Cosmopolitan Colonialism7 min read

Jeremiah Jenne reviews Robert Bickers’ Out of China


In the summer of 1945, during the final months of World War II, a concert at the Grand Theater in Shanghai hosted a jazz symphony inspired by American composer George Gershwin, played by an orchestra founded by the British consisting of Chinese musicians as well as Russian and Western European Jewish refugees. The music was contemporary, with a boogie-woogie beat, performed in a modernist hall designed by a Hungarian architect. The principal vocalist was Li Xianglan, a famous singer born Yoshiko Yamaguchi to parents who had settled in Manchuria from Japan. Such an improbable mashup is a fitting tableau in Robert Bickers’ new book Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination.

A sequel to his 2013 book The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914, in Out of China Bickers picks up the story of foreigners and foreign influence in China from the end of the first World War through the wars and upheavals of the mid-20th century to the rise of a resurgent China – and a resurgent Chinese nationalism – in the post-reform era. The focus of the book is still the foreign presence in China, but this book is also about China’s search for national and individual dignity and the quest for a new national identity, one which is both fully modern and fully Chinese.

What shall we say about the imperialist enterprise in China? What name shall we call it? Writing a history of foreign influence in China is to court angels dancing on a pin. Bickers acquits himself well, noting that while “the foreign presence in China in the twentieth century had more than its fair share of bigotry, racism, violence, greed, or simple callous indifference,” in this story one also finds “collaboration, cohabitation, alliance and coalition … a world in which people in China incorporated into their lives all sorts of innovations that came from overseas, and equally made their own new culture, promiscuously mixing all sorts of foreign ingredients and indigenous ones too.”

This is bound to upset those who feel colonialism in all its forms represents an unrelenting evil perpetrated by Western civilizations against the rest of the world. Statues of colonialists come down. Consciousness gets woke. In an age where so many conflicts have their roots in the policies and decisions made by former imperial powers, it is easy to see why anyone suggesting that imperialism also came with benefits does so at the risk of being slapped with the label of apologist or worse.

Bickers argues that China in the early 20th century faced a no-win proposition. Many Western observers believed China to be a degraded culture, but that wasn’t always the case. 18th-century views of China in Europe were often quite positive, although many of those ideas were held by people with a limited connection or direct contact with China. But as trade with China grew, “Sinophilia was dislodged by Sino-scepticism, and then replaced with simple contempt.” The foreign powers created a new language which rewrote China as archaic and stagnant, in need of outside direction – by force, if gentle persuasion would not suffice – that historian James Hevia has termed “the pedagogy of imperialism.”

In 1926, an unfortunate book entitled What’s Wrong With China (Bickers encourages us to note the absence of a question mark) argued, among other things:

“Chinese poetry is sentimental moonshine … Chinese canonical philosophy is stuffy and ponderous, revealing at every turn a childish ignorance of first principles … Chinese history is rambling, ill assembled, ill presented and often prejudiced, while Confucian ethics as expressed in the classics are either childish platitudes or arbitrary rules based upon traditional prejudices.”

What is unsettling is the extent to which Chinese internalized this discourse. The web of criticisms of Chinese civilization and the Chinese as a race was rewoven into a blueprint for modernity. But even that wouldn’t be enough. As Bickers notes, this new modern cosmopolitan Chinese identity was criticized for being a “mongrel, and lacking roots in either world.” One hears not so faint echoes of this rhetorical cul-de-sac in writings on China even today.

While Bickers’ book does not allow foreign powers to elude their complicity in the legacies of imperialism, neither is he willing to cede the moral high ground to the Chinese Communist Party. “The Chinese Communist Party holds no monopoly of nationalistic virtue, and it was itself complicit in the continued degradation of Chinese sovereignty in the 1950s. … The China dream is grounded in this story of an unrelenting Chinese nightmare. We need to acknowledge that, and understand it, but we do not need to believe it.”

Bickers discusses at length the national resurgence of China and the resurgence of nationalism in China. This is well-worn territory, and Bickers’ narrative of how the Party uses memories of humiliation, invasion and degradation as a bulwark for its legitimacy owes much to the work of Peter Hays Gries (China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy) and especially William Callahan (China: The Pessoptimist Nation).

Although Bickers is at pains to note that, “This world did not cease to exist on 1 October 1949 with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China,” it does feel as though the tone of this book changes slightly after the Communists take over. The first half of this book, and the entirety of The Scramble for China, was explicitly about foreigners in China, and most foreigners left the country – not always of their own volition – after the founding of the PRC.

Yet there were foreigners inside China even during the darkest decades of the Mao era. Bickers teases out their stories, but they appear mostly as peripheral characters as the narrative shifts from foreign presence to foreign policy. Bickers notes that there were small pockets of foreigners in Tianjin and Beijing as well as in Shanghai. Apart from their persecution during the political campaigns of the Mao years, we read little about their daily lives and personal accounts.

It is odd that we learn plenty about Glenn Cowan, who spent only a few weeks – pivotal though they were – in China playing ping pong in 1971, but nothing of Robert F. Williams, the American civil rights leader and author who lived in Beijing from 1965 to 1969 and who may have also played an essential role in providing background information to the US government looking for a way to re-establish relations with the PRC. There was also, of course, the thorn of British and Portuguese colonies in Hong Kong and Macau in the post-1949 era.

Despite the handover in 1997, Hong Kong today perhaps best represents the kind of cosmopolitan shared identity described by Bickers. Little wonder that Hong Kong remains a contested space. In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, economist Yi-Zheng Lian wonders, “Is Hong Kong really part of China?” His argument is mostly about China’s historical control and sovereignty – always unstable foundations upon which to build a territorial claim.

But viewed through the prism of Bickers’ book, what would Hong Kong look like today if it had never been a colony? Would it be Hong Kong as we know it today, or would it be like any number of provincial cities along China’s southeastern coasts? A hillier version of Haikou in Hainan island, perhaps? Bickers might argue it is the merging of two cultures – whatever the violent circumstances of that union – that makes Hong Kong exceptional. Whether such an argument is an apologia or an affirmation suggests that the issues raised by Out of China will not be leaving us anytime soon. ∎


Robert Bickers, Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination (Allen Lane, March 2017).
Header image: Capture of Long San by the French army in the Sino-French war of 1885, from Wikimedia Commons.