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date: 26 March 2019

Treaty Ports and the Foreign Community in Modern China

Summary and Keywords

Unlike other parts of the non-European world, China was never fully colonized by the Western imperial powers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Instead, the Western powers built up a network of open ports, where foreigners could reside and trade under the protective shield of consular jurisdiction and gunboat diplomacy. Even though the treaty ports arguably played a limited role in transforming China’s domestic economy, they became emblematic of China’s and East Asia’s encounter with capitalist modernity, and they left an indelible legacy on Chinese domestic politics and foreign relations. With the notable exception of Beijing and some other cities, most major urban areas in China today are former treaty ports and many of them were the first to open for trade when the People’s Republic of China embarked on economic reform in 1978.

Keywords: treaty ports, Chinese history, imperialism, modernization, economic history of China

Historical Background

The early Qing Empire (1644–1912) did not possess a single set of foreign relations or any system of foreign trade that was directly comparable to the state system that emerged in Europe after the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648. The Board of Rites (Libu in Chinese) managed the hierarchal relations with the tributary states that the Qing Empire had inherited from the previous Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and did not make any formal distinction between foreign relations and foreign trade, which were regarded as privileges that the emperor had granted to foreigners that could be withdrawn at the pleasure of the throne. The territories that had been conquered by the Qing were managed through the Board of Colonial Affairs (Lifanyuan), which was mainly run by Manchu and Mongol officials. At the southern edge of Guangdong province, the Portuguese Empire managed to maintain a small settlement in Macau, which monopolized western European trade with China from the mid-16th through the mid-18th century. In the years 1689–1727, the Russian Empire had been able to establish its own set of relations with the Qing that largely fell outside of tributary protocol and enabled the Russians to carry out caravan trade through the border town of Kiakhta. Russia also maintained an ecclesiastical mission in Beijing, which functioned as an unofficial legation and a language school for Russian orientalists.

Following the conquest of Taiwan and the reopening of coastal trade in the 1680s, western European merchants were able to trade in the major port cities of south east China, such as Ningbo, Fuzhou, Xiamen, and Guangzhou, but by 1758 the Qianlong emperor restricted all trade with the European East India Companies (EIC) to the southern port of Guangzhou, which was also known as “Canton” at the time. Western European merchants were only permitted to trade with government-designated the Chinese firms, known as hong or hang, and they were only allowed to reside in Guangzhou during the trading season, while they had to spend the winter in Macau. Following the expansion of trade between China and the world in the 18th century, Western dissatisfaction with the restrictions of the existing “Canton System of Trade” grew as China exported more than it imported, leading to a net inflow of silver into the Chinese economy. Responding to this, Britain sent two diplomatic missions to the Qing court in 1793 and 1816 to renegotiate the existing framework and attain more equal relations. Sharply divergent views on whether foreign merchants should be subject to local jurisdiction led to a number of clashes between Western merchants and Qing officials.

By the first decades of the 19th century, the old Canton System of trade had already grown out of the old framework.1 Most of the trade was carried out by private agents, and the major import commodity was the contraband item of opium, which private merchants smuggled from British India, despite several attempts by the Qing government to ban the trade. The importation of opium not only had deleterious effects on public health but also led to an increased outflow of silver from China, which worsened an already bad domestic economic situation. When the Daoguang Emperor (r. 1820–1850) granted a special commission to the prominent trouble-shooting official Lin Zexu (1785–1851) to stamp out the opium trade and to confiscate the opium of British opium merchants, the British superintendent of trade in Guangzhou, Charles Elliot, used Lin’s stern measures as an opportunity to declare war on the Qing Empire, which was subsequently sanctioned by the British government in London. The war, which has gone down in history as the “First Opium War” (1839–1842), was more a series of maritime clashes along China’s southern and eastern coasts, and it ended with a decisive tactical victory for the British Empire, as the imperial government sued for peace in the summer of 1842.

