The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils and the Qing Empire, 1832–1914

Denis Judd praises an excellent study of bloody imperial rivalries in China

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Reviewed by: Denis Judd
Author: Robert Bickers
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £30

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The term ‘The Scramble for Africa’ is embedded in the vocabulary of historical understanding – even though the process was far more of a quasi-gentlemanly partition, with colonial powers mostly negotiating the frontiers of their acquisitions (hence some 30 per cent of colonial Africa’s borders were straight lines). It did, however, take place rapidly, essentially over a couple of decades.

Was there really a ‘Scramble for China’? The time-span of 1832 to1914 seems quite leisurely by comparison. Nor did the vast hinterland of China get divided up between the predatory imperial powers as happened so completely in Africa.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that in the period covered by Professor Bickers’s excellent book, a sustained, often brutally ruthless, assault took place on the territorial integrity of China, resulting in a host of concessions to the imperial powers involved.

As a consequence, by 1914 the coastal area of China was pockmarked with foreign treaty ports and military and naval bases. To the north, Russian and Japanese aggression had led to substantial areas in Manchuria and Korea coming under foreign rule.

Despite its long history, its culture and civilisation, its impressive list of inventions, and much else, during the 19th century China was generally perceived by the western imperial powers as a ‘dying’ or failing country, whereas Britain, the USA and Germany, for example, were rising, thriving nations. This perception owed much to an imperial-Darwinian view of the world, whereby only the fittest nations would survive and prosper.

This goes a long way to explaining the ferocity and arrogance of the imperial assault on China, and the routine cruelty of the invading forces, all of which reached a climax with the 1930s Japanese invasion and the horrifying ‘Rape of Nanking’ in 1937.

It is also important to realise that the Chinese authorities were equally contemptuous of the ‘foreign devils’ who made such inroads into the country. In a strange way, like clashed with like.

Bickers has produced a wonderfully readable account of this extraordinary encounter, leading us deftly through a tumultuous and often confusing period from the British-inspired Opium Wars of the 1830s to the Boxer Rebellion and the outbreak of the First World War. Western adventurers, Manchu emperors, corrupt and shifty local administrators, ruthless warlords, and many more strut their stuff.

The main losers, as is so often the case, were the mass of the Chinese people whose sufferings are vividly recounted.

Finally the author makes a plea for readers to understand how this brutal interaction still impacts upon China today. With its vast economic, banking and industrial expansion, China is now the world’s second largest economy and looks set to challenge the US as the foremost superpower.

As Bickers puts it: “A powerful global China is unprecedented. That provides new food for thought, especially as Chinese youth comes out into the world equipped for instinctive indignation at China’s past humiliations and what they feel to be contemporary echoes of these.” In other words, tread carefully. 

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Denis Judd’s Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present will be published in an updated edition later this year