians, that this historiography has begun to include these differing perspectives, thus allowing a more complete picture of the war, as well as its causes and effects, to emerge. Coinciding with this increased access to Chinese primary documents was a variety of shifts in military history in general, from the "Revolution in Military Affairs" approach that focuses on technological development, to the so-called New Military History that attempts to expand the scope of military history to include a variety of heretofore ignored factors, such as the interplay between economics, politics, and culture.

Just as Eastern and Western scholars produced markedly different histories prior to the greater collaboration over the latter half of the twentieth century, so too do these different historiographical approaches frame the First Anglo-Chinese War in markedly different ways. After considering the histories produced by these different schools of military historical thought, it becomes clear that an accurate history of the Anglo-Chinese War must take much more than tactics and technology into account, and furthermore, that the production of such a history is dependent on challenging some of the lingering assumptions and presuppositions regarding both militaries as such and their role in society that continue to underline military history to this day.

Before considering how changes in military history have produced differing perspectives on the First Anglo-Chinese War, it is first necessary to provide an introduction to each of these schools of thought, in order to better understand how their particular academic interests shape their reception of the war. The first school of thought relevant to this study is the so-called "drums and trumpets" approach to military history, because this approach characterizes many of the early histories of the war produced by Western historians. As the name suggests, this approach to military history focuses mainly on the most dramatic and obvious elements of war, namely, the strategy and execution of battles. This approach has been somewhat dismissively described as a discipline of "writers who lack the sources, languages, institutional support and intellectual formation necessary to see beyond the smoke and dust of battle."

Despite this, interest in this form of military history remains widely popular, and in fact, one might go so far as to argue that a majority of the military history consumed by the general public falls into this category, if only because focusing on the operations of war offers a kind of historical entertainment, where complex socio-political movements are reduced to discrete battles and campaigns.

Thus, early Western histories of the First Anglo-Chinese War, produced in the decades following its conclusion, place a dramatic emphasis on specific battles or conflicts. For example, John Slade's 1839 account of the events leading up to the outbreak of the war follows this trend. While he mentions the opium trade, he does not bother to discuss why it might be of any importance; instead he focuses on the execution of an opium dealer, or an event in September of 1838 when "an officer was deputed to Wjhampoa to search for and seize opium. A riot ensured, the officer was wounded, lives were lost, and the local government found it necessary to send more troops to quell the disturbance."

Similarly, in his 1843 account of the war, John Bingham describes the history of the war not by addressing any of the underlying causes of overarching themes, but rather by providing a detailed account of troop and ship movements, interspersed with dramatic battle scenes. When describing the blockade of the Pearl River and the subsequent British capture of Chusan, he focuses on how the British ship the Blonde was attacked by a group of Chinese, who fired "a match-lock and two or three arrows," so that "at the instant two of the Blonde's thirty-two pound shot went bowling into the midst of these valiant fellows, and 'Sauve qui peut' [every man for himself] became the cry, -- the whole mass, officers, soldiers, and spectators flying for their lives, leaving five or six of their number dead upon the beach."

These narratives favor the recounting of specific battles and events, as if the nature of a conflict is determined solely by its battles, and not the underlying factors which exist prior to the actual occurrence of those battles.

As a result, these early historians explained the British success by attributing it primarily to the British Navy's superior size, tactics, and firepower. The British Navy's familiarity in combat, superiority in firepower, and well-regarded seamanship allowed them to easily control the Chinese coast and destroy what little resistance Chinese junks and fireboats offered. Similarly, as evidenced by the relatively easy blockade of the Pearl River and the capture of Chusan, the forts along the rivers and bay were equally ineffective in their defenses. However, while all of these factors undoubtedly contributed to the British success, these early historians' focus on British naval superiority fails to fully or accurately describe the reasons for the war's outcome, because they do not include a satisfactory account of the Chinese response, other than to suggest it was insufficient. To see the problem with viewing the outcome of the First Anglo-Chinese War as solely the result of the superior British Navy, one need only look to the examples of the American Revolution and the War of 1812, where the British military was defeated despite the fact that their navy largely controlled the entirety of the Eastern seaboard. Thus, there must be more to the story than what is accounted for by the "drums and trumpets" historians, but in order to reveal this more complex picture of the First Anglo-Chinese War, it will be necessary to continue with a discussion of the different historiographical perspectives.

If "drums and trumpets" military history represents one of the most popularly consumed modes of historical research, then the "Revolution in Military Affairs" (RMA) approach comes in at a close second. While RMA historians still focus somewhat on specific battles, they place much greater importance on technological development as a driver of military history, viewing the advancement of gunpowder, firearms, and other weapons as the primary factor influencing any given campaign. (to understand the popularity of this approach, one need only consider the multitude of television programs focused solely on the development of military technology.) in many ways this represents an evolution of the "drums and trumpets" perspective, rather than a distinct break from it, because the focus is merely shifted away from battles themselves to the technology used to carry them out.

From this perspective, the dominant factor influencing the outcome of the First Anglo-Chinese War is the marked disparity in military technology between the two sides, and particularly the belief that "the Chinese army […] differs little in 1836 from what it was in 1275, the date given for the Chinese invention of gunpowder."

Within this school of thought, the primary reason for the British success was its technological superiority, because the Chinese military appeared ill-equipped to deal with the might of the British navy and its arsenal. As a result, the British were able to capture important towns and forts relatively easily and quickly, facing little Chinese resistance.

At this point it is worth mentioning an issue that afflicts military history in general, but "drums and trumpets" and RMA histories in particular, namely, Eurocentrism. In his book Rethinking Military History, Jeremy Black views Eurocentrism as an: emphasis on the military history of, and involving, the West, with the latter ensuring that other states and societies appear primarily in order to be defeated -- so that the 'non-West' is misunderstood when it is not ignored."

This is particularly relevant in the case of RMA historiography, because its focus on "the technological interpretation of Western success, in the shape of the role of firearms," means that it cannot sufficiently account for either the role of technology in non-Western nations, or the decidedly different ways this technology was integrated into indigenous fighting styles and tactics.

Furthermore, when considering the specific case of the First Anglo-Chinese War, a RMA approach necessarily limits one's understanding of the conflict, because, like the "drums and trumpets" historians, the outcome of the war is viewed almost exclusively as a result of British technological superiority, with little to no attention paid to the socio-political factors on the Chinese side that contributed to their defeat. This is not to discount the importance of British firepower, but rather an attempt to highlight how a focus on this firepower as the dominant factor driving British success not only… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Anglo Chinese War the Historical Discussion.  (2012, May 8).  Retrieved February 18, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/anglo-chinese-war-historical-discussion/6423241

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"Anglo Chinese War the Historical Discussion."  Essaytown.com.  May 8, 2012.  Accessed February 18, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/anglo-chinese-war-historical-discussion/6423241.