The Opening of the Treaty Ports

On August 29 of the same year, representatives from the British and the Qing Empires signed a peace accord aboard the British man-of-war HMS Cornwallis, moored just outside of Nanjing. The “Treaty of Nanking” ended hostilities between the two empires, provided for the exchange of prisoners of war, granted Britain an indemnity of 21 million silver dollars for the cost of war and the loss of opium, and ceded the southern island of Hong Kong to the British crown “in perpetuity.” As regards trade, the treaty abolished the old Canton System of trade and opened four new ports to trade Fuzhou (Foochow), Xiamen (Amoy), Ningbo (Ningpo), and Shanghai, where British merchants could reside and trade freely, only subject to a fixed tariff of 5 percent ad valorem.2 Curiously, the treaty remained silent on the legality of the opium trade, which remained brisk in the wake of the Sino-British conflict.

In October 1843, the British and Qing Empires concluded the supplementary “Treaty of the Bogue,” which regulated trade and formally granted British subjects in the treaty ports consular jurisdiction, as well as most favored nation treatment to Britain, which meant that Britain would enjoy any of the privileges granted to other foreign nations. In the following years, the Qing Empire concluded similar treaties with France, the United States, Sweden-Norway, and the Russian Empire, which extended these privileges to these countries and their citizens. The Russian Empire gained the right to trade with China in the inner Asian cities of Yining (Kulja) and Tacheng (Tarbagatai), which thus became “treaty ports” in the existing caravan trade. The French envoy managed to convince his Manchu counterpart to lift the imperial prohibition on Christianity, which was the first step toward the resumption of large-scale Christian missions in China. These commercial treaties and their successors are often referred to as “unequal treaties” (bu pingdeng tiaoyue) in the historiography on modern China, due to the asymmetric nature of the arrangements.

The original treaties merely stated that foreign merchants and their families could reside and trade in the five ports open for trade, which left ample room for local arrangements and divergent interpretations of the agreements. In Guangzhou, British merchants insisted that they had the right to reside inside the city walls, but the local authorities and a hostile local population took a determined stand to prevent foreigners from settling in the city of Guangzhou, which led to a protracted stand-off. In order to forestall similar hostilities in Shanghai, the resident British consul obtained permission from the circuit intendant (daotai) that Britons be allowed to purchase and own land in a separate area north of the Chinese city of Shanghai, and in 1845 the two parties formalized the establishment of the British settlement by adopting a set of “Land Regulations.” Four years later, the French consul in Shanghai secured a similar authorization to establish a “concession” for French merchants in the area between the Chinese city and the British settlement. In response to these moves, the US consul to Shanghai also established an unofficial American settlement northeast of the British one.

The relations between the small foreign communities in the five treaty ports and the Qing authorities remained strained, and contrary to Western hopes that the commercial treaties would open vast Chinese markets for European manufactures, China’s foreign trade remained modest, and opium, which was still technically illegal, remained the major import commodity in the decades after the first Opium War. The foreign merchant community held the view that political barriers prevented Western goods from further penetrating the Chinese markets, but as early as 1852, a British official in Hong Kong pointed out in a report to his government that the Chinese market remained largely self-sufficient and there was little domestic demand for foreign merchandise, except opium.3 As the treaties were due to be renegotiated in the 1850s, the British merchant community asked that the British government negotiate a more favorable treaty with China, and in 1856, two diplomatic incidents gave Britain and France a pretext to declare war on the Qing Empire. Just like the first Opium War, the second Opium War was a series of skirmishes that lasted for four years, and the conflict culminated in an Anglo-French invasion and occupation of Beijing, which almost caused the collapse of the embattled Qing dynasty, as it was busy fighting several domestic rebellions at the time. The Xianfeng Emperor (r. 1850–1861) was forced to flee to Manchuria, leaving behind his half-brother Prince Gong (1833–1898) to negotiate another round of treaties, which further expanded and consolidated the system of treaty ports.

