The foreigners looked odd, spoke a peculiar language, and were
clearly inferior to the greatest people on earth.
Despite all this, the Chinese decided to deal with the strangers
who landed on their shores. After all, these men from Europe and,
later, America came bearing valuable things like furs and ginseng.
And in return, they only wanted porcelain, silk, and tons upon tons
For their part, American sailors would return home with great
shipments of Chinese products. Over time, the imports would
eventually make up as much as 20 percent of the items in some
Toys, T-shirts, and televisions, perhaps? Nope. Think earlier,
much earlier. The 20 percent figure, referring to many of the homes
in Boston and Salem, Mass., is from the early 1800s. Back then,
fantastic Chinese paintings, wallpaper, and dinnerware made up a
major chunk of the personal property of Americans who could afford
Such are the complications of understanding China's long history
with the United States. China, not the US, was burdened with a
superiority complex. And the epic influx of Chinese goods, long an
issue for American politicians, is hardly a creation of modern
When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs,
and Money in the Age of Sail tracks this dicey international
relationship from the 1770s through the Civil War era. It's one of
two new books the other is "The Great Railroad Revolution: The
History of Trains in America" that explore how the USA looked
toward and beyond its western horizon.
Both books are hobbled by their focus on details and events
instead of storytelling and scintillating personalities. Still,
they're both authoritative accounts, managing to fascinate through
their bounty of facts. And at one point, their stories intersect.
The Great Railroad Revolution chronicles the American history of
trains and tracks, the greatest advances in transportation since a
prehistoric R&D department came up with the wheel.
Christian Wolmar, a British railway scholar, argues in his first
sentence that "America was made by the railroads." He thinks they
united the country, turned it into an industrial sensation and
provided the spark for world dominance.
That's quite a case to make for the chugga-chugga-choo-choo.
Wolmar defends his thesis in dense prose and page-long paragraphs.
The book is heavy sledding at times, but readers do get to take a
broad voyage through railroad vs. railroad battles (even including
espionage), the Civil War (in which trains were crucial), and the
ultimate decline of trains.
Wolmar also provides glimpses of what it was like to travel by
train decades ago: "ladies' coaches," tobacco-strewn floors, and
dangerous sparks that threatened those who opened windows in
Railroads would, of course, bring the two sides of the US closer
together, spurring the development of the western states. …