Aug 052018

On this date in 25 CE, Liu Xiu (15th January 5 BCE – 29th March 57 CE) claimed the throne as emperor of China, restoring the Han dynasty after the collapse of the short-lived Xin dynasty. Discounting the interregnum of the Xin dynasty, the Han dynasty, the second imperial dynasty of China (206 BCE–220 CE), preceded by the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE) is considered a golden age in Chinese history, not least because the ethnic majority in modern China think of themselves as directly descended from the Han of ancient China. This makes as much sense as modern Italians thinking that they are descendants of ancient Romans, but it is an important narrative for modern Chinese. The majority call themselves Han people, they call the language they speak, Han language, and the writing system, Han characters (although they use other terms as well).

Liu Xiu took the imperial name Guangwu, courtesy name Wenshu, and this is the name he is commonly known by. He is treated as the founder of the Later Han or Eastern Han (the restored Han Dynasty), and at the outset he ruled over parts of China only. By the suppression and conquest of regional warlords, he had consolidated the whole of China by the time of his death in 57 CE. I will talk about how Liu Xiu came to be emperor Guangwu, but, like all of Chinese political/military history, the narrative is incredibly complicated and hard to follow (even though I have simplified it a great deal).  If you like you can skip to the Han era rabbit and mushroom recipe at the end. If you want the super-super-condensed version it is: usurper replaces the old Han emperor – Liu Xiu and his brother (descendants of the old Han dynasty) plan a rebellion – rebelling factions form and disagree a lot – one faction chooses a leader, general Gengshi – Liu Xiu’s brother hates this plan, revolts, and is executed – Liu Xiu eventually defeats all comers and is installed as emperor. Here’s the somewhat longer version:

Liu Xiu was a sixth-generation descendant of emperor Jing of the Former (or Western) Han. He was the son of Liu Qin (劉欽), magistrate (i.e., head official) of Nandun county (南頓令). Liu Qin was married to the daughter of Fan Chong (樊重), and he and his wife had three sons – Liu Yan, Liu Zhong, and Liu Xiu. Liu Qin died young, and the brothers were raised by their uncle Liu Liang (劉良). Liu Yan was ambitious, and after Wang Mang usurped the Han throne in 8 CE and established the Xin dynasty, Liu Yan was constantly considering starting a rebellion to restore the Han Dynasty. Liu Xiu, by contrast, was a careful man who was content to be a farmer. However, his brother-in-law Deng Chen (鄧晨), the husband of his sister Liu Yuan (劉元), who believed in a prophecy that a man named Liu Xiu would be emperor, constantly encouraged him to be more ambitious.

In 22 CE, with virtually the entire empire rebelling against Wang Mang’s incompetent rule, Liu Yan prepared his rebellion. He planned, along with his brothers, and Li Tong (李通) and his cousin Li Yi (李軼), to kidnap the governor for Nanyang Commandery (roughly modern Nanyang, Henan) and call for the people of the commandery to join him. When the young men of their home territory of Chongling heard about the rebellion, they were all afraid to join—until they saw that Liu Xiu was part of the rebellion as well, figuring that if even a careful man like Liu Xiu was part of the rebellion, the rebellion was carefully planned.

Wang Mang

However, the news of the plan leaked out, and Li Tong and Li Yi barely escaped with their lives (but their family was slaughtered). Liu Yan changed his plan and persuaded two branches of the Lülin – the Xinshi Force (新市兵) and Pinglin Force (平林兵) to join forces with him, and they had some military success. Encouraged, Liu Yan made a frontal assault against Wancheng (宛城), the capital of Nanyang Commandery—and suffered a major loss. Liu Yan and Liu Xiu, along with their sister Liu Boji (劉伯姬), survived, but their brother Liu Zhong and sister Liu Yuan died in the battle. Liu Yan’s allies, seeing his defeat, considered leaving him, but Liu Yan was able to persuade them, along with another branch of the Lülin, the Xiajiang Force (下江兵), to join him. In 23, they had a major victory against Xin forces, killing Zhen Fu (甄阜), the governor of Nanyang Commandery.

