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Coastal China or Inland Empire?

March 27, 2010

Coastal China or Inland Empire?: Toward a Balance in Qing Frontier Studies

Brent Haas (2004)

Borders are where ends and beginnings meet. They define and accentuate difference across themselves. As a generalization, borders can simultaneously separate and thus define cultures, ethnicities, or political organizations. “We” are defined in opposition to “Them.” Whether shaped by geography, violence, or negotiation, borders are not static. They change over time and are altered through perspective and perception (Millward 3). Furthermore, borders and frontiers are not impermeable. In fact, borders create unique environments for the development of new forms that cross the divide of culture, ethnicity, or polity. By definition they hold the potential for uniquely placed individuals to cross over or to straddle the border zone itself. This paper analyzes the historiography of borders through two studies of different frontier regions in Qing dynasty history – treaty port-era Shanghai and Xinjiang under the Qing imperium.

Studies of these important border regions, although limited in geographic scope, have implications for understanding Qing China in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, two pieces of scholarship on these regions, John King Fairbank’s Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842-1854, and James Millward’s Beyond the Pass: Economy, Ethnicity and Empire in Qing Central Asia 1759-1864, point to important aspects of the evolution of the field of modern Chinese history from the 1950s through the 1990s.

Despite having been written a half century ago, John King Fairbank’s Trade and Diplomacy remains the definitive study of the creation and implementation of the treaty port system along the China coast. His linguistic aptitude and meticulous research in both Chinese official sources and Western, most notably British, consular archives set the standard for the field. As will be shown in James Millward’s response to Fairbank, the highly influential theoretical framework articulated in this and his other works remains influential to the present day as a starting point for discussing or reinterpreting modern Chinese history. Viewed in terms of the interpretive thrust of this essay, Trade and Diplomacy is the story of borders being redefined through creative if fitful negotiations and the subsequent processes of change in China born from the cross-border interaction with Western diplomacy and commerce.

Written during the height of tensions between the United States and Soviet Union, just as the Cold War turned hot in Korea, the political climate of the period in which this work was completed is evident. Fairbanks’s overriding if implicit preoccupation is explaining China’s “failure” to respond effectively to the modern West. The underlying analytical framework is the “Chinese world order” as revealed in the tribute system. His basic argument is that millennia of successful “barbarian management” through the ritualization of Chinese cultural superiority in the tribute system prevented the Manchu-Chinese leadership of the Qing dynasty from recognizing the novelty of the Western challenge. One can almost sense him gazing back over the century between the time of the book’s publication and the Opium War, wondering how and why China turned to Communism in the mid-twentieth century.

Fairbank’s research certainly stands the test of time. Very rare indeed is the scholar whose work does not have a reference, homage, discussion, or full-frontal attack on this most venerable of ancestors in the field of modern Chinese history. Most notably, Fairbank’s main theoretical contributions, his vision of the “Chinese world order” and “tribute system” have profoundly affected my generation of budding historians. Having been raised on the new Qing scholarship, however, it is more correct to say that the refutation or qualification of Fairbank’s theories is the dominant influence. It is therefore all too easy to broadly paint his work as biased, traditionalist, or essentialized. In fact for me personally, reading his work was in many ways a refutation of his own theories by his research.

While there are problems with his theoretical framework, the scholarship underlying that artifice is quite powerful and nuanced, giving cultural and political agency to both Chinese and Westerners in the treaty system. Fairbank’s descriptions of treaty port society paint an image of bustling commercial activity and often bristling tension. His contribution to diplomatic history is unquestioned, especially as it pertains to humanizing the normally faceless signatures or policy articulations of diplomats. Qiying and Pottinger come alive in his work, the former as a wily diplomat using all possible means to protect the interests of the Qing in the face of a domineering Nemesis (to borrow Wakeman’s flair), and the latter as much more than an irredeemable imperialist salivating for his piece of the melon. Thus in terms of meticulous research, diversity of sources, and lively descriptions, few if any have been able to surpass the standard he set in 1953. Theoretically, however, Fairbank’s problems are not minor.

