- Reviewed by
The Opium War famously began China’s “Century of Humiliation” in which foreigners invaded, defeated, and humiliated the Chinese. Blatant racism in the treaty ports, exemption from Chinese laws and police authority, and reliance on foreign gunboats to intimidate locals were just some of the many indignities visited on China. This gaping wound is not at all forgotten in today’s China; the memory of these events is cultivated and perhaps distorted by China’s leaders. It forms the basis for much of the Chinese government claims of legitimacy.
Robert Bickers has already detailed the origins of this system in his 2011 book, The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832–1914. The current volume picks up the story from World War I until the return of [End Page 148] Hong Kong and Macao at the end of the twentieth century. A substantial volume of over 500 pages, it details almost every aspect of the foreign presence in China and why it causes such a strong reaction. This is a story of conflict. Bickers uses Western rather than Chinese sources for the most part, but he has done a prodigious job of research, turning up many surprising aspects of the Western presence in China. Bickers is also known for his lively writing style; his clear, jargon-free prose makes this a work accessible to undergraduates and the general reading public while still being of interest to scholars.
Bickers often begins chapters with an obscure or overlooked episode from which he teases out hidden insights. At other times he takes a familiar episode but presents it in an unfamiliar light. The first chapter, “Armistice,” begins with the celebrations in China at the end of World War I. All across China there are commemorations of the event in which Chinese participated alongside the Western powers. Yet there was a disjuncture between foreigners and Chinese. China was part of the victorious Allied coalition but was not treated as such by the British and French; the celebrations highlighted the tension and the racism of the day. War memorials in the Treaty Ports omitted mention of China, and China’s treatment at Versailles was a bitter disappointment.
Bickers provides a rich description of the 40,000 foreigners who resided in the forty-eight treaty ports at war’s end. Bickers contends that most came to China as a career move, often living a better lifestyle than would have been possible at home. But they were a diverse lot—missionaries, businessmen, diplomats, and Comintern agents, among others. In chapter 2, “Making Revolution,” the author turns his attention to the First United Front in Guangzhou and the fallout from the May Thirtieth Movement of 1925. Much of this is familiar territory, but Bickers opens with a novel approach, contrasting the modernization occurring in the Chinese city of Guangzhou with the old-fashioned foreign enclave on Shamian Island, a relic of the treaty port days of old, where the violence of May 30th took a sudden turn for the worse. As foreign diplomats began to recognize the need to accommodate a rising Chinese nationalism, old China hands in Shanghai resisted even the most modest of changes. Even the adding of a few token Chinese to the Shanghai Municipal Council was fought to the bitter end.
The Western community in China was diverse and often at odds with the diplomats from their home countries. By contrast, the Japanese kept fairly strict control over subjects of the Japanese Empire in China. Those from Japan were required to join the Japanese Residents Association which answered to the home government. As tensions between Japan and China worsened in the 1930s, Japan demanded greater participation in the Shanghai Municipal Government, a move resisted by Britain in particular. The British clung to their privileged tradition in a rearguard action as the Japanese challenge [End Page 149] mounted. After war erupted in 1937, the major bastion of semi-colonialism, the Chinese Maritime Customs...