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Making concessions in Tianjin: heterotopia and Italian colonialism in mainland China

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 October 2009

Centre for East Asian Studies, 8 Woodland Road, University of Bristol, Bristol, BS8 1TN


Between 1860 and 1945, the Chinese port city of Tianjin became the site of up to nine foreign-controlled concessions, functioning side by side. Ruth Rogaski has argued that Tianjin's distinctiveness deserves the appellation ‘hyper-colony’, a term which reflects Tianjin's socio-political intricacies and the multiple colonial discourses of power and space. This article focuses on the representations of the ex-Italian concession in Tianjin, a site which is currently renegotiating its identity between reinvention of the past (1901–45) and property-led regeneration. The article employs the concept of heterotopia to explore ‘semi-colonial’, ‘hyper-colonial’ and ‘globalizing’ representations of Tianjin's built form.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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1 Zujie indicates a part of territory ceded by the Qing Dynasty government to the colonial powers.

2 In 1880, the American concession was absorbed by the British while retaining some residual rights.

3 After 1897 the railway network connected the city with Beijing on the one hand and with Shanhaiguan and Manchuria on the other.

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5 The Guomindang government consisted of five yuan or Councils: Executive, Legislative, Judicial, Examination and Control.

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9 Rogaski, R., Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China (Berkeley, 2004), 11Google Scholar.

11 The Boxers’ Rebellion, directed against foreign influence on trade, politics, religion and technology, crumbled on 4 Aug. 1900 when 20,000 foreign troops entered Beijing. See Spence, J., The Search for Modern China (New York, 2001), 232Google Scholar.

12 See G.E. Pistolese, ‘La concessione Italiana di Tien-Tsin’, in Rassegna Italiana, A. XIII, Special Volume (XLI) ‘L'Italia e L'Oriente Medio ed Estremo’, Aug.–Sep. 1935, 306. De Antonellis reports 447.647 sq. m. In De Antonellis, G., ‘L'Italia in Cina nel secolo XX’, Mondo Cinese, 19 (1977), 52Google Scholar. A Chinese source indicates an area of ‘714 mu, 722 mu’ (1 mu corresponds to 0.0667 hectares, therefore, 47.62 ha. or 48.15 ha. respectively), see Wenxin, Li, ‘Yizujie’ (The Italian concession), in weiyuanhui, Tianjinshi zhengxie wenshi ziliao yanjiu (ed.), Tianjin zujie (Tianjin's concession) (Tianjin, 1986), 135Google Scholar. Another Chinese source reports the Italian concession at the time of its establishment (1902) as 771 mu (51.42 ha.), see Yanjiusuo, Tianjin Shehui Kexueyuan Lishi, Tianjin jianshi (A short history of Tianjin) (Tianjin, 1987), 209Google Scholar.

13 Foucault, M., Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings 1972–1977, ed. Gordon, Colin (New York, 1980), 149Google Scholar.

14 Foucault, M., ‘Des espaces autres’, Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, 5 (1984), 46–9Google Scholar; also available in Foucault, M., Dits et écrits 1954–1988, vol. IV: 1980–1988 (Paris, 1994), 752–62Google Scholar. For this quote see 46.

15 J.R. Hersey, ‘A reporter at large: homecoming. I: the house on New China Road’, New Yorker, 10 May 1982, 54. Hersey (1914–93) was born in Tianjin to missionary parents. His family returned to the States when he was ten years old, but in 1939 he went back to China as a reporter for Time.

16 Bachelard, G., La poétique de la reverie (The Poetics of Reveries) (Boston, MA, 1992), 6Google Scholar.

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18 Foucault, ‘Des espaces autres’, 46.

19 Hersey, ‘A reporter at large’, 54.

20 Habitus refers to a system of practical knowledge, acquired over time, which creates in the social agents the tendency to perceive, act and react with a certain naturalness within a specific social universe, without any need to be coordinated or governed by rules. See Bourdieu, P., Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (London, 1984)Google Scholar.

21 See Marinelli, M., ‘Self-portrait in a convex mirror: colonial Italy reflects on Tianjin (1901–1947)’, Transtext(e)s-Transcultures, 3 (2007), 119–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 I borrow this definition from Lydia Liu, who uses it to refer to the necessity to reinvent the meaning of words in a different context. Liu, L., Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture and Translated Modernity China 1900–1937 (Stanford, 1995), 24Google Scholar.

23 Foucault, ‘Des espaces autres’, 47.

24 See Guo, Yunjing (ed.), Tianjin gudai chengshi fazhan shi (History of the development of the ancient city of Tianjin) (Tianjin, 1989)Google Scholar.

