‘WHEN AMERICA FIRST MET CHINA’

WHEN AMERICA FIRST MET CHINA: AN EXOTIC HISTORY OF TEA, DRUGS, AND MONEY IN THE AGE OF SAIL By Eric Jay Dolin Liveright Publishing Corporation, $27.95, 394 pages

Washington Times on January 3, 2013, published a review by Michael Taube on a new book by Eric Jay Dolin on American-Chinese relations. For centuries, the United States and China have had a multifaceted relationship. These two countries, with different histories, political systems and traditions, have traded goods, traveled the high seas and increased their economic and military might. Excerpts below:

Yet it’s rather surprising that so little has been written about the early period of U.S.-China relations. Eric Jay Dolin, an acclaimed author who has blended history, wildlife and the environment in previous works (“The Duck Stamp Story,” “Leviathan” and “Fur, Fortune, and Empire”), was up to the challenge. His new book, “When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail,” is a well-written account of two nations far from each other and the sea by which they forged an uneasy — albeit profitable — financial arrangement.

A talented researcher and wordsmith, Mr. Dolin has the ability to bring important historical accounts to life. With China, he paints a portrait of an ancient empire that “viewed itself as a beacon for humanity, and it expected other countries to accept willingly its elevated position.” Trade with European countries was indirect at first because “the Chinese were wary of Europeans … the new European barbarians were often violent, unpredictable, and at times seemed as intent on gaining Christian converts as they were on bartering for goods.” Although this guarded position dropped over time, it showed that China wanted to trade and build relations on their own terms.

What about the United States? Most colonists “knew nothing about China” and, according to Mr. Dolin, regarded it as “an imperial, exotic empire that remained shrouded in myth.” Even though some Europeans had less palatable views of the Chinese, many educated Americans — including those in the American Philosophical Society — remained positive. In contrast, China “had never heard of the United States, and [was] not quite sure what to make of the Americans, at first thinking that they were Englishmen.” As the Chinese learned more about the Americans, “the more intrigued they became” and eventually dubbed them the “New People.”

Economic relations between the Pearl of the Orient and the revolutionaries soon took off. American voyages across the sea to China increased, with merchants like John Jacob Astor, Stephen Girard and Elias Hasket Derby taking the lead. Mr. Dolin writes, “New ships had to be built for the burgeoning China trade, bringing shipyards back to life and employing thousands of men in various trades

America and China knew little about one another two centuries ago, and much has obviously changed. Mr. Dolin’s book of historical facts, unique tales and financial success in the glorious age of sail opens an important passageway into little-known America-China relations of the past that may also provide some guidance in the present.

Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a columnist with The Washington Times.

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