Some Corner of a Foreign Field

The grave of Augustus Lindley in Kensal Green cemetery, north west London

The grave of Augustus Lindley in Kensal Green cemetery, north west London

I am currently working on my fifth chapter, exploring the legacies of the Taiping war.  One aspect of this is the remembrance of the foreign soldiers who died fighting for the Qing against the Taiping.  I hope to understand how these activities were used by foreign and Qing actors for their own purposes.  While I have been thinking about this it strikes me that there are methodological difficulties in ascertaining the political significance of remembrance activities.  Remembering the dead is, after all, a universal feature of the human experience.  From the Stone Age to the present day and across all continents of the globe evidence of remembrance activities abounds.  How, then, do we identify certain remembrance activities as, at least in part, politically motivated?  In some cases this is obvious. Augustus Lindley was a British man who fought for the Taiping against the Qing.  Whoever was responsible for the epitaph on his grave in Kensal Green cemetery, if not Lindley himself, in dubbing him a ‘friend of China, enemy of oppression’, was making a clear statement.  The British government’s policy of supporting the Qing presumably made them, by implication, enemies of China and friends of oppression.  Political motivations are not always this transparent.

One way of dealing with this problem might be to pay attention to phases of remembrance.  It is striking, for example, that there is a spike in Taiping remembrance activity, in the form of the construction or refurbishment of statues and the rededication of graves, in the 1930s.  Why were the Taiping dead allowed to rest so long, undisturbed, before their memory was revived?  One early speculation I have is that sites of foreign graves, particularly when they were as handily archaic as those of the Taiping war, anchored elements of the foreign community to their place in China.  At a time of growing uncertainty, when the threat of further Japanese encroachments loomed, the British, American and French could justify their position in the country through the past service of their nationals.  These nationals represented the long established history of these nations in the country.  The dead of the Taiping war may have helped to make a point: that there was a corner of this foreign field which ought to be forever America, France or England.


In Memoriam

Macau's Lin Zexu memorial building

Macau’s Lin Zexu memorial building

On a recent trip to Macau I visited the Lin Zexu museum.  Commissioner Lin, responsible for burning confiscated foreign opium and sparking the Opium War, is of course in/famous in the history of Sino-foreign relations. On arriving at the site, apparently neglected by tourists and locals alike, I noticed a subtle difference in the building’s Chinese name.  Rather than being a museum (博物館 bowuguan) the building was a jinian guan (紀念館) or memorial building.  This could, and probably should, spark a debate about how we classify and present knowledge.  What are the finer distinctions between a museum as a site of knowledge and a memorial as a site of specific commemoration?  Can one site be both?

What made Lin’s memorial remarkable to me was its location.  The museum’s presence in Macau was tenuous in the extreme; based simply on the fact that he had visited the area briefly to discuss foreign policy with local officials shortly before the war’s outbreak.  The opium burning incident itself took place in what is now mainland China, and much closer to Hong Kong than Macau.  The memorial was established in 1997 with funding from local entrepreneurs and opened by invited CCP officials.  One can’t help but suspect that the site might have been a brokering tool for the local elite seeking to make connections with the incoming regime when Macau was handed back to China from Portugal in 1999.  The narrative offered at the memorial certainly toes the CCP line on Lin and the nineteenth century opium question.  Indeed, room is even found, as if it were one of Lin’s legacies, for a presentation on China’s ongoing efforts to suppress the narcotics trade.

All of this made me think about the uses of memory as I start work on the fifth (and final!) section of my PhD research, on the memorialisation of the foreign collaboration with the Qing in the Taiping war.  Almost as soon as the war ended, efforts were made to commemorate the foreign contribution, both by the foreigners themselves and by the Qing government.  Such efforts included the erection of statues, the distribution of medals and the writing of histories.  As with the Lin Zexu memorial, who is doing the memorialising, and why, is of paramount importance.  One focus of this section of my research will be Dong Xun’s Record of the Foreign Armies (洋兵紀略).  Dong Xun was a minister in the Zongli Yamen, the Chinese office for dealing with foreign affairs from 1861-1901.  As a reformer he was keen, in the face of trenchant conservative resistance, to bring foreign technologies and influences into the country in order to better enable it to resist future internal rebellion and external threats.  His flattering account of the usefulness of foreigners during the Taiping war may, then, have more to do with the ongoing foreign policy debates of the late 1860s and 1870s, than with the exploits of Gordon and others in the early 1860s.

