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Robert Nield, China’s Foreign Places: The Foreign Presence in China in the Treaty Port Era, 1840–1943

Hong Kong: HKU Press, 2015
Cole Roskam

Entrées d’index

Indice de palabras clave :

urbanismo, imperialismo, capitalismo, puertos de tratado

Index géographique :

Asie, Asie de l’Est, Chine

Index chronologique :

XIXe siècle, XXe siècle
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Texte intégral

1Robert Nield, China’s Foreign Places: The Foreign Presence in China in the Treaty Port Era, 1840–1943, Hong Kong: HKU Press, 2015

2Robert Nield’s China’s Foreign Places: The Foreign Presence in China in the Treaty Port Era, 1840–1943 offers timely perspective on the architectural and urban dimensions of China’s international relations over the course of the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. The period in question is generally understood to have been first catalyzed by the Opium War (1839–1842) and the opening of five of Qing China’s most active ports to European trade. In calling attention to the wide range of places produced through these initial efforts, and the distinctive ways in which these places operated, Nield broadens our understanding of the multiple forms of imperialism and capitalism at work within late Qing and Republican China.

3Foreign efforts to pry China open to international trade had distinctive spatial dimensions, and as the author reminds readers in his introduction, these spaces took a variety of administrative forms, including colonies, treaty ports, open cities, naval bases, as well as consular, customs, and hill stations―by Nield’s count, over 250 places by 1943. The book itself highlights seventy-nine of these places, each of which is alphabetically organized based on the place’s name (the author helpfully notes the spelling disparities that have arisen through the supersession of methods of Chinese language transliteration over time). Details are provided concerning each site’s geographic coordinates, the dates of each site’s establishment and subsequent development, and the imperial contours at work in its reconfiguration. Readers are also introduced to the tangle of commercial and geopolitical networks coursing through China and the flows of information, goods, and people that moved along them.

4Nield pays particular attention to the rich variance in terminology used to categorize and re-categorize these spaces over time, and the ways in which each foreign power with a commercial interest in China―Great Britain, France, the United States, Japan, Germany, and Russia, among others—used such discrepancy to assert greater pressure and control over the Qing empire (1644–1911) and the Republic of China (1912–1949). The complex legal infrastructures imposed upon China during this time period are also discussed and include jurisdictional principles of extraterritoriality, tax regulation, as well as import and export duties. European powers insisted upon these regulations on the grounds that China adheres to a more universally accepted, Eurocentric rule of law, and Nield rightfully suggests they complemented the equally dramatic physical reorganization taking place.

5The book’s encyclopaedic breadth is both its strength as well as its major weakness. Nield’s impressive research does not cohere into an argument apart from the recognition that these spaces existed, and that they demonstrated unusual geographic and scalar heterogeneity. Little effort has been made to connect the complex constellation of places conceptually through specific linkages of objects, people, or materials, or to draw conclusions based on recurrences of particular technologies or political agents in different places over time. Steam ships, railroads, and telegraphs appear and reappear as important and periodic agents of change and connectivity in the production of these networks, but little analysis is offered concerning the social and cultural changes effected by the compressions of space and time produced by these technologies. The circulation of figures such as British Admiral of the Fleet James Hope (1808–1881) or lifelong British diplomat Sir Rutherford Alcock (1809–1897) throughout multiple ports and stations, too, is treated as coincidental rather than consequential to the existence of these places. Well-known sites, including Amoy, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tianjin, are emphasized at the expense of others, such as Aihun or Jiangmen. This imbalance seems to derive from the different scales of commercial operations at some of these sites, the varying durations of time during which each place operated, as well as the availability of primary and secondary source material.

6In many ways, the book is more useful as a historical and geographical reference rather than as a work of architectural or urban analysis. Nield’s research makes it clear that the demarcation and governance of space proved an active instrument in asserting power in China, but the author does not provide information concerning how these spaces were actually designed or planned. Architects, civil engineers, and urban planners receive little scholarly attention despite a range of previous scholarship completed by Jeffrey W. Cody, Wu Jiang, Edward Denison, and Guang Yu Ren, among many others, on the active role played by architects and builders in the construction of Chinese treaty ports. The book includes images of architecture, but these are not discussed as objects of scholarly investigation.

7Despite these limitations, China’s Foreign Places effectively expands a topic of inquiry that has been historically limited to a handful of well-known sites along the Chinese coast into a complex geography of capitalism that extended from Taiwan to Tibet. The book provides a valuable reference guide for the further study of space, capitalism, and extraterritorial governance in China, and the wide body of evidence collected here will be of interest to both scholars as well as casual readers. For historians of architecture and the built environment, the book’s particular appeal lies in its taxonomic focus on the physical spaces in which foreign commercial and political engagement with China took place. More generally, the book provides valuable context to issues of territorial sovereignty and the modern Chinese nation state, particularly given ongoing controversy over the geographic and legal parameters of the People’s Republic of China today.

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Référence électronique

Cole Roskam, « Robert Nield, China’s Foreign Places: The Foreign Presence in China in the Treaty Port Era, 1840–1943 », ABE Journal [En ligne], 9-10 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 janvier 2017, consulté le 20 mai 2018. URL :

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Cole Roskam

Assistant Professor, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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