Taking Sides on the Opium War
Chinese students and Lutes hold heated debate on still-hot topic
Winners of the 2013 China Open international college debate tournament visited PLU on Feb. 25 and joined Modern Chinese History students in a heated debate over the West’s invasion of China in the 19th Century.
“The topic was, Was China to blame for the Opium War?,” said PLU Visiting Assistant Professor Mahlon Meyer, whose class is studying the war. “This is probably the most politically incorrect topic possible because everyone knows that the British attacked China. But this approach got both sets of students to really look at the underlying structures of complicity and collaboration.”
The teams were mixed for the one-hour debate, with both the Lutes and the visiting Chinese national champions becoming emotionally charged.
“Both sides argued with a lot of passion,” said Meyer.
Courtney Lee, a PLU student assigned to the side debating that the Chinese were not to blame for the war, argued that the British at the time classified the Chinese as almost less than human.
On the opposing side, students argued that the Chinese repeatedly used the word “barbarians” when referring to the British.
For source material, students used dispatches sent between the emperor and his officials and letters between the British merchants.
PLU student Zach Ross argued that the Chinese faced internal communications problems that hindered their ability to respond to the crisis effectively. Several students wondered why the Chinese commissioner in charge of dealing with the opium crisis seemed to spend more time writing poetry than communicating with the emperor.
In the end, a panel of student judges made up from visiting Chinese champs and PLU students handed the victory to the team that argued that China was responsible for the war.
After the debate, which was initiated and sponsored by PLU’s China Studies Program, the students continued to talk through the echoes of the Opium Wars and the Treaty of Nanjing throughout modern Chinese history.
“Everyone involved not only had a chance to really engage with the primary texts but, perhaps more importantly, see how emotional this issue is still for the Chinese today,” Meyer said.