Waves of Sovereignty – Pirates of the South China Sea

The Illustrated London News, Nov.3 1855

Pursuit of a Chinese pirate by the boats of H.M.S. “Racehorse,” in Pinghai Bay – The Illustrated London News, Nov.3 1855

Last week, 1840s editions of the Overland Friend of China, an English language Newspaper then operating out of Hong Kong, gave me a new perspective on the problem of piracy suppression in the China seas and the debates about sovereignty it threw up.  Based on my reading of colonial office and royal navy correspondence, I had come to the conclusion that foreign observers placed blame for the problem of piracy on failures of the Qing regime.  Letter after letter from the governor of Hong Kong and British Admirals chastised the Qing for apparently doing nothing to subdue the menace of piracy in their own territorial waters.  In fact, as the merchant friendly Friend of China made clear, a lot of the blame was placed on the nascent colonial government in Hong Kong itself.  The paper chastised the government for doing so little to suppress piracy and ridiculed the efforts it did make.  When the government commissioned gunboats for the colony but subsequently reduced their commission to one gun boat, when the paper felt that three were needed, an editorial lamented that

The whole affair is ridiculously characteristic of the government: and if ever the pen of a Cervantes writes the history of our Barataria, the government flotilla will not be the least amusing chapter” – Overland Friend of China, 23 June, 1846

Barataria was a fictional island awarded by a nobleman to Sancho Panza as a joke in Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  As a metaphor for Hong Kong itself this gives the attack additional bite.  The paper does not even mention the Qing government in its discussion of the piracy problem.

In the eyes of foreign observers, piracy highlighted deficiency in the claims to sovereignty of both the Qing and Hong Kong governments.  Piracy increased in the 1840s precisely because there were now two government jurisdictions in the region.  Pirates wanted by the Qing fled to Hong Kong and vice versa.  The merchants’ attacks are notable for another reason however.  A long running complain of the Overland Friend of China was that, as a new colony, Hong Kong was made to pay the same tax rates as the established port of Singapore.  The paper criticised both the colony’s attempts to establish sovereignty and its means to pay for it.  The merchants of Shanghai would take a similar view when foreigners set up a tax collecting regime for the Qing, in the form of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, at Shanghai in 1854.  A central theme running through my thesis will be debates over different kinds of sovereignty: sovereignty over people, place and property.  What the merchants’ complaints suggest is that this focus could be supplemented by an examination of the debates about how sovereignty was, and ought to be, constructed in the first place.

A ‘national’ movement?


George and Martha Washington’s tomb, Mount Vernon, Virginia

Last weekend, taking advantage of my archival research trip to Washington DC, I took the opportunity to visit George Washington’s plantation at Mount Vernon, Virginia.  Hanging on prominent display in Washington’s mansion was an unremarkable looking old key.  Unremarkable, at least, until the tour guide told me that it had been given by the Marquis Lafayette to George Washington after the French Revolution and was, in fact, the original key to the Bastille.  It was passed on, the Marquis claimed, by missionaries of liberty to its father.  It is in moments and symbols such as this that the myths of nations are forged.  However far America, or France, move from the ideas and traditions of those that sparked their modern history, the identity of both countries remains anchored by this collective narrative.  In reading the correspondence of foreign diplomats observing the Taiping civil war, the question of nation again takes centre stage.  The mid-nineteenth century, the age of Garibaldi and Bismarck, was an age of fascination with the idea of nations.

British diplomats, in responding to the Taiping kingdom wanted to know if they were dealing with a ‘national movement’.  What was meant by this?  It is clear that the rhetoric was infused by class bias as well as being understood on racial lines.  The Taiping might be considered a national movement if they were a popular movement by the majority Han ethnic group against minority Manchu rule.  They were only a truly ‘national’ movement, however, if they commanded the respect of the merchant classes.  Since the disorder brought by the fighting supressed market confidence, and hence trade, their claims to being a national party were considered to be on shaky ground.  Compounding this was the almost complete lack of national identity among Chinese at the time.  Far stronger were ties of native place and province.  Since the Taiping were natives of remote rural Guangxi, their movement was never likely to appeal to the urban elite of the Jiangnan region, at the time China’s cultural centre.  Failing to be a ‘national’ force, in the sense understood by foreign diplomats, the Taiping were demoted to being ‘land pirates’ who would never form a stable government and needed to be suppressed.

