Eric Jay Dolin, in When America met China, recounts the beginnings of the American love affair with Imperial China, it culture, tea and other goods and China’s quest for silver, furs, sandalwood, ginseng, as well as the pernicious opium. It is also the story of the trade rivalry between America and its motherland, Britain. The beginnings of trade with China by Europe, primarily Britain, continues to around the mid-19th century, ending prior to the advent of steam ships. Dolin does a good job in recounting the devastation wrought by the fur and sandalwood trade on Hawaii, several islands including Fiji, as well as the Arctic Northwest and islands near Antarctica. The players, both British and American are sized up as well as other nations to a lesser extent, including France.
My goal in reading the book was to learn about the opium trade and to the extent that opium is the focus, Dolin does an excellent job. To his credit, he suggests that readers pick up The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of China, by Julia Lovell, which was coming out soon after When America Met China. Dolin is an able researcher and writer, blending in the research in the just the right amounts in a readable, page-turning manner. Aside from the brief chapter on clipper ships which in this reader’s opinion could have been a few pages, When America Met China is a must read for those who want to learn about U.S.-China relations from the ground up.