This month, Sydney University Press publishes an important addition to our China and the West in the Modern World series.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, relations between China and the West were defined by the Qing dynasty’s strict restrictions on foreign access and by the West’s imperial ambitions. Cultural, political and economic interactions were often fraught, with suspicion and misunderstanding on both sides. Yet trade flourished and there were instances of cultural exchange and friendship, running counter to the official narrative.
Tribute and Trade: China and Global Modernity, 1784–1935 explores the complicated relationship between China and the West from the 18th century into the early 20th century. Each essay examines a range of different perspectives, drawing examples from art, literature, science, politics, music, cooking, clothing and more. The book offers a timely and often surprising historical background to relations between China and the West today.
To celebrate the book’s release and give you a taste of its contents, we've put together some short extracts.
In the book’s second chapter, William Christie discusses the role played by cultural cross-dressing in the perceptions China and the West held against each other during the 18th century.
What stands out in the official history of cultural relations between China and the West over the course of the long eighteenth century are the seemingly irreconcilable differences that would eventually see Britain and China at war: misunderstanding and distrust of foreigners on the part of an isolated Chinese government and a regressive denigration of China and the Chinese people in Western opinion as writings on China became increasingly critical.
The Western attitude to China shifts from an early idealisation, to what, in the wake of the Macartney mission of 1792–94, were often extreme forms of demonization. Indeed, ‘Mutual mud-slinging’, to quote Qian Zhongshu, ‘soon became the order of the day’. The inference from all this has been one of cultural incomprehension and imminent disaster, ‘the incommensurability and thus inevitable class of Sino-Western civilisations, which supposedly then led to the First Opium War and foreign extraterritoriality in China’.
But British attitudes towards China, both before and after the Macartney mission, were a good deal more various, conflicted and uneven than this unitary narrative of ‘a staggering reversal of fortune from admiration to degradation’ suggests.
Just as there was no one China – ‘cultural homogeneity’, as John Fairbank has remarked, ‘was one of China’s great social myths’ – so there was no single attitude towards China. Critical homogeneity is one of intellectual history’s greatest myths. Throughout the 200-year history of trade relations between China and Britain in the lead-up to the Opium Wars of 1839–42, we can always find voices of openness and sympathy, and these gestures of understanding and friendship to not end with the Macartney era.
What I offer in this essay, then, is a brief chapter in the alternative history of Britain’s relations with China, as of Romantic globalisation generally ... I want to address the question of how China and the West saw each other throughout the long eighteenth century, and how they interpreted what they saw, by reflecting on the phenomenon of cultural cross-dressing as a literal and metaphorical act of cultural sympathy. (William Christie, Cultural Cross-Dressing in the House of Pankeequa, 53–6.)
The Lady Hughes affair
In the third chapter, Q.S. Tong examines the rise of international law and extraterritoriality following the incident involving the Lady Hughes in 1784. After a sailor on the British ship Lady Hughes accidentally killed two Chinese fishermen during a fired salute, China demanded he be handed over to Chinese authorities. The ship’s captain refused, and in response, local Chinese authorities enacted a complete ban on all trade between Britain and China.
In this part of the world, the need for international law was increasingly urgent with the expansion and development of global trade. Following the establishment of the Canton System in 1759, the British Empire began to contemplate introducing further institutional structure to consolidate its commercial presence and expand its interest in China. The dramatic increase in the volume of bilateral trade entailed a sharp increase in conflicts and disputes between the two countries. It was during this period that the idea of ‘extraterritoriality’ was actively considered and debated. The Lady Hughes incident in 1784 was a decisive event that determined the British attitude to ‘the extraterritoriality question’, though it is not till the end of the First Opium War that British extraterritoriality was formalised in the Nanking Treaty (1842) and its supplemental treaties.
Extraterritoriality is ‘the extension of jurisdiction beyond the borders of the state’, an imposition of an alien jurisdiction on the local one, typically through coercion or by force. It is constituted as a sort of legal superstructure, a rule within or above the local rule, a public refusal to comply with the judicial system within which it was created, and a denial of the host state’s legal sovereignty. As far as the host state is concerned, it is a dent on its legal integrity, a partial surrender of its legal sovereignty. Extraterritoriality was, therefore, manifestly a contradiction to the principle of the law of nations, a rejection of the very notion of Westphalian sovereignty, on the basis of which ‘the law of nations’ grew into a normativity and played an increasingly important role in the management of international disputes and conflicts.
How should extraterritoriality be legitimated and justified in conjunction with the principle of the law of nations? How would legal liberalism, which underscores the law of nations, come to terms with extraterritorial privileges? In what ways could imperial legal governance be justified as consistent with the modern legal systems? I will begin with the Lady Hughes affair that took place in 1784 and proceed to offer a set of comments on how the incident set off discussions of the implementation of British jurisdiction within the Qing empire and on the implications of extraterritorial establishment for Qing’s understanding of its own sovereignty. (Q.S. Tong, The Lady Hughes Affair, Extraterritoriality, and the Limits of Liberalism, 80–1.)
Yinghe Jiang considers the role cultural artefacts played in trade relations between China and the West from the 18th to 20th centuries. Jiang outlines the social exclusion export painters were subjected to, and what their art can tell us about cultural communications between the East and West.
Canton Port, located on the southern coastal area of China, has a long maritime history. It has been an important port city for the Chinese to interact with the outer world. Historically, Canton (now called Guangzhou) was the trade port for Chinese and foreign goods and the production base of exports.
In Canton, generations of superb craftsmen serviced overseas markets, and the city has been deeply merged in the history of global development. Since the sixteenth century, there has been direct trading between the East and the West seasonally at Canton, particularly after the Canton System was implemented. Canton became the production base of many new exports with typical Western characteristics, as a number of new industries began here. OF these industries, export painting or trade painting became a complex global industry, with works destined for the European and American markets …
Export painting was a new industry, and the painters were a group of Chinese learning to paint for a Western clientele in a style completely alien to them. Both the painters and their works possess strong commercial appeal, and they are branded with Canton Port characteristics. Their creations, in a hybrid style combining Chinese and Western cultural traits, constituted the first reaction of the Chinese to Western paintings. These paintings show the transfer of different aspects of civilisation between the East and the West, revealing a neglected aspect of globalisation. (Yinghe Jiang, Global Contacts of Canton in the Qing Dynasty: A Discussion of Export Painting, 167, 171)
Tribute and Trade: China and Global Modernity, 1784–1935 is available now in print and electronic editions.
Image: view of Canton (detail), 1780s, aquatint, 920 x 74 cm, 075041, The
King’s Topographical Collection of the British Library, United Kingdom. Courtesy
of the British Library.