In contrast to his nuanced scholarship and impartial conclusions in the body of the text, Fairbank’s penchant for sweeping generalizations at a theoretical level makes reading Trade and Diplomacy quite frustrating at times. Although it is admittedly easy to judge the scholarly habits of his era according to contemporary standards, conclusions about an ahistorical and static “China” nevertheless detract from his work. It seems that the tendency to adopt the biases of his Western sources permeates Fairbank’s larger conclusions. Thus, Qing officials who tolerate or accept bribes for turning a blind eye to opium smuggling become conniving and corrupt, while the British wholesalers are simply meeting a Chinese demand with a supply (of an extremely addictive and debilitating drug!).

Trade is the main cause and vehicle for cross-border interaction in Fairbank and Millward, and commerce served as the motivation for English attacks in the Opium War as well. Qing rulers had superficially divergent views on trade according to the area of the empire in which it was situated: encouraging trade in Xinjiang yet seeking to restrict it in Shanghai. Yet Fairbank’s depiction of commercial interaction is one of modern Western nations bringing the rule of law and theories of free trade to an intransigently backward and corrupt China. He frequently refers to the Confucian prejudice against trade and merchants, a significant part of his view of an “unshaken framework of Confucian culture” (7). Again, the evenhandedness in his description of his research belies the prejudicial stereotypes of “Confucian China” which flow from his pen in his introductions and conclusions. The Qing imperial endeavor in Xinjiang in fact contradicts Fairbank’s depiction of stalling and passive resistance to British trade in the ports. The Qing actively encouraged Han mercantile penetration of Xinjiang and other Inner Asian border regions for stability and economic development (Millward, 116). It seems then that support or resistance to trade was pragmatic, a function of social control.

Fairbank presents a traditional view of imperialism, almost as if he has absorbed the biases of his British sources. Contrasting contemporary Japanese modernization with Chinese “failure” leads to his conclusion that imperialism was not a “juggernaut running roughshod over native peoples, but rather a stimulant capable of invigorating the strong or debilitating the weak, depending on the internal condition of the recipient” (5). In a back-handed sense, this theory gives agency to the Chinese since they are not pawns at the mercy of an omnipotent Imperialism. Yet such statements, which amount to more than a few, are extremely apologetic of European imperialism.

Fairbank’s writings on British “cooperation” with the Qing contradict his skepticism about the “theory” of imperialism. He states that the British granted the Qing was full sovereignty, except for the concessions for British mercantile and missionary activities. This contradiction becomes even more apparent when he notes the British extended their legal authority from Hong Kong to include all British citizens of Chinese ethnicity as well as all Qing subjects within one hundred miles of the coast (215). Without similarly apologizing for Qing imperialism in Xinjiang, it is illuminating to note that for all cases except treason and murder of close family members, a dual legal system existed in Xinijang: Qing law for Han, Manchu and Mongols; Muslim law for native East Turkestanis (122).

In terms of borders, most English language scholarship until the 1980s or 1990s focused on contact with the West in the nineteenth century. Since this contact was of a maritime nature, a preponderance of work on this subject has focused on the coastal frontier of China, and most notably the treaty ports which Fairbank introduced to the Euro-American academy. The result is that other frontiers of the Qing dynasty were largely ignored. The voluminous work on the Chinese coast of the nineteenth century so tilted academic understanding of the Qing dynasty towards the seaboard that it seemed millions of subjects outside of the eighteen provinces would either be forgotten or slide towards the sea. During the last two decades of the twentieth century, however, a group of new Qing historians including Pamela Crossley, Mark Elliott, Nicolo Di Cosmo, Jonathan Lipman, and Evelyn Rawski among others, have begun the process of coming to grips with the Inner-Asian character of the Qing Dynasty.

James Millward’s study of the extreme Northwestern borders of the Qing imperium is one such work. Like Elliott and Crossley, Millward moves his scope of inquiry farther back into the eighteenth century to correct an anachronistic interpretation of the Qing’s nineteenth century weakness. Instead of looking backward from the vantage point of Cold War politics to understand why the capitalist West “lost” China, Millward looks from the High Qing forward into the nineteenth century. The new picture is of a strong, confident, expansionist empire, decidedly not the “Sick Man of Asia.”

Not that his perspective is a panacea for all of the problematic aspects of earlier “China’s Response to the West” scholarship. It does carry its own biases and, in Millward’s case, while it problematizes the coastal-heavy tilt of frontier scholarship, it cannot be said to offer a new framework for reinterpreting the Qing interaction with the West. If the Qing was in fact an empire of fairly distinctive cultural blocks and corresponding policies, then what precludes a sinocentric tribute tystem being applied to the Treaty Ports, nestled as they are within the eighteen provinces of “China Proper”? Therefore, to a certain extent, Millward is also limited by his geographic and temporal scope. That having been said, Millward offers a much needed corrective to English language Qing frontier studies by forcing us to realize that the Chinese coast was not the only frontier in the Qing dynasty during the nineteenth century.