By this point, many other rebel leaders had become jealous of Liu Yan’s capabilities, and while a good number of their men admired Liu Yan and wanted him to become the emperor of a newly declared Han Dynasty, they had other ideas. They found another local rebel leader, Liu Xuan, a third cousin of Liu Yan, who was claiming the title of General Gengshi (更始將軍) at the time and requested that he be made emperor. Liu Yan initially opposed this move and instead suggested that Liu Xuan carry the title “Prince of Han” first (echoing the founder of the Han dynasty, emperor Gaozu). The other rebel leaders refused, and in early 23 CE, Liu Xuan was proclaimed Gengshi emperor. Liu Yan became prime minister. Liu Xiu, along with many other rebel leaders, carried the title “general”.

Liu Xiu was instrumental in the key victory that sealed Wang Mang’s fate. Wang, aware that the Gengshi emperor was becoming a major threat, sent his cousin Wang Yi (王邑) and his prime minister Wang Xun (王尋) with what he considered to be overwhelming force, around 430,000 men, intending to crush the newly constituted Han regime. The Han forces were at this point in two groups—one led by Wang Feng (王鳳), Wang Chang (王常), and Liu Xiu, which, in response to the arrival of the Xin forces, withdrew to the small town of Kunyang (昆陽, in modern Ye County, Henan) and one led by Liu Yan, which was still sieging Wancheng. The rebels in Kunyang initially wanted to scatter, but Liu Xiu opposed it. Instead, he advocated that they guard Kunyang securely, while he gathered all other available troops in surrounding areas and attacked the Xin forces from the outside. After initially rejecting Liu Xiu’s idea, the Kunyang rebels eventually agreed.

Liu Xiu carried out this action, and when he returned to Kunyang, he began harassing the sieging Xin forces from the outside. Wang Yi and Wang Xun, annoyed, led 10,000 men to attack Liu Xiu and ordered the rest of their troops not to move from their siege locations. Once they engaged in battle, however, after minor losses, the other units were hesitant to assist them, and Liu Xiu killed Wang Xun in battle. Once that happened, the Han forces inside Kunyang burst out of the city and attacked the other Xin units, and the much larger Xin forces suffered a total collapse. The soldiers largely deserted and went home, unable to be gathered again. Wang Yi had to withdraw with only several thousand men back to Luoyang. This was a major blow to Xin, psychologically. From this point on, all was lost.

The very first major incident of infighting in Gengshi emperor’s regime occurred at this time, though. The Gengshi emperor was fearful of Liu Yan’s capabilities and keenly aware that many of Liu Yan’s followers were angry that he was not made emperor. Liu Ji (劉稷), was particularly critical of the Gengshi emperor, and, in consequence, the Gengshi emperor arrested Liu Ji and wanted to execute him, but Liu Yan tried to intercede. The Gengshi emperor, encouraged by Li Yi (who had by that point turned against Liu Yan) and Zhu Wei (朱鮪), took this opportunity to execute Liu Yan as well. At this time, Liu Xiu was fighting on the front lines. When he heard about his brother’s death, he quickly left his army and went back to the temporary capital, Wancheng, to beg forgiveness. When Liu Yan’s followers greeted him, he only thanked them but did not speak of his feelings, but rather blamed himself and did not mention of his achievements at Kunyang. He did not dare mourn his brother. The Gengshi emperor, ashamed of what he had done, spared Liu Xiu and created him the Marquess of Wuxin (武信侯).

Around this time, Liu Xiu married his childhood sweetheart, the famed beauty Yin Lihua. (According to Hou Han Shu, while much younger, when Liu Xiu was visiting the capital Chang’an, he became impressed with the mayor of the capital (zhijinyu, 執金吾) and, already impressed by Yin’s beauty, he made the following remarks: “If I were to be an official, I want to be zhijinyu; if I were to marry, I want to marry Yin Lihua”.

Soon, Wang Mang’s Xin Dynasty and its capital Chang’an fell to the Gengshi emperor’s forces, and the Gengshi emperor was acknowledged by virtually the entire empire as the emperor of the restored Han Dynasty. He initially planned to set his capital at Luoyang, and he made Liu Xiu governor of the capital region. Liu Xiu was commissioned to repair the palaces and governmental offices at Luoyang. Of all of the major Han officials following the restoration, Liu Xiu alone quickly showed his talent for organization, and his agency quickly grew to resemble its pre-Wang Mang counterpart.

