Book review: Breaking with the past: the maritime customs service and the global origins of modernity in China

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Book Review

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Breaking with the Past: The Maritime Customs Service and the Global Origins of Modernity in China by Hans van de Ven does indeed break with the past. It breaks with past approaches to modern Chinese history. It breaks with scholarship that neatly compartmentalizes Chinese, British Imperial and Treaty Port history. Instead, it offers an interconnected narrative that addresses the big present-day questions about the origins of China’s new position as a global power. This is answered through a long overdue reinterpretation of the significance of the often overlooked foreign-led state agency, the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (1854–1949).

The book comprises seven chapters, together with an introduction and an epilogue. The introduction explains the significance of the Customs Service as a middle house for Chinese and foreign contact. The author states that the “aim of this study is to write the Customs Service back into the history of modern China and modern globalisation and so, more generally, to bring the foreign back” (5). Its approach to modernity attempts to be alert to its patchwork nature, to its improvisational aspects, and to the fact that what we might see as typically European or Chinese, in reality came about as the two met. He states his argument that the Customs Service was a chameleon because of the hybrid quality personnel it employed. As a “frontier regime” it gave commercial opportunities for advancement not just to reputable merchants, but also to adventurers, arms dealers, speculators, mercenaries, and sailors.

This book does really break with the past. This break is most noticeable in the author’s treatment of John King Fairbank’s notion of “synarchy.” While acknowledging Fairbank’s status in the historiography of this period, van de Ven does nonetheless revise the overly Orientalist and imperialist perspective that Fairbank had on Chinese history. He writes, Fairbank was naïve about the political context in which the Customs Service operated and did not do what is an imperative for historians: follow the money. He failed to pay sufficient attention to conflicts among foreigners as well as between Chinese officials and Manchu aristocrats. Nor was he sufficiently alert to China’s long history of commercialisation and overseas trade, or of the fact that its officials and merchants often collaborated or that the weak, too, often have some sort of power...

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Pacific Affairs

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