Thus Fairbank and Millward, chronologically separated by over forty years and conceptualizing the Qing dynasty from opposite borders of the empire, offer extremely different interpretations of the nature of the last imperial dynasty. Two illustrations of the Qing dynasty world view can serve as effective descriptions of the differences in these scholars’ views. Fairbank’s overriding sinocentric theoretical lens, the Chinese world order, is illustrated on the cover of his book by the same name. It depicts concentric rings of outlined octagons emanating from a darkened center. This was used to illustrate the official Confucian view of tianxia (“all under heaven”), as zones of decreasing civilization moving out from the center as represented by the person of the Emperor.

The Chinese world order as envisioned by John Fairbank operated on the basis of Chinese “culturalism,” which viewed Chinese language, morals, and material wealth as evidence of their superiority over barbarians. When combined with Confucian emphasis on the transforming power of correct behavior, the tribute system was a means used by the Qing Dynasty to promote stability in foreign affairs (31). Yet Fairbank himself admits that under the Qing, tribute was required of all the provinces of China, not just those outside of that “permanent frontier beyond which the Chinese way of life could not extend.” Since the nature of nomadic society precluded the existence of a class of clerical personnel to rule Chinese effectively, they were forced to join in a partnership with the Chinese to rule China – Fairbank’s famous synarchy (24). The treaty port system, then, was an continuation of Sino-barbarian joint rule.

On the other hand, Millward draws on the Qing imperial ideology articulated by the Qianlong Emperor to depict his interpretation of the Qing Empire, which has five distinct cultural and ethnic groups enclosed in their own circles situated around the Qing imperial house in the center of the diagram. Each group generally corresponds to their geographic region within the Qing Empire. Thus the Tibetan block is in the bottom left or southwest, the Muslims in the northwest, the Mongols in the north, the Manchus in the Northeast, and finally, Han Chinese in the bottom right, or southeast. This vision of empire could be seen as equally universalistic, with the specific ethnicity of the Aisin Gioro ruling house not overtly stated. The Emperor transcends his ethnicity and thus the Manchu is placed on equal footing with the other four groups.

This aspect of Millward’s diagram is somewhat problematic, but I would argue, holds up fairly well under scrutiny. For although the Manchus made up the majority of original conquerors and occupied a place of privilege within the Qing system, that privilege was based on their position as conquerors rather than some primordial ethnic identity. This admittedly flimsy claim becomes more apparent when viewed in the context of the erosion of Manchu ethnic identity throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (e.g. loss of Manchu language skills), and the ideological equality of all ethnicities within the Empire. If Fairbank can use official sources to describe the tribute system, what prevents Millward from doing the same?

How is one to reconcile the drastically divergent interpretations offered by Fairbank and Millward? Their respective regions of analysis are indeed at completely opposite ends of Qing territory. Although their theoretical conclusions seem diametrically opposed, their methodologies in fact seem similar. Both apply meticulous scholarship to a wide array of sources to study frontier regions that were zones of ethnic and cultural interaction. From interaction across borders both draw conclusions about the very nature of the Qing dynasty, either as a final gasp of the Chinese world order’s sinocentric culturalism or as a multi-ethnic empire presided over by the Aisin Gioro universal emperor. Without debasing his incomparable contribution to the study of modern Chinese history, Fairbank’s Chinese world order is an essentialized concept of foreign relations which does not hold up when viewed with respect to the Qing’s orientation towards Inner Asia. Although Millward’s Qing-centered understanding spotlights the nature of Qing imperium in Inner Asia, by temporal and geographic restriction, it fails to address the issues of the coastal frontier.

This is a question sorely in need of further thought and research. The answer could very well point us towards an understanding of the Qing dynasty’s foreign relations that accounts for how its Inner-Asian character might have affected a response to the West.

References Cited

John King Fairbank. Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: the Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842-1854. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953.

James A. Millward. Beyond the Pass: Economy, Ethnicity, and Empire in Qing Central Asia, 1759-1864. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

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