Typhoons, Merchants & Meteorology in Treaty Port China

A review of Typhoons, Meteorological Intelligence, and the Inter-Port Mercantile Community in Nineteenth-Century China, by Marlon Zhu.

Marlon Zhu’s dissertation examines the foreign mercantile community residing in the treaty ports of nineteenth-century China, charting out the dialectical process through which this community shaped and was shaped by the experience and understanding of severe weather – above all, the dreaded, destructive, and periodic typhoon. As Zhu argues over the course of his study, this “‘inter-port community’ and their distinctive idea and practice about weather, had dynamically co-constituted each other” (p. 5).

Rather than producing an institutional history of observatories, or a biography of its primary architects, he redirects our attention to the “inter-port mercantile community” that at times advocated, at other times critiqued, and at all times demanded and depended upon the development of a more accurate and timely typhoon reporting information system. Thus, he delivers a wealth of information about the Zikawei Observatory, the Hongkong Observatory, and the weather data collection practices of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs office, but he does not treat these institutions or their directors as the “main players of meteorology” (pp. 307-308). Instead, it was the trans-local treaty port mercantile community – a small yet highly vocal and mobile community that lived and traveled in and between Shanghai, Hong Kong, and elsewhere – that shaped and drove this history above all else, he argues. “[M]ercantile thirst for weather information,” as he puts it, “was the key to meteorology in nineteenth-century China; and the commercial dailies circulated among ports had furnished an inter-port discursive sphere for securing satisfaction and fulfillment of such ‘want'” (p. 303). Whereas other treaty port communities have often dominated our narratives – particularly students, diplomats, missionaries, and military outfits – Zhu argues that “[i]t would be misguiding to discuss a social history of science and technology in treaty-port China without taking merchants as the main players” (p. 9). Zhu’s work thus moves squarely within key conversations taking place in the History of Science, and engages with scholars in the history of climate science and the cultural history of weather, including Jan Golinski, Katherine Anderson, and Vladimir Jankovic (Jan Golinski. British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007; Katherine Anderson. Predicting the Weather: Victorians and the Science of Meteorology. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005; Vladimir Jankovic. Reading the Skies: A Cultural History of English Weather, 1650-1820. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2001).

The dissertation comprises an introduction, five body chapters, and a conclusion. Chapter 1, entitled “The Beginning of Inter-Port Meteorology,” witnesses the ascent of the Zikawei Observatory as the de facto central observatory in China, an emergence propelled and shaped by the Shanghai mercantile community and the portion of the Shanghai press that they in large part dominated. In this chapter, we learn of the power and influence of the inter-port mercantile community, equipped as it were with a small but robust collections of newspapers and periodicals. The chapter begins with the travails of Robert Hart, head of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs, and his ill-fated attempts to begin systematically collecting and distributing meteorological observations. Hart’s plans never materialized, in no small part because of the poor and deteriorating relationship between Customs and the local mercantile community, which seized upon a highly publicized lawsuit filed against Hart by a disgruntled member of his faculty at the Tongwenguan to articulate their anti-Hart and anti-Customs sentiments. What was referred to in contemporary accounts as an “anti-Customs fraternity” and “mercantile ill-will,” Zhu argues, was in fact an insightful diagnosis of an actual community of practice – Zhu’s “inter-port mercantile community” – that few studies of the period have considered in great detail (p. 30). Above all else, we learn in this chapter that “newspapers had become an organ of the mercantile community in China’s treaty ports and Hongkong” (p. 30) – a small-scale public sphere in which mercantile interests were articulated, advanced, and defended.

In contrast to Hart, the directors of the Zikawei Observatory were more attuned to this community. The French Jesuits “fitted themselves to the merchant-dominated expatriate society” (p. 39) and thereby transformed this mercantile-controlled media into a source of vocal support and advocacy. Established six miles from the Bund, and headed by Father Marc Dechevrens, Zikawei began observations in December 1872 as one of the restored Jesuit Order’s dozens of newly established institutions around the world. The Jesuits at Zikawei reestablished their centrality and authority in science, and gained reputation with the merchant community – particularly following the successful forecast of typhoon in 1879 – by means of the mercantile-controlled segment of the Shanghai press.

Chapter 2, entitled “Inventing a Public Weather Service in ‘Motley’ Shanghai,” continues Zhu’s analysis of the Zikawei Observatory. Even with its ascendance as the leading observatory in China, Zhu shows, during its early years it was for the most part “in a mess” (p. 123). The very community to which it owed its status was also a constant source of supervision, challenge, and criticism. Moreover, its dominance was frequently challenged by those segments of the inter-port mercantile community residing outside of Shanghai, particularly in Hong Kong and Manila. Infrastructural factors weighed heavily here. Dechevrens’ fate and fortune was closely tied to and dependent upon the nascent telegraph infrastructure in East Asia. As Zhu explains, “Zikawei’s direct connection with other observation stations outside Shanghai, which were supposed to provide daily, if not instant, telegrams to each other, was the key to the success of the whole warning system” (p. 106). The problem was, however, that this telegraphic connection between Zikawei and the outside world remained “inadequate till the end of 1887” (p. 106). The questionable punctuality of Zikawei’s time-ball service, and above all the failure of Zikawei to forecast the typhoon of August 13, 1886, damaged its prestige, and laid the foundation for Dechevrens’ ignominious departure in 1887.