In any case, the Gengshi emperor’s regime was only able to obtain nominal submission from many regions of the empire, and one of the troublesome regions was north of the Yellow River. The emperor considered dispatching a general to try to pacify the region, and his cousin Liu Ci (劉賜), who had succeeded Liu Yan as prime minister, endorsed Liu Xiu for that task. Liu Yan’s political enemies, including Li and Zhu, opposed, but after Liu Ci repeatedly endorsed Liu Xiu, the Gengshi emperor relented and, in autumn 23 CE, he sent Liu Xiu to the region north of the Yellow River. Liu Xiu was initially met with great gladness by the people north of the Yellow River. It was around this time that Deng Yu (鄧禹), joined him (later to be his prime minister); other later important figures who joined him around this time included Feng Yi (馮異) and Geng Chun (耿純). Deng, seeing that the Gengshi emperor lacked the ability to rule, persuaded Liu Xiu to keep his sights broad and consider eventual independence.

Liu Xiu would soon have a major problem on his hands, however. In the winter of  23 CE, he faced a pretender for the Han throne, a fortuneteller in Handan named Wang Lang who claimed to be actually named Liu Ziyu (劉子輿) and a son of emperor Cheng. He claimed that his mother was a singer in emperor Cheng’s service, and that Empress Zhao Feiyan had tried to kill him after his birth, but that a substitute child was killed instead. After he spread these rumors among the people, the people of Handan began to believe that he was a genuine son of emperor Cheng, and the commanderies north of the Yellow River quickly pledged allegiance to him as emperor. In spring 24 CE, Liu Xiu was forced to withdraw to the northern city of Jicheng (modern Beijing). Not long after, he faced rebellions in his immediate vicinity, and was nearly killed by rebels who pledged allegiance to Wang. He reached two commanderies in modern central Hebei that were still loyal to the Gengshi emperor—Xindu (信都, roughly modern Hengshui, Hebei), whose governor was Ren Guang (任光), and Herong, (和戎, roughly part of modern Shijiazhuang, Hebei), whose governor was Pi Tong (邳彤). Ren’s deputy Li Chong (李忠), Wan Xiu (萬脩) and Liu Zhi (劉植), who was powerful clan in the region, also joined him. Additionally, he began to make Liu Zhi persuade Liu Yang (劉楊) the Prince of Zhending, who held 100,000 troops, to join him. He entered into a political marriage with Guo Shengtong (郭聖通), the niece of Liu Yang, and combined his forces. He mobilized their forces and won some major battles against Wang’s generals.

Meanwhile, a follower of Liu Xiu, Geng Yan (耿弇), the son of the governor of Shanggu Commandery (上谷, roughly modern Zhangjiakou, Hebei), had fled back to his father’s commandery, and persuaded both his father Geng Kuang (耿況) and the governor of the neighboring Yuyang Commandery (漁陽, roughly modern Beijing), Peng Chong (彭寵), to support Liu Xiu. Geng Yan, being supported by Gen Kuang’s deputy Kou Xun (寇恂) and Jing Dan (景丹), and Peng’s deputy, Wu Han (吳漢), led the two commanderies’ cavalry and infantry forces south to join Liu Xiu. The combined forces gave Liu Xiu enough strength to make a direct assault against Handan, trapping and killing Wang Lang.

After Wang’s death, Gengshi emperor created Liu Xiu the Prince of Xiao and summoned him back to the capital (then moved to Chang’an). Liu Xiu, persuaded by Geng Yan that he should be ready to set out his own course, because the people were badly shaken by Gengshi emperor and his officials’ misrule, declined and claimed that the region still needed to be pacified.

In autumn 24 CE, Liu Xiu, still ostensibly an official under the Gengshi emperor, successfully pacified some of the larger agrarian rebel groups and merged them into his own forces. He also started replacing officials loyal to the Gengshi emperor with those loyal to himself. He consolidated his power north of the Yellow River and, as he predicted that the powerful Chimei would destroy Gengshi emperor’s government for him, he waited for that to happen, not intervening on either side as that conflict was developing. He put Kou Xun in charge of the Henei (modern northern Henan, north of the Yellow River) region and made it the base for food and manpower supplies, while commissioning Deng with an expedition force to the modern Shaanxi region, waiting for the confrontation between the Gengshi Emperor and the Chimei. In early 25 CE, Deng, on his way west, seized the modern Shanxi region and put it under Liu Xiu’s control, before crossing the Yellow River into modern Shaanxi.

