An Island Mentality

The Miyahara Restaurant, Taichung

The Miyahara Restaurant, Taichung

Perhaps there is something about being an island nation that uniquely shapes the national memory.  Loud voices on my own island continue to argue that Britain can make its own way in the world free from the shackles of the EU even as the pound bows to reality, performing contortions on currency graphs that make Tom Daley look like an amateur.  These futile, but nonetheless damaging, rallying cries are a result of a particular vision of the British past, one in which plucky Britain, once ruler of ¼ of the world, always comes out on top.

Last week I was struck by the uniqueness of the national memories of another island nation.  Visiting Taiwan for the national day holidays I was taken to the site of the former Miyahara eye hospital, now an upper end restaurant.  Named after Takekuma Miyahara, the former Japanese governor of Taichung, the site is now a monument to nostalgia.  The staff walk around the building in army uniforms, and because the setting is Taiwan in the 1920s, these are very specifically Japanese army uniforms.  The prospect of a similar restaurant in mainland China is preposterous because in many ways the country’s relationship with Japanese imperialism is far less complex.  China was invaded and subjected over a period of 14 years from 1930-45.  Taiwan was colonized, perhaps even developed, over 50 years of Japanese rule from 1895-1945.

Beyond this there are, perhaps, two other reasons why Miyahara was singled out specifically for this colonialist theme park, reasons which resonate with my own research into the commemoration of the foreigners who died fighting the Taiping in China.  The first is contingency.  Landmarks sometimes come under threat.  In the case of the Miyahara eye hospital, it was damaged the earthquake of 1999 and subsequently by a Taiphoon in 2008.  The monuments to the foreign dead of the Taiping war, meanwhile, were threatened by the advance of Japanese troops during the Sino-Japanese war (1937-45).  With the hospital damaged, two choices remained: demolition or reconstruction.  It is here I suspect that a particular vision of Taiwan’s history rescued the building.  Miyahara, the restaurant’s website suggests, was a ‘maverick figure’ who supported Taiwanese independence.  The Japanese colonial period resonates within Taiwanese popular memories in a way which is anathema to the People’s Republic in part because it makes the island less Chinese.  This in turn renders Beijing’s claims on Taiwan void, or, rather, resting on the tenuous Qing dynasty hold over the island before it was ceded to Japan.  In the same way, foreign communities in China before world war two clung to the dead of the Taiping war, and the monuments to them, for their own contemporary political purposes, the preservation of their rights in China.  The long dead who had ‘died fighting China’s battles’ stood as proxy for the perceived ongoing role of those still living.

History can be made to serve many different agendas, which perhaps makes the historian’s role, as I see it sometimes to complicate and challenge our understanding of the past, all the more vital.


Mercenaries and Mobility


During the transition between my PhD and my postdoc I have been neglecting my blog.  Now I am settled into life and teaching in Shanghai I hope to get back to it on a regular basis.  Over the summer I have been working on a short postdoctoral research project on the effects of opium prohibition in twentieth-century China.  In a circular way this took me back to a piece of research that has been shouting at me to be looked at for some time.  One of the striking effects of the prohibition of opium in China was that trade in the illegal drug provided a revenue stream for tairiku ronin (continental adventurers) and their handlers, militant young officials in the Japanese army with expansionist ambitions in China.  Drug money meant army officers could fund black ops by these adventurers such as the assassination of the Chinese warlord Zhang Zuolin in 1928.  The officers planned to blame the attacks on Chinese nationalists and use them as a pretext for expanding Japan’s territorial concessions in China against the wishes of the government in Tokyo.

I began to wonder how these men ended up as guns for hire on the Chinese mainland.  This made me think more about my own set of adventurers: the European and American soldiers who fought as mercenaries for both the Qing government and the Taiping rebels during the Taiping civil war.  Among them was John Kirkham, a veteran of the Crimea and the Indian Rebellion of 1857.  These men were often dismissed by other classes of foreigner in the country, particularly diplomats and administrators.  Robert Hart, Inspector General of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service, said of Kirkham ‘brave as he is, he has neither education nor knowledge’.   Yet what strikes me about these men is not their status with respect to their peers, but their mobility.  Kirkham not only fought in the Crimea, India and China, but went on, eleven years later, to die in a cage meant for lions in Egypt.  He was serving as the advisor to King Yohannes IV of Ethiopia during the war between the Ethiopian Empire and the Egyptian Khedive of 1874-76 and had been captured trying to cross enemy lines.  In the past it would have been much harder to track the lives of these men but, were it possible, it would tell us a lot about networks of mobility in the British Empire and beyond in the nineteenth century.

