Jing Book Review: “The Scramble For China” By Robert Bickers

The Scramble For China: Foreign Devils In The Qing Empire, 1832-1914 (Allen Lane, 2011, $45 Hardcover) by Robert Bickers

"The Scramble For China" by Robert Bickers

"The Scramble For China" by Robert Bickers

…In fact we cannot understand the resurgence of China now, and its sometimes quiet, sometimes raucous and foul-mouthed anger at the world, unless we understand the traumatic century which followed the first opium war, however much it might seem mere history. For mere history matters in modern China, and the past is unfinished business… (10)

“Charting a century of Sino-foreign interaction, confrontation and confusion,” The Scramble For China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 by Robert Bickers (Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai) takes readers on a journey deep into China’s “century of humiliation,” a time when decadent Manchu officials, unscrupulous capitalists, globetrotting imperial powers, would-be messiahs and revolutionaries came together, clashed incessantly, and nearly tore China apart. Beginning with the British literally breaking down the doors to a closed China, as Hugh Hamilton Lindsay of the East India Company forces his way into the offices of Shanghai Daotai in 1832, Robert Bickers traces the the tumultuous, contentious relationship between Qing China and its “unwelcome guests,” a path that ultimately led to two devastating Opium Wars, costly and bloody rebellions, millions of lives lost, and left the door to China open for invasion by the Russians and Japanese.

Over the course of the book’s 400 pages, Bickers presents in extraordinary (and surprisingly readable) detail how the dealings of European powers, Russia, Japan and the U.S. in Qing China transitioned from trading tea to smuggling opium and establishing semi-colonial outposts throughout the country. Having exhaustively dug through customs files, court reports, consular correspondence, diaries and memoirs, Bickers reconstructs for his reader a China very different, and yet occasionally quite similar, to the one we know today — a sometimes confusing and contradictory place where possibilities are nearly endless, yet where constraints can and do appear unexpectedly, applied somewhat arbitrarily and with varying degrees of severity. Bickers reconstructs a China of grey areas, where opportunists — be they powerful nation-states or fly-by-night “entrepreneurs” — prey on easy targets. Yet, throughout, Bickers maintains an air of detachment that ensures Chinese and non-Chinese voices enjoy joint representation, making The Scramble For China an eye-opener for all readers.

Packed with interesting stories culled from a range of official and unofficial sources, The Scramble For China at times reads like historical fiction, veering at times into action-packed tales of intrigue and other times coming across almost like a taut spy novel. Bickers’s depictions of the brutal and often confusing circumstances leading up to the first and second Opium Wars serve to raise the narrative tension and further reinforce the readers’ understanding of the arrogance of imperial powers and Qing officials alike, while additional plot-lines form by way of internal rebellions, which at times threaten the primacy of Qing rule but, like the Opium Wars, end up hurting the average person much more than the Manchu elite. Tracing devastating uprisings such as the 14-year-long Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), during which upwards of 20 million mostly civilians were killed, and the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901), Bickers painfully illustrates the barbarity of war and its human cost.

However, The Scramble For China does not always burst at the seams with tales of political misdeeds or military atrocities. Throughout it maintains a humanity and sympathy for many of the individuals depicted in its pages that brings the reader closer to understanding the intentions of the many businesspeople, political leaders, missionaries, thieves and bandits, revolutionaries and, yes, average people who populated China’s early foreign outposts in Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Shanghai in the mid-19th century. While it is perhaps difficult for us to comprehend the mindset of a Qing Dynasty court official or a trigger-happy British colonial general, Robert Bickers makes sure that his reader, by the end of the book, simply knows that he or she needs to not only know what happened over the course of these turbulent decades, but why they matter today.

Although the average Westerner may be familiar with Tsingtao Beer, he or she probably knows nothing about the company’s early operations, supplying thousands of European soldiers garrisoned in northeast China in 1903. Similarly, it’s highly unlikely that the many foreign businesses expanding into Chinese cities like Tianjin have ever heard of the Tianjin Massacre of June 21, 1870, during which 21 Europeans were murdered and several of their buildings destroyed, leading to a series of unequal treaties and sowing the seeds of the Boxer Rebellion. But these points in time have far-reaching consequences, and as Robert Bickers makes clear, though the Qing Dynasty crumbled a century ago and a very different China now exists in its place, history is not something to be sanitized. If we want to better understand the relationship between China and the rest of the world, we have to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty.

The Scramble For China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 is available online at Penguin Books or Amazon.com.

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