The Scramble for China

By Allston Mitchell, May 19, 2011

Second Opium War battle at Guangzhou Image courtesy Wikipedia

Second Opium War battle at Guangzhou Image courtesy Wikipedia

Interview with Robert Bickers, the author of the recently published "The Scramble for China, Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire 1832-1914". In 1832, British ships sailed into forbidden Chinese waters, thus beginning China's century of national humiliation.

Biography of Robert Bickers
Robert Bickers is the author of the highly-acclaimed Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai. He has written extensively on Chinese history and is currently Professor of History at the University of Bristol. To write The Scramble for China he travelled at length, visiting many of the haunting sites scattered across China that feature in the book.
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What led you to concentrate on the specific period of the Qing Empire?
My earlier books were mainly about the republican era, and specifically the 1920s and 1930s. But even when researching the life of a British policeman in Shanghai in Empire Made Me I was led back into even the very earliest periods of the foreign presence because foreign justifications of their privileged position nearly always referred back to very early events. So it seemed logical to go back myself. I was also led by the new archives now open in China, which are very rich on the foreign presence in the nineteenth century, and which are particularly strong on the human stories which drive my interest and drive the book.

What does looking at 19th century China teach us about contemporary China? Are there any threads still linking these two periods?
It doesn’t necessarily teach us anything, but for over 60 years now the current Chinese state has been using it to deliver a shifting range of lessons. In the very early 1990s the ‘closed door’ policy of the Qing was used by proponents of Deng Xiaoping’s then beleaguered ‘reform and opening up’ policy to attack their more conservative-minded colleagues. Social science academies investigated this history to seek out lessons about the potential pitfalls of opening Special Economic Zones. More recently, the ‘humiliations’ of a weak China are used to buttress the legitimacy of the government, for it alone, it says, has rescued China twice over from these – through coming to power and removing foreign privilege after 1949, and now through making China a global economic power.

The “Foreign Devils” seemed to find it very easy to invade and appropriate Chinese cities and territory, was it just a matter of one side having Enfield guns and gun-ships and the other not?
British expertise in technologies of violence, in particular, and readiness to use them, was certainly useful, but it was also the case that the Qing empire, and its predecessors, was quite used to hosting (though usually willingly) foreign sojourner communities at its geographical margins. It expected them to regulate themselves, so in many ways, the new foreign communities of the 1840s-1860s looked like older ones. The British or the French, however, saw these settlements integrated into the same world of power as Singapore or Penang, at the same time as the Qing saw them in their own insular terms. This certainly changed as other technologies came into play, not least the telegraph and steamship communications, and it changed in the 1890s with the violence and ambitions of the new imperialism of Germany and Japan.

 Published by Allen Lane, 24th February 2011, £30

Published by Allen Lane, 24th February 2011, £30


About the book
From 1832, when British ships sailed into forbidden Chinese waters, China suffered a century of national humiliation. It is a grand narrative of infamy, in which China’s development was skewed by impositions from foreign imperialists, craven collaborators, decadent, feudal Manchu emperors, warlords and bureaucratic capitalists, and it is a story repeatedly told in modern China. Yet for the outside world, this traumatic period is a matter of history, done and dusted.

The Scramble for China is an epic, dynamic account of a century of Sino-foreign interactions, confrontation and confusion. Told from both the Western and Chinese point-of-view, Robert Bickers’ book examines how events such as the opium wars or the Boxer uprising have impacted upon China’s relations with the world. For, as China resumes its central place on the world stage, we cannot understand the country’s resurgence and its sometimes quiet, sometimes raucous anger at the world unless we understand first this dark, complex phase of its modern history, the memory of which is embedded in the state’s very articulation of itself.

Bickers seeks to tell this story from the inside, through missionary records, Customs files, court reports, consular correspondence, scandalous diaries and fantastical memoirs, as well as tickets, dance cards, menus – incidental traces of otherwise lost moments in another realm. For, he argues, mere history matters in modern China, and the past is unfinished business. The Scramble for China is a highly original account of this time when two equally arrogant and scornful civilisations clashed. It is a tale of squalor, romance, brutality and exoticism, and it changed the world.


The determination to open up China to trade against its will was based on the massive profits to be made from trading in opium and tea but there was also an element of religious proselytizing but little actual politics. Was it all about money?
No, it was mostly about ideology, and also about honour. The ideology was free trade, increasingly dominant in British circles. Honour was about the honour of the state and of individuals. These were often polite justifications for the pursuit of quick profit, but we fail to understand British mentalities unless we take them seriously.