Under the Treaties of Tianjin (1858) and the subsequent Convention of Beijing (1860), another series of treaty ports were opened for trade in both southern and northern China, as well as along the Yangtze River, which opened China’s central artery to foreign navigation and trade. These new treaty ports included, from north to south, Yingkou (Newchwang), Yantai (Chefoo), Zhenjiang (Chinkiang), Jiujiang (Kiukiang), Hankou (Hankow), Nanjing (Nanking), and Shantou (Swatow). Three ports in Taiwan were also opened, namely Danshui (Tamshui), Qiongshan (Kiungchow), and Gaoxiong (Takow). Under the new arrangements, foreign merchants were permitted to travel to the interior of China on passports, but they were not allowed to take up permanent residence, whereas foreign missionaries were allowed reclaim confiscated church properties and to reside in the interior of China. Opium was also indirectly legalized by making it a taxable commodity subject to a newly revised tariff convention in 1857. Although neither Russia nor the United States was a belligerent nation, they concluded similar treaties with China, and Russia forced the Qing dynasty to formally cede parts of northern Manchuria, which brought northeastern China under Russian influence. The United States also took the opportunity to force the Japanese shogunate to open four treaty ports in Yokohama, Nagasaki, Hyōgo, and Niigata, which were closely linked to the Chinese treaty ports through commerce and migration. Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Prussia, and Spain, also negotiated separate treaties on the Anglo-French model, joining the club of treaty powers. Korea and Japan were connected to the Qing Empire through more symmetric arrangements for most of the 19th century. In the decades that followed the two Opium Wars, several new treaty ports were opened by the imperial government, or as a product of military confrontations.

By the first decade of the 20th century, there were a total of ninety-two treaty ports, open ports, and “ports of call,” of which sixty-nine were formal treaty ports.4 With the notable exception of Qingdao (Tsingtao), almost all treaty ports sprung up near existing centers of trade and administration.5 In contrast to the British and Portuguese colonies of Hong Kong and Macau, respectively, the treaty ports remained under formal Chinese sovereignty and were never regulated or coordinated by a single authority, as each treaty power exercised jurisdiction over its own citizens residing in the treaty ports. Each treaty port was organized differently in response to local circumstances; some treaty ports had common settlements for foreigners, such as Shanghai, Xiamen, and Nanjing, or did not have any clearly designated area for foreign residents at all, like Fuzhou and Ningbo. Other treaty ports were divided into several separate settlements, such as Tianjin, which had eight foreign settlements at its most, and the Yangtze port of Hankou, which had five settlements.

The Central Role of Shanghai

Already in the 1850s, Shanghai emerged as the economically and institutionally most significant treaty port, both because of its strategic position in the Yangtze River delta and because of contingent political events, such as the Small Swords Rebellion (1853) and the much larger Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864), which led to a temporary collapse of Qing authority in the area around Shanghai and to a massive influx of Chinese refugees into the foreign concessions. This changed the demographic structure of the foreign settlements, which were originally intended for foreigners only, and created a permanent Chinese majority. In response to these new circumstances, the British and US consuls adopted a new set of land regulations for their settlement, which had merged a couple of years earlier to form the “International Settlement,” whereas the French consul took steps to maintain French authority over the concession through a different set of regulations. Although the International Settlement was dominated by Britain and the United States, several European countries were important stakeholders in the settlement and often sent their citizens to staff its agencies. The International Settlement and the French Concession would subsequently expand at the expense of Chinese landowners in the area and the two settlements would reach their largest extent in 1915.

The central governing authority of the International Settlement of Shanghai was the Municipal Council (Gongbuju), which was appointed by the foreign taxpayers, but excluded the Chinese majority from any representation. Originally founded to maintain the roads and jetties of the settlement, the Municipal Council gradually established many important functions and organized its own multinational police force, which maintained law and order in the settlement. At the same time, the Municipal Council only exercised administrative authority in the International Settlement, as most foreign residents remained subject to the legal authority of their consular courts in Shanghai, where all criminal and civil suits had to be tried. In order to exercise full legal authority over its citizens in China, Britain established its own Supreme Court in Shanghai in 1865, but most consular courts remained small and were staffed with honorary consuls, recruited in the merchant community, which sometimes created complicated conflicts of interest. In order to try Chinese residents of the International Settlement as well as foreigners who were not subject to any consular authority, the British consul and the Circuit Intendant of Shanghai established Mixed Court in 1864–1867, where a Chinese judge and a foreign assessor jointly tried Chinese defendants and foreigners who were not under the protection of consular jurisdiction. The Mixed Court quickly became one of the most important, and controversial, legal institutions in Shanghai. The French Concession also set up its own Mixed Court, as did the international settlements of Hankou and Xiamen around the turn of the century. Taken together, all these arrangements created a complex web of overlapping and sometimes mutual contradictory legal orders, which provided both foreign residents and entrepreneurial Chinese with ample opportunities for court shopping and evasion of justice.6

