Modern China’s Encounter with the World


A review of Internalizing the West: Qing Envoys and Ministers in Europe, 1866-1893, by Jenny Zhengzheng Huangfu.

In the mid-1980s, just as China was headed into the post-Mao reform era, a collection of diaries and travel writings by late Qing diplomats and sojourners abroad was published to wide acclaim. Compiled through a painstaking effort by the veteran editor Zhong Shuhe 鍾叔河 (b. 1931) and named Marching towards the World (Zouxiang shijie 走向世界, a title inspired by the contemporary Marching towards the Future [Zouxiang weilai 走向未来] book series), this collection both embodied the spirit of that decade’s so-called Cultural Fever (wenhua re 文化熱) and echoed the modernization (xiandaihua 現代化) discourse that was beginning both to dominate the reforms and to overtake previous revolutionary paradigms in Chinese historical writing. A significant number of the thirty-six titles published in the Zouxiang shijie series comprised journals kept by late Qing envoys to Europe, Japan, and the United States. Required by the Zongli Yamen (Zongli geguo shiwu yamen 總理各國事務衙門) to submit their diaries as records of investigation of the Western nations, the Qing ambassadors and their secretaries kept voluminous writings as they travelled abroad. Upon their return, not only were these journals submitted to the Qing court and reviewed by high officials, but they were also often circulated among friends and colleagues and sometimes published privately for a wider readership.

One might expect these first-hand impressions of the West, some published for the first time, to have served as valuable sources for scholars interested in modern China’s encounter with the world. Ironically, the Zouxiang shijie journals did not seem to capture the attention of English-language scholarship on the late Qing. Perhaps this had to do with the contemporary turn, especially among American scholars, to social history, spurred on by the opening of local archives in the People’s Republic and by self-reflective calls to “discover history in China” (Paul A. Cohen, Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984). In the academic reaction against the “Western-impact, Chinese response” paradigm of the “Fairbank school,” studies of key intellectuals and modernization projects in the late Qing self-strengthening period (1860s-1895), once a staple of American historical studies of China, gradually fell out of the picture.

In recent years, the late Qing has made a comeback in English-language scholarship, with cultural historians and literary scholars leading the way in reassessing the legacy of Chinese reformers and intellectuals’ engagement with the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (see, among others, Hu Ying, Tales of Translation: Composing the New Woman in China, 1899-1918. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000; Theodore Huters, Bringing the World Home: Appropriating the West in Late Qing and Early Republican China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005; and Joan Judge, The Precious Raft of History: The Past, the West, and the Woman Question in China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008). While all of these works have greatly advanced our understanding of the late Qing, for the most part their emphasis remains on personalities within China and on the period of deepened national crisis and intellectual transition (1895-1915), bookended, to a certain extent, by the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95 and the onset of the New Culture Movement. On the other hand, when the earlier period of Sino-Western confrontation is studied, it has been done through a postcolonial framework that places emphasis on the subtle workings of imperialism (mainly British) and even on the role of semiotics in international relations (James L. Hevia, English Lessons: The Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003; Lydia H. Liu, The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

In a way, then, the Sino-Western interaction during the Self-Strengthening period still lacks a sense of human agency, especially on the Chinese side, leaving us with the unanswered question, as Jenny Huangfu poses at the beginning of her fascinating dissertation, of how late Qing interlocutors in that era actually came to an understanding of both the West and of China’s place in the world “if the West did not simply ‘impact’ and China did not simply ‘respond’?” (p. 1). Huangfu’s study, centered around five Qing diplomatic missions between 1866 and 1894, fills in that gap nicely by returning us to the familiar territory taken up much earlier by J. D. Frodsham and Knight Biggerstaff (J. D. Frodsham, trans., The First Chinese Embassy to the West: The Journals of Kuo Sung-t’ao, Liu His-hung and Chang Te-yi. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974; Knight Biggerstaff, “The Official Chinese Attitude toward the Burlingame Mission,” American Historical Review 41.4, July 1936, 686-702; and Biggerstaff, “The First Chinese Mission of Investigation Sent to Europe,” Pacific Historical Review 6.2, December 1937, 307-320). Her works distinguishes itself not only through its exhaustive use of primary sources, including multiple editions of the Qing diplomats’ journals, supplemented by letters, diaries, official reports, memorials, as well as newspaper accounts, but also by its fresh way of close reading.

