In the early 21st century many Western countries are talking and negotiating with China for new or improved trade deals. U.S. and China are going at each other for the better part of last two years armed with weaponized tariffs and rare earth mining. Canada is exploring a free trade agreement with China. The hopes of a better trade deal with China are one of the key supporting arguments in favor of the impending Brexit in the U.K. The European Union is also eyeing free trade agreement with the big oriental nation. In these talks China seems to have the upper hand but just over hundred and fifty years ago the West had the upper hand when it negotiated trade deals with China.
The West, mostly led by the Imperial Britain, waged couple of wars with Imperial China and bent her to its demand for unfettered trade. Though the immediate impact of the wars have been long over, they have not been completely forgotten in the orient due to the unequal treaty terms.
Against this backdrop, Rebecca F. Kuang’s novel, The Poppy War, makes a good read. Kuang took the events of 19th Century to an indeterminate era and created a war story that is both captivating and enthralling. A current candidate for M. Phil in Modern Chinese Studies at Cambridge University, Kuang produced a well-crafted fantastical tale that looks even more impressive when you realize that she is in her early twenties and this is her first novel.
The Opium Wars
In the first half of 19th century, the United Kingdom waged a war with the Qing dynasty of China over trade – mostly opium export to China by British India Company. Prior to the 1839 war, which was later called First Opium War, the demand of Chinese goods – mostly silk, porcelain, and tea – created a large trade-deficit for the U.K. resulting in depletion of its gold and silver reserves. To counter this the British started to smuggle opium grown by its colonial subjects in India into China illegally. This reversed the trade-deficit and drained the Chinese economy of silver and created number of opium addicts worrying the Qing dynasty. The Daoguang Emperor did not want to legalize and tax opium and wanted to halt the opium trade, which led to the first Opium War, which lasted from September 1839 to August 1842, that Britain won. The result was the Treaty of Nanking, which was the first of a series of treaties that Chines call Unequal Treaty.
Despite the unequal nature of the Treaty of Nanking – opening of trade ports, cession of Hong Kong island, indemnity and extraterritoriality – it did not satisfy Britain’s desire of improved trade and better diplomatic relations with China. Second time around France also joined its European cousin and the war, the Second Opium War or the Arrow War, broke out that lasted from 1856 to 1860. The Qing dynasty lost this war too and had to cede the Kowloon Peninsula as part of Hong Kong.
The Poppy War
Kuang weaved a tale that resembles the Opium Wars in many respect including the geography, history and underlying dynamics and then goes much beyond that. It is the first installment of an epic fantasy trilogy about empire, warfare, shamanism and opium.
It is also a feministic story of a peasant woman who progresses from an existence of servitude to graduating at the top of the class from an élite military school to becoming a top-class high-ranking warrior.
Rin, the heroine, a war-orphaned girl with a mysterious origin, is adopted and exploited by a couple of poppy dealers. She is smart. intelligent and hard-working and pretty soon aces a top-notch exam to get into an élite military school, her only escape route to avoid a marriage to middle-aged government official.
The stay at the military school in the capital in the north wasn’t very comfortable for peasant girl from and poor southern village. Most of the students were privileged, rich and male whereas Rin was poor, dark and girl. However, she posses some power and qualities that soon become obvious and an eccentric teacher with shamanistic power takes her under his wing. The renegade teacher and almost pariah student combination turns out to be good for Rin and she learns many techniques and asters skills that bring forth her shamanic powers. Theses powers come very handy during the war with an old enemy of the empire which come from a small island.
The Nikara Empire, in which Rin lives, is modelled after ancient China. It is presently ruled by a Queen, who is powerful but has lost some of past influence. The empire was ruled by a charismatic and dominant king in the past, mirroring China’s history. The enemy, Federation of Mugen, from an island across a narrow sea resembles Britain and had earlier won two wars, which were known as the First and Second Poppy Wars. At the breakout of the third war the older military brass of Nikara were being replaced by the new graduates from Rin’s élite school, the Sinegard. The war is brutally fought and Nikara’s position was weakening when Rin’s shamanic powers become a deciding factor.
The next installment of the war trilogy is The Dragon Republic and is scheduled to be released in the summer of 2019 and promises to be an interesting continuation.