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  • Quest for Power: European Imperialism and the Making of Chinese Statecraft by Stephen R. Halsey
  • Evelyn S. Rawski
Quest for Power: European Imperialism and the Making of Chinese Statecraft. By Stephen R. Halsey (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2015) 346 pp. $49.95

This book joins other recent works that challenge negative depictions of late nineteenth-century Qing reforms. Taking his inspiration from Tilly’s “military-fiscal state” model and drawing on the British case as developed by Brewer and O’Brien, Halsey focuses on the mid-nineteenth century fiscal, military, technological, and ideological changes in China that were part of a century-long state-building process.1

Halsey begins with a question: How did China, unlike India and many other empires, retain its independence during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when European imperialism was at its peak? Culling information from earlier publications, Halsey deftly turns the arguments of their authors upside down to argue that the threat of European imperialism caused the period from 1850 onward to be “the most innovative period of state-making” since the dynasty’s inception (5).

War was the principal engine driving the emergence of a militaryfiscal state. Like Britain, China expanded and strengthened its military forces. Although China did not use public borrowing before 1900, it significantly increased taxes on commerce, allowing revenues to keep pace with defense spending. The regional armies created in the 1850s to suppress major domestic rebellions became part of a “self-strengthening” movement aimed at heightening China’s national defense by producing modern guns and ships, and training troops in European drill and military tactics.

An equally strong impetus was the mercantilist understanding of European imperialism motivating key Qing decision makers. Halsey shows that those in charge of the ancillary enterprises created under Li [End Page 260] Hongzhang’s aegis—a Chinese steamship company and the Imperial Telegraph Administration—explicitly designed them to resist assaults on China’s sovereignty (the concept sovereignty introduced in a textbook of 1863 about international law).2 Throughout the period from 1850 to 1900, official and elite Chinese understandings of the term sovereignty focused on absolute/total control over “resources, people, or territory” (240). State-sponsored enterprises were proposed “as a means of conducting commercial warfare against the West” (241).

China was forced to open ports for trade under the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), but European merchants’ attempts to penetrate the Chinese economy were forestalled by Chinese mercantile networks that effectively “regulated the production, transport, and sale of commodities and also tempered the disruptive economic effects of European products like opium” (65). Merchants and government officials exhibited a strong resistance to foreign control of Chinese resources that predated the nationalist movements of the 1890s by several decades.

In Halsey’s account, late Qing provincial leaders and intellectuals emerge as quick responders to the Western threat, and their efforts were sufficient to make China one of only six non-Western countries to retain its independence in the twentieth century. Even though China in 1912 had not completed its metamorphosis, these late Qing reforms built the foundations of the great-power status that it would attain after 1949.

Evelyn S. Rawski
University of Pittsburgh


1. Charles Tilly, “Reflections on the History of European State Making,” in idem (ed.), The Formation of National States in Western Europe (Princeton, 1975); John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War and the English State, 1688–1783 (London, 1989); Patrick K. O’Brien, “The Political Economy of British Taxation, 1660–1815,” Economic History Review, XLI (1988), 1–32.

2. Henry Wheaton, The Elements of International Law (Philadelphia, 1836), translated by W.A. P. Martin as Wan’guo gongfa (public law of all nations) (Beijing, 1864).



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pp. 260-261
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