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‘I write what I would love to read’: Award-winning historian Stephen Platt pens new book on the 19th-century Opium War

  • Stephen Platt, a Chinese history professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has published three books on modern Chinese history. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • Some of the different editions of books by Stephen Platt, who teaches Chinese history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • Stephen Platt, a Chinese history professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is seen here in his Florence home with some of his books, including his most recent work, “Imperial Twilight.” GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • Some of the different editions of books by Stephen Platt, who teaches Chinese history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • Stephen R. Platt, a Chinese history professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, holds a Chinese edition of one of his books in his Florence home. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • Stephen Platt got a late start as a professor of modern Chinese history but has now written three books on the subject, including his most recent work, “Imperial Twilight.” He’s seen here in his Florence home. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • Stephen Platt got a late start as a professor of modern Chinese history but has now written three books on the subject, including his most recent work, “Imperial Twilight.” He’s seen here in his Florence home. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • Some of the different editions of books by Stephen Platt, who teaches Chinese history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • Stephen Platt got a late start as a professor of modern Chinese history but has now written three books on the subject, including his most recent work, “Imperial Twilight.” He’s seen here in his Florence home. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • Stephen Platt got a late start as a professor of modern Chinese history but has now written three books on the subject, including his most recent work, “Imperial Twilight.” He’s seen here in his Florence home. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O'CONNOR

  • The British steamship “Nemesis,” far right, destroys Chinese vessels during an 1841 battle in the Opium War between Britain and China. Wikipedia

  • Stephen Platt’’s new book, “Imperial Twilight,” examines a pivotal 19th century Anglo-Chinese conflict that the Chinese believe marks the beginning of their modern history.



Staff Writer
Thursday, May 10, 2018

For a guy who didn’t study more than a smattering of history as an undergraduate, Stephen Platt has carved out a pretty substantial niche for himself as a scholar of modern Chinese history.

And as someone who once aspired to write fiction but had trouble coming up with plots and characters, the University of Massachusetts Amherst professor has instead turned his talents to writing strong, narrative history that offers well-drawn portraits of people and a fresh look at stories not very well known in the Western world.

“I write what I would love to read,” Platt said in a recent interview at his Florence home. “History is wonderful as a discipline because you can have the rigor you would have in any other academic publication, while writing in a style that’s accessible to people who aren’t specialists … I like the really immersive kind of thing that brings you back to a different time.”

Platt, who has been teaching at UMass since 2004, won generally excellent reviews as well as the 2012 Cundill History Prize (which comes with a $75,000 award) for his second book, “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, The West, and The Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War.” His study of China’s mid-19th-century civil war — one far bloodier than the U.S. Civil War, which took place at about the same time — examined how Great Britain intervened in the conflict, on the side of the ruling Qing dynasty, to protect its commercial interests, leading to decades of a fractured, weakened China.

Now, Platt revisits 19th-century China in “Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and China’s Last Golden Age,” which looks at the events that preceded China’s Civil War — when Great Britain, at gunpoint, forced open several Chinese ports to allow for British trade, inflicting severe casualties in particular on Chinese naval forces in a series of battles between 1839 and 1842.

Initial reviews of “Imperial Twilight” have been favorable: Booklist calls it a “vivid and compelling major reassessment” of the Opium War that offers “clear writing and an excellent sense of story and scene-setting.”

That’s something Platt is happy to hear because, as he sees it, the confrontation between China and Great Britain is the key to understanding when and how modern China was born — and where that nation sees itself today.

“As viewed in China, the Opium War is Year Zero of the modern age,” Platt said. “You can see it in the speeches of [Chinese President] Xi Jinping. He talks about the ‘Chinese dream,’ the collective dream of the Chinese people to recover their lost power and centrality to the world.

“China was very respected in the world in the 18th century — it was a powerful nation,” Platt added. “The Opium War marks a turning point, where the Western powers realize they can get what they want from violence, and that sets the pattern for China in the 19th and 20th centuries ... every Chinese student learns the beginning of China’s modern relations with the West starts with a literal trade war, with gunships blasting open ports to free trade.”

