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Book Review: Out of China

By (September 11, 2017) No Comment

Out of China:

How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination

by Robert Bickers

Harvard University Press, 2017

University of Bristol history professor opens his stirringly effective new book Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination with a justification and disclaimer that’s almost impatient in its comprehensiveness: “what matters in China matters to us all.” And what matters to the China of the modern era, as he goes on to demonstrate at length (the book is 500 pages long, not one of them dull or digressive), is taking control of their military destiny, their economy, and their revanchist nationalism against successive incarnations of colonialism. “At the time of writing,” Bickers points out, “we are still less than twenty years on from a time when China still hosted two foreign-controlled colonies on its soil. This is still today’s story.”

The bulk of the book’s narrative concerns the parlous fate of those foreign presences, particularly the British, whose compounds – “concessions” – had been centers of imperialist power for over a century and mighty cynical about it, too; when the British were forcibly ejected from Shanghai, one official remarked “122 years without rent isn’t bad.” In this account, the fateful death-knell came in January 1927 in the wake of political turmoil in Hankou, when the British concession in Jiujiang was overtaken by a crowd and looted, forcing the British marine detachment to withdraw, which Bickers calls “in its understated way, a moment of great symbolic importance,” going on to elaborate: “For the first time in history, an outpost of European empire had fallen to its nationalist opponents, and it would never be retaken.” The line – and there are similar examples scattered throughout the text – supplies in dramatic fervor what it loses in pinpoint accuracy, since a careful scrutiny of the pre-1927 historical record just might turn up earlier examples of an outpost of European empire falling to its nationalist opponents. The Sepoy Mutiny comes to mind. And the Haitian Revolution. Also, the United States of America.

The aforementioned dramatic fervor is clearly intended to charge the narrative with urgency, and in this measure it works wonderfully; Bickers is fully invested in the moments of his long story of insurrection and piecemeal surrender, expertly tightening his focus to the personal and anecdotal in order to drive the point home. He could, for example, easily have glossed over the human dimension of the uprising that battered the British compound in Beijing in August of 1967, but instead he fills the moment with pathos:

The twenty-three British staff marooned inside the mission rapidly put an ‘Armageddon’ emergency plan into operation as the mob, shouting ‘Sha! Sha!’ – ‘Kill! Kill!’ – ran towards the building. But the staff were forced to evacuate their safe zone in the face of the assault and smoke from the fires that had been set. As they left they were seized, beaten and kicked. Many were forced to kneel and bow their heads for photographs, for their assailants had come equipped to record their humiliation.

But hovering over all the vast historical research of Out of China (the book’s notes run to nearly 100 pages) is the present day and its front-pages headlines. The narrative Bickers is attempting so energetically to solidify in his book is, as he rightly puts it, “too important to be left in the hands of the Chinese party-state,” since its sanctioned narrative is “partial, self-serving, and ultimately incendiary.” And the ‘incendiary’ part presents a wide-ranging threat:

A new nationalism in which angry demonstrators have been heard many times clamouring for war and for killing Japanese is pregnant with potential for calamity. But this is not a Japanese problem alone. No nation complicit in the degradation of China after the 1830s – which includes most European states as well as the United States – is ultimately secure. Being effectively equipped with the facts might help us understand the roots of that rage.

That “us” is unsettling – is Bickers not even hoping for a Chinese readership? No chance of a small, you’ll pardon the term, concession from the lovely Chongqing public library? – since it implies that the people most in need of reading Out of China won’t ever see it. But for Western readers interested in the growing issue of China in the modern world – and according to Bickers, that should be everybody – this is an important place to start.