As far as I can tell from my somewhat limited investigations, Julia Lovell's The Opium War provides an accurate and fair portrayal of events leading up to, during and in the aftermath of what have come to be called the Opium Wars of the 19th century. At the beginning of the book, she justifies the use of the singular 'war' in her title by explaining that, in her view, both of these conflicts are actually one, since the quasi-resolution of the first conflict merely set the stage for the second. This seems unnecessary to me. Why not just go with prevailing custom and use the plural?
At any rate, this book provides the highlights of the battles, as well as the rationales and strategies, or lack thereof, that were used by both sides. Not knowing much about China during this period, I must say that I now find China's attitude toward 'foreigners' far more understandable than I did in the past. In short, the British seem to have forced China to purchase opium from them, which was cultivated in British India and sold in China in return for tea and silk, which were much wanted back on the home isle. When the Chinese government resisted, the Brits sent in their navy and started shooting.
Ok, so that is an over simplification. But not by much. Because the Qing dynasty was in the process of unraveling and its leaders had almost zero understanding of the world beyond China, the British seemed to think it was acceptable to plunder the country and make addicts of its people. Their behavior was truly outrageous and it is not surprising that the Chinese considered them barbarians.
So that was then and this is now. Except in the People's Republic today, the Communist government seems to be using the Opium Wars as a way to cultivate nationalism in its young people. According to Lovell, Chinese school children are dragged around the country to various 'historical education' centers, where the current government has erected memorials on the sites of Opium War battles. The narrative goes something like this: "The evil Western capitalists needed to expand their markets, so they came to China and forced us to smoke opium so that they could get our tea, silk and silver. When we resisted, they made war on us. Never forget and never trust foreigners." I have a couple of young friends who went to public school in mainland China, and they confirm this, although as you might imagine, in less vivid language than I have used here.
I should add that, while I did find this book useful, I also found it overly detailed and over long. It has good photos and a useful index and bibliography, but I believe that this whole tale could easily have been told in fewer pages. The promotional blurbs on the book's cover make me wonder if any of the endorsers actually read it. Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, for instance, writes, "A great history of the Opium War. A real cracker of a book," and the Guardian's Rana Mitter calls it "a gripping read." Alas and alack, this is not so.
As Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, "The evil that men do lives after them." This is apparently the case regarding the Opium Wars.