One morning several weeks ago, I waded through the assigned reading for one of my summer term courses. It was thick, muggy and uncomfortable, not only because this particular textbook lacked clear introductions and conclusions that summarize the author’s main point, but because it was a dark chapter of history that tugged at my heart.
The course is about modern Chinese history (1800s to present day) and the assigned chapter covered the period of time when the Canton trade system operated and the Qing empire signed a series of unequal treaties with foreign powers.
I have read about the Canton trade system and the unequal treaties. I knew full well before this reading about these events. I knew that Chinese people refer to this period as a “century of humiliation”. I knew that it was called such since this treatment and conduct was brutally unfair to the Qing empire, leaving long-lasting scars on things close to my heart: the group of people I identify as part of, culture-wise (Chinese, as the Qing is typically seen by Chinese as part of their Chinese history as a Chinese dynasty); and the place I recognize as my other home city (Hong Kong, ceded to Britain in parts over several treaties).
I knew, yet I didn’t know.
I have never been so upset about this history until this reading. I cannot pinpoint what exactly it was in the chapter that upset me. The chapter was not overly biased towards the Qing, though it argued that the Qing was actually quite well-informed and not as naive as some explanations for Chinese failure to respond to Western imperialism might depict it as.
Perhaps it was that it was the first time I had read about the other foreign treaties signed with other Western states that followed the Opium War treaties (Treaty of Nanjing, Treaty of Tianjin and the Beijing Convention signed with Britain). It hammered home the far-reaching effects of the War in detail to me.
Perhaps it was the chapter bringing up that according to international trade laws, the Qing empire had every right to criminalize opium use and Britain was in the wrong if it tried to subvert that. But here’s the kicker: the British government was well aware of that, yet it still eventually forced opium trade upon the Qing. What the hell?
So I felt this morning, deeply, the hurt of reading the history of a nation that I identify with.
It pricked when I read the mention of how Lord Elgin directed the ravage, burning and sacking of the Summer Palace outside Beijing during the Second Opium War; and thought of how I there is a major street in Ottawa and hotel named after him (Lord Elgin served as a Governor-General of Canada after his service in China).
It hurts to think that such a person is honoured in this way.
It hurts to think of how unfairly countries like Britain, USA, France, Russia, and Japan treated the Qing empire. Sure, the Qing empire came across as inflexible and uncompromising on occasions too, but it does not justify the breach of international laws and the use of violence to induce submission.
Time to acknowledge it, and let
It was too difficult to write “let it go”. I am not ready yet. However, I promise to not let it fester into something poisonous or let it breed more hate.