What seems to me to have been significant about the Taiping period from the foreign perspective, however, is the questions that it raised.  The Taiping were not a national movement but they were an alternative to Qing rule.  What would and should rule in China look like?  How great a role should foreign powers play in forging it?  Before intervention Qing rule was taken for granted, after it the role of foreigners in China’s governance was open for debate.  How far should the Qing regime be propped up?  How far should foreign states encourage and stimulate the development of new technologies in the country?  The foreign intervention against the Taiping might be seen as a series of experiments, in support by direct force, in indirectly supporting Chinese armies, and in technology transfer.  The success or failure of these policies determined how diplomats perceived their role in the country in the following decades.  The apparent failure of many of the foreign interventions in the Taiping period served eventually to limit European states’ interest in intervening further.  For private merchants however, supporting the Qing government through technology transfer created a new world of possibility in the country.  These possibilities, though, were not as vast as those facing Washington as he was inaugurated for his first term as president of a new nation.

The Scots




I have just returned from a research trip to the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh.  Given that the week before the country was holding a referendum to decide whether it wanted to be part of the UK at all, I initially wondered what my newly minted Scottish visa might look like.  Alas, 55% of Scots decided that we were better together, so I will never know.  I was visiting to look at the archives of the Bruce family, Earls of Elgin and Kincardine, because the 8th Earl and his brother Lord Bruce were both leading diplomats in China from 1857-64.  As usual for an archival research trip I found some fantastically useful material among a much larger volume of fascinating anecdotes that simply aren’t useable in my project.  Two things struck me.  The first was the importance of family archives, even for historians of foreign relations.  I had sensed, for example, that Lord Bruce did not much care for his counterpart Michele Kleczkowski, head of the French legation in Beijing in 1862, from his formal reports to the foreign secretary.  I did not know, as he felt free to write to his brother, that these were not merely diplomatic disputes and that on a personal level he found his colleague to be a ‘dirty, intriguing liar’!  The forcefulness of the breakdown of this personal relationship brings some clarity to why Anglo-French divisions appear to have almost healed overnight when Kleczkowski was replaced.

My second observation, a direct result of the topical circumstances of my visit, was just how significant this Scottish family were to Britain’s place in the nineteenth-century world.  The Scottish Socialist Party were campaigning on the main thoroughfare outside the archive with banners proclaiming ‘Still yes!’, attempting to co-opt disillusioned independence voters.  The papers of the Bruce family, however, point to a complex relationship with the Union.  The descendants of King Robert the Bruce, who famously defeated the English at Bannockburn 700 years ago, by nineteenth-century and in one generation served as the top British representatives in India, China and in the US.  The 8th Earl not only negotiated the Treaty of Tianjin but also served in India during the mutiny.  It is hardly surprising then that despite their ancestors gripes with the English crown, the current head of the Bruce family said no to independence.  The union remains, for now.

The Middle Men

The view from Taipei 101 at night - making the most of the last of my time in Taipei

The view from Taipei 101 at night – making the most of the last of my time in Taipei

The sun has set on my 5 month stay in Taiwan, which was supported by a generous research grant from the Centre for Chinese Studies in Taipei.  During my time here I have been filtering through the vast array of documents generated by the daily grinding of the Qing state’s bureaucratic gears.  Last week I came across a memorial from Li Hongzhang, the then governor of Jiangsu province, which highlights the overlooked role of the translator in diplomatic encounters.  Scholars in recent years have begun to closely examine the place of translation in history, but the role of the interpreter is far more difficult to study.  Verbal translation in face-to-face encounters by its nature leaves very little in the way of a written record.  Li’s comments offer a glimpse of the impact of this vital but often obscured process.

