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  • Britain's Imperial Cornerstone in China: The Chinese Maritime Customs Service, 1854-1949
  • Lane J. Harris (bio)
Donna Brunero . Britain's Imperial Cornerstone in China: The Chinese Maritime Customs Service, 1854-1949. Routledge Studies in the Modern History of Asia 36. London & New York: Routledge, 2006. xvi, 200 pp. Hardcover $120.00, ISBN 0-415-32619-2.

In the 1950s John King Fairbank argued that the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, established in 1854, represented a "synarchy"-that is, a jointly administered sino-foreign institution incorporating Westerners into the Chinese paradigm of foreign relations.1 Scholars in the 1980s like Jürgen Osterhammel rejected this sinocentric analysis instead characterizing Britain's position in China as "informal empire."2 More recently, work on the relationship between China and the West stresses the fusion of Chinese and global practices with terms like "translingual" or "transnational."3 Dr. Donna Brunero, by contrast, harkens back to interpretations of the 1930s, echoing the British of the time, in characterizing the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (CMCS) in the Republican era (1911-1949) as solely a British imperial institution. As such, the sino-foreign, or international, nature of the CMCS is downplayed and, instead, Brunero situates herself within British Empire studies joining the rather stale debate over the general trend of British policy in China during the first half of the twentieth century. Rejecting the "retreat" or "defeat" theses,4 Brunero argues that the British sacrificed the CMCS when confronted with the challenges of Chinese nationalism, Japanese imperialism, and Foreign Office indifference.

Opening this fairly slender (but exorbitantly expensive!) volume the reader will discover several disappointing features. Unlike the promise of the title, this work only covers the period from 1923 to 1937 in detail, which is the same timeframe of the author's 2000 dissertation.5 Second, this work is based exclusively on English-language sources such as the Frederick Maze Papers, Foreign Office documents, published customs reports, and so on. Third, because of her interpretive paradigm and one-sided sources, Brunero explicitly adopts an "Anglocentric" perspective rendering this a top-down work focusing on high-level British policy considerations (p. 5).

Admittedly, this monograph is only designed to "lay a basic groundwork" that later scholars will "flesh out" (xii). In laying her groundwork Brunero provides a historical summary of the CMCS from the 1850s to 1923, which lacks new insights and includes a number of problematic statements. Any fairly informed reader of customs history will immediately bump into prickly pears such as the contention that the native Chinese customs system was "intrinsically corrupt" or that the Chinese only had a "token" role in hiring and firing the inspector general (IG) although H. N. Lay was both hired and fired by the Qing government [End Page 366] (p. 11). After the appointment of Robert Hart as IG in 1863, and a brief outline of his tenure, Brunero concludes that British control over customs revenues was "placed" in their hands in 1911 because the imperial officials had fled the capital (p. 20). This control over customs revenues to service foreign loans and indemnities transformed the CMCS into a British imperial institution. The "golden age" of British domination, however, lasted only into the early 1920s when a rising Chinese nationalism made British influence over the CMCS a liability. Over the next two decades, the British chose to protect more vital interests thus abandoning the CMCS, which is shown in a series of case studies.

Preceding the case studies, Brunero provides a synchronic description of the customs administration in order to understand the behavior of the various British customs officials and Beijing-based diplomats during the crises to come. As a bureaucracy and fiscal organization it is simply described as consisting of revenue, marine, and works departments. The inner workings and divers functions of these departments, however, are not analyzed.6 The CMCS as a fiscal institution is rightly highlighted as the key to British interest in the institution, but this argument is made in all standard works on the economic history of Republican China. Refreshingly, the discussion of the little-known London Office of the CMCS is original. The London Office, opened in the 1870s under Hart...


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