Another consequence of the temporary collapse of Qing sovereignty in the Yangtze River Delta was that the foreign consuls took upon themselves to collect customs on foreign trade on behalf of the imperial government. They did so both to protect the commercial treaties and to forestall demands from the merchant community to make Shanghai, and possibly other treaty ports, into permanent colonies. As the imperial government was restoring its authority over China in the early 1860s, it granted its official approval to this institution, which became known as the Imperial Maritime Customs (Haiguan zong shuiwusi, IMC) and was charged with collecting custom fees in all of the ports and cities open for foreign trade. Although the IMC was headquartered in Beijing and remained formally an agency of the Qing government, it was almost entirely managed and staffed by foreigners, mostly Britons. The second inspector general of the IMC, Sir Robert Hart, served from 1863 through 1911 and became an important mediator in the troubled relationship between the Qing government and the Treaty Powers. The IMC turned out to become one of the most well-run government agencies in China and maintained offices in forty-seven of the sixty-nine ports officially opened for trade by 1926.7 It played an important role raising funds for the imperial government, but also serviced the foreign debt that the Qing government accumulated through repeated military conflicts with the Treaty Powers. Furthermore, the Maritime Customs carried out statistical surveys, managed China’s waterways, and operated lighthouses.8

Another offshoot of the IMC was the Imperial Post Office, which was established in 1896 to supplant the many different native and foreign run postal services that had operated in the Qing Empire, a process that took several decades to complete. The Imperial Post Office became a full member of the Universal Postal Union, pioneering China’s participation in international organizations at the turn of the century. The Post Office delivered mail to all corners of the empire and it also issued the popular Postal Atlas of China, which created a widely accepted standardization of Romanized Chinese place names, many of which were in use until the late 1970s, such as “Amoy” for Xiamen, “Swatow” for Shantou, and “Peking” for Beijing.9

The Treaty Port Communities and Institutions

For most of the 19th century, the British community was the dominant foreign community in the treaty ports, followed by Americans, French, Germans, Russians, and Japanese. The foreign communities were socially stratified and were dominated by men, many of whom were unable to find marriage partners because of the prohibitive costs of maintaining a family and the social stigma of marrying a local woman. The center of the social life in the treaty ports were nationally organized men’s clubs, which ensured that social, ethnic, gender, and racial hierarchies were maintained, the most prestigious of which was the British Shanghai Club. Most major treaty ports maintained race courses and other sports arenas, which emerged as important centers of social interaction in the foreign community. As many of these institutions systematically excluded Chinese, such as the Shanghai Public Garden, they also became emblematic of the racism that permeated the treaty ports.10 The foreign communities also included subjects from the major colonies in Asia, such as British India, the British Malays, the Philippines, and French Indochina, who were formally protected by extraterritorial jurisdiction, but occupied a low social position in the treaty ports and often staffed the lower rungs of the police forces of the settlements, such as Punjabi Sikhs in the police force of the Shanghai International Settlement and Vietnamese in the French Concession.

The Chinese population was by far the most dominant element in the diverse populations of the treaty ports and played a very important role in almost all spheres of life, especially in the business world, where Chinese middlemen or compradors (maiban) acted as mediators and brokers between foreign businessmen and their Chinese counterparts. The Chinese communities came from many different corners of the Qing Empire and often spoke mutually unintelligible dialects, so many Chinese residents of the treaty ports were organized into native place organizations (huiguan or gongsuo), which had ties that cut across both provincial and national boundaries. Some of the most dominant Chinese communities were those from Guangdong, Zhejiang, Fujian, and Jiangsu provinces, each of which hosted several treaty ports. The native place associations provided for the welfare of its members, mediated in business disputes, and were important stakeholders in the economic life of the treaty ports. They were often able to exert a significant political influence on treaty ports institutions from which the Chinese residents were systematically excluded.

