Book review: China's Foreign Places by Robert Nield - how the ports were won

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 May, 2015, 11:47am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 May, 2015, 11:47am

The last comprehensive book on China's treaty ports was published in 1867 by Mayers, Dennys and King. So the subject probably needed an update. Robert Nield's China's Foreign Places moves the subject on from his previous book, The China Coast (2010), a taster for what has become Nield's obsession.

In this book, Nield covers 70-plus places of foreign commerce. Not all were treaty ports, stemming from early, unfair agreements made with the British, French, Germans, Americans, Japanese and Russians, among 15 nations. Some were colonies, concessions or seaside resorts such as Beidaihe. But Nield keeps them all under one umbrella.

While officially in the mid-19th century the Qing dynasty mandarins were appalled to have foreigners on their soil, there were plenty of early, lucrative mercantile exchanges that largely made them worth putting up with.

Early treaty ports were largely horrible. Consuls general who didn't get the Paris or New York gigs were shipped off to coastal villages rife with pirates, plague and typhoons and comprising not much more than a shrimp paste outfit and a jetty, and told to create a treaty port. For the merchants, finding business was even more high-risk.

Nield travelled to most of the ports he covered. He left off a couple near the North Korean border and some of the tiny villages that were a part of former Manchuria. But the rest is an A to Y (or Amoy to Yangtze River ports of call), comprehensive, historic account of each place.

Nield provides plenty of references to his research, and he owns a library of government papers and others at home. He also looked at other archives. The book is full of interesting historical facts, and is neither academic nor dry. The accounts are peppered with illustrations, maps and photos, although I wish some of those were larger.

We read how the treaty ports started, with early trade including opium, and moving on to how foreign powers were permitted to manufacture in Tientsin at Japan's insistence after the Sino-Japanese war of the 1890s. Factories were set up, including for textiles: cotton would travel from China to be turned into linen in northern English mills and then shipped back.

What's sad is to read of the civilians massacred in some of these towns and cities. It has been seen as a time of humiliation for China - but there's no pride for the other side either. Ordinary people were often pawns in a game of foreign powers and local clan interests.

Many know of the Rape of Nanking by the Japanese in 1937, in which hundreds of thousands of people died. But that was the fifth massacre: the others were Chinese against Chinese.

The treaty port system was ended by the allied powers through the Chungking Agreement in 1943. China was retreating from the Japanese army amid the second world war, and it was felt that the system no longer had a place when the allies were working with the Chinese.