New Military History "refers to a partial turning away from the great captains, and from weapons, tactics, and operations as the main concerns of the historical study of war," and instead focusing on "the interaction of war with society, economics, politics, and culture."
New Military History is a relatively broad category, and its perspective can be evinced both on the level of a particular methodology and ideology.
Along with the "War and Society" school of thought, New Military History seeks to uncover the multifarious factors driving and influencing military conflict, with a particular view towards the interaction between these factors and the actual practice of war. That is to say, these schools of thought do no entirely abandon any consideration of battles, tactics, or technology, but rather view these topics within their much larger political and social contexts, in order to see how overarching political and social considerations evidence themselves in the actual practice of war.
Not to be too blunt about it, but the historiographical approach offered by New Military History and "War and Society" historians is the most helpful when attempting to understand the causes and effects of the First Anglo-Chinese War, because as will be seen, the overwhelming British success can only be explained if one considers not only British naval and firepower dominance, but also the political and philosophical underpinnings of the Qing dynasty, as well as the Chinese perspective on British attempts to gain access to their market. In fact, one may go so far as to argue that the British success was not truly a result of their superior navy and weapons systems, but rather was brought about by combination of naivete and military reluctance on the part of the Chinese government, headed by the Emperor. In order to see why, one may examine the attitude and philosophical perspective of the Chinese government both in regards to British mercantilism and the war itself, but first, it is necessary to dispel a certain pernicious myth regarding the central cause for the war.
Many earlier historians claim the First Anglo-Chinese war was an attempt by the British to open up China to Western markets and products, based on the argument that China was a "closed society." In reality, the war was conducted almost exclusively to ensure the sale of British opium in China, which was resisted by the Chinese government not because it desired to remain a "closed society," but rather because illegal opium sales threatened China's economy through the gradual evaporation of its silver while posing a public health problem.
Furthermore, it had no desire to give up the lucrative trade relationship it had with the West by importing more Western goods. Prior to the 19th century, China was at a marked advantage in relation to the Western powers, and Great Britain in particular, because while the West was importing more and more tea and silk from China, China had relatively little need for or interest in Western goods. As a result, China grew richer and richer while the West found itself with a large and rapidly increasing trade deficit. The Chinese, with a self-sufficient economy, showed little interest in Western products, and particularly the woolen goods the English hoped would solve the trade deficit.
In the 1820s, however, a few particularly shrewd, merchants (some from the infamous East India Company) realized that some Chinese had acquired a taste for smoking Indian opium, and saw a potentially lucrative market that might sidestep some of the official controls which had previously kept the West from establishing an effective market presence in China. In 1820, 9,708 chests of opium were smuggled into China, and 15 years later, the amount of smuggled opium rose to 35,445 chests a year, an increase of almost 400%.
As a result, the colonial governments in India increased opium production, and soon English merchants were bringing opium to China and filling their returning ships with Chinese tea and silver. Thus, opium was effectively the only quasi-British product to find a substantial market in China, and as China increasingly attempted to repress the sale and consumption of opium, it became clear that more drastic measures would be necessary in order to ensure continued drug revenues.
Despite the relatively straightforward centrality of opium in the run-up to the First Anglo-Chinese War, this fact was not recognized by historians at the time. Instead, the war was framed as an attempt to "open" up China to trade more generally, and...
One can see the widespread acceptability of this view at the time and afterward by examining an 1896 essay written with express intention of challenging this historical interpretation. In his essay "The Truth About the Opium War," Joseph Alexander argues against the idea that the war was conducted to open up China to trade, and that increased opium use in China was merely an unfortunate aftereffect. Instead, Alexander suggests that while:
To say that the opium war was instituted "in order to force" China to take opium may perhaps be taken to imply that such was the express intention of the statesmen responsible for it, and is therefore a mode of statement which is better avoided, […] it is a good rule of the common law that a man is taken to intend the consequences which he must have known were likely to result, and which have in fact resulted, from his action. For such consequences he is criminally responsible, and the law does not stop to inquire into his motives.
In the same way, one must view the Anglo-Chinese War as an attempt to secure the continued sale of opium in China, even if the British government claimed differently (in fact, the British monarchy nominally opposed the sale of opium, but through its colonial and military action, it ensured that private British citizens would have free reign over the Chinese opium market). Although the Chinese government did treat foreigners with some degree of distrust and disrespect, "nothing is more clear than the fact that it was not these claims, but the seizure of contraband opium, which was the direct cause of the war."
Recognizing that the First Anglo-Chinese War (and the rest of them, for that matter) was caused primarily by Chinese resistance to the sale and consumption of opium, rather than China supposedly being a "closed society," allows one to better understand the conduct and outcome of the war. The early "drum and trumpet" historians largely understood the war from the British perspective and hewed closely to the official British line about the war's initial causes, so it only makes sense that they would focus almost exclusively on the superiority of the British navy, viewing it as an almost righteous force dedicated to protecting innocent merchants and manufacturers from "ruffians" and "barbarians."
However, an approach that considers the social and political aspects of the war reveals not only that it was primarily caused by Chinese resistance to British opium, but also that the British success was due not to its military superiority, but rather the particular philosophy and attitude of the Chinese government.
Put simply, the Chinese government viewed itself as inherently above other nations, and the Emperor in particular was viewed as divine, the 'son of heaven' ruling over the most powerful and enlightened nation in the world. As William Hanes notes:
China had always felt superior to the rest of the world -- and not without reason. After all, the Chinese had invented gunpowder, paper currency, eyeglasses, and the printing press, […] among many other innovations developed centuries before the West discovered them. […] China solipsistically called itself the "Central Civilization" and the "Middle Kingdom," but neither term referred to a geographic location. The titles described the Chinese belief that the nation was the land around which all humanity was centered.
As a result, the Manchu government launched its anti-opium campaign without any realistic calculation of its likely repercussions, because the thought that Britain might retaliate with overwhelming force likely did not enter the mind of the Emperor, let alone his subordinates. This inability to imagine that Britain might respond in a way that posed any real threat is evidenced by the brutality and seeming lack of diplomacy with which the Chinese government carried out its anti-opium campaign; for example, it had a tendency "in cases where it was believed that some foreigner had committed a crime to which the death penalty was attached" to simply demand "that a foreigner should be surrendered not for trial but for execution," instead of attempting "to seek out and bring to trial the person suspected."
Thus, the Chinese government was already at a kind of philosophical disadvantage, because it failed to accurately assess the likely outcomes of its actions, believing itself to be the preeminent global power and thus able to act against British subjects with impunity. (This…
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