At the Edges of Empires: Intermediaries and Global Networks of Empires, 19th and 20th Centuries

(This is an edited and updated syllabus of the one-off seminar course I offered for MA and undergraduate students at the Department of History, the Unviversity of Basel in autumn 2021.)

Course Description:

This course explores three themes; 1) the social, economic, and cultural reality of the British informal empire; 2) a variety of intermediaries who enabled the imperial expansion; 3) global networks of people, commodities, and ideas. It typically focuses on Hong Kong, a British colony and Shanghai, a city consisting of Chinese residential areas, the international settlements, and the French Concession during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Course readings broadly include literatures on the British empire and the globalisation in the long nineteenth century.


A. All participants

• Read the required reading before the session. All the required readings and further readings are available in the ADAM.

• Write a short input (question, comment, note on the reading text) in the forum by the day before the respective session.

• Participate in the session (max. 3 absences)

B. Group/Individuals

• Prepare an oral presentation (about 10 mins) on a subject which is relevant to a reading chosen from the list of “further readings” NOT from the required reading. Send the presentation resource (e.g. power point file) to the instructor by the morning of the day before the presentation.

• Think about one or two questions or topics you want to discuss with other students in the seminar. Write it down and send it to the instructor together with the presentation resource.

• Do the presentation at the beginning or the middle of the seminar.

Please see “Instruction for the course work” for more detail about how to prepare for the presentation and the course work.

Learning Goals:

  1. Understand the concepts of informal empire and treaty ports.
  2. Understand the variety of intermediaries and marginal actors operating in overlapping areas of European and Asian empires.
  3. Understand economic, social and cultural networks which underpinned the globalisation during the late 19th and the early 20th centuries.

Recommended Course Readings

• Brunero, Donna and Stephanie Villalta Puig, Life in Treaty Port China and Japan (Singapore: Springer Singapore: Imprint: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

• Carroll, John M., Edge of Empires: Chinese Elites and British Colonials in Hong Kong (Cambridge, Mass. ; London : Harvard University Press, 2005).

• Magee, Gary B., and Andrew S. Thompson, Empire and Globalisation: Networks of People, Goods and Capital in the British World, c.1850-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010).

• Mitter, Rana, Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

• Weinbaum, Alys Eve, et al. (eds.), The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008)

Course Schedule:

1. Introductory session

If possible, read:

• York Lo, “J. Ullmann – Swiss Watchmaker and Jeweller in HK and China”, The Industrial History of Hong Kong Group (Published October 12, 2020).

Relavant readings:

• Chang, David, The Bovet 1822, The Legend (2015).

• Pagani, Catherine, “Eastern Magnificence and European Ingenuity”: Clocks of Late Imperial China (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 2001).

2. Informal Empire 1: Concepts

Required reading:

• Gallagher, John, and Ronald Robinson, “Imperialisms of Free Trade.” Economic History Review, Second Series, Vol. 6, No. 1(1953), 1–15.

Recommended audio resource:
• “Talking Empire: The Gallagher-Robinson Controversy”,

Further Readings:

• Osterhammel, Jürgen, “Semi-Colonialism and Informal Empire in Twentieth-Century China: Towards a Framework of Analysis”, In: Mommsen, Wolfgang J., and others (eds.), Imperialism and After: Continuities and Discontinuities (London:Allen & Unwin,1985), 290-314.

• Darwin, John, “Imperialism and the Victorians: The Dynamics of Territorial Expansion”, The English Historical Review, Volume CXII, Issue 447 (June 1997), 614–642.

• Dean, Britten, “British Informal Empire: The Case of China”, The Journal of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, Vol.14, No. 1 (1976), 64-81.

• Knüsel, Ariane, “Tricky Business: Swiss Perceptions of Informal Imperialism in China in the 1920s”, Journal of Modern Chinese History, vol. 8, No. 2 (2014), 210–229.

• Lynn, Martin, “British Policy, Trade, and Informal Empire in the Mid-Nineteenth Century” In Andrew Porter, Alaine Low, and Wm Roger Louis, (eds.), The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume III: The Nineteenth Century (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1999), 101–121.

