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Studies of late-Qing political history call for broader global vision

WANG HUIYING | 2020-12-02 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The famous painting by John Platt shows representatives of the late-Qing and British governments during the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing, the first of the unequal treaties between China and foreign imperialist powers in modern times. In studies of late-Qing political history, negotiations over the unequal treaties should not be regarded as independent incidents. Photo: FILE 

Since reform and opening up, studies of late stage Qing Dynasty's (1644–1911) political changes have reached deeper levels of understanding political events, historic figures and systems, but the interplay between late-Qing politics and the international environment still hasn't been thoroughly examined. 

In modern times, Western powers interfered in China's internal affairs so deeply that they held great sway over Qing politics, leading to close relations between the late-Qing court's domestic and foreign policies. It is essential to expand the global vision of late-Qing political history research, giving full consideration to both the influence of the outside world and the counterforce of late-Qing politics on the outside world. 
This approach can not only offer new perspectives and important variables for probing political changes in the late-Qing era, but also help improve the antagonistic impression of the late-Qing court and the outside world caused by current research paradigms, place historical development in modern China within the broader research framework of world history, and represent historical facts which have usually been neglected.  
Research progress
Over the past seven decades, the late-Qing political history research scope has been widening. After the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, researchers conducted in-depth studies of major events and historic figures through the lens of the Chinese people's fight against imperialism and feudalism. Research was mostly based on Marxist historians' analysis of society and fundamental contradictions facing modern China, and a wealth of outcomes were published. 
After reform and opening up, scholars gradually broadened their perspectives about the late-Qing government and Western powers. Anthropological and sociological theories enriched studies of late-Qing political history, making the field more comprehensive and diversified. 
By elaborating upon existing historical documents and exploring new materials, scholars improved studies of major events and related individuals. By expanding research objects and perspectives, they deepened previous studies of the Qing government and Western powers, while opening up new research fronts. 
Research on the foreign presence and the political situation in the late Qing is mainly about specific China policies of such countries as Britain, France, America, Russia and Japan at critical historical junctures. New research methodologies have been introduced. Scholars have begun drawing upon methodologies from anthropology and ethnology, for example, to investigate the relationship between Manchus and Han Chinese in late-Qing politics, with the status of ethnic groups as a point of departure. 
The multi-dimensional and diversified development trends can help us fully understand political evolution in late-Qing times. However, there is still room to extend research on the role of Western powers. Since the aggression from the West in the Opium War, China had begun to interact with the outside world closely. Political changes at the time were not only driven by internal forces, but multiple global forces were also crucial. Therefore, in studies of late-Qing political history, equal weight should be given to domestic perspectives and global vision. 
Although existing studies observe one country's responses, or the actions of specific foreigners in China's internal affairs like the Hundred Days' Reform and the Opium-Banning Campaign, most studies focus on Western powers' performance in political events with direct Sino-foreign contact. Popular research topics include negotiations over unequal treaties following the two opium wars, the Sino-French War, the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 (War of Jiawu), the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 (Gengzi Incident). Many studies concentrate on the period after the War of Jiawu.
Studies of this kind have two problems. First, they focus mainly on key events, which can easily lead to the disconnection of research clues and the fragmentation of research. Second, the focus on how one single government (or individuals) responded to late-Qing politics will ignore multilateral relations among foreign imperialist powers and the impact of civil forces within countries on their governments. 
Continuous and consistent presence  
It should be noted that Western powers' response and presence in Chinese political events in the late-Qing period was continuous and consistent. Although responses varied from one country to another, muted responses to certain political events didn't mean that other countries were absent from China's politics at the time. Moreover, their responses were subject to multiple factors inside the country and from the forces of other countries. 
Take for example a series of foreign powers' responses to the Boxer Rebellion in the early 20th century. Their governments' judgments were based on diverse complicated factors. Some factors were long-term and historical, whereas some were short-term and instant. Factored into public responses were not only the countries' strategic planning in the Far East and intentions of expanding their presence in China, but also the opinions of their own nationals in China.