Thankfully, armed with the British Library’s officer records for the Ever-Victorious Army, the main foreign mercenary force in China, and digital humanities methodologies, tracking the paths of these fighters is now possible.  In July I attended a summer school in Chinese Digital Humanities at Leiden University.  It gave me the skills to start work on a relational database which will allow me to create visualisations of the movements of mercenaries across the world.  I am further aided by the mass digitisation of nineteenth-century books, ships’ records and other sources which will allow me to search for officer names.  I want to know if there are any patterns in movement among these fighters.  Did they move together?  Did they follow patterns established and enabled by the British empire or by foreign trade?  Are those networks even distinguishable themselves?  Ultimately I hope to examine how global connections in the nineteenth century provided career opportunities for men who, if not socially mobile, could certainly be geographically so.

The Mercenary Who Played with Dolls



Historians are often guilty of painting individuals in black and white.  Because we have a specific research agenda we ignore the contradictions inherent in human personalities.  I am as guilty of this as anyone.  My thesis explored the American mercenary Henry Burgevine in his role as a disorderly mercenary, a violent drunk and, eventually, a useful corpse.  He is interesting as the exemplar of the disobedient foreigner who proved impossible to control in an era when Europeans and Americans were immune from prosecution by the Qing state.  But no human being is ever so one dimensional.  On one occasion Burgevine stayed with Anson Burlingame, the American minister in Beijing, as he attempted to sort out a diplomatic spat Burgevine had provoked when he had drunkenly thumped a Chinese official.  During his visit, Burgevine ingratiated himself with Burlingame’s family.   Burlingame’s wife, Jane, wrote home to her father that he got on well with their young daughter.

Gertie has had a bad cold and cough, but is now well, and full of fun and mischief.  She takes a great fancy to General Burgevine, and is now sitting with him in the court while he is making a dress for her doll.

However rapacious, violent and unpleasant Burgevine may have been after a few too many bottles of grog, he was also a complex character capable of a sensitivity which is hidden from most historical accounts of his life.  The struggle for historians is capturing this without meandering too far away from the principle focus of their research.

…and then they expect you to pick a career

Robert Hart - provided from under a creative commons license

Robert Hart*

In the last couple of weeks I have been reading through the early diaries of Robert Hart for a forthcoming BBC radio programme on his life.  Hart was a man who started his career in China as a lowly interpreter in the treaty port back water of Ningbo, but became the Inspector General of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service.  Hart’s early reflections left me with a few thoughts.  Firstly, the benefit of knowing, in hindsight, that he would become the most influential foreigner in China gives the sense of urgency and dissatisfaction expressed in his early diaries great potency.  Hart, like many 20 year olds, myself included, did not settle easily into his path and was subject to frequent prevarications, as the diary entries below, written during his time in Ningbo, suggest:

25 November, 1854:  ‘my employment is not at all congenial.  I have still a longing after the Wesleyan Ministry.  And indeed, I think I wd be better and happier at home.  I shd not be at all surprised if by this time next year I shd be on my way home round the Cape.’+

3 January, 1855: ‘I feel more pleasure now in working at the Chinese … I am determined, if I stay in China, and if my health be spared to make myself a first-rate Chinese Scholar, in order that I may be really useful in some way as a Christian in forwarding the great work.’

17 March, 1855: ‘I’m very sorry I came to China.  If I had remained at home, I would have been certain of an East India appointment.  I wish I could be satisfied with my condition – I’m quite miserable.’

There is something that feels relevant to the twenty first-century reader about the angst of an early-twenty something trying to give meaning to their life.  For Hart, ever the workaholic, this meaning naturally came through his choice of career.  Hart’s quandary also gives us a window into the world of a nineteenth-century imperial careerist.  In enumerating the options open to him, Hart reflects the types of careers he and his contemporaries might pursue.  These centred largely on the opportunities provided through the connections forged by the British Empire.  For the educated British subject, a whole world of career possibilities was imagined.

