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Beyond Colonial Dichotomies: The deficits of Spain and the peripheral powers in treaty-port China

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 September 2018

Universitat Oberta de Catalunya Email:
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya Email:


The semi-colonial character of China during the treaty-port era brings into question the dichotomy between the colonizer and the colonized. China's foreign trade had an overall negative balance, and Great Britain, Japan, and the United States of America benefited from it. However, dozens of minor powers suffered a negative balance with China, despite the favourable conditions set in the treaty ports. This article examines the presence of Spain in China during the first decades of the twentieth century, focusing on trade, population, and issues of self-representation. Through a comparative analysis of the Sino-Spanish trade with that of other smaller powers in China, this article shows both the diversity of colonial formations in China and the existence of colonial relations that, although peripheral and complementary, pose a doubt on the adequacy, not only of the colonizer/colonized dichotomy, but also of the representation of colonialism in China.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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We are grateful to Carles Prado-Fonts, Xavier Ortells-Nicolau, and the anonymous reviewers for their comments and criticisms of previous drafts of this article. This work was supported by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation under grant MICINN HAR2012-34823 and by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation under grant RG012-U-14.


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9 Goodman and Goodman (eds), Twentieth Century Colonialism, p. 8.

10 Bickers, R. and Henriot, Ch. (eds), New Frontiers: Imperialism's New Communities in East Asia, 1842–1953, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2000, p. 5Google Scholar.

11 Osterhammel, ‘Semi-colonialism and informal empire’, p. 294.

12 One example is Shu-mei Shih, who, despite mentioning the ‘multiple layers of domination’ that existed in China in the early nineteenth century, makes a distinction between Euro-American and Japanese imperialism, and considers the Euro-American version to be an indistinct whole (Shih, The Lure of the Modern, p. 39). It should be noted, though, that this distinction in her study of Chinese literary modernism has a basically heuristic objective and is consistent with the way in which intellectuals of the time understood the colonial context.

13 van der Putten, F.-P., ‘Small powers and imperialism: the Netherlands in China, 1886–1905’, Itinerario, Vol. 20:1, 1996, p. 115CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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16 Some recent international publications have discussed the actions of these countries in China, although their impact on the academic world has been limited to date. For example: van der Putten, ‘Small powers and imperialism’; Brødsgaard, K. E. and Kirkebæk, M. (eds), China and Denmark: Relations since 1674, Nordik Institute of Asian Studies Press, Copenhagen, 2001Google Scholar; vande Walle, W. F. and Golvers, Noël (eds), The History of the Relations between the Low Countries and China in the Qing Era (1644–1911), Leuven University Press, Leuven, 2003Google Scholar; Marinelli and Adornino (eds), Italy's Encounters with Modern China.

17 Martínez-Robles, D., ‘Constructing sovereignty in nineteenth century China: the negotiation of reciprocity in the Sino-Spanish Treaty of 1864’, International History Review, Vol. 38:4, 2016, pp. 719–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Prado-Fonts, C., ‘China como patriótico desahogo: usos de la alteridad en los Viajes del chino Dagar-Li-Kao de Fernando Garrido’, Hispanic Review, Vol. 3, 2015, pp. 275–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Studies on Chinese trade during this period include China's major trading partners: Great Britain, Japan, the United States of America, and, to a lesser extent, Russia and France. Other countries either do not appear or are listed under the heading ‘Continental Europe’. See Hsiao, L., China's Foreign Trade Statistics, 1864–1949, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1974, pp. 140–41Google Scholar; and W. Keller, B. Li, and C. Shiue, ‘China's foreign trade: perspectives from the past 150 years’, National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Working Paper, No. 16550, 2010, available online [last accessed 20 January 2017] at, pp. 41–42. However, other trading situations have been the focus of very little study, despite the availability of a renowned source such as the Archive of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (CMCS), which contains clear statistics on trade with these nations, especially from 1905 onwards. See Yang, C., Hau, H. B., et al., Statistics of China's Foreign Trade during the Last Sixty-Five Years, National Research Institute of Social Sciences, Academia Sinica, Shanghai, 1931Google Scholar. On the history and publications of the CMCS, see the research project by the University of Bristol entitled ‘Chinese Maritime Customs Project’ (hereinafter the CMCP), which includes an index of publications, some of which are digitized and available statistics. See Chinese Maritime Customs Project (CMCP), University of Bristol, 2002–2015, available online [last accessed 20 January 2017] at

20 Although John Bowring, British Minister Plenipotentiary in China and Governor of Hong Kong, offered the Spanish government an alliance to take part in the Second Opium War as an ally of Great Britain, Spain's General Consul in China and the Ministry of State in Madrid refused that offering. Other projects of military involvement in China were always rejected by Spanish authorities. See Martínez-Robles, D., ‘Perspectives for the Spanish intervention in Macao in the 19th century’, Bulletin of Portuguese Japanese Studies, Vol. 16, 2008, pp. 101–17Google Scholar.

