Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Scramble for China

Book Cover

Book Title

The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2011


Bickers, Robert


Bickers considers the presence of foreigners in Chinese governance in the period between 1832 and 1913, and the legacy such presence has left for the country’s modern foreign relations. He seeks a middle ground between China’s portrayal of the treaty century as an era of national humiliation, and foreign residents’ insistence that they had China’s best interests at heart, and on self-congratulation for altruistically raising up the “sick man of Asia”. He emphasizes interconnection and global context, arguing that any understanding of recent Chinese history, as well as modern Chinese attitudes, is incomplete without consideration for the role of foreign agents. Crucially, he narrates the growth of foreign influence in China as beyond the formal recognition of European empires; he denies that it was ever an imperial project.

That said, the book is still relevant to our study of imperialism and expansion. Even though it was an “unplanned scramble for China”, it still involved the carving out of a frontier zone in a sovereign state and a strong foreign hand in Chinese governance. Territories were seized, sovereignty impaired, and the indigenous people exploited. Similar to former colonies, China’s modern character has a highly foreign heritage.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Bickers focuses on the period of foreign ascendancy in China, beginning in 1832, when British ships entered the forbidden area of the Canton Delta. He discusses the treaties and wars that result in increased foreign clout in China, not just that of the British, but also of the French, Japanese and Russians. The scramble for China unravels after 1913, where Bickers closes off his analysis. However, Bickers is also interested in a meta-historical examination of the various representations of this period, questioning the portrayals of both the British and the Chinese. In particular, he considers the bitter labeling of the period as the era of “national humiliation” through the lens of post-World War I nationalism. He also explains why an understanding of China’s past is crucial to an understanding of its present and future.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Crucially, Bickers clarifies in his introduction that the “scramble for China” was never a planned imperial project with specific objectives in mind. He also points out that the nature of foreign presence in China was multinational and not just restricted to the British. This highlights an important theme in Bickers’ narration: all histories are strongly interconnected, and this period of Chinese history was inextricably tied up with global trends, such as British predominance on the world stage and technological innovations like telegraphy and the steamship. Therefore, Bickers concludes, there is nothing uniquely humiliating about the treaty century.

However, he recognizes that the Chinese version of this period has been tinged with strong anti-imperialism. After the Treaty of Versailles led to profound disillusionment with the West, Chinese political legitimacy hinged on the denunciation of imperialism. This involved a recasting of Chinese history: victimizing the Chinese of the 19th century and introducing the term “unequal treaties”. Bickers points out that there are kernels of truth to the arguments of the Chinese nationalist: documentation in Chinese and British archives show that the Chinese did indeed suffer territorial, political and cultural losses at the hands of foreigners. At the same time, as much as the self-congratulatory tone of foreign recounts are misplaced, the point is that they did provide precedents for modern China’s cosmopolitanism and its reintegration into the global economy. Both narratives may be difficult, almost impossible, to reconcile, but they must be studied parallel to each other. In his conclusion, Bickers reiterates why such a study of foreign presences in China is important for the 21st century: “a globalized China is not new, but a powerful global China is unprecedented”. Given China’s leading position on today’s world stage, it is important to understand the instinctive indignation of Chinese youths. The memory of the era of “national humiliation” has not been lost on them due to hard state work.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip