‘Picturing China’ filmed

The Arts & Humanities Research Council have made a nice little film about one of my projects, ‘Historical Photographs of China’. This is one of a number of films they have commissioned to mark the tenth anniversary of the council, and which showcase projects that it has funded. We have placed 9,155 photographs on the site, with another c.22,000 in process, and just in the last few days have received wonderful collections showcasing Chongqing and the Upper Yangzi river in the mid/late 1930s, and north China at about the same time. Our collection ranges back as far as 1857, and as recently as December 1950. And we know there’s a lot more out there … so what’s safely tucked away in your attics and on your bookcases?

Working for the Chinese Customs Service

Ladds, Empire CareersA plug: my former student Dr Catherine Ladds has just published her first book, Empire Careers: Working for the Chinese Customs Service, with Manchester University Press.

Over 5,500 British nationals served in the Customs, between 1854 and 1950. The service was an agency of the Chinese state, and so these foreign men worked as Chinese civil servants. Another 5,500 Europeans, Japanese and US citizens also served in that same period. The great majority were ‘out door’ staff: watchers, tidewaiters, examiners, lighthouse keepers and so on.

We have had a few memoirs of life and work in this world, though mostly of the elite ‘Indoor Staff’, as well as some histories of the service (and it produced many of its own histories as well). A great deal of material about the Customs, including lists of all staff, Chinese and foreigners, who served, can be found on the ‘History of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service’ website.

The book explores the ways in which these men came to work for the Customs (no university graduates wanted, by the way: ‘We want men and not encyclopaedias’ declared Robert Hart, the service’s long-term chief), how they were trained, and what happened to them. It is easy to assume that such men came from social elites, and were unreflective imperialists, but the picture is much more varied, and these servants of the Chinese state were in many cases more loyal to their salt then might be imagined.

Cathy’s fabulous book cover shows two young novices — British staffer Reginald Hedgeland, and Frenchman P.P.P.M. Krèmer — in Nanjing in 1899, where they were studying Chinese. More photos from Hedgeland’s albums (preserved in the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London), and those of other Customs staff can be found on the Historical Photographs of China project site.