21 See Guang, Pan, The Jews in China, Wuzhou Chuanbo Chubanshe, Beijing, 2001Google Scholar; Betta, Ch., ‘The trade diaspora of Baghdadi Jews: from India to China's treaty ports, 1842–1937’, in Mccabe, I. Baghdiantz, Harlaftis, G., and Minoglou, I. Pepelasis (eds), Diaspora Entrepreneurial Networks: Four Centuries of History, Berg, New York, 2005, pp. 269–85Google Scholar.

22 See D. Martínez-Robles, La participación española en el proceso de penetración occidental en China, 1840–1870, unpublished doctoral thesis, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, 2007 (

23 Yang, Hau, et al., Statistics of China's Foreign Trade, pp. 147–48. Some caution should be exercised when using data from the CMCS (see Lyons, T. P., China Maritime Customs and China's Trade Statistics, Willow Creek Press, Trumansburg, 2003, pp. 6569Google Scholar). These statistics also have their weaknesses: they ignored the trade undertaken by traditional Chinese vessels, confused exports to other open ports with internal trade, changed criteria as new ports opened or closed, and neglected some areas such as the colonies of Hong Kong and Macao. Furthermore, from 1901, the Spanish consulates maintained a record of residents in China, although much of this documentation has been lost.

24 The number of Filipinos on the Chinese coast, which also included Filipino Mestizos, exceeded the number of Spaniards originating from the Iberian Peninsula during the nineteenth century, in a trend that continued in the twentieth century; see Martínez-Robles, D., ‘Españoles en el Reino Celestial Taiping: el desconocimiento como pauta de interculturalidad’, in Aguilar, P. San Ginés (ed.), La investigación sobre Asia Pacífico en España, Editorial Universidad de Granada, Granada, 2006, pp. 341–58Google Scholar. For example, the diplomat Luis Valera estimated in 1900 that 200 or 300 Filipinos lived in Shanghai at that time; see Valera, L., Sombras Chinescas: Recuerdos de un viaje al Celeste Imperio, Nausícaa, Murcia, 2013Google Scholar. See also Chu, R. T., Chinese and the Chinese mestizos of Manila: Family, Identity and Culture, 1860–1930s, Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2010CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The Spanish population in the Philippines was always very limited, as a result of a short colonial administration that depended on Catholic missionaries as colonizing agents. This explains why the most part of the Philippine population, mainly in Luzon Island, adhered to the Catholic doctrine but only a minor part learned Spanish or received a remarkable Spanish cultural impact. Filipino presence in the Chinese coast echoes the demographic characteristics of the Philippine colony: although maintaining the Spanish nationality, Philippine aboriginals did not usually interact with peninsular Spaniards, and only very few Mestizos became active members of the Spanish community in China.

25 In the first decade of the twentieth century, some intellectuals and politicians in Spain promoted a philo-Sephardic movement that culminated in 1916 in a statute that protected Sephardic Jews and allowed Spanish consuls to protect them. In 1924, a law conceded Sephardic Jews the Spanish nationality. Only Jews born in countries with a minor international projection, such as Turkey and other nations in the Middle East, decided to make use of that privilege.

26 See J. E. Borao, ‘Julio de Larracoechea (1901–1999): Vicecónsul en Shanghai (1932–1936) y novelista de la ciudad del Wangpú’, working paper presented at the Simposio Internacional de Hispanistas, Beijing Foreign Studies University, 1998, URL [last accessed 20 January 2017]:; Sánchez, J. P., ‘Frontones de pelota vasca en China’, Revista del Instituto Confucio de Valencia, Vol. 7:4, 2011, pp. 7478Google Scholar.

