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Recreating a lost world

18 November 2003

The cataloguing of 57,000 files from the Chinese Maritime Customs Service sounds a dry business, but Dr Robert Bickers in the Department of Historical Studies believes they will transform our understanding of Chinese history during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Chinese Maritime Customs Service (CMCS) was an international bureaucracy under the control of successive Chinese central governments, from its founding in 1853 until its abolition by the communists in 1949. It was the only agency which functioned without interruption for this whole period. Established by foreigners during the Taiping Rebellion to collect taxes on maritime trade when the Chinese were unable to do so, its functions quickly expanded. It became responsible for domestic customs administration, postal administration, harbour and waterway management, weather reporting, and anti-smuggling operations. It mapped, lit and policed the China coast and the Yangzi river, and was involved in loan negotiations, currency reform, and financial and economic management. As a result, the CMCS archives now constitute one of the richest repositories for the study of the history of China during the late Qing and the Republic. Most of this material has never been published.

The CMCS has long been associated with the role of Britain in China in the late 19th century. Its senior staff were predominantly British and Sir Robert Hart, the second Inspector General, guided its development for almost 50 years from 1863 to 1908. Essentially established by Britons who were trained in the Consular Service, they brought British Civil Service expertise to the CMCS but had to marry this with Chinese administrative practices. With an overwhelming number of Chinese staff, and having to report to Chinese superiors, this middle layer of foreigners introduced western-style practices to the Chinese State, and the service became something of a hybrid. It was always a Chinese agency but was effectively ‘outsourced’ to foreigners. With trade the focus of the relationship between China and other foreign powers, having foreigners running the CMCS enabled the State to develop knowledge about international law, how international treaties were negotiated, and how to ‘do’ diplomacy – things that China was not experienced at and, as a result, was suffering from politically.

One clear example of the way in which this material will help the rewriting of modern Chinese history is the fact that it includes quarterly returns from each of the dozens of customs stations around the country, regarding the export and import of arms and ammunition, and other materials of war. Militarism and warlord violence was the characteristic feature of China in the 1920s and 30s, but scholars have lacked detailed evidence of the arms trade which underpinned the violence. These quarterly returns reveal information such as which ministry gave permission to which military commander to import, say, 10,000 rifles and 5,000 uniforms through this port, and from that foreign client. These shipments can now be tracked across the provinces to see where they end up and this information then cross-referenced with battle X when General Y took control of Z. So from these highly detailed, if rather dry data, a new picture of the shifting politics and power in regional China can be established.

A new picture of the shifting politics and power in regional China can be established from these highly detailed, if rather dry, data

But as well as providing historians with information about the politics of China during this period, there are fascinating questions to be asked about the men and their families – from light housekeeper to Inspector General. How did they learn the language; did they learn to adapt; and where did their loyalties lie? A Briton based in a port in the 1920s – was he a servant of the British Empire or the Chinese state? While a strong sense of a highly developed service culture emerges from these documents, there are interesting tensions between absolute loyalty to the CMCS – and men had to be loyal otherwise they did not get the plumb postings and instead rotted in obscure places – and national loyalties. And there was a fixed class divide. Although ‘outdoor’ staff – often people with no education – could work their way up through the outdoor hierarchy, they rarely crossed the divide to become ‘indoor’ staff.

These histories are not just about the British, however. Prior to the First World War, the CMCS preferred Germans as lighthouse keepers, because they kept the gardens tidy. But in 1917 the British persuaded the Chinese to expel all Germans and the lighthouse keepers were largely replaced by Scandinavians. Visitors’ books for these lighthouses prove very entertaining. Two gentlemen seeking shelter from a storm while on a hunting trip in the 1880s remark how ‘this was the cleanest lighthouse they have ever seen’. These little details provide an insight into how these men were making their own accommodations with China and Chinese society, whether it was lighthouse keepers finding some comfort for themselves – the offspring of their marriages or other arrangements would be shipped to an orphanage for Eurasian children in Shanghai – or more senior men negotiating their way with Chinese colleagues.

The offspring of their marriages or other arrangements would be shipped to an orphanage for Eurasian children in Shanghai

Bickers and his colleagues, including four archivists at the Second Historical Archives of China in Nanjing, have been working on cataloguing the CMCS files for three years now. Originally catalogued on paper in an illegible handwritten Chinese translation, the archive is now being transferred from the original manuscripts in their original language – eighty per cent are in English – onto CDs. The project has been so successful and revealed so much fascinating material that Bickers and his collaborator – Hans van de Ven at Cambridge University – have just been awarded £300,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Board to continue the work for a further three years.

A post-doctoral assistant, Dr Yuehtsen Chung, will take the lead on collecting materials for the UK team and her own projects. Based in Nanjing for the first year, she will then complete the work in Bristol. As well as cataloguing the data, the archivists in China will construct databases on personnel, economic, financial and ecological history, and produce documentary collections on various topics relating to the history of the Customs Service and its significance in modern Chinese history. To assist others use the material, the team also aims to produce four guidebooks of annotated source materials, on the following themes: an institutional history of CMCS, department by department; the history of a typical customs station; the CMCS in international relations; and the socio-cultural world of the CMCS.

The catalogue will be published on a CD-ROM, and a selection of documents will also be published on microfilm, making them accessible to a wide range of researchers.

Dr Robert Bickers / Department of Historical Studies

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