At this point, territories that Liu Xiu controlled were already impressive, compared to any other regional power in an empire broken apart by civil war—but he still carried just the title Prince of Xiao (which the Gengshi emperor had bestowed on him) and still ostensibly was controlling those territories as the Gengshi emperor’s deputy, even as he was already engaging militarily against some generals (e.g. Xie Gong – 謝躬) loyal to Gengshi emperor (During this incident, Liu Xiu succeeded to persuade Ma Wu (馬武), who was the deputy of Xie Gong, to join him.). In summer 25, after repeated urging by his followers, he finally claimed the title of emperor and the right to succeed to the Han throne—as emperor Guangwu.

The story so far is complicated enough, and if you made it this far I congratulate you. What follows is yet more complicated and Byzantine. Guangwu spent the rest of his reign consolidating the various warring factions within China and also staving off external threats, especially from Vietnam. He also had to set about land reform and the imposition of a legal system. All told, he was extremely competent as a general and as an administrator, and was legendary for his fairness and mercy. Chinese emperors have had a long history of being jealous, paranoid, and capricious, but Guangwu was none of these things. He set in place a new Han dynasty that lasted for 200 years.

The Han era is generally thought of as a golden age. As it happens, we have a few (very rudimentary) recipe ideas from the period, and a considerable amount of information on cookware, serviceware, and ingredients from meticulous archeological digs of royal tombs that were begun in the 1970s. Nobles were frequently buried with food and cookware, and their skeletons contain remnants of food. There are also many tomb paintings depicting eating scenes. The ingredient list (including spices) looks very much like a modern one, but we cannot know anything about cooking methods. Therefore, food historians have conjectured how to make the dishes using modern techniques (which are certainly venerable and widespread). I’ve chosen a stir-fried rabbit and mushrooms recipe, which I have had to edit and add to a great deal to make sense of. The recipe does not indicate the kind of mushrooms, so use any Chinese mushroom you fancy. Rehydrated dried black mushrooms will work fine. I assume that then, as now, cooks used the mushrooms that were seasonally available.

Stir-Fried Rabbit and Mushrooms


1 lb rabbit meat, cut in small pieces
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp Chinese rice wine
1 shallot, peeled and minced
1 tbsp ginger juice
2 egg whites
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp sesame oil
4 tbsp cooking oil
2 large black mushrooms, sliced
½ cup chicken broth
2 tbsp cornstarch


Beat together the salt, rice wine, shallot, ginger juice, egg whites, cornstarch, and sesame oil in a large bowl until they are well combined.  Add the rabbit meat and stir so that all the pieces are fully covered on all sides. Leave for 10 minutes.

Drain the meat and reserve the liquid.

Heat the oil in a wok or skillet over high heat. Stir in the rabbit mixture, and cooking, stirring constantly, for one minute. Then add mushroom slices stir another minute.

Mix the reserved marinade broth with the cornstarch, and add it to the rabbit mixture. Cook and stir for one minute, then put the finished dish in a pre-heated bowl, and serve with rice.

Jun 032015


On this date in 1839 in Humen in southern China, Lin Zexu (林则徐) destroyed 1.2 million kg of opium confiscated from British merchants, providing Britain with a casus belli to open hostilities, resulting in the First Opium War.

Lin was born in Houguan (侯官; modern Fuzhou, Fujian). The second son of the family, his father was Bin Re, a Chinese official active in the Qing dynasty. As a child, he was already “unusually brilliant”. In 1811, he received a jinshi degree in the imperial examination, and in the same year, he was appointed to the Hanlin Academy. He rose rapidly through various grades of provincial service. He was opposed to the opening of China but felt the need of a better knowledge of foreigners, which drove him to collect a great deal of material about the geography and cultures of the world. He later gave this material to Wei Yuan, who published the Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms in 1843. He became Governor-General of Hunan and Hubei in 1837, where he launched a suppression campaign against the trading of opium.


