Shortlist author interview with Stephen Platt
What does it feel like to be shortlisted?
It’s shocking, of course, in a good way. It does feel somewhat unreal. When I found out, I had just gotten back from a run and saw on my phone that there was a message from my editor at Atlantic. I knew the announcement for this was coming up, and being flush with running endorphins, part of me thought, “Maybe that’s him telling me I’ve been shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize!” Then the realistic side of me kicked in and said, “Come on, Steve, don’t be silly. Let’s see what this message is actually about.” Now the realistic side of me is a bit humbled. There are so many fantastic nonfiction books published in any given year, on so many interesting topics, with such impressive research, that you can’t possibly expect anything like this to happen. It’s an incredible honor for my book to be in the company of the finalists and winners of this prize over the years. I feel very grateful to the judges and look forward to reading the other books on this year’s list.
What inspired you to write this book?
Ultimately, this book resulted from a desire to understand, from a moral standpoint, why the Opium War really happened. Historians in my field tend to take Britain’s nineteenth-century aggressions against China as axiomatic, as if nobody at the time had any moral compunctions about—in this case—making war on behalf of illegal narcotics smugglers. Some didn’t, but in my early research, I was surprised by how controversial the war actually was in Britain. This book began as a means to explore how such an unpopular war, widely viewed in its time as immoral, managed to get launched in the first place. It is a tragic story, but there is some hope to be found in the incisive and eloquent voices of the opposition—public activists, Members of Parliament, journalists—who tried to prevent it. Because they did not succeed in derailing the war they have been largely forgotten. But they came very close, and for that reason, they are well worth remembering today.
How did you research?
There were oceans of primary sources to work with on this project, which wound up spanning five decades of relations between China and Great Britain (and, to a lesser extent, the United States). In Chinese I worked mostly with imperial edicts, with the writings of various Confucian scholars on foreign relations and the value of trade, with documents from the suppression of a major internal rebellion that appears in the book, and with memorials from officials who advised the throne on trade and opium policies. In English, I found wonderful material to work within the personal papers of a number of Western traders, officials and missionaries who went to China, as well as the records of the UK Foreign Office, newspapers from Canton and London, various collections of Parliamentary Papers on China, and the archives of the leading opium merchants William Jardine and James Matheson. By far my favorite sources to work with were the diaries and personal correspondence of my main characters, especially the letters they wrote to their spouses, siblings and mothers, where they revealed far more of their personalities and thoughts than they would ever have put down in the official record.
What is the one thing you would like today’s political leaders to learn from this book?
If nothing else, to appreciate how little of a role destiny plays in world events. We make our own history, for better or for worse, and some of us—especially political leaders—have a greater capacity to shape it than others. While not every crisis is avoidable, many are of our own making, and we must reckon with the power of individual choice as we seek guidance from history and plan for the future. Today the Opium War is rightly considered to be one of the most shockingly unjust events in the history of Chinese-Western relations. The memory of it forms the bedrock of China’s modern nationalism. Its shadow still looms. But it was never destined to happen—it was not the culmination of some grand, long-term plan, there was no inevitable “clash of civilizations” at play, no irresistible forces at work. It nearly didn’t happen, and by the logic of its own time it shouldn’t have. And if just a handful of individuals had chosen a better course of action at the time, it wouldn’t have.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
This is a difficult question to answer, but if I had to pick just one, it would be The Question of Hu, by Jonathan Spence. I should preface this by saying that Spence is the reason I became a historian in the first place—his ability to weave captivating narratives from historical sources was what first opened my eyes to how beautifully a true story could be told. In the case of The Question of Hu, it is on its face a fairly simple story, relying on an extremely fragmentary record, of a man from China who was brought to Europe by a missionary in 1722 and went insane. But it is much more than that. It is a striking experiment in historical narrative as the story of poor John Hu unfolds before the reader in immersive scenes told in present-tense prose that skips through time, sometimes dwelling deeply on an event, sometimes dispatching with a space of months in just a sentence. And it is a meditation on the writing of history that embraces the very gaps and incompleteness of the historical record that most historians try their best to hide. The fragmentary nature of the sources, and just how little can be known for certain about this forgotten man from China, becomes central to the story and the purpose of the book. It is a stunning piece of work.
What are you working on next?
Having written my last two books on China’s nineteenth century, I am shifting forward in time for my next project, to the World War II era. At the moment, I’m especially fascinated by a US Marine Corps officer named Evans Carlson, who embedded himself with the communist guerrillas in North China in the late 1930s and then, after Pearl Harbor, founded America’s first special forces unit, based largely on what he had learned from the communist fighters in China. He became a war hero for his unit’s exploits in the early years of the Pacific campaign, and was one of the most decorated officers of his time, but his reputation would be destroyed in the end due to his continued admiration for the Chinese communists. I’m not sure yet whether he will just be one character in my next book, or perhaps the center of it, but that’s the fun part of starting a new project—you never know what it will turn into in the end.