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  • International Law as World Order in Late Imperial China: Translation, Reception and Discourse, 1847-1911
  • Thomas Buoye (bio)
Rune Svarverud . International Law as World Order in Late Imperial China: Translation, Reception and Discourse, 1847-1911. Leiden: Brill, 2007. x, 322 pp. Hardcover $99.00, ISBN 978-90-04-16019-4.

Rune Svarverud's International Law as World Order in Late Imperial China: Translation, Reception and Discourse, 1847-1911 is an impressive work of scholarship that deserves a serious reading from scholars of legal as well as intellectual history of late imperial China. Svarverud wants to show "how international law was translated, interpreted and received in China as a theoretical framework for conducting international relations, and how a Chinese discourse on questions related to China's role and identity in international relations developed from and within the theories of international law" (p. 3). At the outset, Svarverud clearly notes that his work is not diplomatic history but intellectual history. The author is interested in the discourse of international law in China and how this discourse changed from the latter half of the nineteenth century to the end of the Qing. Deftly sidestepping the simple dichotomy of Western international law and traditional Chinese views of inter-state relations, Svarverud acknowledges the complexity of traditional diplomacy and posits four competing perspectives on international relations in the late Qing. Adopting a relatively compact historical narrative, Svarverud takes the Lin Zexu's pre-Opium War efforts to translate works as his starting point and the Sino-Japanese War as the critical turning point in the Chinese discourse on international law. According to the author, the intellectual adaptation of international law as a theory, which began in the wake of Sino-Japanese War, was consolidated during the Russo-Japanese War.

Chapter 1 addresses linguistic issues, defines the intellectual pedigree, and frames the meta-narrative of the work. Wisely acknowledging that a number of studies "reveal that the Chinese court conducted their foreign relations on a much more flexible basis with larger fluctuations over time" (p. 12), the author delineates two traditional frameworks—the tribute system and an analogous system of private trading—and two modern frameworks—social Darwinism and international law—for interstate relations. Aside from a gentle remonstrance of John Fairbank's claim that "the great traditions of the Chinese world order" made adjustments to Western international law difficult, Svarverud's work broadens the field of inquiry rather than toppling existing interpretations.

Chapter 2 primarily provides a succinct overview of the history of international law in the West. While the chapter offers nothing new or controversial, it will likely be a welcome tutorial for Sinocentric scholars. The tension between theory and practice, which is always just below the surface in this work, comes to the fore in this chapter. By insisting on focusing on the "processes of intellectual adaptation of international law as a theory in the Chinese discourse" (p. 27), the author does not feel compelled to address lessons that Chinese intellectuals may [End Page 163] have learned from diplomatic confrontations that occurred prior to the translation of major works on international law in the nineteenth century.

Comparing Chinese translations of legal terminology in three major Western works on international law, chapter 3 demonstrates the author's formidable linguistic skills. The work of foreign translators in the employ of Chinese officials, Peter Parker, W. A. P. Martin, and John Fryer, provided the first comprehensive Chinese versions of major Western works on international law. Svarverud's painstaking analysis of these works illustrates the linguistic hurdles that Western international law posed for early translations. Chapter 4 looks at the early discourse on international law prior to the Sino-Japanese War. The author examines the opinions of an array of Chinese observers including Guo Songtao, first ambassador to London and Paris; Zheng Guangying, merchant and reformer; Wang Tao; and Zhang Zhidong. While Chinese opinion varied on key points, many agreed that a relatively weak China might gain some protection from adherence to international law. Svarverud concludes that prior to the Sino-Japanese War, experience and knowledge in international law were lacking. However, the realization "that China can only be recognized in international affairs if she...


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