Interview with Robert Bickers

The Wolfson History Prize-nominated professor discusses how China’s past shapes its nationalism and why the Communist Party’s ‘historical nihilist’ label suits him

April 26, 2018
robert bickers
Source: Alamy

Robert Bickers, professor of history at the University of Bristol, is the author of Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination, named this month on the shortlist for the Wolfson History Prize, which recognises books combining “excellence in historical research with readability for a wider general audience”. Professor Bickers has described the book as showing how “China’s bullish nationalist confidence is shaped by narratives of its historic weakness”, but also as questioning that story.

When and where were you born?
I was born in a Royal Air Force hospital in Wiltshire in 1964.

How has this shaped you?
I grew up on air bases – across Britain from Northumberland to Calshot, in Hong Kong (we went when I was six) and Germany. My father had further postings in Cyprus and Northern Ireland, and was often away. In total this involved 11 schools, and 14 different family homes. I know how to pack. I also know what Empire looked like.

Your research has focused on Chinese history, in particular relations between the British Empire and China, along with the history of Shanghai and the ‘treaty ports’ forcibly opened to foreign trade by Britain in the 19th century. What experience or experiences first sparked your interest in these topics?
It would be easiest to say: arriving in Hong Kong as a flight sergeant’s child in 1971 for a three-year residency there, and living an insular British life that had some echoes of what I came to study. But in fact I was led to studying Chinese through some translations of Tang poetry that I found in a bookshop in Hampshire, and then into the history of the treaty ports by the steady opening of archives in China in the 1990s.

How does looking at China’s past – in particular its experiences at the hands of foreign powers – help to explain China today?
What does it not explain? It shapes its assertive nationalism; it shapes the way that its citizens view the world; it shapes its education system; it is embedded in the constitution. Film and television, museums and heritage sites all support a single message about the nature of modern China’s experiences. As I say in the book, we need to recognise this, but we must be careful not to accept it. There are other versions of China’s modern history worth remembering.

Are there any particular misconceptions about modern China, common among Western media or politicians, that you think could be corrected by a better understanding of China’s history?
Given, for example, that you can just about navigate the British education system from cradle to university without encountering China at all – its thought, culture or history – I really don’t know where to begin answering this question.

Out of China includes material on ‘the corrupt, lurid modernity of pre-War Shanghai’, as the publisher puts it; the city in that era has also been the focus of two of your previous books (including Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai, the biography of Richard Maurice Tinkler, a working-class Englishman who served in the Shanghai Municipal Police). What draws you to Shanghai and to that period of its history?
You have already answered your own question. I’ll just add that the records are extensive: all human life is there, stories galore.

The Communist Party of China said last year that China’s historians should fight ‘historical nihilism’ – interpreted by many as a warning against critical examinations of the party’s history. You made a speech in Hong Kong in which you said you were ‘pleased to be labelled a historical nihilist’. What did you mean?
I meant that as a historian I engage critically with the past, with records of the past and accepted understandings of the past. We are professional sceptics. I question everything. That makes me a “historical nihilist” according to this definition. And, as that is so, I’ll embrace the term: for if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t consider myself a historian.

Have you encountered modern political barriers to your research on China’s past? And what sort of barriers do your colleagues working in history departments of Chinese universities face in their work?
Most of the archives that I have used in China are now wholly or partially closed. Chinese colleagues face the same challenges that I do, and then some more: they are professional sceptics too.

As a student, what was your most memorable moment at university?
Walking into the Soas Library [at Soas, University of London] for the first time and realising that it was, as it were, all mine to play with.

If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
Aside from abolish fees? Introduce effective support for part-time and mature students.

What advice do you give to your students?
Read. Read novels, read poetry, read anything: read, read and read.

What one thing would improve your working week?
The University of Bristol switching off its email servers at the end of every working day, and at 5pm on Fridays.


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