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Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast

January 29, 2010

John K. Fairbank. Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842-1854. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1953.

E. Elena Songster (2000)

One of the most dramatic clashes between China and the West, the Opium War, lost the spotlight to the subsequent act of negotiation in John K. Fairbank’s carefully researched monograph. Fairbank’s mundane title, Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842-1854, reveals his new emphasis in diplomatic history; namely negotiation. In 468 well documented pages, Fairbank argues that the real moment of truth in mid-nineteenth century interactions between China and the western countries was the signing of the treaties. He takes his argument a step further by writing that the shift in power from the Canton system to the new treaty port system still fell within framework of China’s existing political structure. He sees the treaty port system as an alternative form of foreign domination under the old dynastic system. Fairbank views the resulting combination of Chinese, Manchu, and foreign rule, which he calls “synarchy,” as necessary for the maintenance of the Qing dynasty after the Opium War (p. 465).

In the five sections of this book, Fairbank traces the evolution of the treaty port system from Canton system before the Opium War to the ratification of the war treaties in 1860. Fairbank utilizes numerous and detailed sources on the interaction between China and foreign countries during these twelve years to support his underlying view that, because China was not prepared for an opponent as powerful as the West, it could not avoid surrendering control over the ports to the British. Within this framework, Fairbank draws out an interesting tension between the serious mistake of grouping the westerners with other “barbarians” on the one hand, and the decision of the Qing government to incorporate these “barbarians” into a persisting Qing political structure on the other.

Fairbank impressed readers in 1953 with the rich stock of original Chinese sources that he used for Trade and Diplomacy. Taking advantage of his opportunity to live and travel to China in the 1930s, Fairbank compiled a vast number of documents. Drawing mainly from the Yiwu shimou, the Donghua lu, the Shi lu, port archives, and consular and courtroom files, Fairbank was the first to offer insights from the Chinese sources on the events of this period. Never before had the treaty system been analyzed as part of the institutional structure in China. Indeed, the extensive research that made this book so impressive in 1953 has also given it staying power in the 1990s. Present-day scholarship is highly critical of the western impact-Chinese response dichotomy that frames this book. This same scholarship, however, still strives to emulate the rich and thorough research that went into the writing of Trade and Diplomacy. Through his detailed descriptions of the construction of the treaty port system, and the intimacy of individual interactions between foreign and Chinese officials, Fairbank’s book continues to provide valuable insights into the period irrespective of the dated macro-interpretations that frame this book.

From the perspective if the 1990s, the “China’s response” framework is the most glaring weakness of this study. However, although Trade and Diplomacy does follow this model, Fairbank does not depict the flat stagnant China that this paradigm spawned. It is precisely his attempt to highlight the complexity of the China’s political structure and at the same time tell a narrative of cooperation that leads him to self contradiction at times. By framing this historical interaction within the paradigm of the Chinese dynastic cycle, Fairbank seems to privilege China as the one that subsumes the West. This approach, however, simply masks the imperialist nature of the West in an encounter that, because it was qualitatively different in almost every aspect from previous dynastic power shifts, does not fit into the dynastic cycle framework.

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.

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