J. L. Hevia: The Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China

English Lessons. The Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China

Hevia, James L.
387 S.
€ 21,50
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Thoralf Klein, Ostasiatische Geschichte, Universität Erfurt

In this sweeping study James Hevia takes a fresh look at Western, mostly notably British imperialism in China in Nineteenth Century, focusing on the cultural issues underlying imperialist diplomacy and military violence. Hevia disagrees with those scholars who treat the Western informal empire in China as a distinctive analytical category on the grounds that China was never formally colonized. Instead, he shows how closely imperialism in China was related to colonial projects elsewhere, the British rule over India serving as prime example. Hevia portrays colonialism as an ongoing process of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, the former term referring to the destruction of an established order, the latter to the establishment of a new order through a re-ordering of meanings and practices. At the same time, he attempts to de-reify the “West” as a known entity that need not be thoroughly analyzed by connecting developments at the colonial periphery and in the metropolis as well as incorporating the colonized peoples as active agents in the colonial process.

Hevia organizes his material into three sections. In Part I he describes the Arrow (or Second Opium) War of 1856 to 1860 as an event that deterritorialized China. After providing a straightforward account of events, he analyzes four factors contributing to that deterritorialization: commerce (especially opium), military technology, translation as an act of imposing unambiguous renderings on crucial Chinese terms, and finally the insistence on a form of diplomatic exchange based on mutual recognition of sovereignty. At the same time, a reordering of power relationships and the European’s right of physical presence in China marked a beginning reterritorialization. The establishment of a permanent British diplomatic representative at Peking was intended to demonstrate that in a world of sovereign nation-states, China had ceased to occupy a privileged place. By the same token, the Shanghai tariff conference of 1858 extended this lesson to the more mundane issues of commercial intercourse. Hevia then focuses on the multiple meanings of British and French looting of the imperial Summer Palace in 1860. The British commanders succeeded in channelling the temporary breakdown of order and discipline into a system of public auctions of booty that transformed Chinese objects into “curiosities” (as opposed to European works of art). At the same time, destruction was intended as a “solemn act of retribution” for the Chinese treatment of European captives and hence a lesson to the Chinese. Diplomatic protocol and loot remain leitmotifs of Hevia’s narrative.

Part II deals with the reterritorialization of China in the decades between 1861 and 1900. Hevia first focuses on the production of knowledge on China that resulted in the creation of what he calls the “imperial archive”. Linguists, cartographers, historians, sociologists, connoisseurs and others produced, organized and stored information on China, thereby developing a mechanism to exploit both human and material resources. This “archive” was based on a gross misreading of Chinese culture, yet shaped reality. It appropriated indigenous sources, turning them into a tool to be used against the Qing dynasty. The attempts to transform the imperial audience into a ceremony symbolizing European equality provide a case in point. In the following chapter, Hevia analyzes the changing role of the Qing empire in the era of new imperialism. The “scramble” for concessions and spheres of influence in the 1890s stemmed from the rapid transformation of the metropoles: technological advancement, national expansion and a changing perception of international commercial relations as most European states abandoned free trade and imposed protective duties to promote domestic industries. At the same time, Westerners began to remap the world according to racial categories. Although the Qing empire pursued an active policy especially in Central Asia throughout the 1870s and 1880s, it came be to viewed as decaying and moribund.

Part III, by far the longest section, focuses on the history and memory of the Boxer Uprising of 1900/01. In contrast to previous military engagements in China, the allied intervention was not only directed at the court, but at the entire population. A mixture of wanton aggression and calculated terror, physical assaults and symbolic warfare was intended both as retribution for the attacks on foreigners and as a lesson for the future. The extended media coverage, however, helped to undermine the moral universe of the Westerners. As reports of looting, massacres and executions reached the metropoles, critics denounced the “barbarism” of the allied troops. At the same time, the insurrection gave the West an unprecented opportunity to reterritorialize China. The peace settlement of 1901 provided for a definitive solution of the sovereignty issue by introducing new forms of diplomatic intercourse and an unequivocal interpretation of events laying the entire blame on China and demanding a formal apology. Spectacles such as the temporary opening of the Forbidden City to tourists and the new audience format contributed to the desacralization and transformation of the monarchy. Western memorial culture perpetuated the allied interpretation of the Boxer Uprising by portraying Westerners as victims and heroes. However, as Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels and the movie “55 days at Peking” indicate, from the 1920s onward the repressed Western fear of the Chinese returned. Early Chinese memory, on the other hand, focused on national humiliation at the hand of the foreigners. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, interpreted by the Chinese Communist Party as self-assertion of the Chinese people, a counter-narrative denouncing foreign developed, drawing liberally from the imperial archive and turning it into a powerful weapon against its former masters. The return of the memory of national humiliation of the 1990s, however, is an attempt to restore the moral clarity of the anti-imperialist past at a time when Chinese society is moving in the direction of (Western) capitalist culture.

As this brief overview indicates, Hevia manages to integrate a wide variety of themes, from physical violence to knowledge production, from diplomatic protocol to exhibitions to tourism, into a compelling narrative, drawing on rich archival and published material. In doing so, he sheds new light on the character of Western imperialism in China, which bore more similarities to formal colonialism than was previously acknowledged. Hevia also shows that the “West” that China encountered was a changing entity, continuously transformed by an interaction of processes in the metropoles and at the imperial periphery. But although he emphasizes the importance of the contact zone in producing Western notions of China, his image is somewhat one-sided. In his narrative, deterritorialization and reterritorialization are processes initiated and enforced by the foreigners. Contrary to Hevia’s opening remarks, he assigns to the Chinese the role of passive recipients who accept the lessons they are being taught. This downplaying of Chinese agency obscures the fact that the Chinese side exerted at least a minimum of influence on the rules imposed upon it. Especially at the local level, both officials and commoners often managed to impede Western influence, sometimes even making use of it for their own ends.

Moreover, Hevia’s powerful metaphors sometimes obscure the complexity of the processes they describe. A case in point is his repeated characterization of criticism of Allied atrocities during the suppression of the Boxer Uprising as a “wound” that had to be “sutured”. In fact, contemporary debates about the intervention in China were by no means a unified discourse; instead, support and criticism were often linked to powerful interest groups that instrumentalized events in China for their own political and social agendas.

Despite these shortcomings, Hevia presents us with a new understanding of Nineteenth-century imperialism in China. His conceptual shift from culture as but one ingredient of imperialism to a cultural reading of imperialism will no doubt inspire future research.

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