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  • Hamsini Hariharan

Book Review: Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination by Robert Bickers.

This book review first appeared in The Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs 2019 (Winter Edition).

Name of the Book: Out of China: How the Chinese Ended The Era of Western Domination

Author: Robert Bickers Publisher: Harvard University Press

Number of Pages: 576

China’s ‘Century of Humiliation’ is often a point of reference when dissecting speeches of Chinese leaders on contentious issues related to Chinese sovereignty. Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination by Robert Bickers is a work of history; straddling the worlds of diplomacy, culture and society. It continues from Bickers’ first book Scramble for China which focused on the origins of foreign presence in China during through the end of the Qing empire. Out of China has a larger mandate however: it focuses on the ‘Century of Humiliation’ ending only in 1997.

In the book, Bickers sets out on an ambitious task: to unravel this period in Chinese history which is filled with contradictions. He does this by studying the interactions between foreigners and Chinese to see how they’ve have shaped China’s national consciousness. The book traces the history of China from the end of World War I until the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. To its credit, the book combines extensive archival work, reaching far out to various governments’ official accounts, personal accounts, fiction, as well as pop culture.

The result is breath-taking: Bickers weaves a history of China shaped by its interactions with foreign powers. While Britain and America do feature largely, so do the Japanese, Russians, Germans, Italians, Portuguese, the French and Albanians. The narrative moves from the dance halls in Shanghai to chinoiserie in Europe to negotiations between the nationalists and international powers.

When documenting history, academicians often tend to glorify cities under colonial rule as cosmopolitan hubs where all nationalities mingle. The case of China is no different: cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong were often depicted as hubs of the civilised world while completely ignoring the local context which was one of inequality and degradation. Since English sources for this period often bear colonial and racial biases, academic work often bears imprints of these prejudices. Out of China however is much more sympathetic to Chinese cause without letting the sympathy overshadow the themes in the book. It also allows for us to understand important questions about China’s position on important issues, such as its rhetoric on sovereignty or its support for the CCP despite the atrocities that it has orchestrated over the years.

The experiences of World War II in Asia are easily overlooked on the global stage. However British colonialism (whose precedents inspired America and other European countries) followed by Japanese imperialism resulted in appalling conditions for the local population. The unequal treaties led to the loss of major ports which were then closed off to Chinese citizens – possibly the biggest blow to Chinese sovereignty became an important element in the campaigns of the Nationalists and the Communists. A telling example is how the dance halls of Shanghai continued to remained open for business while the war with Japan was already heavily underway in the 1920s. This behaviour is symptomatic of the role that foreigners played in China: apathy to the plight of Chinese people as long as their own needs were met. Understanding the actions of foreign powers during this time allows for us to understand the grounds for Chinese nationalism and why it is so easily stoked against the rest of the world even today.

What is particularly poignant is the change in tide of Western public opinions about China during the war. In his chapter ‘China in the mind’, Bickers explores the narratives of China overseas: as a civilisation in decline, made all the more prevalent by racist portrayals and stereotypical beliefs. Art and culture, was used to break down Chinese legitimacy. The denigration of Chinese culture and the efforts of the Chinese government to push back are revelatory. This leads to a shift in portrayal leading to sympathy over the Japanese invasion.

Much of China’s diplomatic culture has also been shaped by negotiations during this period.

Indeed, the inability of the League of Nations to live up to its Wilsonian principles and more tellingly, its lack of will to adhere to them is striking, particularly when the Chinese placed their beliefs in the League’s idealism. For example, the handing over of the German concessions to Japan during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and then wilful indifference to treaties by foreign powers can explain China’s mistrust towards international institutions and its stress on understanding its national history. The death knell to the League was sounded when the Japanese, who were asked to return occupied Manchuria, chose to walk out.

The inability of the Guomindang government in resisting foreign powers from violating its sovereignty in the 1920 is just as apparent. It is not difficult to see the appeal of the Communist Party of China, particularly at this point in time when swathes of territory are controlled by Japan while other European powers seem to do little but placate. The Communist government, when it does come to power, uses this historical memory to expel more or less all foreign powers (and even the Russians after the Sino-Soviet split). This isolation of China was a result of internal suspicion of foreigners – a valid suspicion at that.

The narrative of reclaiming one’s rightful place a strong one. And China’s experiences with its foreign counterparts through the early part of the 19th century cements this narrative. What is remarkable about this book is that Bickers gives us a framework to understand China’s grievances against foreign powers and how they could influence its strategic and diplomatic culture today.

The mandate of the book is a little unclear particularly because it steers through such a complex period in history and this can slow down the first few chapters. While the book dwells much on British and American interests, it devotes far less to the USSR which played a particularly important role in the formation of the CCP. This is understandable since the author relied primarily on British and American sources for his research, however, a more in-depth Russian perspective could provide an additional perspective to the situation. That being said, the book is an exhaustive text: its list of citations will be of great use to any China watcher. The book ultimately provides an important framework to understand China’s historical memory and national consciousness.

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