Li’s memorial was making the case for a language school to be established in Shanghai to provide the government with its own English translators and interpreters. The most striking thing about this was not the proposal itself, very much in line with the zeitgeist of the first years of the “self-strengthening” movement, but Li’s arguments for it.  Li lamented that his current interpreters were either lower class compradors who had trading connections with foreign merchants, or paupers taken in by Christian missionaries in Shanghai.  He complained that “both types are by their nature stupid, and their intentions despicable.  They know nothing other than profit and sensual pleasure”.  For Li, these interpreters were truly “beyond the pale” as they had relied on a profession which lay outside of the four trades of China (士農工商, lit. scholars, farmers, engineers and merchants).  A new language school would, he argued, remove his need to rely on such people.  They could be replaced by educated officials who had passed the imperial examinations.  This evident disdain from Li, himself an erudite scholar, provokes new questions.

How did Li’s attitude towards his interpreters affect his ability to control and communicate with the foreign mercenaries in his employ? Li’s complaints came in early 1863, a year after he had taken up his position in Jiangsu and took on responsibility for directing the foreign “Ever Victorious” Army.  Some of the turbulent disputes with which the army’s history was littered might have been avoided if Li had had mediators of whom he approved.  Throughout 1863 he grappled with this problem, repeatedly asking British consular officials to lend him their interpreters.  This complicates the narrative that the foreign powers used translation as a form of imperial domination in nineteenth-century China.  In this instance at least, Li was happier employing foreigners, and conferring on them the power inherent in the role of the mediator, than relying on uneducated Chinese compradors.  I hope to be able to look more closely at the important issue of translation, and the power dynamics associated with it, over the next few months.

Control and Contradictions


The personal bodyguard of Captain Charles Gordon, leader of the mercenary Ever-Victorious Army (1863-64)

The tragic events of the last two weeks in Eastern Ukraine appear to have highlighted again the dangers for a state resorting to propping up proxy militias to achieve its goals.  Ultimately the problem is one of control.  Such a force might be at one remove from deploying the state’s own military power, but the state can still be held responsible for a militia’s actions despite a lack of control over them.  Having spent the last few weeks looking through correspondence on the foreign mercenary presence in the Taiping war, a similar picture emerges.  Britain and France resorted to mercenary forces to support the Qing state because, in the words of one British general, ‘it has the appearance of maintaining our neutral character’.  The downside was that, in supporting mercenaries and withdrawing their own force, they lost most of their control over the unfolding military campaign.  Worse, since the mercenary leaders that Britain, France and America encouraged were foreigners, they were tacitly assumed to have the same right to ‘extraterritoriality’ that all foreigners enjoyed. That is, they were not to be subject to Chinese law.

The foreign mercenaries in the service of the Qing represented another new legal category in the murky world of divided sovereignty that characterized the foreign presence in China.  Having entered the service of the Qing, were these fighters still above Qing law?  The American Henry Burgevine became a Chinese subject in order to serve the Qing and so ought to have abandoned his foreign, and extraterritorial, status.  Burgevine was in charge of the Ever-Victorious Army for less than four months when a dispute with the local Qing authorities led to his to assaulting the local Daotai.  Following his instantaneous dismissal, Burgevine, still sensing there was money to be made from the conflict, went to fight for the Taiping.  When he was captured he was handed over to the American consulate, rather suggesting his pretensions to be a Chinese subject had never carried any weight.  The mercenaries then, independent of Qing and foreign rule, appear to have operated in a space between jurisdictions.

This de facto jurisdictional gap in the mercenaries’ legal status created some interesting contradictions.  By 1863 both French and British nationals were running parallel mercenary armies.  When the Chinese tried to merge the armies into one force, the French Ambassador, M. Berthemy was bitterly hostile. He argued that the loss of ‘their’ force would damage French interests in the country.  At the same time he was also complaining to the government in Paris about his lack of control over the force.  Its leaders saw themselves as independent of both Qing and French authorities.  They even commissioned arms deals and raised loans from French merchants to support them which they claimed were backed by Qing tax revenue.  When the arms arrived from Paris and the Qing refused to pay for them, the French consul was left to pick up the pieces.  Operating with such independence, and in such a legal gap, perhaps the term ‘adventurers’ derogatorily applied to them by representatives of all the powers concerned, was appropriate.

As I continue to work through these sources, as well as use my weekends to explore the Taiwanese countryside, I am going to think more about what ‘adventuring’ through China, and through this jurisdictional gap, really meant.

The Taiwanese countryside...perhaps a little too up close.

The Taiwanese countryside…perhaps a little too up close.