The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

By William Roger Louis; Andrew Porter et al. | Go to book overview

8
Britain and China, 1842-1914

JÜRGEN OSTERHAMMEL

Empire in the Far East was more than a metaphor for commercial supremacy in the China Seas. Ever since Henry Dundas dispatched Lord Macartney to the Court of the Emperor Qianlong in 1792, China figured in grand designs of market conquest and global influence. With the exception of emigration, the same forces of expansion at work elsewhere made their appearance in East Asia. Great hopes for mercantile gain, for the salvation of heathen souls, and for the spread of European-style modernity were pinned to the most Populous country oil earth. British soldiers and diplomats, merchants and bankers, missionaries and scholars were active in China as soon as the Country became accessible as a result of two Anglo-Chinese wars: the Opium War Of 1840-42 and the 'Arrow' War of 1856-60.1 Step by step, a system of international treaties was established that turned large parts of China into an uncolonized extension of Empire (see Map 8.1). The treaties guaranteed rights of access to and of residence in a number of major Chinese cities (transformed into 'treaty ports'), personal security of foreign citizens from the alleged 'barbarity' of Chinese justice, a uniformly low tariff, and a privileged treatment of foreign goods in transit through the customs-ridden Chinese interior. They also opened up China's rivers and coastal waters to the unchecked activities of foreign shipping companies.

Moreover, China excited the British imagination. All sorts of orientalist clichés and racial stereotypes were projected upon China and the Chinese. Some of them, for example, the spectres of a 'yellow peril' and of Asiatic stagnation and decadence, emerged from contemplating the Middle Kingdom: a civilization once admired but increasingly feared and despised. From the mid-nineteenth century, China formed an integral part of the military, economic, and mental history of European and, in particular, of British imperialism.

As China was never turned into any Great Power's colony, its relations with Britain can be narrated in terms of conventional diplomatic history, emphasizing British

____________________
1
For China's foreign relations, Immanuel C. Y. Hsü, The Rise of Modern China, 5th edn. ( New York, 1995).

-146-

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