Quest for Power: European Imperialism and the Making of Chinese Statecraft

Gabbiani, Luca. [Book review of] Stephen R. Halsey, Quest for power : European imperialism and the making of Chinese statecraft. Pacific Affairs [En ligne], 2017, n° 2,  pp. 345-347. URL : (consulté le 30 mai 2017).

The question of why China was not colonized by the Western powers during the second half of the nineteenth century has puzzled historians for some time. Stephen Halsey’s recent book, Quest for Power, is an attempt at providing the community of scholars specializing in late Qing and Republican China with new insights on the topic. After a brief preface, the book starts with an introduction, which sets the tone of the general argument made by the author throughout the book: the second half of the nineteenth century in China has been overwhelmingly observed by historians—on the mainland and elsewhere—through the lens of what can be termed as a “declinology” paradigm, strongly substantiated by the common understanding according to which that period, especially the late Qing, was marred by corruption and national humiliation. In line with an increasing number of other works which cast doubt on such an historical interpretation, Halsey contends that, as troubled and unstable as they might have been, the years leading to the demise of China’s imperial regime ought rather to be considered as the crucible in which were first cast the tools and institutions that were to serve as the foundations for the rise of contemporary China. This longue durée approach is certainly a most welcome methodological option. Unfortunately, the author does not live up to it, leaving it to the epilogue (a mere twenty pages) to describe the evolutions followed by the Chinese state during the Republican period and the second half of the twentieth century. The reader should thus be warned that even though Halsey’s aim is to consider China’s recent historical experience in a longue durée perspective, the core of the book, which is made up of seven chapters, mainly deals with the last decades of the Qing imperial regime.

Another interesting option adopted by Halsey in the book is to set the example of late Qing China in a global perspective, against the backdrop of the historical experiences of the regions of the world—more than 80 percent—which ended up effectively colonized by the European powers during the nineteenth century. Entitled “Europe’s global conquest,” chapter 1 is entirely devoted to a description of the advent of Europe’s global colonial enterprise, with the aim of highlighting some of its specificities in order to pinpoint how the case of China diverged from the general model. The author’s effort here is worthwhile, even though it is not anchored on any original research he might have undertaken. Rather, drawing on the ever larger body of secondary literature devoted to the European powers’ imperialist endeavour—in this case, first and foremost Great Britain—Halsey points to the West’s “invention” of the “military-fiscal state” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a turning point which gave it a decisive advantage over the “weak states and porous economies” it ended up colonizing during the nineteenth century. If China did not count among the outright victims of this process, and Japan even less so, for that matter, it is mainly, as the author defends, because the country’s polity and its social elites, whether bureaucratic and political or economic, were strong enough to adapt in time to the challenges posed by the new international order forged by the Western powers in the late nineteenth century, and to draft adequate institutional and societal responses, thus paving the way for the forging of China’s own model of a military-fiscal state. The six remaining chapters of the book are devised to provide illustrations of this central thesis.

In chapter 2, Halsey dwells on the question of foreign trade, stressing the albeit relatively limited impact of the commercial clauses of the unequal treaties on the late Qing empire’s economy: foreign firms did gain access to parts of the empire’s markets, but, for reasons which range from the obstacle posed by the linguistic barrier to the low standards of living of the ordinary Chinese population at the time, not to mention outright obstruction by local authorities, they never were in a position to dislodge the indigenous actors and networks of trade, and even less to monopolize the profits thereof. Chapter 3 is centred on taxation, a decisive dimension of the drafting of the modern military-fiscal state. In this case, the author highlights the important shift in the Chinese state’s main sources of funding, from its original agrarian base to the revenues drawn from commercial taxation, in the wake of foreign encroachment and internal rebellion starting from the middle of the nineteenth century. Chapter 4 shifts the reader’s attention towards the administration, providing insights on how the mid-nineteenth-century crisis was a decisive factor in spurring a trend in state expansion, at the local, provincial, and central level. Here, like in chapter 3, Halsey mainly draws on the examples of the Imperial Maritime Custom Service and the administration of the lijin.

Chapter 5 deals with the question of the military, yet another important dimension of the forging of modern state institutions in China. In this instance, the author underlines the role played by the regional armies set up during the troubled years of the Taiping Rebellion, before turning to some considerations on the modernization of the country’s weapons industry. Chapters 6 and 7 conclude the book, discussing transportation and communications. In each case, the author chooses to analyze the creation and development of one of Li Hongzhang (1823–1901) and Sheng Xuanhuai’s (1844–1916) major modernization endeavours of the late nineteenth century, the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company for one, and the Imperial Telegraph Administration for the other. For both of these examples, which proved instrumental in providing China with tools to modernize and to assert its sovereignty, Halsey describes the foundations upon which they were erected and the way they evolved in time, until the last decade of the imperial regime.

Apart from some typos and awkward bibliographical references, Halsey’s book is a worthy achievement. Still, one can probably surmise that it will not be of much interest to specialists of the late Qing, for it relies more on data found in secondary literature in English and Chinese (as well as some in Japanese) rather than providing new evidence drawn from original research using previously untapped sources. But students of China’s waning imperial regime will find in it a useful summary of the country’s early modernization drive and of some of its successes. Even though the author’s approach to the period is not as objective as he claims—the present reviewer regrets, for example, the univocal nature of the documentary evidence Halsey puts to use, which does no justice to the polyphony characteristic of late Qing sources—parting from the paradigm of decline in the analysis of China’s reformist efforts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the author does here, is certainly a welcome addition to the interpretative framework of the period.

Luca Gabbiani, École française d’Extrême-Orient, Paris

Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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