An ever-growing demand for tea and low demand for British products, combined with China’s acceptance of only silver (and not gold) in payment, resulted in large continuous trade deficits. Attempts by the British (Macartney in 1793), the Dutch (Van Braam in 1794), Russia (Golovkin in 1805) and the British yet again (Amherst in 1816) to negotiate access to the China market were resounding failures. After 1817, the British began counter-trading in Indian opium, as a way to both reduce the trade deficit and finally gain profit from the formerly money-losing Indian colony. Opium was most commonly used as a treatment for cholera. The Qing government originally tolerated the importation of opium because it imposed an indirect tax on Chinese subjects, while allowing the British to double tea exports from China to England, which profited the monopoly on tea exports of the Qing imperial treasury and its agents. However, by 1820, accelerated opium consumption reversed the flow of silver, just when the Qing imperial treasury needed to finance the suppression of rebellions within China. The Viceroy of Guangdong began efforts to constrain the trade, but due to large increases in the supply of opium, the long coast line of South China, and corruption (the Qing coastal navy was one of the largest smugglers of opium), these efforts failed. Meanwhile, memorials (official letters) received from officials such as Huang Juezi urged the Daoguang Emperor to take measures that would eliminate the opium trade.


A formidable bureaucrat known for his adherence to Confucian values, Lin was sent to Guangdong (Canton) as imperial commissioner by the emperor in late 1838 to halt the illegal importation of opium by the British. He arrived in March 1839 and made a huge impact on the opium trade within a matter of months. He arrested more than 1,700 Chinese opium dealers and confiscated over 70,000 opium pipes. He initially attempted to get foreign companies to forfeit their opium stores in exchange for tea, but this ultimately failed and Lin resorted to using force in the merchants’ enclave despite previous agreements and understandings. It took Lin a month and a half before the merchants gave up nearly 1.2 million kilograms (2.6 million pounds) of opium. Beginning 3 June 1839, 500 workers labored for 23 days in order to destroy all of it, mixing the opium with lime and salt and throwing it into the sea outside of Humen Town.


In 1839, Lin also wrote an extraordinary memorial to Queen Victoria in the form of an open letter published in Canton, urging her to end the opium trade. (full text )

The letter is filled with Confucian concepts of morality and spirituality. His primary line of argument is that China is providing Britain with valuable commodities such as tea, porcelain, spices and silk, while Britain sends only “poison” in return. Lin appears to have been unaware that opium was not banned in the Middle East, Europe and the Americas, and was commonly used for its medicinal rather than recreational effects. He accuses the “barbarians” (a reference to the private merchants) of coveting profit and lacking morality. His memorial expressed a desire that the Queen would act “in accordance with decent feeling” and support his efforts. He writes:

We find that your country is sixty or seventy thousand li from China. Yet there are barbarian ships that strive to come here for trade for the purpose of making a great profit. The wealth of China is used to profit the barbarians. That is to say, the great profit made by barbarians is all taken from the rightful share of China. By what right do they then in return use the poisonous drug to injure the Chinese people? Even though the barbarians may not necessarily intend to do us harm, yet in coveting profit to an extreme, they have no regard for injuring others. Let us ask, where is your conscience?

It’s probably just as well that the letter never arrived as I am sure Victoria would not have been amused. Neither Lin nor the emperor appreciated the depth or changed nature of the problem. They did not see the change in international trade structures, the commitment of the British government to protecting the interests of private traders (a commitment the Qing government would never have thought of), and the peril to the survival of the British traders posed when they surrendered their opium. Moreover, the British viewed the opening of China to free trade as a moral issue as well.


[click image]

Open hostilities between China and Britain started in 1839 in what later would be called “The First Opium War.” The immediate effect was that Lin banned all trade with Britain unless they signed a bond stopping all opium imports, and Elliot issued an order to British companies not to sign. Before this, Lin had pressured the Portuguese government of Macau, so the British found themselves without refuge, except for the bare and rocky harbors of Hong Kong. Soon, however, Qing imperial forces were faced with a British imperial force, which included the East India Company’s (EIC) steam warship Nemesis and improved weapons.


In late October, the Thomas Coutts arrived in China and sailed to Canton Province. This ship was owned by Quakers, who refused to deal in opium. The ship’s captain, Warner, believed Elliot had exceeded his legal authority when he banned the signing of the no opium trade bond. The captain negotiated with the governor of Canton and hoped that all British ships could unload their goods at Chuenpee, an island near Humen. To prevent other British ships from following the Thomas Coutts, Elliot ordered a blockade of the Pearl River. Fighting began on 3 November 1839, when a second British ship, the Royal Saxon, attempted to sail to Canton. Then the British Royal Navy ships HMS Volage and HMS Hyacinth fired a warning shot at the Royal Saxon.