25 On simulation see Baudrillard, Jean, ‘Simulacra and simulations’, in J. Baudrillard, Selected Writings, ed. Poster, Mark (Stanford, 1988), 166–84Google Scholar.

26 Fileti, V., La concessione italiana di Tien-tsin (Genoa, 1921), 8Google Scholar.

27 I think of ideology here in Clifford Geertz's sense: as a cultural system. See Geertz, C., Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 2000)Google Scholar. Geertz also argues that nationalism is an emotional ideology: see C. Geertz, ‘Proud to be who I am’, 16 Apr. 2007,, accessed 3 May 2007.

28 Fileti, La concessione, 8.

29 The classic image of China as a golden, nearly boundless market for European manufacturers might be derived from Adam Smith. See A. Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776, online version, Book I,, accessed 12 Jul. 2007.

30 Fileti, La concessione, 8–9.

31 See Aruffo, A., Storia del Colonialismo Italiano: da Crispi a Mussolini (Rome, 2003), 2346Google Scholar. See also Del Boca, A., Italiani Brava Gente? (Vicenza, 2005)Google Scholar.

32 Andall, J. and Duncan, D., ‘Memories and legacies of Italian colonialism’, in Andall, J. and Duncan, D. (eds.), Italian Colonialism. Legacy and Memory (Oxford, 2005), 11Google Scholar. See also Ben-Ghiat, R. and Fuller, M. (eds.), Italian Colonialism (London, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 In the sense of a totalizing cultural narrative schema which explains both the claimed knowledge and its relevant experience.

34 According to the 1902 census, 13,704 people lived in the concession (17,000 according to Fileti's report, 16,500 according to Arnaldo Cicchiti-Suriani). According to a Chinese source, based on the 1922 census, the total population was 4,129 including 4,025 Chinese, 62 Italians and 42 from other nationalities. See xuehui, Nankai daxue zhengzhi (ed.), Tianjin zujie ji tequ (Tianjin's concessions and special areas), Shizhengfu congshu series (Tianjin, 1926), 67Google Scholar; Cicchiti-Suriani, A., ‘La concessione italiana di Tient Tsin (1901–1951)’, Rassegna Italiana di Politica e Cultura, 31 (1951), 563Google Scholar.

35 Fileti, La concessione, 14–15.

36 Ministero Affari Esteri, Direzione Generale Affari Commerciali, ‘Concessione italiana di Tien Tsin, Pro Memoria’, in ASMAE (Archivio Storico del Ministero degli Affari Esteri), Serie P, pos. 86/37, pac. 429 (1912–14).

37 Agreement. Italian text.

38 Foucault, ‘Des espaces autres’, 47.

40 Extraterritoriality was first imposed on China with the Anglo-Chinese Treaty of Nanjing (29 Aug. 1842), at the end of the first Opium War, and later extended to citizens of other nations.

41 Royal Italian Concession in Tientsin. Local Land Regulations and General Rules, Building Regulations.

42 Ibid., 2, article I. Daotai refers to an official at the head of the civil and military affairs of a circuit, which consists of two or more or territorial departments (fu). A possible translation is ‘Intendant of circuit’. Foreign consuls and commissioners associated with Daotai as superintendents of trade at the treaty ports are ranked with the Daotai.

44 Ibid., 2, articles III, XI.

45 In England, the equivalent of this style is the so-called ‘Renaissance Italian palazzo’, inspired by John Ruskin's panegyrics to the architectural wonders of Venice and Florence around 1840. See Pavoni, R., Reviving the Renaissance: The Use and Abuse of the Past in Nineteenth-Century Italian Art (Cambridge, 1997), 73Google Scholar.

46 R.L. Borgnino, ‘La “concessione” Italiana in Cina’, Augustea (1936), 363–6. Cardano, Nicoletta and Porzio, Pier Luigi (eds.), Sulla via di Tianjin: mille anni di relazioni tra Italia e Cina. Un quartiere Italiano in Cina (Rome, 2004), 44–5Google Scholar.

47 Cardano and Porzio (eds.), Sulla via di Tianjin, 34.

48 In 1925, the architect Bonetti, a resident of the concession, drew up a plan to expand the building, by means of a heated veranda to be used as a reception room. This building was destroyed around 1990.

49 See for example: Huaiyuan, Xiao (ed.), Tianjin 2006 Basic Facts (Beijing, 2006)Google Scholar, along with the videos ‘Tianjin, a fascinating city’ (Meili Tianjin) and ‘Tianjin Binhai new area – an important power invigorating regional development’ (Tianjin Binhai xinqu – daidong quyu fazhande zhongyao liliang) both compiled by the Propaganda Department, Tianjin Municipal Party Committee, Tianjin Municipal Information office, Tianjin Television Station, 2006.