27 Wang, Ch., Yangshang shi. Shanghai, 1843–1956, Shanghai shehui kexueyuan chubanshe, Shanghai, 2007, p. 83.Google Scholar

28 Archivo Histórico Nacional (Spain), H2369 A=Política Exterior, 1901–1929, Beijing, 30 March 1920.

29 C. Brasó Broggi, ‘Las Aduanas Marítimas de China y el comercio sino-español, 1900–1930’, Revista de Historia Industrial, Vol. 26:70, 2017, pp. 108–43.

30 Álvarez, M. Ojeda, ‘Relaciones entre España y China desde 1927 hasta 1937’, Cuadernos de Historia Moderna y Contemporánea, Vol. 1, 1980, pp. 222–23Google Scholar.

31 On Larracoechea's Chinese work, see Prado-Fonts, C., ‘“Que redundase en beneficio de sus compatriotas”: Julio de Larracoechea, Ramonchu en Shanghai y la China modelable’, Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research, Vol. 22:1, 2016CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Borao, ‘Julio de Larracoechea (1901–1999)’.

32 See a comprehensive research on Antonio Ramos Espejo in J. I. Toro Escudero, Del burdel al emporio cinematográfico: El papel olvidado, principal y pionero del soldado español Antonio Ramos Espejo en el nacimiento del cine chino, unpublished doctoral thesis, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 2016.

33 M. Marinelli, ‘An Italian “neighbourhood” in Tianjin: little Italy or colonial space?’, in Goodman and Goodman (eds), Twentieth Century Colonialism, pp. 92–107. From Marinelli, we have adopted the application of Benedict Anderson's concept of an ‘imagined community’ to foreign communities in China.

34 The North China Herald, 21 October 1904.

35 Revista minera, metalúrgica y de ingeniería, Vol. 63, 1912, p. 12.

36 China Importers and Exporters Directory, Bureau of Foreign Trade, Shanghai, 1937, p. 49.

37 See Archivo General de la Administración (Spain), 4257, Top 55/28 (1932–1939).

38 Lunt, C. (ed.), The China Who's Who, Kelly & Walsh Limited, Shanghai, 1922, pp. 185–86Google Scholar.

39 See The North China Herald, ‘Ex custom oficial on Geneva staff’, 2 December 1922, p. 589. On Spanish workers at the CMC, see Brasó Broggi, ‘Las Aduanas Marítimas de China y el comercio sino-español, 1900–1930’.

40 See, for example, the lecture given by Juan Mencarini at the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce in 1912, J. Mencarini, Conferencia dada por don Juan Mencarini en la Cámara de Comercio de Barcelona, el día 6 de Diciembre 1912, Establecimiento Tipográfico Félix Costa, Barcelona, 1912.

41 See Heraldo de Madrid, year 37:12.784, 20 January 1927.

42 Spanish past as a global empire and one of the great Iberian powers that dominated the European intercourse with Asia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries fed this taste for decadence. Writers and diplomatic representatives mentioned it in their reflections on the position of Spain in China. On the precedents for the decline of the Spanish community in China, see Qing, Ai, ‘Imperial nostalgia: Spanish travel writing in China (1870–1910)’, Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies, Vol. 18, 2014, pp. 221–33Google Scholar.

43 Castrillo, G., El Comercio en el Extremo Oriente, Imprenta del Asilo de Huérfanos del S. C. de Jesús, Madrid, 1918, p. 131–32Google Scholar.

44 Castrillo, El Comercio en el Extremo Oriente, p. 139.

45 See Legarda, B. Jr, After the Galleons: Foreign Trade, Economic Change & Entrepreneurship in the Nineteenth-Century Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University Press, Quezón City, 1999, pp. 8485, 94–96Google Scholar; Díaz-Trechuelo, M. L., La Real Compañía de Filipinas, Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos de Sevilla, Sevilla, 1965, pp. 6465Google Scholar.

46 Legarda provides very revealing estimates of the decline in imports of Chinese products to the Philippines: in 1810, they were valued at 1,150,000 pesos; in 1818, the figure was 714,700; and, in 1825, it had fallen to 624,843 pesos, slightly more than half the figure of 15 years earlier. However, the value of exports of local products tripled between 1810 and 1830. See Legarda, After the Galleons, pp. 102–03.

47 Archivo del Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores (Spain), H1445, No. 42, Shanghai, October 1844 (currently in the Archivo Histórico Nacional).