Chapter 3, entitled “Inter-Port Telegraphy and Meteorological Intelligence,” turns our attention from Shanghai to Hong Kong, and to the Hongkong Observatory (Zhu understandably uses the contemporary single-word appellation throughout the study). Rather than focusing squarely on the observatory itself, however, Zhu centers his analysis upon the nascent telegraphic infrastructure of China and the Far East upon which the Hongkong observatory relied heavily. This move enables Zhu once again to train his focus on the inter-port mercantile community, and their role in the emergence of “telegraphic meteorology.” In a mercantile community affected annually by severe weather and typhoons, merchants began to advocate experimentation with the newly available technology of submarine telegraphy. In 1873, China Mail began to feature augmented, telegraph-enhanced data on barometric pressure, direction and force of wind, and temperature. Particularly following the May 1880 installation of a submarine telegraph connection between Hong Kong and Manila – the region where typhoons typically originated – the regular reception of Manila telegrams became increasingly valued by this community. Following a successful forecast of a typhoon in September 1880, Manila telegrams were celebrated by the mercantile community, yet another chapter in this community’s central role as agents in the formation of meteorological practice. With their support, submarine telegraphy was steadily incorporated into the existing infrastructure of inter-port weather reporting.

Chapter 4, entitled “British Synoptic Meteorology and the Mercantile Community in Hongkong,” charts the emergence in coastal China of what it is now referred to as “synoptic meteorology.” Here, data is collected in a network of sites, and then transmitted to a center for calculation and mapping. It is this visualization of data upon weather maps, performed with frequency, that enabled contemporary practitioners to venture informed assessments of the pathway of weather systems and typhoons, and to sound warning alarms if deemed necessary. Central to the early development of synoptic meteorology in the region was Dr. William Doberck, the Founding Director of the Hongkong Observatory, whose mantra was a cocktail of modernization, centralization, standardization, hierarchy, and discipline. He and his supporters back home advanced the use of British-trained personnel, British-made instruments, and what was termed the suppression of “superfluous observers” (p. 197). He was the vanguard in the creation of an independent British imperial data collection network in the region. Under this mandate, a new, publicly funded observatory was completed and came into operation in 1883 and 1884: the Hongkong Observatory. Carrying the mandate of empire although he did, and endorsed by the Royal Geographic Society although he was, Doberck still had to deal constantly with the criticisms and unofficial supervision of the mercantile community. During the typhoon of September 10, 1884, lackluster performance of the Hong Kong government-funded observatory occasioned strong criticism and, as Zhu explains, “pressure from both the mercantile community and other weather-intelligence authorities posed constant challenges to Doberck” (p. 232). One reason for this substandard performance was Doberck’s insistence on centralization, and in particular his diminished circulation of the very weather reports from Manila that the mercantile community had come to value in Chapter 3. Running afoul of the working mantra of the inter-port mercantile community – that “[t]yphoon warnings were too important to be a monopoly of anyone,” as Zhu captures it – these efforts to imperialize and nationalize the weather service met with increasing dissatisfaction. Doberck and his supporters had grossly miscalculated the importance of the mercantile community and their demands. More significantly, these events demonstrate a central argument of Zhu’s dissertation, which pertains to the decidedly “motley” and multi-national quality of this community and their interests. More often than not, this community pitted its interests, not along national lines, but along lines of mercantile versus non-mercantile control. This community was often content to see the weather reporting system function as a multi-national, multi-nodal network, provided that it unfailingly served and responded to mercantile interests and, above all, provided accurate and timely life- and capital-saving forecasts.

Chapter 5, entitled “Controversies over Meteorological Sovereignty,” continues to follow Doberck through an increasingly tense and soon openly oppositional relationship with the inter-port mercantile community. He was constantly fighting battles, as Zhu shows in careful detail, and in this chapter two such battles serve as illustrations. Tensions reached new heights when Doberck made a controversial and largely unilateral decision in November 1898 to submit a request to the United States to terminate all future weather reports from U.S.-controlled Manila – the veracity and quality of which had been the subject of doubt and criticism by Doberck. The mercantile press promptly came to the defense of Manila however, urging reparation of inter-port communications, and resorting to the tactic of less-than-fidelitous simplifications of Doberck’s actual statements to foment anti-Doberck popular sentiment. Under pressure from the mercantile community, the Hong Kong government wrote to the United States Military Governor of the Philippines on March 28, 1899, negating Doberck’s earlier request to terminate communications, citing his lack of authorization to make such a request. The United States thereupon renewed the transmissions, to Doberck’s embarrassment. A second controversy followed less than a decade later, with the so-called “Hongkong Typhoon” of September 18, 1906: an abrupt, small, yet destructive typhoon that hit Hong Kong, and prompted the editor of China Mail to publish an impassioned critique of Doberck and his failure to forecast. The cause for this failure, it was felt, was the poor system of communication between Doberck and Jesuit forecasters in other treaty ports and colonial outposts.

Marlon Zhu’s dissertation is a timely and important one, shedding light on the history of science and technology in Treaty Port China, and bringing into sharper relief a community of practice that can be rendered invisible by national and institutional histories.

Thomas S. Mullaney
Associate Professor of Chinese History
Stanford University

Primary Sources

Minutes of the French Municipal Council
English-language Chinese periodicals and newspapers, such as China Mail
North China Daily News, and North China Herald
Professional and Government Circulars, such as the China Coast Meteorological Register and the Hongkong Government Gazette
Records of the Bibliotheca Zikawei of the Shanghai Library
Hong Kong Public Record Office
British Colonial Office Records

Dissertation Information

State University of New York, Binghamton. 2012. 322 pp. Primary Advisor: Fa-ti Fan.

Image: “The steamship Pekin in a typhoon.” Illustrated London News (December 6, 1851).

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