50 This is a general trend, as demonstrated also by the television series Daguo jueqi (The Rise of Great Nations), shown on China's state network CCTV across twelve episodes on 13–24 Nov. 2006. There seems to be a widespread tendency to rewrite history: moving away from the previous emphasis on the condemnation of the ‘imperialist sin’ of the past, when the foreign powers aimed at ‘getting rich from the blood of others’, the argument now is a more positive appraisal of national experiences, in an attempt to represent the ‘imperialist sin’ of the past as a driving force and a sine qua non for the rise of nations to global status.

51 Wood, F., No Dogs and Not Many Chinese: Treaty Port Life in China, 1843–1943 (London, 1998), 185Google ScholarPubMed.

52 Woodhead, H.G.W., A Journalist in China (London, 1934), 65Google Scholar.

53 Borgnino, ‘La “concessione”‘; Pistolese, ‘La concessione’, 306.

54 Keqiang, Shan and Haiyan, Liu, Tianjin: Zujie shehui yanjiu (Tianjin, 1996), 98Google Scholar.

55 Li, ‘Yizujie’, 137–8. The number of Italian residents was always extremely limited. Pistolese argues that, according to more recent estimates, the Italian community in Tianjin would have consisted of about 150 people, instead of 392, even though he paradoxically tries to emphasise how ‘Our concession has a demographic consistency superior to the other concessions in Tien-Tsin.’ See Pistolese, ‘La concessione’, 306. According to a Chinese source, based on the 1922 census, 4,025 Chinese citizens, 62 Italians and 42 from other nationalities were living in the concession at the time; see Nankai daxue (ed.), Tianjin, 6–7.

56 Weston, J., ‘Undoing the colonial city?Geographical Review, 75, 3 (1985), 341Google Scholar. Italics added.

57 See Pistolese, ‘La concessione’, 305–10. See also Bassi, U., Italia e Cina: cenni storici sui rapporti diplomatici e commerciali (Modena, 1929)Google Scholar.

59 Shan and Liu, Tianjin, 1.

60 Cardano and Porzio (eds.), Sulla via di Tianjin.

61 See Marinelli, ‘Self-portrait’, 27.

62 Carlotto was the naval lieutenant who had died in Tianjin on 15 Jun. 1901 while defending, together with a group of navy men, the so-called Italian Consulate.

63 Cronin, V., The Wise Man from the West (London, 1955)Google Scholar.

64 In 1863 the British and the American settlements were later combined in the Shanghai International Settlement (上 海 公 共 租 界), which was administered by Shanghai Municipal Council ( 部 局). Chinese citizens were not permitted to join the Council until 1928.

65 Bickers, R.A. and Wasserstrom, J.N., ‘Shanghai's “Dogs and Chinese Not Admitted” sign: legend, history and contemporary symbol’, China Quarterly, 142 (1995), 445CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67 For more on this theme see Hibbard, P., The Bund Shanghai: China Faces West (Hong Kong, 2007), 5563Google Scholar.

68 Moser, M.J. and Moser, Y. Wei-chih, Foreigners within the Gates: The Legations at Peking (Hong Kong and New York, 1993)Google Scholar.

69 Borgnino, ‘La “concessione”‘, 363.

70 I borrow this expression from Stoler, see Stoler, A., Race and Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things (Durham, NC, 1995), 1326Google Scholar.

71 Borgnino, ‘La “concessione”‘, 365. The mystification of the concession as a neighbourhood was therefore a colonial rhetorical trope.

72 Ibid., 366.

73 Quoted in Cardano and Porzio (eds.), Sulla via di Tianjin, 44.

74 Fileti, La concessione, 8–9. This masculine connotation of Fileti's language seems to allude to the deflowering of China, portrayed as a feminine colonial object.

75 C. Cesari, La concessione Italiana di Tien-Tsin, Rome: Istituto Coloniale Fascista, 1937, n. 4, XV, 23. Mussolini's famous speech on Italian foreign policy at the Senate, 5 Jun. 1928, is also quoted in Cicchitti-Suriani, ‘La concessione’, 565.

76 U. Bassi, Italia e Cina, 16. Bassi had previously written on the Italian colonial policy in Africa and the government of the colony in Libia. See Bassi, U., I parlamenti libici: sulla partecipazione degli indigeni al Governo della Libia (Modena, 1924)Google Scholar; and idem, Cronache di politica coloniale (Modena, 1928). On the Italian colonial experience in Africa and in China see Del Boca, Italiani, 89–104, in particular.