3. Informal Empire 2: Treaty Ports

Required reading:

• Bickers, Robert A., and Isabella Jackson, eds. “Introduction” in Treaty Ports in Modern China: Law, Land and Power. (London: Routledge, 2016), 1-18.

Recommended reading:

• Ladds, Catherine, “China and Treaty Port Imperialism” in MacKenzie, John, The Encyclopedia of Empire (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), 1–6.

Further Readings:

• Taylor, Jeremy E., “The Bund: Littoral Space of Empire in the Treaty Ports of East Asia.” Social History, Vol. 27, No. 2 (2002), 125–142.

• Brunero, Donna, “Ponies, Amahs and All That …’: Family Lives in China’s Treaty Ports”, In Brunero D., Villalta Puig S. (eds.), Life in Treaty Port China and Japan (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 21-44.

• Fairbank, John Κ., “The Early Treaty System in the Chinese World Order” in John King Fairbank(ed.), The Chinese World Order: Traditional China’s Foreign Relations (Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2013), 257-275.

• Hoare, J. E.,” Chapter 4: Extraterritoriality in Japan: The System in Operation, 1869–1899″, In Japan’s Treaty Ports and Foreign Settlements: The Uninvited Guests, 1858-1899 (Folkestone : Japan Library, 1994), 66–105.

4. Informal Empire 3: Merchants

Required reading:

• Chen Song-Chuan, “The Warlike and Pacific Parties” in Merchants of War and Peace: British Knowledge of China in the Making of the Opium War (Hong Kong, HK: Hong Kong University Press 2017), 11–37.

Recommended web resources:

• Oxford Reference, “Overview: Opium Wars”, A Dictionary of World History (2 ed.), edited by Edmund Wright, Oxford University Press, published online 2007.

• Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Visualizing Cultures “Rise and Fall of Canton Trade System “, published online 2009.

Further readings:

• Lovell, Julia., “Introduction” in The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China (London, UK: Pan Macmillan, 2011), 1–16.

• Siddiqi, Asiya, “The Business World of Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy”, The Indian Economic & Social History Review, Vol. 19, Nos. 3&4 (1982), 301-324.

• Rachel, Tamar Van., “The ‘Woman Pigeon’: Gendered Bonds and Barriers in the Anglo–American Commercial Community in Canton and Macao, 1800–1849.” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (2014), 561–591.

• Van Dyke, Paul A. “Ambiguous Faces of the Canton Trade: Moors, Greeks, Armenians, Parsees, Jews, and Southeast Asians”, In Paul A. Van Dyke and Susan E. Schopp (eds.), The Private Side of the Canton Trade, 1700–1840: Beyond the Companies 1st ed.(Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2018), 21–42.

• Wong, John D., “Weaving a Trading Network: Breaking Free with the Eagle,” In Global Trade in the Nineteenth Century: The House of Houqua and the Canton System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 72–104.

5. Informal Empire 4: Settler Communities

Required Reading:

• Bickers, Robert, “Shanghailanders: The Formation and Identity of the British Settler Community in Shanghai, 1843–1937”, Past & Present, No.159, (May 1998), 161–211.

Further readings:

• Shen, Lindsay, “Shanghailanders: Guns, Gardens and Long-gone Houses”, in Shen, Lindsay, Knowledge is Pleasure: Florence Ayscough in Shanghai (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012), 7–44.

• Betta, Chiara. “From Orientals to Imagined Britons: Baghdadi Jews in Shanghai.” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 37, No. 4 (2003), 999–1023.

• Lim, Patricia, “The Early Settlers, the First Opium War and Its Aftermath” In Lim, Patricia, Forgotten Souls: A Social History of the Hong Kong Cemetery (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011), 30–58.

• Smith, Carl T., “The German Speaking Community in Hong Kong, 1846-1918,” Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 34 (1994), 1–55.

• Scully, Eileen P., “Prostitution as Privilege: The ‘American Girl’ of Treaty-Port Shanghai, 1860-1937”, The International History Review, Vol. 20, No. 4(1998), 855-83.

