The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832–1914 by Robert Bickers - review by John Keay

John Keay

Peking In

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


Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 399pp £30 order from our bookshop

China never really fitted into the template of Western imperialism. It afforded neither the pomp and circumstance of India, the plantation wealth of the Caribbean, the natural resources of Africa nor the wide open spaces of North America and Australia. Instead of colonies it yielded concessions – for trade and the regulation of customs duties, for diplomatic and missionary access, and for various rights of residence, immunity and investment. Hong Kong, the only colonial holding of note, had been acquired as an anchorage. Lord Palmerston promptly dismissed it as ‘a barren island’; the Chinese had never bothered to fortify it, and it was only when picked out in pink that it figured on maps, a minuscule pimple on the pocked chin of China’s long coastal profile. In the 3,000-year sweep of verifiable Chinese history a few decades of barbarian encroachment were nothing unusual. Nor was this particular encroachment notably intrusive – until, that is, the Japanese invaded the mainland in the 1930s. Throughout the nineteenth century, and with the exception of a few Yangtze ports, inland China was probably unaware that the Qing empire was under siege from other imperial configurations. 

Of course the foreign merchants and concession seekers saw it differently. The coast, for them, was China. Their presence in Macao and Canton (Guangzhou) had a longish history, while tea, then opium, afforded profits worth fighting for. Here the scramble to win redress for past humiliations, exact new

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter