When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail

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Overview

Ancient China collides with newfangled America in this epic tale of opium smugglers, sea pirates, and dueling clipper ships.
Brilliantly illuminating one of the least-understood areas of American history, best-selling author Eric Jay Dolin now traces our fraught relationship with China back to its roots: the unforgiving nineteenth-century seas that separated a brash, rising naval power from a battered ancient empire. It is a prescient fable for our time, one that surprisingly ...

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When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail

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Overview

Ancient China collides with newfangled America in this epic tale of opium smugglers, sea pirates, and dueling clipper ships.
Brilliantly illuminating one of the least-understood areas of American history, best-selling author Eric Jay Dolin now traces our fraught relationship with China back to its roots: the unforgiving nineteenth-century seas that separated a brash, rising naval power from a battered ancient empire. It is a prescient fable for our time, one that surprisingly continues to shed light on our modern relationship with China. Indeed, the furious trade in furs, opium, and beche-de-mer—a rare sea cucumber delicacy—might have catalyzed America’s emerging economy, but it also sparked an ecological and human rights catastrophe of such epic proportions that the reverberations can still be felt today. Peopled with fascinating characters—from the “Financier of the Revolution” Robert Morris to the Chinese emperor Qianlong, who considered foreigners inferior beings—this page-turning saga of pirates and politicians, coolies and concubines becomes a must-read for any fan of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower or Mark Kurlansky’s Cod.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist
“This sweeping popular history... brews up a rich and satisfying narrative of the exotic intersection of the silk, tea, and opium trade and the missionary zeal that characterized America’s engagement with the still mysterious ‘Middle Kingdom’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With a flair for dramatic and fast-paced storytelling, Dolin provides the reader with nuanced insights into everything from pirates, the world-changing impact of the silk trade, the British-Chinese Opium War of the 1840s, and the fearlessness (and naïveté) of the early missionaries to good old-fashioned tales of adventure on the high seas.”
Mark Kurlansky
“Eric Jay Dolin's engagingly paced narrative of the early years in the China-America relationship made me smile as I recognized the modern reality in this old tale of the odd couple of statecraft. When America First Met China, in fascinating ways tells us much about who we are today.”
Douglas Brinkley
“A smart, riveting history of what has become the most important bilateral relationship in the world.... An all-around outstanding work of maritime history.”
Kenneth C. Davis
“Master storyteller Eric Jay Dolin brings to life the American genius for commerce and its essential connection to how the nation grew... this is a timely and well-told tale.”
James Fallows
“I had not known about the exploits described in Eric Jay Dolin's fascinating book, but now that I do I am impressed by their importance and see current affairs in a new light. Anyone interested in China's ambitions, memories, and sensitivities will be glad to have read this book.”
Debby Applegate
“Eric Jay Dolin has a special talent for unearthing the fascinating but forgotten origins of our current cultural obsessions and now hes done it again. This fast-paced and deeply researched book is a must-read for anyone interested in Americas long history of competition and cooperation with China.”
Yunte Huang
“A tantalizing high-sea yarn of fast-running clippers and murderous pirates and a profound meditation on an international relationship that still absorbs our attention today. Fresh, gripping, pelagically capacious.”
Kirk Davis Swinehart
“Eric Jay Dolin is one of our very finest popular historians, a formidable scholar and stylist of uncommon grace. It's all here: tea, opium, raffish characters galore. Not only has Dolin filled a yawning gap in the historical literature; he has initiated a dramatic conversation about perhaps the most significant transcontinental contest of the twenty-first century.”
Joan Druett
“Fascinating, compelling, and engrossing.”
Susan G. Baird
“[W]onderfully accessible.... An ideal book for general readers in popular history or with a historical interest in China's influence on the American economy and general relations between the two countries—past and present.”
Boston Globe - Matthew Price
“A diligent researcher… Dolin has uncovered some fascinating nuggets about the history of US-China trade.”
Minneapolis Star and Tribune - Tom Zelman
“Fascinating and entertaining... masterful history... His work is well-researched, rich in illustrations and full of life.”
Chicago Tribune - Jeffrey Wasserstrom
“Lively biographical sketches, intriguing anecdotes and accounts of curious incidents… Dolin wrings so much drama, interest and humor out of this early period of U.S.-China relations. And what makes his achievement more notable still is that he makes the period come alive without turning the book into one devoted exclusively to opium, the topic that has the clearest dramatic potential and has gotten the most attention in works on the era.”
Wall Street Journal - John Steele Gordon
