Grounds of Judgment: Extraterritoriality and Imperial Power in Nineteenth-Century China and Japan

Grounds of Judgment: Extraterritoriality and Imperial Power in Nineteenth-Century China and Japan

Grounds of Judgment: Extraterritoriality and Imperial Power in Nineteenth-Century China and Japan

Grounds of Judgment: Extraterritoriality and Imperial Power in Nineteenth-Century China and Japan


Perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, the nineteenth century encounter between East Asia and the Western world has been narrated as a legal encounter. Commercial treaties-negotiated by diplomats and focused on trade-framed the relationships among Tokugawa-Meiji Japan, Qing China, Choson Korea, and Western countries including Britain, France, and the United States. These treaties created a new legal order, very different than the colonial relationships that the West forged with other parts of the globe, which developed in dialogue with local precedents, local understandings of power, and local institutions. They established the rules by which foreign sojourners worked in East Asia, granting them near complete immunity from local laws and jurisdiction. The laws of extraterritoriality looked similar on paper but had very different trajectories in different East Asian countries.

Par Cassel's first book explores extraterritoriality and the ways in which Western power operated in Japan and China from the 1820s to the 1920s. In Japan, the treaties established in the 1850s were abolished after drastic regime change a decade later and replaced by European-style reciprocal agreements by the turn of the century. In China, extraterritoriality stood for a hundred years, with treaties governing nearly one hundred treaty ports, extensive Christian missionary activity, foreign controlled railroads and mines, and other foreign interests, and of such complexity that even international lawyers couldn't easily interpret them. Extraterritoriality provided the springboard for foreign domination and has left Asia with a legacy of suspicion towards international law and organizations. The issue of unequal treaties has had a lasting effect on relations between East Asia and the West.

Drawing on primary sources in Chinese, Japanese, Manchu, and several European languages, Cassel has written the first book to deal with exterritoriality in Sino-Japanese relations before 1895 and the triangular relationship between China, Japan, and the West. Grounds of Judgment is a groundbreaking history of Asian engagement with the outside world and within the region, with broader applications to understanding international history, law, and politics.


Owing to difference of Opinion between the Swedish Consul and
myself as to certain Points of Law (Swedish); I now beg to inform the
Public of Shanghai that I have withdrawn from the protection and
jurisdiction of the SWEDISH CONSULATE, and placed myself
voluntarily under the protection and Laws of the Land that we live in.

On 29 October 1877, Swedish businessman Nils Möller placed the above “Public Notice” on the pages of the North China Daily News. In the preceding days, Möller had been sued in the Swedish-Norwegian consulate for damage to a cargo of seaweed that had been shipped from Hakodate to the busy port of Shanghai. The ship in question was registered as British, but it was chartered by a Chinese merchant, and its captain was Danish. The buyer of the seaweed and the plaintiff in the case was a German, who claimed that Möller was the agent of the ship and thus liable for the damages to the cargo. The consul trying the case was Frank B. Forbes, an American businessman whom the Swedish foreign ministry had appointed consul general of Sweden and Norway and who thus held jurisdiction over Swedish and Norwegian subjects in the treaty port of Shanghai.

Möller did not accept that the Swedish-Norwegian consul general held jurisdiction over a case that centered on a British-registered ship. Consequently, he refused to appear as a sworn-in defendant in the consular court, but attended the hearings only in order to answer simple questions of a factual nature. When Forbes declared to the courtroom that he accepted jurisdiction over the case, Möller “demanded in language more forcible than polite that his name be erased from the register of Swedish subjects.” Having heard all witnesses to the case, Forbes dismissed the case on account of the fact that the damage to the cargo had been caused by inclement weather, but this failed to soothe the feelings of Möller, who published his declaration in North China Daily News the following . . .

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