When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs and Money in the Age of Sail
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Global History and American History: Building Bridges Across Courses
Over the past month, I read Eric Jay Dolin’s book When America First Met China with a group of six juniors at The Madeira School in McLean, Virginia, outside of Washington D.C. I had taught these students in 10th grade AP World History, and they are now enrolled in American History. I was curious to explore the accessibility of Dolin’s book to high school students and opportunities to enhance both Global History and American History classes through connections to prior learning. In addition, I gained the perspectives of four American students as well as two Chinese students, who attend our school as boarders.
In general, after reading the first three chapters, the students immediately noticed connections between Dolin’s text and their AP World History and U.S. History courses. They found Dolin very readable, especially the many quotations from his sources. A few students noted that he seems to paint America in a very positive light. This book is definitely written from an American perspective on China and Chinese history. The students were also relieved to read about historical characters they had studied before – from Marco Polo to John Quincy Adams. One Chinese student noted that Lin Zexu, the high commissioner tasked with stopping the opium trade who is featured in chapter 8, is a very famous historical figure in China. More than one student said, “Dolin references a lot of events that we know.”
Specifically, I asked the students if there were individual chapters or sections of the book that they could imagine reading in class. One student felt that “Chapter 4: The New People” would be good for students for two reasons. First, it is only sixteen pages and more manageable than some of the other chapters. Second, chapter 4 describes early events in relations between China and the West, most notably the "Lady Hughes incident." Dolin describes an early conflict of justice between the British and Chinese that foreshadows later political dynamics in the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s. Finally, chapter 4 introduces students to elements of the Canton trade system and America’s place in it. In order to enhance our teaching of the Canton system, I would suggest pairing chapter 4 of Dolin with lessons from MIT’s Visualizing Cultures, especially their lesson on the Canton Trade System. The MIT site provides historical images of Canton that enhanced my own reading of Dolin’s text. Finally, his title “New People” refers to Chinese understanding of Americans as English-speaking people coming from a “new country” and introduces early Sino-American relations.
In addition, one student suggested assigning “Chapter 3: China Dreams” in a U.S. History class because it describes some of the earliest interactions between the two countries. Chapter 3 also includes many examples of the types of goods traded with reference to important figures in American history. For example, Dolin talks about George Washington ordering “his first set of Chinese porcelain in 1755” (59).
While chapter 6 is rather long, all of my students agreed that educators should include sections from this chapter that discuss the indigenous people of the Hawaiian islands because they felt that the study of indigenous people was minimal in their experience of AP World History and U.S. History. In chapter 6, Dolin writes, “It was on the lush Hawaiian Islands, however, that the sandalwood trade prospered most” (151). The chapter goes on to describe the exploitation of indigenous people for the sake of this trade.
Finally, I asked the students to reflect on new knowledge they gained from reading Dolin’s book. One student commented that her U.S. History class had led students to think that the U.S. was isolated in the early years, but Dolin suggests that the U.S. was very active in trade. From a critical standpoint, one Chinese student identified what she viewed as an overgeneralization that Dolin presents the hong merchants of Canton as honest and the smaller scale merchants as thieves. She explained that Chinese books portray these actors the other way around - the hong merchants were really corrupt while the small merchants worked hard and had difficult lives. After reading Dolin, she concluded that there was probably honesty and corruption among both types of merchants and that both historical sources had their limitations.
As a history educator, I was impressed with Dolin’s narrative in “Chapter 8: The Opium War,” especially his focus on the efforts of Commissioner Lin Zexu. I think there are sections of this chapter that could be valuable for including multiple sources into one’s teaching of the Opium War. I would also suggest pairing this chapter with primary source readings of two perspectives on the opium trade found in chapter 7 of a collection called The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection. These primary sources of only a few pages include an essay by Xu Naiji on legalizing opium and another by Zhu Zun on banning opium. This political debate combined with excepts of Dolin’s chapter 8 could enhance a longer unit in World History classes on the Opium Wars.
In sum, When America First Met China is an enlightening book for educators of both Global History and American History. I feel that it would be made most accessible to students in excerpts, especially from chapters 3, 4, 6, and 8.