In the early years there you describe situations of mutual incomprehension, the British and the Chinese had a hard time understanding each other did they not?
Both understood a good trading deal, but there was little understanding of languages and cultures. There were exceptions, men like British missionary Robert Morrison, who composed a path-breaking dictionary, and there were countless intermediaries, Chinese and foreign, who smoothed in small ways the daily interactions on which this was all based.

The author Robert Bickers

The author Robert Bickers

There was very little mutual respect, the British being called “barbarians” and the Chinese being called “natives”. Cultural exchange and understanding seem to have been minimal. British were contemptuous of the Chinese and the Chinese disgusted by the British.
Debate continues about the Chinese term ‘yi’. Most Britons interpreted it as ‘barbarian’, while their Chinese interlocutors would tell them it simply meant ‘foreigner’. The important issue is that the British in particular relentlessly took offence at it, and in their successive treaties sought to force Qing officials to use more ‘respectful’ terms. Coming from an increasingly globally dominant power, Britons could hardly be expected to see the world in any other terms than their supremacy suggested. ‘Native’ was the least of objectionable terms. On the whole familiarity bred increasing contempt in the nineteenth century, especially as ideas about race also developed. But there were also groups of men, who worked with and for the Qing state, such as Ulsterman Sir Robert Hart who directed its Maritime Customs Service for nearly half a century, and who worked as well to interpret China to the West and vice versa. Hart was perhaps a uniquely bi-cultural figure, given his power and influence, but he was not the only one.

There was an enormous amount of play acting in the early years with deception and almost infantile slights when protocol was not correctly observed. This was often used as an excuse for demanding concessions. There was a strange game being played out.
The ‘Lindsay tic’, I call it at one point, after East India Company official Hugh Hamilton Lindsay, whose book about his semi-covert exploration of the China coast in 1832, is full of descriptions of these arguments about protocol. Lindsay and many others took it seriously, but don’t forget that other Britons thought it absurd. One thought his book was full of the stuff of pantomime.

The results of the opium trade were dire for China, with addicts to be found in the army and the civil service. Was this a national disaster of sorts, how serious were the effects of the opium trade on Chinese society?
Books have been written about this, and more can yet be written. It’s very important to remember that China’s cultures of opium use (recreational, medicinal, erotic) predated the Anglo-Indian and American trade. The entire trade as it grew exponentially at Canton in the 1830s was corrosive, fuelling corruption and inefficiency. It impelled the Qing into confronting the problem in 1839, and thereby providing slights to British honour that drove the decision to go to war.

There is an impression that the ordinary Chinese were more willing to work with the foreigners than the authorities who were very hostile. Despite the “piracy capitalism” of the imperialist foreigners, there was a certain fascination for railroads and steamships.
There was nothing ‘backward’ or ‘conservative’ about the peoples of the Qing empire. They readily took up foreign goods and foreign practices if these proved useful. More than anything, this openness of the Chinese market was what pulled the foreigners in. Chinese took to telescopes, revolvers, and photography. They used the steamships, they flocked to ride on the first railway (illegally) built at Shanghai. They wore foreign cloths, and took to new foods and things like newspapers.

The forced opening up of China had an unusual consequence, in that it led to massive migration of forced labour to the USA and Australia, for example. It seems almost akin to a slave trade of sorts or not far from it. What happened?
I could have made even more of this in the book. By ‘opening’ China further, foreign power opened up routes out of the empire of the Qing for Chinese who flocked to ‘Old Gold Mountain’ (San Francisco) or Melbourne, during the gold rushes. There was much foreign money to be made facilitating this free movement. This had a dark enough history, of gold-field pogroms, and racist legislation, but was augmented by the equally dark history of the global indentured labour trade. Chinese went to work mining guano in Peruvian or Chilean territory, on sugar plantations in Cuba, and further afield yet. The structures of British empire in particular facilitated the global migration of the Chinese. If it one positive facet, it was that Chinese labour scandals impelled the Qing state bureau that dealt with foreign affairs to set up consulates overseas, send investigative missions, and take responsibility for its subjects overseas.