Hoping to tap into the large Chinese market, many foreign firms established branches in the major treaty ports, but the treaty ports never quite lived up to the hopes of Western merchants, and local operators were often able to compete successfully against foreign companies. On the other hand, the treaty ports connected China to the world economy and created an important infrastructure for transportation and trade within China itself, as a number of shipping firms connected the treaty ports in a vast network that continuously expanded.11 These developments changed the patterns of trade and public investment to the detriment of the vast Chinese hinterland.12 The once lucrative caravan trade through Mongolia and northern China declined in favor of coastal trade, and the flourishing Shanxi banking industry had to relocate to the treaty ports.

The treaty ports became an important window to the world, not only to the local Chinese population, but also to Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese visitors, who were able to experience Western modernity firsthand without having to cross an ocean. When the Qing government initiated an ambitious program of military modernization in the 1860s, most of the arsenals and wharves were located in close proximity to treaty ports. The treaty ports exposed Chinese society to modern medicine, public sanitation, communications, public transportation, shipping, law enforcement, religion, finance, and education. In the 1870s, the Danish-operated Great Northern Telegraph Company started to install telegraph cables that would connect China to Hong Kong, Nagasaki, and later London. The first attempt to build a railway in China was made in Shanghai in 1876–1877, but it foundered on opposition from local elites, which prompted the Qing government to purchase the railway track and tear it up. In 1879, Saint John’s University was founded by American missionaries in Shanghai, and in 1903 French Jesuits founded the Aurora University, both of which are predecessors of contemporary universities in the city. The treaty ports also became important centers of religious activity, and most Christian denominations had a presence there. Because of its long presence in East Asia, the Catholic Church enjoyed an early advantage, but the founding of the China Inland Mission in 1865 paved the way for large-scale protestant missionary activity in the treaty ports and beyond.

Perhaps one of the most consequential platforms of treaty port modernity was publishing, and Shanghai early emerged as the center of the modern press in China, where the otherwise marginal Macanese community often played a crucial role in the printing industry. In 1850, Shanghai’s most long-lived newspaper, the weekly North China Herald, was first published, and in 1864 its daily edition, North China Daily News, appeared, which would become the flagship English-language press of the treaty ports and have a vast readership. The presence of extraterritoriality made it possible to circumvent official censorship, and in 1876 a Scottish businessman launched Shenbao, also known as Shun Pao, which would dominate the Chinese language press for almost a century.

Late-19th-Century Transformations

Until the 1890s, the major treaty powers were held together by a sense of solidarity in their relations towards the Chinese government, and they often consulted with each other prior to taking any diplomatic initiatives that would influence the treaty port system. This consensus was broken when Japan defeated the Qing Empire in the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895 and not only became a treaty power in its own right, but also acquired the islands of Taiwan and the Pescadores as well as opening China for foreign manufacturing in the treaty ports. The opening of China to territorial imperialism led to a scramble for concessions by the other treaty powers, dividing China into spheres of influence, where the dominant power obtained a pre-eminent position in the acquisition of mining rights, manufacturing, and the opening of railways. In this process, Russia emerged as a strategic competitor of Japan, connecting the Trans-Siberian Railway to a number of newly opened railways crisscrossing Manchuria, where many railways junctions emerged as extraterritorial nodes of Russian imperial power. Japan, for its part, penetrated the Korean peninsula, becoming the dominant power in the area. The rivalry between Russia and Japan came to a head in 1904–1905, when Japan, having secured an alliance with Britain, narrowly defeated Russia in a war that was mainly fought in Korea and Manchuria. Japan’s victory as the dominant territorial power in China spelled the end of Korea as an independent nation and diminished the relevance of the treaty ports as agents of change, not least since all treaty ports in Japan and Korea had disappeared by the first decade of the 20th century. Another consequence of Japan’s victory in the war against China was that the Japanese community quickly became the most dominant community in the treaty ports.

