Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast

Book Cover

Book Title

Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of Treaty Ports, 1842-1854. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953


Fairbank, John K.


In this book, Fairbank discusses the effect of the British presence in China in the 19th century. Focusing primarily on treaties and the administration of treaty ports, both products of the Opium War (1840-1842), Fairbank aims to examine the repercussions of the tribute and treaty relations between Britain and China on modern Chinese foreign relations—the book was written in the 1960s. He also argues that tribute and treaties are alternatives to the traditional Western concept of imperialism in framing Chinese diplomatic history: the British were concerned with trade, not governance, but nonetheless played major parts in the running of treaty ports and made irreversible changes to Chinese structures. Fairbank also draws on China’s long history of tribute relations with the Inner Asian “barbarians” and argues that such experiences colored the way the Chinese reacted to the British, whom they initially viewed as just another barbarian.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Fairbank’s area of focus is the two decades immediately following the Opium War, and China’s transition from tributary to treaty relations with the British. Fairbank provides context by first discussing the unique nature of Chinese society and its dynastic decline, and secondly the theoretical basis of tribute and its eventual eclipse by trade. In his proper subject matter, he begins with the Opium War and its result, the Treaty of Nanking, written in 1842. He then describes in considerable detail the implementation of the various treaties and the resulting sources of Anglo-Chinese collaboration and tension from 1843 to 1845. The period 1845 to 1851 sees the breakdown of the treaty system due to piracy and the evasion of legal duties, and culminates in the establishment of the Foreign Inspectorate of Customs at Shanghai in 1850. Fairbank concludes with a remark on how the treaties succeeded the tribute system.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Importantly, Fairbank argues that the traditional European concept of imperialism is not the only way to view Chinese foreign relations. Rather, the treaty system is a more accurate approach to 19th century China because it not only highlights Anglo-Chinese collaboration, but also how the Chinese reaction to the British was ultimately in line with the former empire’s traditional attitude toward foreigners. Tribute always remained the mode of Chinese foreign relations, as previously maintained by both the Mongols and the Manchus. The only difference was the balance of power within these tributary agreements.

The British presence in China after the Opium War resulted in momentous changes. For one, China, who had once imposed tributary demands on neighboring entities, was now on the losing end of a series of tributary agreements. The British reaped the most benefit from the tribute system and propped up the crumbling Chinese regime only on the basis of self-interest. It took two decades for the balance of power to be restored, and the Chinese given more opportunity for self-governance and decision-making. Exposure to the British also stirred the processes of modernization and nationalism.

Fairbank also points out that China’s experiences with the Inner Asian peoples had a significant impact on the way they interacted with the British. He remarks that China was already well equipped mentally and structurally to accommodate foreign intruders, and that the entrance of the British into domestic administration was against a historical background of Chinese-foreign cooperation. This was why the British were able to serve Chinese sovereignty in the capacity of foreigners. In fact, the treatment of the British under treaty conditions was not new to the Chinese: the use of Westerners in Chinese employ dated back to the time of Marco Polo, and the most-favored-nation status granted to Britain and other European powers was similar to the concept of the Confucian monarch’s inherent benevolence toward barbarians. The nature of the British intrusion was also similar to that of the Mongols and Manchus: it was invasion without the dismantling of existing Chinese political structures.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip