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Reviewed by Raymond Lum

When America first met China, China also first met America. This book covers only the American side of that encounter but it overflows with information on the early economic relations between the two nations, one brand new and the other ancient.

China’s trade with the West was long dominated by the British East India Company, a private undertaking before it was dissolved in 1874. America’s own trade with China could not commence until the lifting of England’s blockade of that trade in 1784, one year after the Treaty of Paris officially recognized American independence from the “mother country.” In that year, the tall-masted Empress of China sailed for China from the port of New York to trade for tea and silk. The trade continues today, albeit on a much different and rebalanced form.

China needed, or at least wanted, what America had in abundance or acquired en route: fur, ginseng, silver, cotton, sandalwood (used in making the incense used in temples). The America-China trade was not, however, a straight-off one. The early tall-masted American ships sailing out of Philadelphia, New York and Boston, carried goods that were traded along the way, with stops in Hawaii, Mauritius, the Caribbean and the Pacific Northwest, which, at that time, was not a part of the United States. Although a Chinese emperor famously declared that China was self-sufficient and neither in need of nor desirous of any foreign goods, the reality on the ground, as well as on the seas, was different.

And on the American side, the craving for tea, silk and porcelain (originally used as ballast) ensured the continuation of trade with China, whatever the dangers, of which there were many. China’s traditional belief that it was the center of the world and all others were barbarians contributed to its official anti-foreign stance. From the Chinese perspective, the seamen on foreign ships were not only gross in appearance but also equally gross in demeanor in their dealings with the Chinese as many of them, especially the dockworkers, were uneducated laborers. Trade, on the other hand, was conducted on a higher level-educated American merchants and their Chinese counterparts.

China originally restricted foreign trade to only Canton, with no foreign residence allowed. China exported more than the Americans imported, resulting in a serious trade imbalance for the fledgling nation. Following British moves, Americans began importing Indian opium to China in a three-way trade (America, India, China) for which the Chinese paid silver (Latin American silver procured by trade with the Spanish-controlled Philippines). In 1839, the Chinese government began to enforce its ban on the importation and use of opium. The Chinese official Lin Zexu ordered the foreigners to turn over to his agents all supplies of opium held on their ships, which he publicly destroyed. It is highly ironic that Lin’s actions led to reactions by the British government on behalf of its merchants that led to the First Opium War (1839-1842) and the opening of more of China’s ports to foreign trade (and increased importation of opium) and the cession of Hong Kong to Great Britain. A second Opium War (1856-1860) did nothing to stem the import and use of the drug and the drain of Chinese money, but did lead to the total destruction by the French and the English of the old Summer Palace, which had been designed by Jesuit missionaries. The 1911 Republican Revolution that ended millennia of imperial rule –––along with Chinese and foreign anti-opium societies and foreign missionary efforts aimed at ending the trade and rehabilitating addicts –––contributed to putting an end to the opium trade.

Although opium and the coolie trade (the transportation of Chinese indentured laborers to the United States, Latin America, the Philippines, South Africa, etc.) cast a dark shadow on the Americans’ roles in China, positive aspects of the American-Chinese interaction get less attention. There was, for example, the Chinese Educational Mission (1872-1881) that saw a number of young boys brought to New England to receive an American education. Personal and professional interchanges led to the American appreciation of Chinese scholarship, art, and literature; and, on the Chinese side, an awakened interest in democracy, modern science and medicine, and an awareness of the countries beyond China’s land and maritime borders. The introduction of Western
foodstuffs (not necessarily by Americans) such as corn, peanuts, chili peppers and sweet potatoes did much to expand Chinese agriculture, enrich the soil, increase food production, influence cuisine and consequently, leading to population explosion.

Dolin’s writing is engaging but his treatment of his material is uneven. For example, although the author cites numerous sources in footnotes, there are very many quotations and statements that are not referenced, making access to the originals impossible to trace. On p. 89, as an example, he quotes in a whole paragraph “An ardent [American] patriot” who put forth his idea on the future of the China trade, but no citation is provided for the quotation. Again, on p. 219, the author records that a crowd of Chinese that gathered to attack foreigners “…had now grown to eight thousand, according to one estimate…” but he does not supply a source for that estimate. This book had numerous other examples of the lack of citation throughout.