At the end of the Qing dynasty, the treaty ports became important staging grounds for political events. When the Boxer War started in 1900, provincial governors in eastern and southern China made sure that the treaty ports and the foreign communities would be unharmed by hostilities in the north. When the ailing Qing court was forced to sign the humiliating Boxer Convention with the eight major treaty powers, it had to allow the stationing of permanent foreign troops to protect the treaty ports, and the Legation Quarter in Beijing was cordoned off from the rest of the city, very much like a treaty port. In the night of October 9, 1911, a revolutionary arms stash in the Russian Concession in Hankou accidentally exploded, which forced revolutionary soldiers to rise in a premature munity in the garrison of Wuchang on the other side of the Yangtze River. The mutiny sparked a nation-wide revolt against the Qing dynasty and forced the dynasty to abdicate in favor of a republican government in March the following year. The republican government in Beijing was never able to replace the old imperial government, and warlords were able to exercise significant authority in the provinces, which ushered in decades of political fragmentation. These developments also strengthened the role of the treaty ports as important centers of national politics, as they provided political dissidents, defeated warlords, and ousted politicians with a sanctuary from the chaotic political life of the early Republic. One of the most prominent political refugees was the last emperor of the Qing dynasty, Henry Puyi, who spent several years in the foreign concessions of Tianjin.

The First World War (1914–1919) and the subsequent divestment of Western businesses from the treaty ports created a vacuum that Chinese businesses could easily fill, leading to a war boom in Chinese-owned manufacturing plants in the treaty ports. The weakening of the military presence of the European imperial powers also provided the Japanese Empire with an opportunity to expand its presence in China at the expense of Germany, occupying all of its imperial possessions in China. When the Chinese government declared war on the Axis in 1915, Germany and Austria-Hungary lost their concessions in China and their citizens were deprived of their extraterritorial privileges. Following the Russian revolutions of 1917, Russia also lost its imperial role in China, and Russian subjects were deprived of their privileged status in China, which was followed by an influx of stateless Russian refugees into the treaty ports. These developments created a large foreign community in the treaty ports that was subject to Chinese jurisdiction, which undermined the privileged stature of Europeans in China.

The European conflagration also created hopes in China that the Western powers would agree to relinquish their imperial privileges in China, but the failure of the Versailles Peace Conference to meet these expectations in 1919 led to an upsurge in Chinese nationalism that paved the way for political movements and parties that were prepared to challenge the treaty port system head on, most notably the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and the Communist Party. In response to these developments and to the general backlash against imperialism at the end of the war, the colonial metropoles became less and less willing to sustain the economic and political costs of supporting the treaty ports, much to the chagrin of the established “Shanghailander” communities.13 In 1925, the Mixed Court of Shanghai was dissolved and replaced with the Chinese-controlled district court of Shanghai. When the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek set out move to unify China in the “Northern Expedition” (1926–1928), purging the treaty ports of communists, the remaining treaty powers abandoned several ports and the British government resolved to reduce its presence in China. Following the establishment of the Nationalist government in Nanjing in 1928, the Nationalists embarked on an ambitious institutional and legal reform program that was designed to convince the treaty powers to abandon their privileged status in China, and the Nationalists were able to obtain “tariff autonomy,” that is the right of China to set its own tariffs on foreign trade. However, Chiang Kai-shek’s government was never able to gain full control over China and had to fight several campaigns against rival warlords and the communist insurgency in southern China, and the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 dealt a heavy blow to the ambitions of the Nationalists to create a unified and sovereign government in China.

The Decline of the Treaty Ports

Facing both internal and external challenges, the Nationalists were able to mobilize some treaty port institutions to bolster their authority over China. Both the Maritime Customs’ Service and the Imperial Post Office survived the republican revolution of 1911 and the political upheavals of the subsequent decades, being the only institutions that had a presence in most of the territories that had been under the control of the defunct Qing Empire. Even though both institutions were operated by foreigners well into the 1930s, they were able to bestow coherence and legitimacy to the idea of a unified China and the central government could use them to justify its extensive territorial claims, even in times of domestic division and foreign aggression. Furthermore, they could be used to bolster Chinese claims for sovereignty in areas where the no Chinese central government had been able to exercise effective control since the revolution, such as Tibet.14

The Japanese invasion of China in the summer of 1937 dealt the final blow to the treaty port system. Even though the Japanese occupation authorities initially respected the existence of the foreign concessions, the treaty port system had all but lost its relevance and as Japan joined the global World War in 1941, Japanese troops took over what was left of the treaty ports and handed over control of them to Wang Jingwei’s pro-Japanese puppet regime in China. Perhaps the most important function of the old treaty ports during the World War was their role as safe havens for refugees from other parts of China, and tens of thousands Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria found a sanctuary in Shanghai and some other remaining treaty ports. As the United States and Britain were clamoring to consolidate support from the Nationalist government in Chongqing for the Allied cause, both powers took the lead in 1943 in agreeing to abandon the politically discredited “unequal treaties” and abolishing extraterritoriality, which paved the way for other remaining treaty powers to do the same in the following years. When the war ended in 1945, many old treaty ports enjoyed a brief resurgence as centers of political and economic activity, but this development was cut short by the Civil War of 1946–1949.

