SINGAPORE (April 8): It is often suggested that the Opium Wars continue to shape China’s view of the current world. After an eye-roll, many dismiss this as evidence that China needs to move on from the “Century of Humiliation” and deal with the real world of the 21st century.
The Opium Wars took place from 1839 to 1860. The period of opening up the West in the US took place from 1865 to 1885. This period, more than any other, plays a central part in American myth-making and is glorified in countless Westerns on TV and in films. The image of the sheriff meting out rough justice, and gun-driven violence, is as closely bound to the American psyche as the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River in 1776 resonates more deeply than any painting of King George III from the same period. Unlike Washington in the US, King George is no longer venerated, let alone more than barely remembered, in the UK. The American Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, coming just after the Opium Wars, still plays a large part in right wing and Confederate movements in the US.
So, it seems unfair, and also unwise, to deny the role that the Opium Wars play in modern day political and societal thinking in China. It is unfair because it denies a people a right to history when similar history for the same period is venerated and celebrated elsewhere.