The best books on the fog of Opium Wars in US-China relations

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a scholar of literature, literary history, and American Studies based at the University of Hong Kong where I landed thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship in 2008. Prior to this I was very happily in Philadelphia, researching authors and artists who alluded to lucrative trade in the Far East when rendering scenes of the Far West premised on the promotion or the protest of continental Manifest Destiny. Archival materials at the Library Company and Swarthmore College inspired me to visit the places about which I was writing. Travelling to places that feature in my scholarly projects keeps me busy studying languages and humbly amazed by the enduring cultural varieties of our shared humanity.


I wrote...

The New Middle Kingdom: China and the Early American Romance of Free Trade

By Kendall A. Johnson,

Book cover of The New Middle Kingdom: China and the Early American Romance of Free Trade

What is my book about?

In the imaginations of early Americans, the Middle Kingdom of China’s Qing Dynasty was the wealthiest empire in the world. Its geographical distance did not deter commercial aspirations―rather, it inspired them. Starting in the late eighteenth century, merchants from New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Salem, Newport, and elsewhere cast speculative lines to China.

The New Middle Kingdom conceives a romance of free trade with China as a quest narrative of national accomplishment in a volatile global marketplace. It highlights the importance of the Opium Wars to understanding the foundations of US cultural relations with China.  As it pulls together writings and images produced by American merchants, missionaries, and diplomats, it offers new perspective on Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and other authors in the early canon of American literature.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Sea of Poppies

Kendall A. Johnson Why did I love this book?

Sea of Poppies is the first of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy—an epic of global opium trade that features Zachary Reid, a mixed-race American whose story unfolds as it connects Baltimore to Bengal to Canton across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.  

Filled with heartbreak and humor the trilogy invokes Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as Ghosh revives the primary sources of the Old China Trade and brings them into refreshing literary life. 

Ghosh’s novel complements another (very different) gem of historically based literary fiction featuring American involvement in opium smuggling and the ensuing First Opium War: Timothy Mo’s Insular Possession

By Amitav Ghosh,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Sea of Poppies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the heart of this epic saga, set just before the Opium Wars, is an old slaving-ship, The Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean, its crew a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts. In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a truly diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a bankrupt Raja to a widowed villager, from an evangelical English opium trader to a mulatto American freedman. As their old family ties are washed away they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais or ship-brothers. An…


Book cover of The Golden Ghetto: The American Commercial Community at Canton and the Shaping of American China Policy, 1784-1844

Kendall A. Johnson Why did I love this book?

This is the authoritative historical account of heritage wealth related to American participation in the Old China Trade (before and after the First Opium War). 

Downs details the kinship alliances of US family firms over a century and describes the logistics of trade as well as the historical archives related to it.

In a canon of authoritative scholarship on early US trade with China, The Golden Ghetto stands next to the subsequent fine books by Jay Dolin, James Fichter, John Haddad, Dane Morrison, Dael Norwood, John Pomfret, and Dong Wang, and the scholarship addressing Qing-era trade regulation by Paul A. Van Dyke and John D. Wong.

By Jacques Downs,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Golden Ghetto as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Before the opening of the treaty ports in the 1840s, Canton was the only Chinese port where foreign merchants were allowed to trade. The Golden Ghetto takes us into the world of one of this city’s most important foreign communities―the Americans―during the decades between the American Revolution of 1776 and the signing of the Sino-US Treaty of Wanghia in 1844. American merchants lived in isolation from Chinese society in sybaritic, albeit usually celibate luxury. Making use of exhaustive research, Downs provides an especially clear explanation of the Canton commercial setting generally and of the role of American merchants. Many of…


Book cover of Pacific Crossing: California Gold, Chinese Migration, and the Making of Hong Kong

Kendall A. Johnson Why did I love this book?

The Opium Wars never reduced Chinese people to pathetic victimization. 

Sinn spotlights the agency of brokerage and the circulatory migration of Chinese laborers and merchants, from different regions within China, as they underwent passage to-and-fro the Pacific Ocean with the United States. 

This is also the story of Hong Kong’s rise as an influential hub of exchange with merchants brokering flows of capital and economic power beyond state control. 

In tracing circuits of travel and brokerage, Sinn animates various cultural senses of being Chinese, Hong Kong, and American, embracing legacies of familial adaptability and endurance. 

She conveys the diversity within Chinese-American communities while framing the Chinese diaspora in transnationally nuanced senses of home and family that defy simple categorization based on the strict legality of citizenship.

By Elizabeth Sinn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pacific Crossing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During the nineteenth century tens of thousands of Chinese men and women crossed the Pacific to work, trade, and settle in California. Drawn initially by the gold rush, they took with them skills and goods and a view of the world which, though still Chinese, was transformed by their long journeys back and forth. They in turn transformed Hong Kong, their main point of embarkation, from a struggling infant colony into a prosperous international port and the cultural center of a far-ranging Chinese diaspora. Making use of extensive research in archives around the world, Pacific Crossing charts the rise of…


Book cover of Everything in Style: Harriett Low's Macau

Kendall A. Johnson Why did I love this book?