The establishment of the People’s Republic of China made permanent the end of the treaty port system. The old ports became reviled symbols of China’s “Century of Humiliation” and the corrupting influences of Western capitalist modernity. By the mid-1950s, most of the foreign population of the treaty ports had left China voluntarily or had been expelled. Some of the major treaty ports, such as Shanghai and Tianjin, retained their status a regional centers of industry and trade, but the communists made a conscious decision to focus their program of socialist reconstruction in the interior of China and invested heavily many regional cities at the expense of the old treaty ports, many of which were left to languish. Consequently, many treaty ports retained much of their colonial architectural character well into the 1980s, when China embarked on ambitious market reforms and urban transformation, which injected a new dynamic to most former treaty ports.

Discussion of the Literature

The treaty ports have been the focus of an extensive literature in several major European languages ever since they were first opened in the 1840s, and the treaty ports played a very important role in shaping—and distorting—the foreign perception of China in the 19th century, and most of the travel literature on China did not stray very far from the treaty ports, which were often written within the larger narrative of European overseas empires.15 However, the treaty ports did not emerge as an historical problem in their own right until the 1920s, when the Nationalist Party made concerted efforts at recovering sovereignty over the treaty ports, which prompted both apologists and critics of the status quo to grapple with the treaty port system in a more comprehensive and historically informed way. The early triumphs and tragedies of Chinese nationalism and other popular movements often took place against the backdrop of the treaty ports, which attracted the attention of numerous foreign journalists, academic, authors, and political activists. As the treaty ports were engulfed by the victorious communist revolution in the mid-19th century, they were often treated as examples of an inauthentic Chinese modernity or as embarrassing reminders of Euro-American domination in East Asia. Another strand of literature on the treaty ports dealt with the reminiscences and experiences of the numerous foreign residents, who were compelled to leave China after 1949. The fate of the Jewish communities of the treaty ports constitutes a significant part of this genre.

The prominent American historian of China, John King Fairbank, was one of the first Western scholars to make the treaty ports a site of inquiry, and he explored how the treaty ports both contributed to and hampered the modernization of China. A later generation of China scholars distanced themselves from the treaty ports as a topic of inquiry, but the opening up of China in the 1980s and the increasing access to archival sources has created new interest in the treaty ports in their own right, and many scholars have shown that the treaty ports played a much more consequential role in China’s economy history than previously assumed. The existence of large repositories of primary sources in European languages has also made it possible for scholars to study Chinese history without recourse to Chinese language sources. The prominent position of Shanghai as the hub of the treaty port system in East Asia has created an entire subgenre of “Shanghai studies,” which has an important counterpart in the growing literature on the northern Chinese treaty port of Tianjin. Books have been published in almost any conceivable subgenres, such as the history of medicine, urban history, labor history, political history, diplomatic history, and so on.

Primary Sources

Because of the decentralized and multinational nature of the Chinese treaty ports, the relevant primary source material is scattered in national and regional archives all over the world. The city archives of each of the treaty ports, especially the Shanghai Municipal Archives, contain large collections of Chinese-language as well as Western-language materials. The British National Archives in Kew are also a major repository of primary sources, as are many other national archives in Western Europe, Russia, Japan, and North America. Some archival material, such as the minutes of the Shanghai Municipal Council (1854–1943), have been republished in China, and other material has been made available through online databases.

The treaty ports also generated a vast number of valuable printed primary sources, both official and unofficial. Foremost of them are the annual Returns of Trade at the Treaty Ports and Trade Ports, which was published by the Maritime Customs Service and provides us with valuable economic information on the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean treaty ports. H. G. W. Woodhead’s China Year Book (1912–1939) is an important source on both the treaty ports as well as China. Another important source is the treaty port press, which has survived to posterity at an uneven rate. The North China Herald (1850–1951) has been fully digitized in two databases, as has the Chinese language newspaper Shenbao (1876–1949), whereas the North China Daily News is widely available on microfilm. A number of other, often short-lived, newspapers were published in a number of languages such as Chinese, Japanese, French, German, Russian, Portuguese, and Yiddish, many of which have been only partially preserved. One of the best collections of foreign language newspapers is stored in the Xujiahui branch of the Shanghai Municipal Library (Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei).

