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Purloined letters: History and the Chinese Maritime Customs Service


For John King Fairbank the establishment of the foreign inspectorate of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service was a key symbolic moment in modern Chinese history. His landmark 1953 volume Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast culminates with the 1854 Inspectorate agreement, which, he argued, ‘foreshadowed the eventual compromise between China and the West—a joint Chinese and Western administration of the modern centers of Chinese life and trade in the treaty ports’. Without the CMCS, he implied, there could be no modern China. It was the ‘the institution most thoroughly representative of the whole period’ after the opening of the treaty ports down to 1943, he wrote. By 1986 he was arguing that it was the ‘central core’ of the system. ‘Modernity, however defined, was a Western, not a Chinese, invention’, he claimed, and Sir Robert Hart's Customs Service was its mediator.

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This research stems from a collaborative project on the history of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service involving the author, Hans van de Ven, and colleagues at the Second Historical Archives of China at Nanjing. It is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board and the Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange.
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Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-asian-studies
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