When it came to explaining their humiliations, the Chinese tended not to blame the invaders so much as themselves, or their Manchu rulers, or other Chinese. They were embarrassed by their own cowardice, scathing about their military leaders, suspicious of their compatriots (the Cantonese especially) for cosying up to the foreign traders, and constantly seeing traitors in their midst. They also blamed themselves for the opium trade: if corrupt local officials hadn’t been so willing to disregard the ban on its import, and the Chinese hadn’t wanted to smoke the stuff, it would not have gone on. China’s wounds were self-inflicted. ‘Worms only appear in a rotten carcass,’ was how one man put it in the 1860s. This seems to have been the usual Chinese reaction to the Opium Wars for years afterwards. ‘If a people is dispirited and stupid,’ Yan Fu wrote half a century later, ‘then the society will disintegrate, and when a society in disintegration encounters an aggressive, intelligent, patriotic people, it will be dominated.’
As for ‘revenge for wrongs inflicted’, we can only hope that the Chinese have forgiven us. There may be reasons for thinking they have. One of the most interesting findings in this book comes not from documentary evidence, but from conversations Lovell had with history teachers and pupils in Chinese schools. Officially the ‘patriotic’ line is that everything bad that has happened to China in the last 170 years, starting with the Opium Wars, is the fault of Western imperialism. Lovell sat in on a lesson on the subject. ‘Soon, the only way I could keep myself awake was by sitting at the back and keeping a count on all the students who had obviously fallen asleep.’ When it came to the class discussion, however, they all perked up: ‘We lost because we were too weak, too closed up’; ‘We had no backbone’; ‘Our weapons were three hundred years behind the West’; ‘We were too cowardly, too backward, too isolated.’ They were returning to the line their ancestors had taken in the 19th century. This may be one of the most remarkable and distinctive features of the Opium Wars: that both sides’ perceptions of them at the time, and historical memories of them since, are so inglorious.