Further Reading

Bergère, Marie-Claire. Shanghai: China’s Gateway to Modernity. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Bickers, Robert A. Britain in China: Community, Culture and Colonialism, 1900–1949. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Bickers, Robert A., and Isabella Jackson, eds. Treaty Ports in Modern China: Law, Land and Power. London: Routledge, 2016.Find this resource:

Cassel, Pär. Grounds of Judgment: Extraterritoriality and Imperial Power in Nineteenth-Century China and Japan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Elder, Chris. China’s Treaty Ports: Half Love and Half Hate: An Anthology. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Fairbank, John King. Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842–1854. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953.Find this resource:

Hou, Chi-ming. Foreign Investment and Economic Development in China, 1840-1937. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.Find this resource:

Johnson, Linda Cooke. Shanghai: From Market Town to Treaty Port, 1074–1858. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Mittler, Barbara. A Newspaper for China? Power, Identity, and Change in Shanghai’s News Media, 1872–1912. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2004.Find this resource:

Murphey, Rhoads. The Outsiders: The Western Experience in India and China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1977.Find this resource:

Nield, Robert. China’s Foreign Places the Foreign Presence in China in the Treaty Port Era, 1840–1943. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Rogaski, Ruth. Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China. Asia-Local Studies/Global Themes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Scully, Eileen P. Bargaining with the State from Afar: American Citizenship in Treaty Port China, 1844–1942. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Van de Ven, Hans J. Breaking with the Past: The Maritime Customs Service and the Global Origins of Modernity in China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.Find this resource:


(1.) Rhoads Murphey, The Treaty Ports and China’s Modernization: What Went Wrong? (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, 1970).

(2.) Old common names are in parentheses. Cf. Lane Harris, “A ‘Lasting Boon to All’: A Note on the Postal Romanization of Place Names, 1896–1949,” Twentieth Century China 34, no. 1 (2008): 96–109.

(3.) Nathan Albert Pelcovits, Old China Hands and the Foreign Office (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1948), 15f.

(4.) Albert Feuerwerker, “The Foreign Presence in China,” The Cambridge History of China: Republican China, 1912–1949, Part I, eds. John King Fairbank and Albert Feuerwerker (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 129. Julean Herbert Arnold, China, a Commercial and Industrial Handbook (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1926), 45.

(5.) Murphey, Treaty Ports, 4.

(6.) Pär Cassel, Grounds of Judgment: Extraterritoriality and Imperial Power in Nineteenth-Century China and Japan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

(7.) Arnold, China, 45.

(8.) Hans J. Van de Ven, Breaking with the Past: The Maritime Customs Service and the Global Origins of Modernity in China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

(9.) Lane Harris, “A ‘Lasting Boon to All’: A Note on the Postal Romanization of Place Names, 1896–1949.” Twentieth Century China 34, no. 1 (2008): 96–109.

(10.) Robert A. Bickers and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, “Shanghai’s ‘Dogs and Chinese Not Admitted’ Sign: Legend, History and Contemporary Symbol,” China Quarterly no. 142 (June 1995): 444–466.

(11.) Anne Reinhardt, “Treaty Ports as Shipping Infrastructure,” in Treaty Ports in Modern China, eds. Robert Bickers and Isabella Jackson (London: Routledge, 2016), 101–120.

(12.) Kenneth Pomeranz, The Making of a Hinterland: State, Society, and Economy in Inland North China, 1853–1937 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

(13.) Robert A. Bickers, Britain in China: Community, Culture and Colonialism, 1900–1949 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1999).

(14.) Van de Ven, Breaking with the Past, 119.

(15.) A representative example of this genre is Arnold Wright and H. A. Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, Shanghai, and Other Treaty Ports of China: Their History, People, Commerce, Industries, and Resources (London: Lloyds, 1908).