Hans van de Ven on the Chinese Maritime Customs Service

The following post is by Hans van de Ven, author of Breaking with the Past: The Maritime Customs Service and the Global Origins of Modernity in China:

“The Chinese Maritime Customs Service helped keep China together at key critical moments … and provided one of the pathways out of which the modern Chinese nation-state would emerge.”—Hans de Ven

Breaking with the Past, Hans van de VenNo China historian can afford to say no to a request for help by a Chinese archivist. We need their good will. So, when the Vice-Director of the Second Historical Archives in Nanjing asked for my assistance in organizing the archives of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, I agreed. Although the archival mountain I had to climb proved higher and steeper than I thought, to be given access to an untouched archive is also any historian’s dream.

Looking back now over the more than ten years that it has taken to bring my history of the Service to publication, it is clear to me that this one chance encounter has changed my view of China in profound ways, and, more generally, that of the past. In an age in which our governing institutions are increasingly found wanting and in which a new parochialism threatens to take hold, it has given me a new respect for cosmopolitan civil service bureaucracies which emerged in the nineteenth century.

The Chinese Maritime Customs Service was an odd sort of bureaucracy, subordinate to the Chinese state but with a senior staff drawn from across the world. In between the Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s and the Communist victory in 1949, it functioned in between weak Chinese governments and overstretched empires. It gained its strength not only by accounting and delivering thirty to fifty percent of central revenue, but also by injecting itself into niches wherever they opened up, including in the building and management of China’s harbors, erecting lighthouses along the whole China coast, providing quarantine services, overseeing China’s bond issues, and purchasing a navy for China.

The men involved in these projects had flaws, they could be blinkered, they could act with unfounded arrogance toward China and the Chinese, and they could be blinded by ambition. But, they also were inspired by a nineteenth century “do-gooding” tradition, shaped as they were by the great liberal thinkers of the age, by Christian values (about which they kept publicly quiet), and the civil service reforms that began in nineteenth century Britain and then spread more widely. The result was the gestation of a Customs Service ethos aimed at keeping borders open, maintaining China’s territorial and national integrity, securing access to China’s foreign trade on the basis of equality, and delivering an efficient and effective bureaucracy.

If reality did not always matched aspiration, even hostile Chinese historians, associating the Service with imperialism, praise it for its lack of corruption. Its cosmopolitanism was such that when China and Japan went to war in 1937, Kishimoto Hirokichi, the Japanese Customs official then in charge, while his British chief attended the coronation of King George VI, passed on orders from his Chinese superior to Customs staff, including many Japanese, who were dealing with Japan’s invasion of China.

Such cosmopolitan attitudes became impossible during WWII but they have made a partial comeback in our current phase of globalization. Some of the modes of existence that typified the Customs age have come back in China, where they are making a return in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Tianjin, Xiamen, and so on—where once the Customs Service was active. But I cannot escape the thought we have yet to revive fully the global mindsets of the best Customs men, alert to the many ways in which various people across the world were connected, convinced of the existence of a public good, delighting in transnational company, and curious about the history and culture of the place in which they lived.

In China, the Customs Service continues to be seen as something foreign, as part of a history of victimization dominated by imperialism. This is a mistake, not only because the Customs Service was part of the Chinese bureaucratic world but also because it was an institution that helped keep China together at key critical moments in this terrible century and which provided one of the pathways out of which the modern Chinese nation-state would emerge.

China today faces the challenge of developing a new global role. It no longer only looks at foreign models but looks again to its own past for inspiration and guidance. The history of the Customs Service might yet be helpful to China as it reconsiders its history and plots a path toward the future, in the same way that it could to those in the West who only think in antagonistic terms about the rise of China.

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