“Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination” by Robert Bickers


Western commentators are wont to complain that China doesn’t always seem committed to “international norms”. Robert Bickers’s new book Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination helps explain why: “international norms” were used for a century to justify encroachments on Chinese sovereignty.

This story is hardly unknown, of course and it’s worth asking why it bears repeating. One reason, perhaps, is just because out of sight leads to out of mind. Another reason might be that when accounts of foreign interference are limited, as they can be, to the Opium War and some bad behavior in the concessions in Shanghai, it is easier to hold that these relatively isolated incidents are so far in the past that they should not have any bearing on relations today. “The era when China was subject to foreign invasion … has been over for seventy years. Is it not simply history, done and dusted with now?” ask Bickers, entirely rhetorically, in his introduction.

Bickers has an innate sense of rhythm.

Bickers’s 400 pages paint a picture of almost universal and continual disingenuousness and obliviousness by Western powers and individuals; it might be deadening if he were not such a talented writer. Bickers doesn’t even start his account until 1918—well after the Opium Wars, the burning of the Summer Palace and the Boxer reparations—with the end of World War I, a year when a modern China had considerable reason to believe that it would join the community of nations as an equal; but realpolitik reigned at Versailles and the Chinese were sold out to the Japanese.

Bickers covers everything from politics and war to classical art and popular culture, Shanghai to Chongqing, Hong Kong and Shamian Island, extra-territoriality to the “yellow peril” and runs up to the late 1997 Handover of Hong Kong. None of this would have the effect it has were it not for the quality of prose. The tone is conversational; rigor is conveyed with simple words. Bickers has an innate sense of rhythm. The pages of events, names, descriptions and explanations roll along, the commentary all the more trenchant for being stated matter-of-factly:


The Allies would soon start to forget that China had been on their side in the Great War. They did not even fly China’s flag during their celebrations in Tianjin’s British concession. The great War Memorial that would be unveiled on the Bund at Shanghai in 1924 failed to recognize China’s dead.


Bickers’s way with words does not the spare the Chinese. His description of a rural massacre in 1922 goes:


So they killed, killed, killed their enemies — priests, Christians, spies, landlords, soldiers, clan leaders; they killed to settle scores and pay back the perpetrators of earlier killings; they killed to demonstrate their commitment to the cause; they killed out of fear of not proving their commitment to it; they killed to ensure none would survive to exact a later revenge; they killed to show the hesitant that the victims no longer had any power over them; they killed because the sanguine public theatre of the embattled revolutions demanded it; and they killed simply because they could.


Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination, Robert Bickers (Allen Lane, March 2017; Harvard University Press, August 2017)
Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination, Robert Bickers (Allen Lane, March 2017; Harvard University Press, August 2017)

While the British and Americans take center-stage for the most part, other (European) countries are covered in some detail as well. Bickers in particular devotes not inconsiderable space to the Soviet presence in China after the establishment of the PRC, drawing parallels—plus ça change…—to previous “foreign experts” and extraterritoriality until the Soviets were themselves ejected some years later. Although Bickers discusses Japan—how could one not?—the country seems not to be quite the point of the book.

China’s own multiple failings in this period apart, it is hard to read Out of China as a Caucasian and not end up embarrassed. As salutary as that reaction may be, it is not in fact Bickers’ objective, or at least not his primary one. “Nationalism matters in China,” he writes in the introduction, “and what matters in China matters to us all.” He is as concerned about the uses to which China puts the narrative, or their version of it, which Bickers calls “partial, self-serving and incendiary”. He writes, without evident irony, that


The story of the foreign presence in China in the twentieth century, as much as in the nineteenth century or in any part of China’s modern history, is too important today to be left in the hands of the Chinese party-state and this approved script.

Bickers notes a new nationalism characterized by anger. “Being effectively equipped with the facts might help us understand the roots of that rage.” When mentioning Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2012 promise of a “China dream”, Bickers writes that “The China dream in grounded in this story of an unrelenting Chinese nightmare. We need to acknowledge that, and understand it, but we do not need to believe it.”

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.