6. Intermediaries 1: The Theory of “Collaboration”

Required reading:

• Robinson, Ronald, “Non-European Foundations of European Imperialism: Sketch for a Theory of Collaboration”, in Roger Owen and Bob Sutcliffe (eds.), Studies in the theory of imperialism (London: Longman 1972), 117-142.

Further readings:

• Carroll, John M.,”Colonialism and Collaboration: Chinese Subjects and the Making of British Hong Kong”, in Edge of Empires: Chinese Elites and British Colonials in Hong Kong (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 16–36.

• Bayly, C. A. “Knowing the Country: Empire and Information in India”, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1(1993), 3–43.

• Palsetia, Jesse S. “The Parsis of India and the Opium Trade in China”, Contemporary Drug Problems, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2008), 647–78.

• Onley, James. “Britain’s Native Agents in Arabia and Persia in the Nineteenth Century”, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol. 24 No. 1 (2004), 129-137.

• Mark-Thiesen, Cassandra, “The ‘Bargain’ of Collaboration: African Intermediaries, Indirect Recruitment, and Indigenous Institutions in the Ghanaian Gold Mining Industry, 1900–1906”, International Review of Social History, Vol. 57, No. S20 (2012), 17–38.

7. Intermediaries 2: “Collaborators”

Required Reading:

• Munn, Christopher, “Colonialism ‘in a Chinese atmosphere’: The Caldwell Affair and the Perils of Collaboration in Early Colonial Hong Kong”, in Robert Bickers and Christian Henriot (eds.), New Frontiers: Imperialism’s New Communities in East Asia, 1842-1953 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), 12–37.

Further readings:

• Hao Yen-P’ing, “The Rise and Fall of the Comprador” in the Comprador in Nineteenth-Century China:Bridge between East and West (Cambridge: Harvarde University Press, 1970), 44–63.

• Bergère, Marie-Claire, “Chapter 3: “The Birth of Shanghai Capitalism (1860–1911)” in Bergère, Marie-Claire, Shanghai: China’s Gateway to Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 50–83.

• Smith, Carl T., “Chapter 2, 2. The Formative Years of the Tong Brothers, Pioneers in the Modernization of China’s Commerce and Industry”, in Chinese Christians: Élites, Middlemen, and the Church in Hong Kong (Hong Kong; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 34-51.

• Lowe, Kate & Eugene McLaughlin, “Caution! The Bread is Poisoned’: The Hong Kong Mass Poisoning of January 1857”, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol.43, No.2 (2015), 189-209.

8: Intermediaries 3: Police Officers

Required reading:

• Jackson, Isabella, “The Raj on Nanjing Road: Sikh Policemen in Treaty-Port Shanghai”, Modern Asian Studies , Vol. 46, No. 2 (2012), 1672-1704.

Further readings:

• Miners, Norman, “The localization of the Hong Kong police force, 1842–1947”, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 18, No.3 (1990), 296–315.

• Yin, Cao, “Policing the British Empire on the Bund: The Origin of the Sikh Police Unit in Shanghai,” Britain and the World, Vol. 10, No. 1 (2017), 53–73.

• Wakeman, Frederic, “Policing Modern Shanghai,” The China Quarterly, No. 115 (1988), 408–440.

• O’Sullivan, Patricia, “George Hennessy, an Irishman in the Hong Kong Police”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch, Vol. 52 (2012), 189–223.

• Cheuk, Ka-Kin, “China, including Hong Kong.” In Knut A. Jacobsen, Gurinder S. Mann, Eleanor Nesbitt, and Kristina Myrvold (eds.), Brill’s Encyclopedia of Sikhism (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 473–479.

9. Global Networks 1: Migration

Required reading:

• Magee, Gary B. & Thompson, Andrew S., “Networks and the British World” In Empire and Globalisation: Networks of People, Goods and Capital in the British World, c.1850–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010), 45-63.

