The Lion and the Dragon: Britain and China – A History of Conflict by Lawrence James - review by Philip Snow

Philip Snow

Tale of Two Empires

The Lion and the Dragon: Britain and China – A History of Conflict


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 256pp £22

In October 1978, I sat with a small British Rail trade delegation huddled in a minibus on the edge of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Our two Chinese guides stood chatting on the pavement outside. One of them glanced at us, then remarked to his colleague with an unmistakable snigger, ‘Da Ying Diguo!’ (‘The Great British Empire!’). It was a mark of how the balance of power between Britain and China had shifted since the height of British imperial power and Chinese prostration in the mid-19th century.

This new book by Lawrence James plots the changing state of Anglo-Chinese relations over the past two hundred years. Other writers have explored particular aspects of Sino-British interactions, but James has come the closest to providing a continuous account of this relationship for a general readership, and as such his book is to be welcomed. It’s a shame that he doesn’t cover the early trading encounters in the 17th and 18th centuries, but James is above all a historian of warfare and his story naturally begins with the Opium Wars of 1839–42 and 1856–60, during which Britain set about opening up the Chinese market by force. He is particularly illuminating on the huge technological advantages the British enjoyed over their Qing dynasty adversaries, with mass-produced muskets and rifles as well as cannons and war rockets bearing down on Chinese troops equipped with swords and spears, bows and arrows and elderly matchlock guns.

Victory in the Opium Wars left the British temporarily lords of all they surveyed on the Chinese scene. Hong Kong and Kowloon were annexed and fifteen ‘treaty ports’ were opened. The British-dominated Chinese Maritime Customs Service (CMCS) advised the Qing government on industrial development, international finance and other aspects of modern life and fostered the commercial interests of the British Empire. Other imperial powers were also making inroads into China at this time, but it was the British who carried most weight at the Qing court.

Yet the period of outright British supremacy in China – this is perhaps the most striking point James makes – was in fact very short, just some thirty years, from the 1860s through to the mid-1890s. By the end of that decade, both Germany and Russia were seeking to

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