77 Ibid., 22.

78 Ibid., 29.

79 Tianjin Yidali fengqingqu Jianzhu yu zhengxiude lishi yu huigu (Beijing, 2006).

80 Tianjinshi (ed.), Tianjin zujie, 262–9. After 1949 it became a cultural centre.

81 The riddle was solved in Apr. 2008 when architect Barbara Ciccolella confirmed that the building was renovated, maintaining the external appearance but radically changing the interior.

82 By which Sun meant freedom from imperialist domination.

83 Sun intended a Western constitutional government. In the Chinese case, political life should have ideally combined the power of politics (zhengquan) with the power of governance (zhiquan).

84 Minsheng can also be translated as socialism, although the government of Chiang Kai-Shek shied away from translating it as such. The concept may be understood as social welfare since Sun divided livelihood into four areas: food, clothing, housing and transportation. According to Sun, an ideal (Chinese) government should fulfil these duties for its people. Yat-Sen, Sun, San Min Chu I: The Three Principles of the People, trans. Price, F. W., ed. Chen, L. T. (Shanghai, 1927), 189–92Google Scholar, 201–2, 210–11, 262–3, 273, 278.

85 Foucault, ‘Des espaces autres’, 48. Foucault refers to the brothels (heterotopia of illusion) and the colonies (heterotopia of compensation) as two extreme types of heterotopia.

86 Suisheng, Zhao, A Nation-State by Construction: Dynamics of Modern Chinese Nationalism (Stanford, 2004)Google Scholar.

87 An unpublished report (3 Jun. 2006), originally prepared for China Central Television's program ‘News Investigation’, contains images and commentaries regarding the ‘barbaric violence and forced relocation in the Italy scenery neighbourhood’ (中 国 天 津 市 河 北 区 意 式 风 情 区 野 蛮 暴 力 拆 迁 报 告); accessed on 6 Jul. 2007.

88 Orlandi, P. (ed.), Urban Revitalisation in the Former European Concessions Areas in Tianjin China (Bologna, 2005)Google Scholar.

89 Foucault, ‘Des espaces autres’, 47.

90 An exception are the 25 buildings renovated by the Italian company Sirena in collaboration with Tianjin City Council.

91 Guo, Changjiu (ed.), Yishijiefengqing (Italian-style scenery) (Tianjin, 2001), 1Google Scholar.

92 Ministero Affari Esteri, ‘Concessione italiana’.

93 Built in 1889 in the northern side of the park to commemorate the British general Charles George Gordon who helped the Qing dynasty to repress the Taiping rebellion (1850–64).

94 Cardano and Porzio (eds.), Sulla via di Tianjin.

95 The term zu means ‘to lease’, jie means ‘boundary’, from the compound guojie, meaning boundaries of a country.

96 Shan and Liu, Tianjin, 1.

97 Cardano and Porzio (eds.), Sulla via di Tianjin, 7.

99 Simulation implies the substitution ‘of the signs of the real for the real itself’, as Jean Baudrillard argues in his analysis of what he calls ‘the precession of simulacra’, where he comes to the conclusion that: ‘Simulation is characterized by a precession of the model, of all models around the merest fact . . . Facts no longer have any trajectory of their own, they arise at the intersection of the models.’ Baudrillard, J., Simulations (New York, 1983), 32Google Scholar.

100 Ibid., 7.

101 See Sheehan, B., Trust in Troubled Times: Money, Banks, and State–Society Relations in Republican Tianjin (Cambridge, MA, 2003)Google Scholar.

102 This is the title of the famous book by Henri Lefebvre, who argued that place and space do not exist sui generis but are ‘produced’. Lefebvre, H., The Production of Space (New York, 1991)Google Scholar.

103 Fileti, La concessione, 8–9.

104 Edward Said has explored the idea of ‘in-betweenness’ or living and working ‘between worlds’ in all his work, see Said, E., Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (Cambridge, MA, 1966)Google Scholar; Said, E., E. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA, 2002)Google Scholar.

105 ‘The non-synchronous temporality of global and national cultures opens up a cultural space – a third space – where the negotiation of incommensurable differences creates a tension peculiar to borderline existences.’ Bhabha, H., The Location of Culture (New York, 1994), 218Google Scholar, see also 102–22.

106 Benjamin, W., ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, in Illuminations (New York, 1968), 217–51Google Scholar.

107 Foucault, ‘Des espaces autres’, 47.