Foreigners' strong reactions in China during that period could be traced back to their panic about China’s hard stance against foreign religions in the mid-19th century. 
We cannot regard the negotiations over numerous unequal treaties signed between China and other countries in the late-Qing era as independent incidents. In the attempt to abolish the likin (a special tax paid by merchants and traders in mid-19th-century China) system in the early 20th century, for instance, the Western aggression would be over-simplified and biased if one only takes notice of the negotiations between China and Britain, or America and Japan over trading and shipping treaties after the Boxer Rebellion. 
To thoroughly interpret the matter, we must consider the divergence between British authorities and merchants when China and Britain were negotiating or amending similar treaties from 1868 to 1869; disputes among Western powers and inside each country about reparations and payments during the period of 1900-1901, the dissatisfaction of British and American merchants over the 1902 Sino-British Commercial Treaty (also known as the Mackay Treaty), and later Sino-American commercial negotiations. 
Only on this basis can researchers break away from the text of negotiation records to longitudinally understand the reasons and real purposes of Western powers' requirements and horizontally analyze their negotiation strategies, while fully recognizing the contradictions, cooperation and rivalry among British, American, and other governments, among their business communities, and between their own governments and business sectors.  
Generally, it is necessary to incorporate international relations into the research of political changes in the late-Qing Dynasty as a continuous and complicated variable. Efforts can be made in the following two aspects to solve existing problems and link clues to the international context of the whole late-Qing political history. 
First, academics can sequence major events involving China and foreign imperialist powers in the late-Qing era, with events happening in their own countries, in a chronological order, and place late-Qing politics in a world history framework for long-term and multidimensional observation and comparison. 
On this basis, it is important to fully examine associations and interactions between China and foreign powers, striving to reveal the international situation's impact on late-Qing politics, while exploring the counterforce of late-Qing political changes on international affairs and relations. 
In real-world research, scholars should also closely relate late-Qing politics to multilateral relations among China, Britain, America, France, Japan and Russia. Previous studies tended to discuss the imperialist nations' China policies separately when shedding light on the international background of a certain political event. 
We can go further to study how Western powers reacted to other countries' activities in China, sizing up the international situation in the Far East and even the world, and probing multilateral relationships among powers and interactions between their respective China policies. This approach is different from studies of Sino-foreign relations. Its discussion over international relations ultimately serves to deeply expound upon the late-Qing era’s complex political landscape. 
Going forward, with the awareness of the rivalry between the late-Qing and foreign governments, researchers should also take into account foreign countries' non-governmental groups. Currently, international relations studies of late-Qing political history are mostly confined to official contacts. 
However, at certain times, government attitudes and acts were simply temporary results from domestic debates. Taking action did not mean that the divided opinions had been unified. In fact, internal battles between various parties in each country remained ongoing, and government policies changed constantly. 
Thus, the study of non-governmental groups' attitudes towards and responses to late-Qing politics will help explain the root and development trends of foreign powers' China policies more comprehensively. 
In addition, although the contact between China and foreign countries is abstract, actual humans carried out the contact. Restricted by communication technologies in late-Qing times, how China and Western powers perceived each other was largely influenced by foreigners living in China. Their distortion of facts due to national, commercial, and missionary interests as well as considerations of personal and property safety should also be explored when researching the international context of late-Qing politics. 
Studies of late-Qing political history should include a long-term, multi-dimensional framework to elucidate political changes during the period in a connected and well-rounded fashion. While avoiding exaggerating and fabricating an association between the international background and late-Qing politics, it is vital to expand our global vision to connect late-Qing political changes with the international situation and forces. This will not only facilitate the study of China's role in the wider world during the late-Qing Dynasty, but also inject vitality into the study of late-Qing political history, adding richness and complexity to the historical course.  
Wang Huiying is an assistant research fellow from the Institute of Historical Theories at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.