“a large field is opening up for the industrious Chinese emigrant; and in his track, a style of civilization will certainly follow, which, if crude when judged by a Western standard, will still be infinitely preferable to the state of savagery which has hitherto existed”
– E. Hobson to Robert Hart, Danshui, Taiwan, 1 Feb, 1875
While writing my thesis introduction I have been thinking about the broader themes that my thesis addresses. In moments of distraction I have also been keeping an eye out for new research projects in preparation for the seemingly distant prospect of life after the PhD. The above observation by H. E. Hobson, a customs commissioner on the island, was made after an eventful year for Taiwan. In 1874 a Japanese expeditionary force was sent to the island ostensibly to seek reparations from a group of the island’s aborigines who had murdered shipwrecked Japanese sailors. In fact it is likely that the Japanese troops were an advance guard, testing the Qing dynasty’s claims to sovereignty over the island. While rapid diplomatic negotiations saw the Japanese depart by the end of the year, the episode awakened Qing administrators to a need to establish control over the “raw savages” (生番 sheng fan) within Taiwan’s mountainous interior. This campaign operating with varying momentum from 1875 to the cession of the island to Japan twenty years later, ran under the slogan ‘open the mountains and pacify the natives’ (開山撫番 kai shan fu fan). Hobson clearly saw this as a form of ‘civilizing mission’, similar to that used by Europeans to justify their colonial endeavours elsewhere in the world.
My current PhD research uses the foreign interventions in the Taiping war to examine how China’s place in the international system was understood. For many foreign observers the Qing were a backward regime in need of serious reform before China could take an equal place in the emerging ‘family of nations’. Yet the campaign to open the mountains offers a new perspective. The Qing regime actively engaged in ‘colonizing’ Taiwan’s mountainous interior, which it had previously demarcated as aboriginal land. It did so with the support of foreign experts and technologies. This raises a number of questions. What was Qing colonialism? To what extent did foreign observers regard it as comparable to the projects Europeans were embarking on at the same time? Did the Qing’s colonial projects on Taiwan change how the regime was perceived internationally? Did foreign support for those projects differ, in Qing and foreign eyes, from support for modernising initiatives on the Chinese mainland? A number of historians of empire have called for an exploration of how different empires understood each other’s respective colonial projects. This analysis has largely been confined to European colonialism. The parallels made by foreigners observing and participating in extra-European colonial projects seem to me to be an intriguing new line of enquiry. One that might, unfortunately, have to wait until my PhD is written.