The Qing navy’s official report claimed that the navy attempted to protect the British merchant vessel, also reporting a great victory for that day. In reality, they were out-classed by the Royal Naval vessels and many Chinese ships were sunk. Elliot reported that they were protecting their 29 ships in Chuenpee between the Qing batteries. Elliot knew that the Chinese would reject any contacts with the British and there would eventually be an attack with fire boats. Elliot ordered all ships to leave Chuenpee and head for Tung Lo Wan, 20 miles (30 km) from Macau, but the merchants preferred to harbor in Hong Kong.

In 1840, Elliot asked the Portuguese governor in Macau to let British ships load and unload their goods there in exchange for paying rent and any duties. The governor refused for fear that the Qing Government would discontinue supplying food and other necessities to Macau. On 14 January 1840, the Qing Emperor asked all foreigners in China to halt material assistance to the British in China. In retaliation, the British Government and EIC decided that they would attack Canton. The military cost would be paid by the British Government.


Some commentators claim that Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, initiated the Opium War to maintain the principle of free trade. Britain certainly needed to uphold its reputation, its honor, and its commitment to global free trade. China was pressing Britain just when the British faced serious pressures in the Near East, on the Indian frontier, and in Latin America. In the end the government’s need to maintain its prestige abroad forced the decision to go to war.

But there were critics at home. William Gladstone denounced the war as “unjust and iniquitous” and criticized Lord Palmerston’s willingness “to protect an infamous contraband traffic.” The public and press in the United States and Britain expressed outrage that Britain was supporting the opium trade. Lord Palmerston justified military action by saying that no one could “say that he honestly believed the motive of the Chinese Government to have been the promotion of moral habits” and that the war was being fought to stem China’s balance of payments deficit. John Quincy Adams commented that opium was “a mere incident to the dispute… the cause of the war is the kowtow—the arrogant and insupportable pretensions of China that she will hold commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind not upon terms of equal reciprocity, but upon the insulting and degrading forms of the relations between lord and vassal.”

In June 1840, an expeditionary force of British Indian army troops aboard 15 barracks ships, four steam-powered gunboats and 25 smaller boats reached Canton from Singapore. The marines were headed by James Bremer. Bremer demanded the Qing Government compensate the British for losses suffered from interrupted trade.

British military superiority drew heavily on newly applied technology. British warships wrought havoc on coastal towns; the steam ship Nemesis was able to move against the winds and tides and support a gun platform with very heavy guns and congreve rockets. In addition, the British troops were the first to be armed with modern rifles, which fired more rapidly and with greater accuracy than matchlock muskets and artillery wielded by Manchu Bannermen and Han Green Standard Army troops, though Chinese cannons had been in use since previous dynasties.Following the orders of Lord Palmerston, a British expedition blockaded the mouth of the Pearl River and moved north to take Zhoushan. Led by Commodore J.J. Gordon Bremer in the Wellesley, they captured the empty city after an exchange of gunfire with shore batteries that caused only minor casualties.

Illustration Of Opium War Battle

The next year, 1841, the British captured the Bogue forts that guarded the mouth of the Pearl River—the waterway between Hong Kong and Canton. Meanwhile, at the far west in Tibet, the start of the Sino-Sikh war added another front to the strained Qing military. By January 1841, British forces commanded the high ground around Canton and defeated Bannermen at Ningbo and at the military post of Dinghai. In the same year the British made three unsuccessful attempts to capture the harbor of Keelung on the northeast coast of Taiwan.


Once the British took Canton, they sailed up the Yangtze and captured the emperor’s tax barges, a devastating blow since it slashed the revenue of the imperial court in Beijing to just a fraction of what it had been. By the middle of 1842, the British had defeated the Chinese at the mouth of their other great riverine trade route, the Yangtze, and occupied Shanghai. The war finally ended in August 1842, with the signing of China’s first Unequal Treaty, the Treaty of Nanking. In the supplementary Treaty of the Bogue, the Qing empire also recognized Britain as an equal to China and gave British subjects extraterritorial privileges in treaty ports. In 1844, the United States and France concluded similar treaties with China, the Treaty of Wanghia and Treaty of Whampoa respectively.