Secondly, Hart’s prevarication between the life of a Weslyan minister, a Chinese translator and an East India Company administrator offers a cautionary reminder to the reader as historian that contingency is central in shaping the lives of individuals and historical events.  Hart did not see his rise to power and influence coming, and nor did his contemporaries. Yet just 8 years after the diary entries above, Hart was in charge of the collection of China’s foreign customs revenues and in a position to instigate a number of other modernising projects for the Qing, including the purchase of a steam navy and the construction of lighthouses on the coast.  Yet none of this was inevitable.  What if Hart had gone home to the ministry?  Hart’s diplomacy, in both senses of that word, were legendary.  After spending just three weeks with the ministers of the newly formed Qing dynasty office for foreign affairs, the Zongli yamen, they were referring to him as ‘our Hart’.  When the first foreign Inspector General of the Qing customs service was fired, largely as a result of his failure to be diplomatic or to acknowledge the concerns of Qing officials, Hart was the natural choice to replace him.  Without Hart, the nascent fragile customs service, the basis for much future Sino-foreign collaboration, might have collapsed altogether.

*(provided by under a creative commons license)

+ All quotations are taken from Robert Sir Hart and Others, Entering China’s Service: Robert Hart’s Journals, 1854-1863 (Cambridge, Mass: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1986)

“Open the Mountains and Pacify the Natives”

Taroko Gorge, Northeast Taiwan

Taroko Gorge, Northeast Taiwan

“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.

Status Anxiety

FO228-347 Medals picture

A diagram of a medal design proposed by foreign officers to Qing officials 

What was ‘the order of the Dragon’ and why did it matter?  The order existed only in the imagination of foreigners who served the Qing against the Taiping.  Qing officials referred to the varieties of medals they issued to these fighters simply as ‘merit medals’ (功牌gong pai).  Foreign recipients came to refer to them instead as ‘the order of the dragon’.  While Qing agents thought they were conferring prizes to placate their former soldiers, those same soldiers made an equivalence between these awards and a European style honours system.  The issuing of honours by a state on its citizens is first and foremost an act of conferring status.  Such awards reinforce hierarchies within the state and as such decisions about who may receive such recognition are intensely political.  The annual furor over the Queen’s birthday honours underscores that this has not changed.  The case of the Taiping medals seems to give an insight into both the politics of status in a transnational setting and also offers an interesting case study in the haphazard transmission of state practices from Europe to China in the nineteenth century.

In issuing foreign medals the Qing regime ended up in a dispute with senior British diplomats that was not of its own making.  How did the Qing come to be issuing medals that closely resembled British orders?  They consulted foreigners in their service who directed them towards creating awards which imitated existing British orders (to the extent of providing colour diagrams like the one above).  They did so because they wanted status for the service they had given and were unlikely to get it from the British government, who were at best only half-hearted in their support for their endeavours to begin with.  The transnational conferring of status is problematic because status operates in a marketplace.  If too many awards are conferred they risk losing their value.  When the Qing emperor began issuing medals which were direct copies of British orders, he threatened the value of the British honours system.  Lord Bruce, the British Minister declared that ‘The decoration in question…is not an imperial order but an imitation of the stars conferred upon members of foreign orders…[and are] bestowed…upon all foreigners’.  The Qing threatened to undermine British honours by imitating them and handing them out en masse.

The ‘Order of the Dragon’ was then a construction of a group of foreigners in Qing service.  Qing officials did not give the awards the weight of meaning implied by a foreign honours system.  Nonetheless the symbolism of the awards encouraged the awardees precisely because they did interpret them in this way, as did the diplomatic establishment though with distinctly less enthusiasm.  This matters because it highlights the need to look at how ideas of statecraft transferred to China in the nineteenth century.  This was not just a state to state transaction and was complicated by different foreign interest groups in the country as well as differing interpretations of the ideas themselves.  The Qing had their own system of imperial titles conferred upon loyal subjects and had no need for a foreign ‘honours system’.  This did not stop Europeans, and particularly the British, who wanted status among their peers for serving a foreign sovereign trying to give them one.