Friday, March 12, 2010

Who Else Might Be Mad at Alice? China

What Does China Have to do with Alice in Wonderland?

Nothing, should be the obvious answer. Yet, somehow, the screenwriter for the new film adaptation of Alice, Linda Woolverton, figured out how to fit the Opium Wars into the plot with neither necessity nor justification.

(Spoiler alert: I'm not revealing much from the plot, but if you plan on seeing this movie, then you might want to bookmark this article for a later time.)

Tim Burton's new iteration of Alice is set in London during the Victorian Era, the apex of the British Empire, which lasted during the reign of Queen Victoria through much of the 19th century. In this movie, we watch Alice, 19 years old, struggle to take back control of her life from various characters in and outside of Wonderland. It is a coming of age story, and the ultimate result is that a fully empowered Alice returns to her life of Victorian nobility to pursue new plans for success.

After a long, colorful and exciting adventure, Woolverton and Burton decide to conclude the last scenes in the film with Alice unleashing her new power ... on China? A minute before the credits, Alice conspires with her father's old trading partner to ambitiously expand the company's business to new horizons, in China.

To the casual observer in the West, this might seem innocuous enough. However, to many Chinese - and people who might have studied Chinese or British history - this is a not-too-inconspicuous reference to the Opium Wars, one of the most embarrassing events in Chinese history (for the Chinese, that is).

A brief background: in its trade with Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Qing Dynasty would only take silver in exchange for the luxury goods - like tea and silk - that it was shipping in large quantities to European nobility. The result was a huge accumulation of silver reserves in China and frustrated governments in the West. (Sound familiar?)

To rectify the imbalance, the British began exporting opium from India to China throughout the 18th century, successfully reversing the silver flow. Fearing the societal damage caused by masses of drug addicts, the Yongzheng Emperor prohibited opium sales in 1729. Despite this, British traders illicitly continued to increase the flow of opium into the Middle Kingdom.

Thus began the foreign domination of China, in which the Qing Dynasty would fight and lose two wars to the superior British military, resulting in multiple "unequal treaties," in which Britain and other foreign powers would charge the Chinese hefty reparation payments for the wars, gain access to Chinese ports and enjoy extraterritorial rights for their expats in Chinese cities. Moreover, the Treaty of Nanjing ceded ownership of Hong Kong to the British Empire.

The height of foreign domination for the Chinese government and its people was in the latter half of the 19th century, which happens to be the middle of the Victorian Era of the British Empire. And this embarrassment has salience today. The Communist Party gained control of the Mainland in the 1940's, in part, because it was the party of resistance against foreign influence. Contemporary Chinese nationalism is rooted in the lessons and embarrassment from the Opium Wars.

Back to Alice. The reason the plot's conclusion is particularly noticeable is because the expansion for Alice's trade company is precisely the fruition of her struggle throughout the entire film - it's not even a footnote. If we use history as our guide, then we know that it probably means Alice would have her hands in on the opium trade. Not only is it troubling imagery for a female role model in a Disney movie, but it's also a celebration of the exploitation that China suffered for a century.

There was already some commotion in China over Avatar because of an alleged reference to conflict over land development, but that movie didn't even mention China by name. Given the much easier logical connection in Alice, you ought not be surprised to see more objections coming out of China.

This was a recently published op-ed.


  1. Keen observation! But I would argue one piece might be missed in the article. In 18th century, the British government banned opium in its own country. But it's not prohibited in its colony India. So the opium shipped to China were from East India Company in India, not from Britain. The East India Company was started up by British merchants. So Alice in an opium boat to China seems to be less possible (thanks god!).

  2. You're right, Xingni. However, I took this into consideration when writing the piece. As you know, even though the opium trade was directed through the East India Trading Company, there are two factors that should be considered:

    1) the Company had a near-monopoly on British trade in India and China in the 17th and 18th centuries. Thus, Alice would have been likely to have been involved with the Company in one way or another.

    2) China excepted little else in its trade with Britain during the Victorian Era other silver and opium. In other words, saying Alice did *any* trade in China during the Victorian Era is tantamount to saying that she was dabbling in opium.

    In the end, Alice is a drug pusher.

  3. 1) Although East Indian Company is controlled by Britain, the opium was planted, produced and shipped directly from India. Just like how Nike is produced in China and ships to Europe.It doesn't need anything shipped from US. So didn't anything needed to be shipped from Britain to India as well.

    2) It's not true that "China excepted little else in its trade with Britain during the Victorian Era other silver and opium". Although China took mostly silver in exchange with tea and silk, they also trades with small amount of British wool. You can never tell whether she's in a wool boat or not.

  4. 1) Using your Nike example, wouldn't you still fault the American company (Nike) for any moral questions in business operations?

    2) In the sea of opium fleets, let's hope that Alice was on the wool rowboat!

  5. Honestly, I was more surprised to see a woman boarding the ship at the end of the movie, considering womenfolk on ships were considered a bad omen.