- Chinese Colonial History in Comparative Perspective
We are currently riding the wave of a resurgence of interest among historians of China in the nation’s colonial history. For more than two decades from the early 1980s, Western historians shied away from the topic as the field turned to “China-centred history,” spearheaded (though not initiated) by Paul Cohen. This was a necessary corrective to a tendency to see modern Chinese history solely through the lens of its interactions with the West: the “Western impact–Chinese response” model denigrated by Cohen, though his presentation of the argument of his former teacher, John King Fairbank, on “China’s response to the West” was a somewhat crude caricature.1 Cohen’s criticism of the field came of course in the context of broader convulsions in imperial history and area studies, with the emergence of subaltern studies similarly challenging the traditional narrative of South Asian history (the imperialism-nationalism dialectic). Rather than advocating a reassessment of the role of imperialism in Chinese history, however, Cohen demanded that the foreign influence be relegated from the forefront of its interpretation to the background, going far further in this regard than the subaltern school. This period produced a fine body of local and micro-studies and encouraged scholars to examine social, economic and cultural aspects of China’s modern history. But William Kirby’s bold statement in 1997 that “nothing mattered more” than China’s foreign relations in the Republican era of 1911–49 is entirely justified by the ways in which China’s politicians, intellectuals and revolutionaries of the time viewed the problems faced by the young republic.2 The significance of China’s foreign relations is equally true of the late Qing, the last dynasty, which was finally toppled with comparative ease in 1911.
Significantly, historians in China never stopped stressing the significance of the nation’s interactions with foreign powers. The Chinese state-sanctioned narrative is of a “century of national humiliation” from the First Opium War of 1839–42, when China was first forced to accept the terms of an unequal treaty, to the Chinese Communist Party’s victory in 1949, when foreign imperialists were thrown out of the country. In fact, the legal underpinnings of foreign privilege in China ended in early 1943 with the agreements to end extraterritoriality made in rapid succession by all the foreign powers, while the process of expelling foreign business people from mainland China (they remained, of course, in Hong Kong and Macao) was much more gradual and pragmatic than this sharp periodization would allow.3 The narrative of the century of national humiliation is accepted and promoted because it contributes to the legitimacy of the ruling party, which claims to have freed China from its semi-colonial shackles. The limits of this narrative do not mean that the importance of Sino-foreign relations can be dismissed, however, and Chinese recognition of this importance follows on consistently from the views of those early Republican Chinese intellectuals and leaders. China-centred history, ironically enough, was thus predicated on the arrogant assumption that Western scholars knew better about modern Chinese history than their Chinese counterparts.
Happily, in recent years there has been an accelerating production of work on China’s foreign relations, specifically on the practice and consequences of colonialism in China. The three volumes under review here are taken as particularly revealing examples of the kind of work being done. They allow a valuable comparative perspective, Pär Cassel contrasting China with Japan and all three considering different parts of China and the different colonial powers that exerted influence over it. Each volume investigates the effects of colonialism on people’s lives, whether Chinese or foreign, though attention is also paid to institutions and structures. In doing so, they build on work by Robert...