Lamas’s work offers a deep dive into the life of the young American woman Harriett Low who lived in Macau from 1829 to 1833. 

Harriett accompanied her aunt and her uncle, who supervised trade of Russell & Company up the Pearl River in Canton. Although the Qing-era regulations forbade foreign (Western) women from traveling beyond Macau, Harriett broke this law. 

In Macao, she wrote about her daily life, of falling in love, and having the British painter George Chinnery render her portrait. Most importantly for readers today, she wrote about her life (and reading) in diary letters that she sent to her sister back in the US. 

Lamas engaging account draws on Arthur W. Hummel and Nan P. Hodges’s masterful publication of Low’s diaries. As Lamas notes, Harriett’s life after her residence in Macao was underwhelming. However, the Low family fortune echoed across the century. 

Harriett’s nephew Seth Low served as president of Columbia University in the 1890s and was subsequently elected mayor of New York City.

By Rosemarie Lamas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Everything in Style as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Macau in the 1820s and 1830s was the centre of life for foreigners trading with China through the only permitted gateway of Canton. To this European enclave on the China coast in 1829 came Harriett Low, a young American accompanying her aunt and uncle, a trader from Salem, Massachusetts. Throughout her five-year stay, she wrote a diary that both shows her lively personality and gives us a rich picture of life in Macau. Rosmarie Lamas focuses on that picture of Macau, embedding extracts from the diary into her text to create an interesting account of that place and its society.…


Book cover of Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love and International Intrigue in a Doomed World

Kendall A. Johnson Why did I love this book?

The cultural and financial legacy of the two Opium Wars and the general opium economy lingered well into the twentieth century, through the First and Second World Wars.

In the mid-1930s, the American journalist Emily Hahn lived in Shanghai where she opened an astonishing window on the immense change over a century, culminating in the downfall of the Qing Empire and the struggle of early national China to counter Japanese imperialism. 

As a prolific New Yorker journalist, novelist, and autobiographer Hahn renders accounts of cross-cultural intimacy and literary ambition that unfold against the expanding war zones of the Second World War. 

Grescoe’s compelling biography pulls the reader into a seductive circle of opium smoking and literary salon conversation, coordinated by the Shanghainese writer and publisher Zau Sinmay (Shao Sunmei; 邵洵美). 

Grecoe then charts the harrowing and melancholy demise of its members.

By Taras Grescoe,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shanghai Grand as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On the eve of WWII, the foreign controlled port of Shanghai was the rendezvous for the twentieth century's most outlandish adventurers, all under the watchful eye of the illustrious Sir Victor Sassoon. Emily Hahn was a legendary New Yorker writer who would cover China for nearly fifty years, playing an integral part in opening Asia up to the West. But at the height of the Depression, Emily "Mickey" Hahn, who had just arrived in Shanghai nursing a broken heart after a disappointing affair with an alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter, was convinced she would never love again. When she enters Sassoon's glamorous…


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Feral Maril & Her Little Brother Carol

By Leslie Tall Manning,

Book cover of Feral Maril & Her Little Brother Carol

Leslie Tall Manning Author Of Maggie's Dream

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Mentor Laugher Research nut Avid reader

Leslie's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Winner of the Literary Titan Book Award

Bright but unassuming Marilyn Jones has some grown-up decisions to make, especially after Mama goes to prison for drugs and larceny. With no one to take care of them, Marilyn and her younger, mentally challenged brother, Carol, get tossed into the foster care system. While shuffling from one home to another, Marilyn makes it her mission to find the Tan Man, a mysterious man from her babyhood she believes holds the key to her family’s happiness.

But Marilyn’s quest is halted when her daddy, an ex-con she has never met, is chosen by the courts as the new guardian. Caleb Jones wants something more than a father-daughter relationship. He sends Carol far away, where the boy won’t be a hindrance to his plans. Marilyn devises a plan of her own: to locate her little brother, kidnap him, and run away.

Independence, however, often comes at a high price.

As Marilyn weathers the unexpected and often brutal storms of her childhood and adolescence, hope becomes her ally as she winds through small southern towns, wrapping herself around an assortment of hearts along the way. With unexpected help from a caring social worker, a carnival of misfits, her first true love, and even the elusive Tan Man himself, Marilyn will discover that “family” isn’t always what we imagine it to be.

"A dazzling piece that delves deep into the themes of survival, the casualties of self-discovery, and the power of familial ties." ~ Prairies Book Review

Feral Maril & Her Little Brother Carol

By Leslie Tall Manning,

What is this book about?

Bright but unassuming Marilyn Jones has some grown-up decisions to make, especially after Mama goes to prison for drugs and larceny. With no one to take care of them, Marilyn and her younger, mentally challenged brother, Carol, get tossed into the foster care system. While shuffling from one home to another, Marilyn makes it her mission to find the Tan Man, a mysterious man from her babyhood she believes holds the key to her family's happiness.

But Marilyn's quest is halted when her daddy, an ex-con she has never met, is chosen by the courts as the new guardian. Caleb…


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