Colonialism in comparative perspective: Tianjin under nine flags, 1860-1949.

People involved in this project

Principal investigator:

School Humanities
Department History
Dates 2008-2011
Website Tianjin Project
Funder ESRC
Collaborator(s) Professor Robert Bickers (University of Bristol), Dr. Nicola Cooper (University of Swansea)
Contact person

More about this project

As yet under-represented in academic studies, Tianjin provides an exemplary model for the study of comparative colonial practices because it represents one of the very few opportunities to measure national colonialisms against one another within a defined and limited geographical and cultural area. It is also significant in that the period of the concessions represents a crucial moment in the history of colonialism because it encompasses both the apogee and decline of the ageof imperialism (1860-1945). The principal focus of this study is to produce a comparative and transnational analysis of the identities, practices and rivalries of four of the major powers established in Tianjin: Britain, France, Germany and Italy.Tianjin was opened as a treaty port as a consequence of the 18 October 1860 Conventions of Beijing. The British, the French, and the American concessions were the earliest to be created in Tianjin, in 1860.

By the mid nineteenth century, Tianjin was opened up to foreign trade, and the importance of Tianjin was further enhanced by the railway system connecting the city with Beijing on the one hand (since 1897) and with Shanhaiguan and Manchuria on the other. Situated close to the imperial capital, and, crucially, at the crossroads between the advances of European and Japanese imperialisms, Tianjin's economic and strategic importance necessarily drew the attention of all the major international powers: by 1901, nine separate foreign concessions had been secured within Tianjin.

The critical relevance of this project derives from the fact that Tianjin constituted an anomaly, even compared to other
Chinese cities open to foreign trade or including the presence of a legation quarter. Historians such as Jonathan Spence, among others, have demonstrated how both international and domestic events played a key role in the Chinese search and construction of a modern identity at the national level. The originality of this project lies in the investigation of these dynamics at the local level, since Tianjin's own search for a modern identity was filtered through the mulitple lenses of competing imperial ideologies and practices, which sought to shape the city socially and visually.

Even today treaty-port neighbourhood enclaves with architecture reminiscent of Brooklyn brownstones, Bavarian castles, Italian neo-renaissance style villas, and Parisian cafes remind of the city's complex past. Today, post-socialist malls and global signs of food courts attempt to mimic the physical and historical space of the city's imperial past, even as that past is being rapidly transformed, destroyed, reinvented or commodified.

This project focuses on the administration and governance of the British, French, German and Italian concessions in order to tease out points of comparison and difference along three major axes of enquiry:
1) Comparative Imperial Identities
2) Comparative Imperial Practices
3) Imperial Rivalries and Competitiveness
This form of analysis will provide a compelling portrait of the complex and multi-layered past created by the co-location of these competing, but also interrelated, imperialisms.

There is a vast and diverse set of archives in China, Britain, France, Germany and Italy relating to the concessions which we have already identified but which remains as yet largely unexplored. The project builds on longstanding and complementary research of the co-investigators, bringing together expertise on British, French, Italian and German colonialisms, East Asia, South-East Asia and North Africa (Bickers, 1999 and 2003; Cooper, 2001 and 2007; Marinelli, 1994 and 2006, Eberspächer, 2004). A studentship will be created to work on the Russian concession under the P.I.'s supervision. Furthermore, the project team will collaborate with Chinese and Japanese scholars who have already undertaken much work on the history of Tianjin, and of the Japanese impact on the city.