Further readings:

• Sinn, Elizabeth, “Pacific Ocean: Highway to Gold Mountain, 1850–1900,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 83, No. 2 (2014), 220-37.

• Goodman, Bryna, “The Locality as Microcosm of the Nation ?: Native Place Networks and Early Urban Nationalism in China”, Modern China, Vol.21, No.4 (1995), 387–419.

• Cochran, Sherman, “Chapter 6: Crossing National Borders”, In Chinese Medicine Men: Consumer Culture in China and Southeast Asia (Cambridge, Mass. ; London : Harvard University Press, 2006), 118–150.

• Johnston, Hugh, “Chapter 4: Departure: A Punjabi Emigrant Ship From Hong Kong”, In The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada’s Colour Bar (Delhi : Oxford University Press, 1979), 53–67.

10. Global Networks 2: Contract Labours

Required reading:

• Hu-DeHart, Evelyn, “Chinese Contract Labor in the Wake of the Abolition of Slavery in the Americas: A New Form of Slavery or Transition to Free Labor in the Case of Cuba?”, Amerasia Journal, Vol.45, No.1 (2019), 6–26.

Further readings:

• Yun, Lisa, “Chapter 2: The Coolie Testimonies”, in The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008), 36–71.

• Warren, James Francis, “Social history and the photograph: Glimpses of the Singapore rickshaw coolie in the early 20th century”, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 58, No. 1(248) (1985), 29–42.

• Liu, Andrew B., “Incense and Industry: Labour and Capital in the Tea Districts of Huizhou, China”, Past & Present, No. 230 (February 2016), 161–195.

• Honig, Emily, “The Contract Labor System and Women Workers: Pre-Liberation Cotton Mills of Shanghai,” Modern China, Vol.9, No. 4 (1983), 421–454.

11. Global Networks 3: Infectious Diseases

Required reading:

• Peckham, Robert, “Infective Economies: Empire, Panic and the Business of Disease”, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol.41, No.2, (2013), 211–237.

Further Readings:

• Rogaski, Ruth, “The Manchurian Plague and COVID-19: China, the United States, and the “Sick Man,” Then and Now.” American Journal of Public Health Vol. 111, No. 3 (2021), 423-429.

• Benedict, Carol, “Bubonic Plague in Nineteenth-Century China”. Modern China, Vol.14, No.2 (1988), 107-155.

• Gamsa, Mark, “The Epidemic of Pneumonic Plague in Manchuria 1910–1911”, Past & Present, Volume 190, Issue 1 (February 2006),147–183.

• Proshan, Chester J., “Japanese, International Migrants, and Cholera in the Yokohama Treaty Port, 1859–1899”, in Donna Brunero, Stephanie Villalta Puig (eds.), Life in Treaty Port China and Japan (Singapore: Springer Singapore : Imprint: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 137-171.

12. Global Networks 4: Modern Girls

Required reading:

• “The Modern Girl Around the World: Cosmetics Advertising and the Politics of Race and Style” in Alys Eve Weinbaum and Modern Girl Around the World Research Group.; et al, The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization.

Further readings:

• Yeh, Catherine Vance, “The Life-Style of Four Wenren in Late Qing Shanghai.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 57, No. 2, (1997), 419–470.

• Lewis, Su Lin, “Cosmopolitanism and the Modern Girl: A Cross-Cultural Discourse in 1930s Penang,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 43, No. 6 (2009), 1385–1419.

• Sang, Tze-Lan D, “Failed Modern Girls in Early-Twentieth-Century China”, In Doris Croissant, Catherine Vance Yeh, and Joshua S. Mostow, edss., Performing “Nation”: Gender Politics in Literature, Theater, and the Visual Arts of China and Japan, 1880-1940 (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 179–202.

• Henriot, Christian, “‘From a Throne of Glory to a Seat of Ignominy’: Shanghai Prostitution Revisited (1849-1949).” Modern China, Vol. 22, No. 2 (1996), 132–163.

13. Concluding session

Field trip to the China Room, Institute for European Global Studies, University of Basel to see the wallpapers made in mid-18th century Canton.