The outlines of the age of foreign imperialism in China have long been well known: opium wars and unequal treaties; gunboat diplomacy and Christian missionaries; foreign spheres of influence; and the "semi-colonial" status peculiar to China, neither a true colony nor truly sovereign. This detailed yet highly readable account draws on prodigious research and avoids hackneyed judgements; told mainly from the British perspective, it sketches in the Chinese background and explains the causes of misunderstanding.
In 1842, for instance, the Chinese expected that the new treaty ports would simply duplicate the pre-war Canton system of limited trade, while British experiences in the Ottoman Empire led them to expect extensive rights and privileges as a bridgehead to much more. Both would be disillusioned. Robert Bickers argues that, with "patriotic education" a centrepiece of state policy, the past's role in the present is so crucial that contemporary China - and its attitude towards Europe, the US and Japan - cannot be understood without knowing the sorry tale of China's international relations since the early 1800s.
Shanghai, opened to foreign residence in 1842, was at the centre of that history, with traders, missionaries and mercenaries of many nationalities flocking there in search of opportunity. In China, as elsewhere, many were ordinary men and women seeking to improve their lot in life without forgoing the convenience of familiar comforts and institutions. The early days sound like a version of the Wild West, with swashbuckling Englishmen hypersensitive to supposed insults, bullying and cajoling by turns, at once anxious for support from their far-away government but too bent on getting their own way in China to wait for instructions or care about consequences. Larger events skid across the horizon, whether rebellions and other dramas of the declining Qing Empire, or global competition, which played out, for instance, in the suspicion that most Shanghai Americans felt for the British, not long since their own overlords.
Some of the book's great virtues are its many vivifying details: the noisy Chinese theatricals that seemed to uncomprehending foreigners to symbolise something profound about the larger society; the impatient Englishman shouldering down the mandarin's office door when an audience was refused; the Hong Kong consul's wife poisoned in a Chinese baker's protest against events on the mainland; the sailor who grabbed a man's long hair braid and found he had captured the governor general; the headlong rush to the docks for news from home whenever a ship came in (this appears in an excellent section on steamships, telegraphs, photographs and all the rest of the new technology that so changed the shape of the 19th-century world); and the contrast between the chauvinistic refusal to let a Chinese researcher in London view Chinese documents for fear of the use he might put them to, while in China his US counterpart could bear away files for safe keeping.
Among the hybrids produced in this era, the Imperial Maritime Customs Service was one of the most remarkable, run for decades by the Irishman Robert Hart to collect taxes on behalf of the Qing, and then by other long-serving foreigners. Less well known was the network of lighthouses under its control, tiny bastions of Europe that lighted shipping, established sovereignty and served science all along the Chinese coast.
In the late 19th century, Chinese feared that their country would be "cut up like a melon" in the foreign scramble for their territory, and not unreasonably they resented it. Bickers sketches in the rise of Chinese nationalism and the end of empire after 1914. Today this story is integral to most Chinese people's mental landscape, and it is one with which all today's new China hands should be familiar.
The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914
By Robert Bickers. Allen Lane, 512pp, £30.00.ISBN 9780713997491. Published 24 February 2011.