At at time when trade between China and the outside world is rarely out of the news, it remains important to remember that in centuries past global commerce moved in directions very different from those which dominate the present. This was especially evident during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when Western countries and Japan employed a mix of coercive and collaborative mechanisms to foist their wares and business priorities on China, dominating the country’s trade and customs.
’s new book Navigating Semi-Colonialism: Shipping, Sovereignty, and Nation-Building in China, 1860–1937
(Harvard University Asia Center, 2018) focuses on these very dynamics and specifically the place of steam shipping as ‘a means of interrogating China’s experience of Euro-American and Japanese colonialism’ (p.2). Reinhardt's book reveals how trade in China’s coastal and inland waters, and the very vessels via which this was conducted, were sites where myriad grander processes crystallized in physical space. From the closer quarters of boardrooms, government departments and cabins below deck, Reinhardt also takes us to higher levels of elevation, revealing the place of steam shipping within global developments in trade, transport and technology during this crucial period. As well as being a captivating read, the book's fresh and nuanced presentation of China's ‘semi-colonial’ experience is vital for better understanding a history which to this day informs relations between China and the world at large.
Ed Pulford is a postdoctoral researcher at the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center, Hokkaido University. His research focuses on friendships and histories between the Chinese, Korean and Russian worlds, and northeast Asian indigenous groups.