Coming in March 2017 Allen Lane/Penguin Press, and in August 2017 from Harvard University Press.
2011 The Scramble for China: Foreign devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914
The blurb: “In the early 19th century China remained almost untouched by Britain and other European powers – ferocious laws forbade all trade with the West outside one tiny area of Canton. Anyone teaching a European to speak Chinese was executed. But as new technology began to unbalance the relationship, foreigners gathered like wolves around the weakening Qing Empire. Would the Chinese suffer the fate of much of the rest of the world, carved into pieces by the Europeans? Or could they adapt rapidly enough to maintain their independence? Humiliated by military disaster, racked by rebellions that cost millions of lives and ultimately invaded during the Boxer Rebellion by thousands of foreign soldiers, it looked as though the colonial Scramble for Africa was about to be followed by the Scramble for China.
This extraordinary new book tells this epic story both from the European (mainly British) point of view and the Chinese. The degradation of China in this period is crucially important to understanding China today, whose government and people are steeped in stories of this terrible time and never wish to appear weak again. The Scramble for China is both highly original and brilliantly written – it reimagines these encounters between two equally arrogant and scornful civilizations, whether from the point of view of a Chinese governor or a British soldier. It is an epic of squalor, romance, brutality and exoticism, and it changed the world.
“At every airport bookshop, the business traveller is offered shelves of volumes that purport to tell us how an emerging, powerful China will deal with the world, and how the rest of us should make the most of the commercial opportunities opened up by its rise. Those who wish to understand these issues more closely might be better advised to read this fair and fascinating account.” Chris Patten Financial Times.
“Meticulously researched, this is an authoritative study of a “dark, complex phase in modern China’s history”. The Guardian.
“Powerful, astute and readable … meticulously researched in contemporary English-language records and journals, and written with flair and feeling, its rhetoric eschews rant and is never misplaced” John Keay, Literary Review
“Compellingly erudite and clear-sighted history”, Dominic Sandbrook Sunday Times
2003 Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai
The blurb: ‘Shanghai in the wake of the First World War was one of the world’s most dynamic, brutal and exciting cities – a swarming metropolis of nightclubs, opium-dens, gambling, sex and murder. Threatened from within by gangsters, communists and nationalists, and from without by Chinese warlords and the Japanese military, the hold of the British dominated administration seemed increasing fragile.
Robert Bickers’s account of this corrupt and mesmerizing city is illuminated by the rediscovered letters and photo-albums of a forgotten Englishman – a tough, resourceful policeman who stepped into the maelstrom of post-war Shanghai. Told through the moving story of one man’s life and death while working for a governing class he could never belong to, Empire Made Me provides an intriguing glimpse into how the British Empire really worked.’
Some reviews: “Informative… energetically written. Making his way warily between the anti-imperialists and the nostalgists of empire, placing a ‘marginal’ man in his full context, Bickers does lift a corner of the curtain on a nearly lost world, a world as ordinary then as it may seem extraordinary to us.” — John Spurling The Guardian. Full review here.
“fascinating piece of historical detective work…it is probably the best Old Shanghai book I have read…superb — Anton Graham China Economic Review
“Empire Made Me is a fascinating and intimate portrait of Shanghai at its apex’. Asian Review of Books
” A work of dedicated and original scholarship… What emerges is the portrait of a singular and heroic man.” — John Carey Sunday Times, London
“Bickers’ detailed recovery of an obscure and ‘unimportant’ policeman’s life gives a valuable street-level view of a complex scene. — Robin Blake Financial Times, London
“One of the most intriguing true-life books of the year. — David Wilson South China Morning Post
“superb” — Giles Foden Conde Nast Traveler (UK)
1999: Britain in China: Community Culture and Colonialism, 1900-1949
Blurb: Robert Bickers paints a detailed portrait of the traders, missionaries, businessmen, diplomats and settlers who constituted “Britain-in-China.” Bickers argues that the British presence in China was dominated by urban settlers whose primary allegiance lay not with any grand imperial design but with their own communities and precarious livelihoods. This brought them into growing conflict with the Chinese population and the British imperial government. Bickers goes on to examine how the British state and its allies brought an end to the reign of freelance, settler imperialism on the China coast. At the same time, other British sectors, missionary and business, renegotiated their own relationship with their Chinese markets and the Chinese state and distanced themselves from the settler British.