Friends in Far Places: The Foreign Presence in Late Qing and Early Republican China's Legations and Consulates

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Oriental Institute


When Qing China's first legations and consulates began to be established in the 1870s, its diplomats encountered diplomacy, in the modern Western sense, for the first time. How then did the Qing engage with the challenge of deciphering the concepts and constructs of Western diplomacy? Furthermore, how did this process culminate in the emergence of a class of professional diplomats equipped to deal with such tasks in the early 20th century, as the Republic of China emerged in place of the Qing?

This project will address these fundamental questions through an analysis of the versatile roles performed by Westerners who served in the employ of Qing and Republican China's legations and consulates. There are significant implications for both modern Chinese and diplomatic history for understanding: (1) the devolution of diplomatic roles to these Westerners; (2) how this devolution was related to the Chinese bureaucratic precedent for outsourcing to specialists the work for which bureaucrats did not, in the Confucian system, undergo training; and (3) the point at which this Western presence began to be dismantled, due to a burgeoning domestic awareness of the importance of fostering professional 'diplomats'. Firstly, it will help us to understand how diplomacy, both as a praxis and as a crucial ideological underpinning of a modern state, came to be encoded in the early modern Chinese bureaucratic framework and imagination. Secondly, it will allow us to trace the process by which early modern China's fledgling diplomatic service came to be professionalised according to Western paradigms, and how it thus came to shed its traditional skin. Thirdly, an analysis of the gradual dismantling of the Western presence will specifically help us to understand the direct implications of newly emerging narratives of nationalism and modern state-building in the diplomatic context of early 20th century China.

In framing my answers to the above research questions, I will employ three analytical perspectives. The first regards the contemporaneous Qing perspective. The Qing's fledgling diplomatic system in the 19th century exhibited many idiosyncrasies which were not found in its foreign counterparts. The serving ministers did not operate within a defined stringent structure, nor were they initially masters of what constitutes the 'Westphalian paradigm'. I see these characteristics of the Qing legations and consulates, coupled with the Qing institutional precedent for outsourcing work to private specialists, as creating a vacuum in which functions which, in the West, were traditionally performed by a diplomat, were performed by foreigners. The idiosyncrasies of late Qing diplomacy thus allowed for, and perhaps encouraged, the ministers to afford considerable autonomy to these individuals, and to utilise them in unorthodox ways.

The second perspective of importance to this topic is what James Hevia, in reference to foreign imperialism in late Qing China, coined as 'tutelage'. Were the actions of foreigners engaged by the Qing to some extent designed as, or did they perhaps inadvertently serve as, a 'pedagogical project' which sought to teach these Qing ministers, and their staff, how to conduct diplomacy for a country which was now part of 'the family of nations'? If their actions were inherently didactic, did they have any direct influence on inculcating or influencing Qing discourse on how a 'diplomat' ought to act?

Thirdly, I seek to situate my work within broader world-historical perspectives. The Qing was not alone in employing foreigners in diplomatic contexts: similar instances can be noted in Japan and the Ottoman Empire. By framing my work in dialogue with materials which shed light on comparable individuals in other regions, I believe it will help to clarify the inherent peculiarities of Qing diplomacy, and enable this research to elucidate how professional diplomats and consuls emerged from non-European contexts.


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