“Entertaining, informative and highly readable book... This remarkably complex story involving trade, ecology, ship design, international politics and cultural conflict, not to mention captains, merchants, naval architects, Chinese mandarins and generals is remarkably well told by Mr. Dolin, who is in complete command of the material. If a major purpose of history is to help us understand the present, the history of the early China trade is essential to understanding today's China as it resumes its place among the foremost nations of the world. You couldn't find a better place to start than When America First Met China.”
GateHouse Media - Rae Padilla Francoeur
“Eric Jay Dolin... has produced another in a series of accessible, highly readable histories detailing the early adventures and impassioned drive that characterized early enterprise in America and set a path for what was to follow... Interesting, informative and entertaining.”
Barnes & Noble Review - Marc Parrish
“Dolan's new work strives to show that the long forgotten record of early Sino-American relations impacts the international relations of the two countries today. In a few hundred pages, Dolin unfolds a story of the trade between the most recent country in America, trying to emerge onto the world stage shortly after birth, and the ancient society of the Middle Kingdom.”
Christian Science Monitor - Randy Dotinga
“Authoritative… Considering that the US has long held a highly positive opinion of itself, it's a delight to read to that it had company in China, which believed it was the ‘Middle Kingdom,’ below heaven but above all the other parts of the world.”
Matthew Price - Boston Globe
“A diligent researcher… Dolin has uncovered some fascinating nuggets about the history of US-China trade.”
Tom Zelman - Minneapolis Star and Tribune
“Fascinating and entertaining... masterful history... His work is well-researched, rich in illustrations and full of life.”
Jeffrey Wasserstrom - Chicago Tribune
“Lively biographical sketches, intriguing anecdotes and accounts of curious incidents… Dolin wrings so much drama, interest and humor out of this early period of U.S.-China relations. And what makes his achievement more notable still is that he makes the period come alive without turning the book into one devoted exclusively to opium, the topic that has the clearest dramatic potential and has gotten the most attention in works on the era.”
John Steele Gordon - Wall Street Journal
“Entertaining, informative and highly readable book... This remarkably complex story involving trade, ecology, ship design, international politics and cultural conflict, not to mention captains, merchants, naval architects, Chinese mandarins and generals is remarkably well told by Mr. Dolin, who is in complete command of the material. If a major purpose of history is to help us understand the present, the history of the early China trade is essential to understanding today's China as it resumes its place among the foremost nations of the world. You couldn't find a better place to start than When America First Met China.”
Rae Padilla Francoeur - GateHouse Media
“Eric Jay Dolin... has produced another in a series of accessible, highly readable histories detailing the early adventures and impassioned drive that characterized early enterprise in America and set a path for what was to follow... Interesting, informative and entertaining.”
Marc Parrish - Barnes & Noble Review
“Dolan's new work strives to show that the long forgotten record of early Sino-American relations impacts the international relations of the two countries today. In a few hundred pages, Dolin unfolds a story of the trade between the most recent country in America, trying to emerge onto the world stage shortly after birth, and the ancient society of the Middle Kingdom.”
Randy Dotinga - Christian Science Monitor
“Authoritative… Considering that the US has long held a highly positive opinion of itself, it's a delight to read to that it had company in China, which believed it was the ‘Middle Kingdom,’ below heaven but above all the other parts of the world.”
Publishers Weekly
In 1784, the Empress of China became the first ship to set sail for Canton under the American flag. The journey was celebrated as an affirmation of the new country’s independence from Britain. Previously, all trade with the Far East had been tightly controlled by the British East India Company—it was no accident that the commodity dumped in Boston Harbor was tea. Historian Dolin (Fur, Fortune, and Empire) argues for the centrality of the China trade in the early days of the republic. Despite that, at the time of American independence, “no more than a handful of colonists… had ever set foot in China,” the first few decades saw more than 600 American trading missions and “as much as one-tenth to one-fifth of all the items in many early nineteenth-century homes in Boston and Salem came from China.” This fast-moving but superficial overview focuses on intriguing anecdotes and personal vignettes, featuring colorful subjects such as pirates, drug runners, and slave traders, as well as those engaged in more salubrious pursuits. But while entertaining, Dolin fails to deliver a deeper analysis of early relations between the two nations. 16 pages of color and 83 b&w illus.; map. Agent: Russell Galen, Scovil Galen, Ghosh Literary Agency. (Sept.).
Boston Globe
A diligent researcher… Dolin has uncovered some fascinating nuggets about the history of US-China trade.— Matthew Price
Minneapolis Star and Tribune
Fascinating and entertaining... masterful history... His work is well-researched, rich in illustrations and full of life.— Tom Zelman
Wall Street Journal