The war marked the start of what 20th century nationalists called the “Century of Humiliation”. The ease with which the British forces defeated the numerically superior Chinese armies damaged the Qing dynasty’s prestige. The Treaty of Nanking was a step to opening the lucrative Chinese market to global commerce and the opium trade. The interpretation of the war, which was long the standard in the People’s Republic of China, was summarized in 1976: The Opium War, “in which the Chinese people fought against British aggression, marked the beginning of modern Chinese history and the start of the Chinese people’s bourgeois-democratic revolution against imperialism and feudalism.”


The Treaty of Nanjing, the Supplementary Treaty of the Bogue, and two French and American agreements were all “unequaled treaties” signed between 1842 and 1844. The terms of these treaties undermined China’s traditional mechanisms of foreign relations and methods of controlled trade. Five ports were opened for trade, gunboats, and foreign residence: Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai. Hong Kong was seized by the British and became a free and open port. Tariffs were abolished thus preventing the Chinese from raising future duties to protect domestic industries and extraterritorial practices exempted Westerners from Chinese law. This made them subject to their own civil and criminal laws of their home country. Most importantly, the opium problem was never addressed and after the treaty was signed opium addiction doubled. China was forced to pay 21 million silver taels as an indemnity, which was used to pay compensation for the traders’ opium destroyed by Commissioner Lin. A couple years after the treaties were signed internal rebellion began to threaten foreign trade. Due to the Qing government’s inability to control collection of taxes on imported goods, the British government convinced the Manchu court to allow Westerners to partake in government official affairs. By the 1850s the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, one of the most important bureaucracies in the Manchu Government, was partially staffed and managed by Western Foreigners. Some time between 1858 and 1860 opium was legalized.

Commissioner Lin, often referred to as “Lin the Clear Sky” for his moral probity, was made the scapegoat. He was blamed for ultimately failing to stem the tide of opium imports and usage as well as for provoking an unwinnable war through his rigidity and lack of understanding of the changing world. Nevertheless, as the Chinese nation formed in the 20th century, Lin became viewed as a hero, and has been immortalized at various locations around the world.

I talked about Cantonese cuisine a little while ago and suggested that replicating recipes from China was virtually impossible, and that you could come here instead. I can’t really be quite so craven again so soon. What I can suggest is that when cooking Chinese food in the West you try to stick to traditional ingredients. Western meats – chicken, pork, and beef – are not quite the same, but will do. Western pork is not anywhere near as fatty or flavorful as Chinese pork, but is probably healthier. I’ve often had dishes in Yunnan where the “pork” was, in fact, little cubes of fat with no meat. Early on I learnt to say 没有过多的肥猪肉 – “not too much fat” to quizzical looks which I think meant “idiot foreigner.” Actually, Cantonese dishes are much less fatty than those from Yunnan. Chinese vegetables are not difficult to find in the West. The main principles I urge are not to use Western onions, carrots, or broccoli. For onions use only green onions (cut in 1” lengths), and broccoli rabe for broccoli.

In Buenos Aires I used to make a tasty dish of stir fried vegetables after one of my monthly outings to barrio chino. The limitation I had, and all Western cooks have, is that you cannot get the wok hot enough to do a really good job. Cooks in China use gas jets that look like blast furnaces, which can get the wok fiery hot in seconds. You’ll never replicate this at home. Anyway, do the best you can.


Fire up your wok until it smokes. You can use a heavy skillet if you must, but it will not get the ingredients cooked evenly like a nicely rounded wok where you can toss them freely. When the wok is smoking, add a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil (or lard) and swirl it around to coat the surface. Toss in your vegetables of choice cut in slices or bite sized pieces: green onions, minced garlic, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, Chinese mushrooms, lotus root, flowering chives, broccoli rabe, or whatever. Fry on the highest heat for about 2 minutes, tossing and stirring with a rounded spatula constantly. Then throw in flavoring sauce of choice. I used to use a mix of hoisin sauce, soy sauce, and rice wine. For a “cleaner” taste I used chicken broth, rice wine, and a little rice starch. Toss again for a minute or so to coat the vegetables and reduce the sauce. Serve with steamed rice.