What about religion? Both the French and the English made remarkable inroads in converting the Chinese to Christianity but all was not as it seems as there were varying reasons for the Chinese to convert. But it did lead to something of a social upheaval for China. You cite one amusing story of Christian Chinese ticking off the British for their pursuance of the opium trade.
Not just any Christian Chinese, in this instance, but the autodidact Christians of the ‘Kingdom of Heavenly Peace’, the ‘Taiping Tianguo’. In fact, the labours of the missionaries delivered very poor returns overall. The two great flowerings of Chinese Christianity have probably been the Taiping, who baptized themselves, interpreted protestant doctrines their own way, and whose 14 year rebellion was led by Hong Xiuquan, the self-proclaimed Younger Brother of Jesus Christ, and in the last 20-30 years, with very little help from foreign agency. The story of the Taiping between 1850-64 is an astounding, and horrific one. They probably came close to toppling the Qing in the early course of their rebellion, then proved impossible to dislodge from their heartland in east central China around their capital at Nanjing, until fundamental reconfigurations of provincial power led to the creation of new Chinese armies that finally extirpated them. Tens of millions died, and cities were destroyed. Late Chinese anti-Christian thinking needs always to be seen in the light of the hideous destruction of the Taiping war.

Taiwan which you mention in particular seems like a no man’s land full of completely wild inhabitants, even up to the 1900s.
Taiwan was a marginal region of the Qing, an exotic frontier, with wild landscapes and ‘primitive’ peoples, the Austronesian indigenous inhabitants of the island. It was not the Qing’s only such exotic frontier, but it was the most strategically important one, and the south and east of the island were largely left unsettled by Han Chinese and were mostly bereft of any obvious state presence. Imperialism abhors a vacuum, and lusts to fill it. This apparent vacuum brought in the Japanese in 1874, in their first modern colonial venture. They left, but returned in 1895 to formally colonize the island. Taiwan is the site too of for me one of the emblematic initiatives of the other strand of Sino-foreign interaction. My book is not simply an account of the trials and tribulations of the Qing, it’s a social history of the new foreign worlds established in China, and of those foreign actors who worked to prevent conflict and help strengthen the Qing. Robert Hart was one of these who worked to build up the Qin in tangible terms, its finances, its armed forces, and in the case of Taiwan, for example, building lighthouses and bodies of knowledge to de-exoticize this frontier and to try to keep the Japanese out.

You quote Mark Twain who seems to give the perfect summary of the foreign incursions in China: “Well here comes Christendom back from her ‘pirate raids’, her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies”. Does the “Scramble for China” deserve this level of cynicism.
I argue in the book that we need to take the pronouncements of the foreigners involved in this venture at face value. They very often meant exactly what they said. But we also always need to have Mark Twain somewhere close at hand as well, to cut through the pious hypocrisies. I find it a useful rule for life generally.

Can we equate what happened in Africa with this partitioning of China in the Qing period?
Colonialism’s actors lived in one imagined world of colonial power, and as the nineteenth century progress, one imagined world of ‘racial’ supremacy. They certainly ranked ‘civilizations’, and saw different power-relationships existing between, for example European powers and the centralized, bureaucratic Qing, and European power and kingdoms and cultures in Africa. But don’t forget that military units used in one such field of empire, were often used in another, very different context, and that tactics and practices and personnel were transplanted from zone to zone. The tiny Belgian concession at China’s northern port-city of Tianjin was certainly not the Belgian Congo. But the German soldiers killing north Chinese peasants in 1900-01 as they ‘pacified’ alleged anti-foreign Boxer rebels, might equally well in their eyes have been ‘pacifying’ the Herero and Nama in Southwest Africa.

You end your book with the modern Chinese perspective of the 100 year humiliation, how is history taught in China on this period?
On the whole China’s historians have been able to develop anlyses of much greater nuance than ever they were before c.2000, and local historians especially have been able to bring foreign residents and actors in from the idelogical cold, and reinstate them as agents of change locally without having to continually critique them politically. We shouldn’t take this as a given, however. And since c.1991 ‘Patriotic educaton’ has been a mainstay in the the education system, and here there is less nuance. In schools and in many superbly equipped modern museums, the tale of China’s humiliations at foreign hands is focused on. Many young Chinese can tell you the incidents of this story – and indeed, as I recount in the book – have been keen to tell me them when I’ve described the subject of my research. Obviously, most people, most of the time, don’t think about the burning of the Summer Palace in 1860, for example, but contemporary contretemps have a predictable habit of rapidly acquiring a deep historical hinterland and resonance. I am confident that we shall hear much more about the past the further we get away from it in the new world of global Chinese strength. And as few Europeans or north Americans are taught about it at school, I think we need to bring ourselves up to speed – which is one reason I wrote the book.

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