Entertaining, informative and highly readable book... This remarkably complex story involving trade, ecology, ship design, international politics and cultural conflict, not to mention captains, merchants, naval architects, Chinese mandarins and generals is remarkably well told by Mr. Dolin, who is in complete command of the material. If a major purpose of history is to help us understand the present, the history of the early China trade is essential to understanding today's China as it resumes its place among the foremost nations of the world. You couldn't find a better place to start than When America First Met China.— John Steele Gordon
Christian Science Monitor
Authoritative… Considering that the US has long held a highly positive opinion of itself, it's a delight to read to that it had company in China, which believed it was the ‘Middle Kingdom,’ below heaven but above all the other parts of the world.— Randy Dotinga
Chicago Tribune
Lively biographical sketches, intriguing anecdotes and accounts of curious incidents… Dolin wrings so much drama, interest and humor out of this early period of U.S.-China relations. And what makes his achievement more notable still is that he makes the period come alive without turning the book into one devoted exclusively to opium, the topic that has the clearest dramatic potential and has gotten the most attention in works on the era.— Jeffrey Wasserstrom
GateHouse Media
Eric Jay Dolin... has produced another in a series of accessible, highly readable histories detailing the early adventures and impassioned drive that characterized early enterprise in America and set a path for what was to follow... Interesting, informative and entertaining.— Rae Padilla Francoeur
Eileen Scully - The New England Quarterly
“Timely…Readers of Dolin’s award-winning books—Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America (2007) and Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (2010)—will recognize in this newest work his distinctive style and his eye for iconic figures and vivid anecdotes…. Dolin is fully in his element when taking readers through an expert, richly anecdotal discussion of various intertwined China-related trades—whaling, sea skins, fur, tea, and opium.”
Library Journal
This highly accessible book takes readers to 1784 when one of the newest countries in the world met one of the oldest. The ship Empress of China sailed from post-revolutionary New York to Guangzhou, thus becoming the first American ship to trade with China, beginning a relationship that helped strengthen America's emerging economy. Dolin (Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America) reveals how those early dealings still echo in American-Chinese relations. He pointedly suggests that Americans today generally don't understand Chinese culture, much as those first American merchants did not. Dolin presents many colorful stories of the rapidly growing China trade that followed that first commercial encounter, of the tremendous popularity of Chinese decorative arts (think of the word "china" as coming to mean porcelain) in American households, and the tremendous consequences of the opium trade with the West. He closes by summarizing China's continued role as a trading partner whose products significantly influence American life. VERDICT An ideal book for general readers in popular history or with a historical interest in China's influence on the U.S. economy and general relations between the two countries—past and present.—Susan G. Baird, formerly with Oak Lawn P.L., IL
Kirkus Reviews
The author of Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (2010) returns with the story of America's first voyages to the Middle Kingdom, where Americans and Chinese looked at each other with wonder, alarm and calculation. Dolin begins at the end of the American Revolution. With America's relationship with England in ruins, the country looked to the Far East. On July 22, 1784, the Empress of China sailed into the Pearl River in China. The author, whose grasp of the intricacies of international trade is firm, proceeds confidently and skillfully through a complex narrative. He describes the beginnings of trade with China, examines the mystery of silkworms, and shows how China established Canton as the center for their trade with the West, whose residents craved silk but also tea (and serving sets). Soon, thousands of vessels--British and American--were sailing on the Pearl, and the most profitable commodity swiftly became opium. Everyone loved it, especially the English and the Chinese, and Americans profited handsomely from the trade. Dolin introduces us to some important American names--including Robert Morris, John Ledyard, John Jacob Astor, Robert Forbes, Harriet Low--and he relates the adventures of the first Chinese to come to America, who became sort of carnival attractions. The author also describes the perils of the voyage, the designs of the ships (and the rise and fall of the clipper ship) and the American involvement in the Opium War. A rich, highly readable examination of the seeds of poppies, trade, greed, grandeur and an international partnership that remains uneasy and perilous.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780871406897
  • Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 9/3/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 432,369
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric Jay Dolin is the author of Leviathan: The History of Whaling In America, which was chosen as one of the best nonfiction books of 2007 by The Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe, and also won the 2007 John Lyman Award for U. S. Maritime History; andFur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. He is also the author of When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail. A graduate of Brown, Yale, and MIT, where he received his Ph.D. in environmental policy, he lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts, with his wife and two children.

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