48 Neither sugar nor coffee was an everyday consumer good in Qing China; meanwhile, tobacco and coarse-weave fabrics such as Manila hemp were used more widely, but neither was part of Chinese basic needs. As for the products that were most widely exported to China until that point, exports of birds’ nests provide a good example: they fell from a value of more than 300,000 pesos in 1818 to 13,094 in 1847, and just 3,000 pesos in 1864. The case of the sea cucumber is different, since the value of exports increased almost throughout the entire century; however, its share in overall exports from the Philippines fell sharply. See Legarda, After the Galleons, pp. 139–40.

49 For a detailed description of bilateral trade relations between Spain and China, which are summarized in the following paragraphs, see Brasó Broggi, ‘Las Aduanas Marítimas de China y el comercio sino-español, 1900–1930’.

50 See the data for bilateral trade between Spain and China in Brasó Broggi, ‘Las Aduanas Marítimas de China y el comercio sino-español, 1900–1930’. Chinese customs measured the value of trade using a single magnitude: the haiguan liang (or Haikwan tael, hereinafter the HKT), the monetary standard in silver. The HKT was not a coin but instead simply a calculation value, as taxes and trade values were assessed and paid in the many local currencies, which CMCS agents converted into HKT for their statistics. See Lyons, China Maritime Customs, p. 52.

51 On China's economic rise during this period, see Bergère, M. C., L’âge d'or de la bourgeoisie chinoise, 1911–1937, Flammarion, Paris, 1986Google Scholar.

52 We have compared the market values of each country according to the CMCS Annual Reports, published between 1905 and 1930 under the titles Returns of Trade, Returns of Trade and Trade Reports and Foreign Trade of China, reissued by Historical Archive Number Two of Nanjing in 170 volumes under the title Zhongguo jiu Haiguan Shiliao, 1859–1948 [Historical Materials of Ancient Customs of China, 1859–1948], Jinghua chubanshe, Beijing, 2001. We consulted these volumes at the Shanghai Library and they will hereinafter be cited with the initials HMACC (Historical Materials of Ancient Customs of China) followed by the year, the number of the volume published, then the page of the volume published (in parentheses, the page of the original edition); HMACC 1905, Vol. 58, pp. 10–13 (pp. 6–9). These figures are consistent with those compiled by Yang, Hau, et al., Statistics of China's Foreign Trade, pp. 99–121.

53 Borao, J. E., España y China, 1927–1967: Unas distantes relaciones sorprendidas por un ‘intenso encuentro’ revolucionario a finales de los años treinta, Central Book Publishing, Taipei, 1994, pp. 7172Google Scholar.

54 Note the contrast between the anxiety to sell foreign products and the harsh reality of the Chinese market in the fascinating story by the American publicist Carl Crow originally published in 1937: Crow, C., 400 Million Customers: The Experiences, Some Happy, Some Sad, of an American in China and What They Taught Him, East Bridge, Norwalk, 2003Google Scholar.

55 See Brossollet, G., Les Français de Shanghai, 1849–1949, Belin, Paris, 1999Google Scholar; see also A. Major, The Paris of the East: Putting the ‘French’ in French Concession in Shanghai, 1900–1912, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sherbrooke, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2012.

56 Major, The Paris of the East, p. 35.

57 Recensement de la population sur la Concession française de Changhai, 1910–1936.

58 The data have been verified by those provided by Dall, based on Danish sources, and are consistent with those from the CMCS. See M. H. Dall, ‘Danish trade in China: from the beginning of the twentieth century to the establishment of the people's republic’, in Brødsgaard and Kirkebæk (eds), China and Denmark, pp. 153–91.

59 Dall, ‘Danish trade in China’, pp. 184–86.

60 Bramsen, C. B., Open Doors: Wilhelm Meyer and the Establishment of General Electric in China, Routledge, London, 2013, pp. 5758, 73–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

61 Ferguson, Ch. J., Andersen Meyer & Company Limited of China, Kelly and Walsh, Shanghai, 1931Google Scholar.

62 de Courten, L., ‘The Chinese enigma in politics and in the economy: Italy and the Far East, 1900–1947’, The Journal of European Economic History, Vol. 38:2, Summer 2009, pp. 343–46Google Scholar.

63 HMAAC 1913, Vol. 61, p. 105 (p. 97); see also Brasó Broggi, ‘Las Aduanas Marítimas de China y el comercio sino-español, 1900–1930’.

64 Perhaps the most paradigmatic cases are those of the journalist Salas, J. M. Romero, España en China, Manila, 1921Google Scholar, and the writer Ibáñez, V. Blasco, La vuelta al mundo de un novelista, Prometeo, Valencia, 1924Google Scholar.

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