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  • Breaking with the Past: The Maritime Customs Service and the Global Origins of Modernity in China by Hans van de Ven
  • Margherita Zanasi
Breaking with the Past: The Maritime Customs Service and the Global Origins of Modernity in China by Hans van de Ven. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. Pp. xiv + 396. $55.00 cloth, $54.99 e-book.

Breaking with the Past represents an important contribution to the expanding scholarship that places Chinese history within a global context. In the process, this book helps us understand anew the role played by foreign imperialism in the crucial economic and political transformation that characterized China during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the period when the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (CS) operated. Van de Ven rejects interpretations of the CS as a tool of British imperialism in China that dictated policies to a helpless Chinese government. He instead portrays the CS as a cosmopolitan organization at the center of a wide network of international [End Page 519] financial interests that, from this vantage point, was able to bring about negotiations between foreign powers and an actively engaged Chinese government.

In this history of the CS, Van de Ven argues that two main factors contributed to the powerful position that the CS enjoyed: its “frontier” nature and the crucial role of international finances in shaping decisive events of China’s modern history. According to Van de Ven, the frontier nature of the CS was a direct result of its independence from both the Chinese government and foreign powers, especially under the leadership of Robert Hart, who was its second Inspector General (IG), from 1863 to 1911. The CS was not a frontier institution just because it administered the comings and goings of both people and goods in and from China. It was also a state within a state (imperium in imperio or guozhong zhi guo 国中之国), which enjoyed “considerable independence in the frontier zone between weak Chinese regimes and overstretched European empires” (p. 4). The success of the CS, Van de Ven argues, was one of opportunity, since these weaknesses allowed it to be “useful,” in the words of Robert Hart, who was the most influential IG in shaping this organization (p. 12). The CS provided essential services to the Qing government, which was happy to delegate the burden of negotiating with each foreign power involved. Through the CS, the Chinese government was also able to obtain foreign loans that would not have materialized without the security that the CS offered. Foreign governments, on the other hand, were eager to “offload responsibilities relating to the taxation and policing of foreign trade . . . which they found they did not have the capacity to shoulder” (p. 7). Hart strongly believed that usefulness and independence were CS strengths, and they allowed the CS to exercise significant influence in financial and political matters. Only to the extent that it did not act as the arm of foreign imperialism in China could the CS gain the trust of China’s government. In the same vein, only by not being directly responsible to Great Britain—a position Hart defended strenuously—could foreign powers accept its financial decisions.

If independence and usefulness were crucial for its success, the CS primarily drew power from representing international financial interests. Although Mao Zedong argued that power comes from the barrel of a gun, this book makes it clear that financial resources were probably equally important. If gunboats opened the way for imperialist interests [End Page 520] in China, financial pressure—mostly in the form of obligations for indemnities and loans—kept successive Chinese governments responsive to foreign interests. The CS, however, went further than protecting the immediate financial interests of the Western powers; it also contributed to shaping momentous historical events. The CS, for example, negotiated the £25 million reorganization loan for Yuan Shikai 袁世凱 that contributed to the outcome of the Second Revolution of 1913 (pp. 162–68). In a similar fashion, CS financial support influenced the 1926–1928 Northern Expedition. At that time, Francis Aglen (IG 1910–1927) did not provide the government in Beijing with additional custom revenue as requested, while Frederick Maze—CS Commissioner in...


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