Depictions of the Opium War in arts

By Johnny Song

While there has always been a plethora of methods we as humans express ourselves and our experiences, painting is no doubt one of the most common and oldest method to be used. A picture is worth a thousand words and rightly so when it comes to paintings depicting a period of history. It is interesting to note the difference between paintings made during that period and paintings that came after as they reflect different viewpoints on the same event.

The East and the West had always been drastically different in terms of culture, lifestyle, ideologies and art style. Therefore it seems reasonable to draw a comparison between artwork of the two different sides of the globe. The Opium War is an interesting time in history when the West and the Eastern powers clashed violently in open warfare for the first time between two regional powers, Great Britain and Qing China. Both sides seek to tell a different tale and appeal to different sides of emotion with their artwork regarding the period. Here I am acquired two artwork, one of which was made by the British during the war and another made by a Chinese artist many, many years after.

1024px-Destroying_Chinese_war_junks,_by_E._Duncan_(1843)
Edward Duncan. “NEMESIS Destroying the Chinese War Junks in Anson’s Bay, Jan 7th 1841.” Oil painting. 1843.

 

Here you can see British warships demolishing the Chinese fleet, it is worth noting the vast technological gap between the two warring factions. In the background, a steamship can be seen firing at the Chinese fleet. While the Chinese junks at this point used only a few gunpowder weapons, the British made ample use of them. It is within European tradition to depict the winning of a battle as their form of history telling. It demonstrates their power and inspires awe, such is the case in this painting.

Naval traditions also play a great part in this power gap. Great Britain, as both a European power and an island nation, developed a strong naval tradition. As soon as gunpowder was introduced to Europe, it had been turned into a weapon almost immediately. Gradual improvements over the 17th, 18th, and 19th century made them a precise weapon capable of inflicting terrible damage. The Qing on the other hand had very little use of a navy. After the construction of the Grand Canal, trading along the coast became an unnecessary risk due to pirates from Japan. Thus what little of the navy the Qing had were mostly outfitted to fight in large lakes or along the coast, designed to be nimble and maneuverable. However, the British navy was much more flexible due to their rating system for ships. 5th and 6th rate frigates take up the role played by the Qing junks while 1st to 4th rate line ships did the heavy lifting.

At one point in time Chinese junks were far superior to European ships due to the rudder, compass, sail design allowing them to sail upwind and compartmental hull. However, the Chinese naval technology stagnated while the European naval technology flourished, leading to the laughable difference in power during the Opium wars.

The Chinese appealed to something very different in their artwork depicting this period. Instead of demonstrating their power, they opted to demonstrate emotion instead. One can argue that Qing China was a victim of an unsolicited war, which is true to a certain extent. The British had a morally questionable casus belli for the Opium war, and is not really justified to their use of force. However, one can say that it was more so due to the arrogance of the emperors in the late Qing. The Chinese empire had always seen itself as superior and above the other nations of the world, and it is reflected in their foreign and trade policies. It can be said that the root cause of the Opium war was the Qing’s refusal to trade for anything but silver bullions. Unfortunately, Britain used the gold standard and had to actually purchase silver in Europe in order to satisfy the insatiable appetite for silver from the Qing government. This eventually led to the trade of opium and the outbreak of the war.

Artwork made by the Chinese however, rarely reflect upon that element, and instead focused on the civilian suffering due to the outbreak of the war. The Opium War was a landslide in terms of technology and the Chinese armies suffered devastating defeats at the hands of superior gunpowder weapons. Such devastation not only leads to physical suffering but also the emotional suffering of the civilians.

Untitled
Anonymous, The Opium War. Oil painting.

 

In this piece of art that was made much later, one can see how the Chinese still views the period even to this day. The painting depicts a devastating loss by the Chinese army and even civilians are forced to take up arms. It also expresses the unity between the armed forces and the civilian population during a time of crisis. The most amazing part about this work of art is that it demonstrates weakness but immediately makes up for it with strength and resolve. While one can see destroyed cannons, fire and fallen soldiers on the left, immediately to the right there stands a very determined elderly Chinese civilian clutching someone who appears to be an official of some sort in his embrace, much like how a father would protect his son. In the background the Chinese soldiers continue to charge forward wielding cold weapons despite their massive losses. If one looks further back into the painting, the white sails of British ships can be seen behind the smoke.

Thus it can be seen that while the two pieces of artwork depict the same time period, there are drastic differences to how they were portrayed. One side the reigning champion showcasing his strength and power, and the victim showing their suffering but also their resolve.

Reference

Duncan, Edward. “NEMESIS Destroying the Chinese War Junks in Anson’s Bay, Jan 7th 1841.” National Maritime Museum. Web. Nov 16, 2014. <http://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/opium_wars_01/ow1_gallery/pages/1841_0792_nemesis_jm_nmm.htm>.

Gray, Jack. Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to 2000. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

The Chinese Repository. A General Index of Subjects Contained in the Twenty Volumes … with an Arranged List of the Articles. Canton: n.p., 1851. Print.

 

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