A lively account of the brash men who chased their American Dreams all the way to China

America's First Adventure in China

Trade, Treaties, Opium, and Salvation

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John R. Haddad

"John Haddad has written a subtle and spirited book, which takes America's first experiences in China as a means to explore the early years of the United States as an independent nation. This is a book about the magic of money and the ingenious ways that American business grandees reacted to the ever-shifting promises and disappointments of an emerging Asian market. It is also a book about religion, diplomacy, financial systems, arms manufacture, families under stress, ship-building, and opium. It is an absorbing tale, with many contemporary echoes."
Jonathan Spence, author of The Search for Modern China

In 1784, when Americans first voyaged to China, they confronted Chinese authorities who were unaware that the United States even existed. Nevertheless, a long, complicated, and fruitful trade relationship was born after American traders, missionaries, diplomats, and others sailed to China with lofty ambitions: to acquire fabulous wealth, convert China to Christianity, and even command a Chinese army.

In America's First Adventure in China, John Haddad provides a colorful history of the evolving cultural exchange and interactions between these countries. He recounts how American expatriates adopted a pragmatic attitude—as well as an entrepreneurial spirit and improvisational approach—to their dealings with the Chinese. Haddad shows how opium played a potent role in the dreams of Americans who either smuggled it or opposed its importation, and he considers the missionary movement that compelled individuals to accept a hard life in an alien culture.

As a result of their efforts, Americans achieved a favorable outcome—they established a unique presence in China—and cultivated a relationship whose complexities continue to grow.



Read the Introduction (pdf).



"America's First Adventure in China is a well written, succinct, and elegant book. Haddad brings a fresh approach to—and makes a convincing case for his characterization of—the American presence in China. He describes how the Americans were isolated individuals acting pretty much on their own and with nothing in the way of state, military, or other institutional support. Their experience—operating in a fog of ignorance about a world to which they had only the most limited access—is significant, and he explains why the American experience diverged from rather than followed on the British model."
Peter Buck, Senior Lecturer (retired) on the History of Science, Harvard University

"Haddad has again struck the right note with this well-researched work on the first hundred years or so of the U.S. relationship with China. He conveys his narrative with humor...[and] reveals the fascinating story of men such as Anson Burlingame. There are many such informative topics that Haddad shares with readers. His notes and bibliography are rich, while illustrations are few but first-rate. VERDICT Excellent for scholars of Chinese history and ideal for those who desire more than a cursory view of the subject."
Library Journal

"Haddad looks at the development of the relationship between China and the United States beginning in 1784. An intensely detailed story.... it provides some interesting descriptions about the beginnings of American trade with China in the late 18th century, when George Washington's aide-de-camp set off for Canton (modern-day Guangzhou).... Informative."
Publishers Weekly online

"Haddad tells a powerful story of the first epoch of Sino-American relations.... [He] bases his important synthesis on a wide range of English-language materials, journals, memoirs, and scholarly accounts that focus on more specific details.... Summing Up: Highly recommended."

"Haddad's biographical approach provides for lively reading and colorful anecdotes of America's early encounters with China. Haddad argues that this first era of American-Chinese encounters from 1784 to 1870 succeeded not only in shaping the American imagination and its varied 'China dreams' but also created potential within China for a more sustained relationship.... Scholars, diplomats, policymakers, and businesspeople will find this compact history a useful read, as echoes of this early relationship, at the very least in its ability to inspire the imagination and dreams of both Americans and Chinese, continue unto the present."
Asian Affairs

"Haddad's engaging narrative is interspersed with vivid descriptions of the ups and downs of early Sino-American relations.... With careful nuance, Haddad analyzes the careers of Americans who smuggled opium into China as well as the minority who abstained on moral grounds.... Haddad and Temple University Press, a relative newcomer to the field of China studies, should be congratulated for producing a detailed history of the formative years of Sino-American relations."
The Journal of American History

"Haddad has produced a remarkably comprehensive and informed study of various aspects of early American relations with China..... [V]ery few [scholars] have attempted to produce the sort of broadly synthesized overview that Haddad presents here. Citing knowledgeably from the considerable body of secondary literature on the topic, while also mining interesting gems from the rich trove of primary source materials still awaiting scholarly evaluation, Haddad has contributed significantly to our understanding of this particularly momentous and colorful period in the early American experience in East Asia. Written in a style easily accessible to the general public, this book provides an excellent introduction to the stimulating range of subjects that constitute the history of America's first adventure in China."
The Review of Politics

"What separates America's First Adventure in China from the existing scholarship is its sharp focus on a large number of individual Americans who interacted actively with the Chinese in many different areas.... With a unique approach, powerful arguments, rich biographical information, and clear writing, America's First Adventure in China can be an engaging and thought-provoking reading for college students, scholars, professionals in various fields, and the general adult audience."
History: Review of New Books



A Note on the Spelling of Chinese Words

1. First Contact: The Voyage of the Empress of China
2. System Men: The Rise of Perkins and Company
3. All for a Cup of Tea: Finding Goods for the Canton Market
4. Beachhead of God: The First Wave of Missionaries
5. Rising on Smoke: Opium and Identity in Canton
6. Formal Ties: The Caleb Cushing Mission
7. Centrifugal Force: The Spread of People, Goods, Capital, and Ideas
8. Heavenly War: Americans and the Taiping Rebellion
9. Cooperation: Burlingame and the Reinvention of Sino-Western Relations



About the Author(s)

John R. Haddad is an Associate Professor of American Studies and Popular Culture at Penn State Harrisburg. He was awarded the Gutenberg-e Prize in 2002 for his dissertation, which was published as The Romance of China: Excursions to China in U.S. Culture, 1776-1876. In 2010, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholar grant to teach and research at the University of Hong Kong.

Subject Categories

American Studies
Asian Studies



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