This book’s bibliography (erroneously entitled “Select Bibliography” rather than the correct “Selected Bibliography”) is extensive but errs in citing Zheng Yangwen as “Yangwen, Zheng.” Three important works are not listed in the bibliography (although they might be cited in the extensive notes): America’s China Trade in Historical Perspective: The Chinese and American Performance (1986); The Commercial Revolution in Nineteenth-Century China: The Rise of Sino-Western Mercantile Capitalism (1986), and Hosea Ballou Morse’s five-volume The Chronicles of the East India Company Trading to China 1635-1834 (1926-1929). It would have been very useful if Dolin had included in the bibliography publications in Chinese, even if he had not been able to consult them himself. That could have facilitated further research by readers who do know Chinese and would have given the book an authority that it lacks because of its reliance only on English-language materials. Admittedly, Dolin notes that the bibliography is but “…a starting point for the general reader…” and that more information is available in the endnotes. But there, too, not a single Chinese-language source is referenced and sources embedded there are not accessible through the index.

The most serious shortcoming of this book is that it is entirely one-sided. We learn from Dolin’s research what the American traders were thinking and doing, succeeding in and failing in, but there is almost nothing of the Chinese side, which is copiously documented in Chinese sources and even in some Western-language publications. One wishes that this history of economic interchange had included more information on cultural interchange. Surely, Americans were curious about the nation that produced their daily tea and their silks and porcelains, and the Chinese on their end, must have been equally curious about the home country of the American traders and why they so desired Chinese goods. It also would have been useful to know the author’s view of the lasting effects of the early American China trade and how it influenced economic changes in China in later decades, such as the development of a modern banking and credit system.

Oddly, the Chinese are treated as almost incidental to a trade that was lucrative on both sides of the Pacific, and most of them remain nameless in this account. One who is named is cited as (based on American records) “Punqua Wingchong [p. 128]”, but obviously that is not a real Chinese name. It would be enlightening to know what his real name was (Dolin does note, on p. 173, what “qua” meant in the Western rendering of Chinese names). Similarly, an important trading port in China is referenced as “Whampoa,” as it was in the writings of American traders, but again, that is not a recognizable Chinese name today. It is rendered in modern Chinese as “Huangpu.” And what are “bohea” and “hyson” teas? Those names might have meant a great deal to 19 th century American importers, but they are not identifiable with modern Chinese names without recourse to Google. Dolin also refers to China’s ruler as both “the Daoguang Emperor [p. 213]” and “the emperor Daoguang [p. 147],” but “Daoguang” was not the emperor’s name. Rather, it was the name of his reign period, much like “New Deal” is used in reference to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Some of the author’s references are anachronistic. He notes, for example, on p. 112, that before the Americans began transporting sandalwood to China, the Chinese imports of that commodity were derived from India and Malaysia, but Malaysia did not exist before 1963. He also states that the Empress of China sailed for China on the 52nd birthday of George Washington, “…the man who had done more to found the United States than any other person [p. 4].” Washington’s superior role in the founding of the United States is not substantiated in the text or in notes, and is open to other interpretations.

There are other areas that the author touched on but did not develop, such as the switch of American currency from British coin to American specie and its impact on the China trade. How that trade was conducted on the ground is given only superficial treatment. Research in files such as those of Augustine Heard & Co. could have produced a more detailed account of the day-to-day activities of an American trading company that not only sent its ships to and from China but that also built its warehouses and headquarters in Canton. Augustine Heard & Co. merits only half a sentence and no mention in the bibliography, but its files are among the most complete and extensive record of the American-China trade from 1840 to 1877, and are part of a massive collection of records of American companies trading in China that is held at the Baker Library of the Harvard Business School. In a chapter on “China Through American Eyes” is a very strange digression on Eng and Chang, the so-called “Siamese Twins.” Although the twins were of ethnic Chinese stock, they were from Thailand and lived in America, but neither they nor their natal family had anything to do with the America-China trade.

The demise of the America-China trade as it was practiced in the 19 th century was due to many factors, some of which Dolan notes, such as faster ships that increased competition but left many in their wake. New sources of trade items, China’s foreign relations, and the introduction of the cable and telegraph also altered the traditional practices of long-distance trade. As Dolin writes, “…an account of how America’s trade with China evolved during the 20th and 21st centuries, is a tale for another book.”

Eric Dolan’s fluid writing and dedicated research make this an important book that will reward readers by taking them into a little-known realm of early-American history that resonates boldly in today’s China-America economic maelstrom. It is an incomplete story in this telling, and one probably not “exotic” as the title suggests, but it no doubt will spur curious readers on to further enquiry. Anyone who wants a solid and highly- readable introduction to America’s 19th century China trade could do a lot worse than to start with this book.

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