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When America First Met China

An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail

Eric Jay Dolin (Author)

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Overview | Formats

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.

Book Details

  • Paperback
  • September 2013
  • ISBN 978-0-87140-689-7
  • 5.6 × 8.3 in / 432 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide

Other Formats

  1. Book CoverWhen America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail


Endorsements & Reviews

“Starred review. A rich, highly readable examination of the seeds of poppies, trade, greed, grandeur and an international partnership that remains uneasy and perilous.” — Kirkus Reviews

“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.” — Mark Kurlansky, author Cod

“A smart, riveting history of what has become the most important bilateral relationship in the world.... An all-around outstanding work of maritime history.” — Douglas Brinkley, author of Cronkite

“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.” — Kenneth C. Davis, author of Don't Know Much About®History

“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.” — James Fallows, author of China Airborne

“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.” — Debby Applegate, author of The Most Famous Man in America

“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.” — Yunte Huang, author of Charlie Chan

“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.” — Kirk Davis Swinehart, author of This Broken House: A Family Undone by the American Revolution

“Fascinating, compelling, and engrossing.” — Joan Druett, author of Island of the Lost

“Fast-moving... 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. ...[E]ntertaining.” — Publishers Weekly

“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.” — Booklist

“[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.” — Susan G. Baird, formerly with Oak Lawn P.L., IL, Library Journal

“A diligent researcher… Dolin has uncovered some fascinating nuggets about the history of US-China trade.” — Matthew Price, Boston Globe

“Fascinating and entertaining... masterful history... His work is well-researched, rich in illustrations and full of life.” — Tom Zelman, Minneapolis Star and 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, Chicago Tribune

“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, Wall Street Journal

“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, GateHouse Media

“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.” — Marc Parrish, Barnes & Noble Review

“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, Christian Science Monitor

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