Finding his way 

For all the praise he has garnered so far for his books — his first one, “Provincial Patriots: The Hunanese and Modern China,” featured portraits of significant figures, including Mao Zedong, who came from China’s Hunan Province — Platt never figured he’d end up teaching and writing about history.

Nor did he imagine, after he did become engrossed in studying Chinese history, that he would end up teaching in the Valley, and particularly at UMass, though the idea appealed to him: He grew up in Florence, and his father, Rutherford Platt, taught geography and urban planning for years at the school.

“It’s kind of amazing that I ended up here,” Platt said. “I remember going online while doing doctoral research in Taiwan, wondering who had the Chinese history jobs at the Five Colleges — most schools will have one or maybe two Chinese historians — and UMass, by pure luck, opened up that year. I’d always thought it would be nice to move back, but I hadn’t thought it would happen.”

His entrée to history also came from a bit of happenstance. He studied literature as an undergraduate at Yale University, where he had a general desire to be a writer but no fully formed plans. Then, as a senior in 1993, he found out about a university program, dating back to 1904, that sent young Yalies to China’s Hunan Province to teach English.

Platt was intrigued. “It was really just on a whim I decided to go to Changsha [a city in Hunan Province]. I was nervous about what my parents would say — this hadn’t been part of the plan at all.”

But it turned out a great-uncle of Platt’s had also taught English in the program, in 1915, also in Changsha, which to the Platt family seemed liked an endorsement of Stephen’s plan. He taught for two years at a middle school and used the time to begin learning Mandarin and to travel to other parts of the country. That experience, in turn, led him to study Chinese and East Asian history at the graduate level.

Platt earned his master’s at the University of Michigan and his Ph.D. at Yale, during which time another bit of serendipity came his way. While doing research in Taiwan, he met his future wife, novelist Francie Lin (her 2008 book “The Foreigner” won an Edgar Award for best first novel by an American writer). Lin, who is of Taiwanese ancestry, grew up in Utah; the couple now have a daughter, 10-year-old Lucy, and a son, Eliot, who’s five.

Sometimes the two writers can be a little envious of the other’s field. 

“Francie says, ‘When  you get stuck, you can go to the library and find out what happens,’ ” Platt said with a laugh. “I tell her I wish sometimes I wrote fiction because then I could just make stuff up.”

Just as Platt’s late entry into the history field has shaped his writing, so has his experience of coming to China as a foreigner, first to teach English, then to do research, shaped the themes of his books, which center on Chinese-Western relations and interactions.

“Imperial Twilight,” for instance, spends far less time on the actual fighting between China and Great Britain during the Opium War than it does on the background to it, including Britain’s first tentative forays into China in the late 18th century. There are well-drawn portraits of early merchants, missionaries, and Chinese and English politicians and military leaders; the book also examines the strange story of how the influx of opium, grown in British-held India, into China weakened Chinese society and created a trade imbalance favoring Britain over China.

“The book is more about how the British learned of China, how missionaries got into the country, how the British learned the language, and how the Americans went in and filled the empty spaces left by the British,” said Platt. 

In a broader sense, he adds, both the new book and “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom” are about “foreigners who thought they were shaping China for the better and the ways in which, in the end ... things turned quite horrific.”

Platt says his stature as an outside observer of China may have helped bring a fresh perspective to this history that has resonated with Chinese readers: He says sales of “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom” have been much higher in China than in the U.S. His new book is also being translated into Chinese, and he says his publisher hopes to bring him to the country next year for a book tour.

He demurs when asked about a possible trade war today between the U.S. and China, saying that’s not his area of expertise. But, he said, “Everything I’ve read suggests we are so deeply and intricately tied together that it seems impossible to harm the other without shooting ourselves in the foot at the same time.”

And, Platt notes, there’s a certain irony to the way historical patterns between China and the West have turned upside down in the last 175-odd years: “Now it’s China that’s billing itself as the champion of free trade … and it’s the American president dreaming of protectionism.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Stephen Platt will read from and discuss “Imperial Twilight” at Broadside Books in Northampton on May 23 at 7 p.m.