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  • Redefining Semi-Colonialism:A Historiographical Essay on British Colonial Presence in China
  • Taoyu Yang


The tumultuous relationship between Britain and China in the second half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century has attracted considerable attention and continues to pique scholarly interests. Many existing older studies pertaining to Sino-British relations advanced multi-pronged analysis into the entangled economic, political, and diplomatic relations between the two. However, despite this notable body of scholarship on the various types of Sino-British interaction, China was largely ignored for some decades in the literature on the British colonial history.1 The reasons for China's relative low profile in scholarship on British imperial history stemmed from scholars' understandings of China's minor significance within the British Empire and from practical difficulties such as limited access to primary sources and lack of linguistic skills. More importantly, the very designation of China as a "semi-colony" provided scholars of colonialism with justifiable reasons for downplaying China's relevance in colonial studies on the ground of its partial and incomplete coloniality.

However, in the last two decades, scholars have made remarkable progress in incorporating China into the academic literature on British colonial history. Such a scholarly trend has taken place in a changing intellectual milieu. The conscious efforts by historians of China to move beyond the "China-centered approach," a methodological orientation popularized by Paul Cohen,2 have propelled scholars to reexamine the role of British imperialism in the modern history of China. In particular, the studies of Sino-British interaction have changed because of the significant revisionist works on the Qing Empire and the increasingly transnational focus in works on the late Qing and Republican period.3 Additionally, the rise of "New Imperial History" and the continual growth of postcolonial studies have lent scholars new analytical tools to explore Sino-British interactions.4 Another important factor that has contributed to the upsurge of studies on British colonialism in China lies in improvements in access to archival sources in China and beyond. As a result, instead of dismissing the sui generis coloniality of China, a growing number of scholars have, as James Hevia advocates, brought China into colonial studies.5

The goal of this essay is to synthesize and analyze recent scholarship on British colonialism in China through a conceptual approach. In doing so, I choose to revisit and redefine the notion of "semi-colonialism," a term favored by many American and Chinese scholars. The concept of "semi-colonialism," or "semi-colony," has its distinctive genealogy. It was originally coined by Vladimir Lenin and later adopted by Mao Zedong in the 1920s and 1930s. They both underscored semi-colonialism as a unique social formation characterized by the coexistence of colonialism and native feudal structure.6 Although semi-colonialism, as used by these two Marxist critics, helped legitimize their respective political and ideological agenda, it did reflect the need to modify the term "colonialism" in the Chinese context. The subsequent generations of scholars, most notably Jürgen Osterhammel and Shu-mei Shih, have used this term to conceptualize China's distinctive coloniality vis-à-vis other colonial settings. As Osterhammel explains, semi-colonialism can be used "to make sense of a historical process in which 'feudalism' obviously disintegrated, but no significant transition to capitalism took place."7 In a somewhat different vein, Shih uses semi-colonialism to "describe the cultural and political condition in modern China to foreground. . . [the] incomplete and fragmentary nature of China's colonial structure."8 Moreover, scholars like Tani Barlow and Bryna Goodman have suggested that the outcomes of semi-colonial rule were distinct from those of other total colonies and that "semi," as a qualifier, remains useful to explain the specific colonial conditions in China.9

Previous discussion of semi-colonialism has attached importance to the partial and incomplete penetration of imperial powers in China, and this concept has often been used to stress the qualitative differences between China and other colonized settings. Instead, this essay throws new light on and offers a more nuanced understanding of the concept of semi-colonialism by drawing on recent scholarship on British imperial history in China. This newly defined notion of semi-colonialism highlights...


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