Foreigners Within the Gates: The Legations at Peking
By Michael J Moser and Yeone Wei-Chih Moser
Published by Serindia Publications
Available at Asia Books and Kinokuniya Books, Bt2,795.
Reviewed by Manote Tripathi
The world may seem to be scrambling today for pieces of the China market, but Michael Moser points out that this reached fever pitch in the 19th century. This coffeetable book chronicles the rise and fall of the old Legation Quarter in Peking. At the heart of it is the West's struggle with China in the interest of free trade, the rule of law and Christianity.
The impact triggered a chain of events that would shape China's history: the Nanjing Treaty, the fall of the last dynasty, the loss of Hong Kong to Britain, the rise of the Chinese republic and the purge of foreigners. The scramble seems far from over.
Moser, a lawyer, lived in the 1980s in the old brick house that had been the Belgian First Secretary's residence. He gleans much of his information from primary diplomatic sources from the 1800s, with some attention given to the Chinese material too. The result is a minutely researched story of a longlost community.
China, with its ports, huge marketplace and abundant tea, silk and other products, became an obvious target for the imperial, mercantile and religious interests of the rival powers of Western Europe.
The European and American trade envoys were upset with the 1760 Canton System, which restricted their countries' trade activity to that southern port, and because of it remained at loggerheads for another century with China's last dynasty, the Manchu (Qing).
While Britain was the foremost military power on the planet, the Manchu emperors saw China as the centre of the universe - "richer, more powerful and culturally superior to all of its neighbours". The author asserts that China's sense of separateness was manifested by "the wall", beyond which were the barbarians who, in need of the emperor's protection, made annual visits to Peking bearing tribute.
Western envoys fared no better in terms of prestige. The emperors may have had Western art in their private collections, but the foreigners remained "devils" in their estimation.
The tribute system afforded the Westerners their only access to the Imperial Palace, but while they were ready to exchange gifts, they balked at kowtowing - laying prostrate and making nine knocks of the head on the floor - before the "Son of Heaven", the Emperor.
As a result, Britain's first envoy to the court of Emperor Qian Long, Lord Macartney in 1793, failed, as did Lord Amherst in 1816. Macartney found the emperor's claims hard to swallow: "Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance, and lacks no products within its own borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce."
Amherst said he would kowtow if a Chinese mandarin of an equal rank did the same before a portrait of the British Prince Regent. The Chinese ignored him.
But the kowtow was only a symbol. The real issue was trade, and the Europeans saw their chances of selling their wares to China diminishing.
As the workshop of the world, Britain saw free trade as more than an absence of protective tariffs. The implication was that the state should stand aside and let goods flow. Civilising China might improve its prospects, so rather than coal and iron, it exported to China Adam Smith's freemarket policies, John Stuart Mill's laissezfaire notions - and Christianity.
The Victorians tended to view even the Asians living in England with suspicion. Chinese Lascars in London were associated with filth and disease. "Never trust the Chinese," Henry Courtney Selous seemed to imply in his painting of the opening of the Great Exhibition in 1851. Seen sneaking into the midst of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Queen Victoria was an apparent Manchu representative.
If Victorian values gave England its economic and social progress (the plight of the working class notwithstanding), perhaps China would realise the benefits of adopting liberalism and an opendoor policy. But when the West pressed its demands and China resisted, Moser says, the West resorted to force.
The Opium War followed exactly this pattern. When push came to shove the initial result was the unequal Treaty of Nanjing of 1842, further enraging China with its offending concessions. Among other things, British nationals were given extraterritorial rights in China.
It took the Second Opium War - an AngloFrench conflict with China involving 41 warships and 16,000 soldiers - before the idea of Peking hosting a Legation Quarter was accepted. Eleven Western nations set up shop, and quickly demonstrated that freetrade diplomacy was all about wealth and nothing else. Life was "an endless round of balls, picnics and theatrics", Moser writes. The British Legation was known for the best dinner parties, the Italian for the elegance of its architecture. Moser reveals that a British envoy dressed in a dinner jacket even when dining alone.
The quarter was the antithesis of the "vile" local people beyond its boundaries and the city streets like "public latrines", all "indescribably filthy".
Soon the Imperial Court discouraged citizens from mingling with the foreigners, and the formidable mass of Chinese xenophobia surfaced. The 1900 Siege of the Legations by the secret society known as the Boxers revealed its true face.
That summer a series of grisly murders left 78 foreigners dead and 179 wounded. Missionaries were killed in the thousands, ostensibly because the steeples of their churches cast unwelcome shadows on the shrines below, disrupting the feng shui and causing misfortune.
Moser believes there was more to it than that. The ultraconservative government of the Empress Dowager, he writes, secretly supported the Boxers in their lethal effort to root out the foreign element, which was deemed a threat to the Dragon Throne.
Thanks to the moreadvanced firepower of an International Relief Force - a mix of mainly Japanese soldiers and Sikhs sent from British India - the quarter survived and carried on as an even more "exclusive" enclave.
That would finally come to an end when the Red Army took hold of Peking in 1948.
This book is an excellent read, with lots of rarely seen photos from the heyday of the legation community. Images of the shots of suspected Boxers being beheaded are toned down somewhat by views of a tranquil city that has all but disappeared under its current name.