China Conversations

Robert Bickers: “Look for China and You Will Find It”8 min read

Conversations on China writing with Jonathan Chatwin

In this new series, Jonathan Chatwin talks to Sinologists in the academy and beyond to learn more about their research process and how they meet the challenge of understanding the country and its history. For this, the first in the series, he spoke to Robert Bickers, Professor of History at the University of Bristol in England. Professor Bickers specializes in modern Chinese history, in particular the history of the British empire and its relations with China. His books include Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai (2013), The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 (2011), and most recently, Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination (2017), which we reviewed here.

Could you outline how your interest in China, and Chinese history, began?

The logical answer might be: I spent three years of my childhood living in Hong Kong, where my father was posted with the Royal Air Force to a helicopter squadron. I was just six when we arrived, but remember the first day vividly. But it’s not that. Applying to London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to study Mandarin just seemed like a good idea at the time. I might say specifically that it was a course on ‘Chinese Peasants and Revolution’ at SOAS, led by Charles Curwen, who had worked in China with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and stayed on in China until 1954. In London in the mid-1980s, Curwen was no less wrapped up in the Chinese revolution than he had been in China. But it’s probably not that course either. Again, it just seemed a good idea at the time when I applied to study for a doctorate in Chinese studies; there weren’t many people in that field in the UK then.

What drew you specifically to the stories of Western influence in China?

It did not seem to me that it was fully understood, and much of the potential archive was not well known. A thread running through my work is the argument that if we simply think that British relations with China, for example, were shaped in London by government, then we are missing most of the story. A second thread is the need to see the foreign presence in China as part of a global story of the movement of people, capital, ideas, technological change, and the exercise of imperial power and violence. In that sense, China is not special. My argument in Out of China takes this further: at the heart of China’s contemporary, troubling nationalism is a vision of its experience of “Western influence” in the 20th century. The role of the Chinese Communist Party within that needs to be understood, and the history – however much we can and should refute, nuance or challenge elements of this – is not going away.

Many Western accounts of China and the Chinese from the early 20th century are tainted by the prejudices of the age. How does this affect your approach to them as historical sources?

All historical sources are “tainted by the prejudices of the age,” and I work across quite different ages. So I treat them as any historian does, whether it’s from medieval Italy, ancien régime France, depression-era California, or treaty-port China.

Could you describe your research process? Is it research first, then writing, or do the two happen simultaneously? What does an average day look like?

Research itself is mostly a process of not finding things. It’s paging or scrolling through catalogues, waiting (lots of waiting) for documents to arrive, sending the wrong ones back, paging through files, getting your hands dirty (dust and grime), being told off by supervisors, sitting in uncomfortable chairs, being too hot or too cold (archives can be cold). It can also be straining your back as you photograph a thousand pages of documents in a day, straining your hands as you type out a thousand words because photography is not permitted, or straining your patience as you try to decide which ten pages of the file you will photocopy when there is a limit on pages per day (or files per day, or files per visit).

It is usually worth it. Most of what I write has been inspired by accidental encounters in the archive, sometimes in newspapers – the letter that you pass over but that lodges in the mind, so you turn back to it and start to follow the subject, writer, recipient or incident though the archive, through databases and libraries. Then comes the writing, but the writing is as much a research process as any other.

Which archive or library is most essential to your research?

Which one isn’t? There are traces of the Sino-foreign relationship to be found in almost any and every library or archive, even if it provides the faintest of trails. Look for China and you will find it, wherever and whenever you are. My current favorite find is the 1938 village show in the Wiltshire town of Trowbridge. The guest of honor – who crowned that year’s Carnival Queen, 17-year-old store cashier Cynthia Dobson – was Life and Death in Shanghai author Nien Cheng.

Research itself is mostly a process of not finding things

Which writers on Chinese history have had the most influence on your work?

In practical terms, John Fairbank, who was responsible in the mid-1930s for the rescue from destruction or decay of immense archives lodged in offices in China; he badgered the British Foreign Office to export historic archives from its consulates in China to Britain, and also persuaded [the British business conglomerate] Jardine Matheson to move its own huge archive from Hong Kong. Fairbank’s work on the records kept by Chinese Customs Service Inspector-General Sir Robert Hart has also been hugely influential.

Writers on Chinese history itself have not necessarily had the greatest influence on my work; my approach to writing and research has been shaped mostly by writers in other fields and outside history. I learn from everybody and everything I read. The book I’ve re-read most often is A. S. Byatt’s Possession. Its lesson is that ultimately the object sought is always going to be out of reach, but as historians we do what we can.

How much do restrictions on access to Chinese archives impact your research process?

Historians are used to working with an incomplete record. After all, archives are not created for us, and there are archives in Britain, for example, that are not accessible. It is frustrating to find once-open archives closed or effectively closed. The Number Two Historical Archives in Nanjing, and the Shanghai Municipal Archives are two I have barely scratched the surface of. They hold much that could enrich understandings of the complexities of the Sino-foreign encounter, and we all lose as a result.

What do you think are the challenges for younger writers approaching China and Chinese history today?

Right now: closed archives, which have meant projects have had to be suspended, abandoned, or entirely re-thought, and the closing of the official mind – the heightened politicization of academic life and work in China. But the biggest challenge is always going to be an obstacle that Fred Wakeman voiced at a workshop in London in 1995 of which I was rapporteur. He had just flown in from Taiwan, and talked about standing in the airport bookstore at Taichung noting the sheer volume of material emerging even then in memoir and biography magazines by writers in Taiwan, forming a near impossible challenge for historians of the republic.

What’s your next project?

I’m writing a history of the Swire Group, and will then bring to fruition a long-gestating work on a kidnapping in South China in 1932. I also have a quite different project on a family story encompassing Shanghai, Hong Kong and London’s East End, and then, well, wait and see. An archive will bring me something. They have a habit of providing gifts to those who sit, and wait, and wait. ∎

Further reading:

Header image: David Wong.


category: china conversation

short url: /robert-bickers

excerpt: first question and answer

Author: Jonathan Chatwin

Bio: Jonathan Chatwin’s travelogue <i>Long Peace Street: A Walk in Modern China</i> will be published in summer 2019. He holds a PhD in English Literature, and is author of <i>Anywhere Out of the World</i>, a literary biography of the traveller and writer Bruce Chatwin (a distant relation).