By approaching the journals of Qing diplomat-travelers as forms of travel writing, Huangfu presents a fresh view of how cross-cultural interactions took place on an individual level. As she notes in her Introduction, she detects different – and sometimes conflicting – manners of seeing in her protagonists’ portrayal of the West. These she calls the “disengaged, semi-fictional mode” (Binchun, chapter 1; Zhang Deyi, chapter 3), the “holistic and integratist mode” (Zhigang, chapter 2; Guo Songtao, chapter 4), and the “strategic and confrontational mode” (Xue Fucheng in chapter 5), the features of which are then revealed in the succeeding chapters (p. 18). In addition to her perceptive conceptualization, Huangfu’s dissertation is also enriched by the intellectual rigor with which she interprets the diplomats’ thought and the biographical sensitivity with which she narrates her subjects’ lives and careers. This has a subtle but powerful effect. When experienced through the eyes and pens of the diplomats who brought with them their own “Qing imperial imagination of the world” (p. 11), China’s late nineteenth-century encounter with the West becomes no longer simply a story of its joining the “family of nations” (Immanuel C. Y. Hsü, China’s Entrance into the Family of Nations: The Diplomatic Phase, 1858-1880. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960) nor exclusively a “clash of empires,” but a multi-faceted and prolonged cross-cultural negotiation, a “process of domestication, rationalization, and redefinition of the West” (p. 18) that involved continual observation and reconceptualization of the other.

The creative nature of these cultural negotiations was already evident in the first Qing mission to Europe. Ostensibly an investigation tour demanded by the Zongli Yamen and arranged by Robert Hart, the Inspectorate General of the Imperial Maritimes Customs Services, it was headed by the sixty-two-year-old Han bannerman and former magistrate Binchun 斌椿 (1804-1871), the subject of the first chapter of dissertation. Aware of the historic nature of his journey, Binchun crafted his diplomatic persona after that of the great envoys of the Han. His journal, Chengcha biji 乘槎筆記 [Notes on a raft], recorded in a terse and realistic manner observations of the industrialized Western societies he passed through. Yet Binchun was also very much conscious of his alternative role as a traveling literatus, a self-image he projected through the romantic verses he wrote alongside his journal. Resistant to linguistic innovation, he employed conventional categories in these poems to place the exotic and foreign into familiar literary tropes. While he used “palace style poetry” (gongti shi 宮體詩) to depict court ceremonies and European women, his self-heroism and sense of moral superiority emerged through “poetry on heroes” (haoxia shi 豪俠詩). The writing and exchange of poetry with cultivated Europeans such as the French sinologist Marquis d’Hervey Saint-Denys also allowed Binchun to practice a sort of “cultural diplomacy” (pp. 46-47), calling to the reader’s mind the activities of Ge Kunhua 戈鯤化 (1838-1882), the first Chinese instructor at Harvard, who wrote Chinese poems on plum blossom notepaper as gifts to his American colleagues (see Stephen R. Platt, “The Mandarin of Cambridge, The Yale Review 92.1, January 2004, 85-103). Through his embellished and depoliticized prose and poetry, Binchun served up an image of the West that was “exotic yet civilized and obedient” (p. 282). Upon his return, Binchun’s journals were found to be less than satisfactory by Qing officials heading the foreign affairs movement, who were eager to learn about the secrets of Western power, but they became popular reading among literati and would become a source for later travelers.

In contrast to Binchun’s literary flair, Zhigang 志剛 (1819-1890?), the Manchu secretary (zhangjing 章京) of the Zongli Yamen who served as one of the two co-envoys on the 1868-1871 diplomatic mission headed by Anson Burlingame, was very much interested in such things as Western machinery, technology, and governance. Yet, as Huangfu shows in chapter 2, he exhibited an inclination to rationalize everything he observed according to Chinese principles. Thus Western science – mechanics, chemistry, biology – did not present themselves as embodying a separate school of learning (xue 學), merely the application of different methods (fa 法). Using vocabulary from both the Confucian and Daoist canons, Zhigang detected energy (qi 氣) in steam-powered machines and ritual (li 禮) in the conduct of various Western monarchs. Though he did not have a very positive view of Christianity, he still found Western religious beliefs to be compatible with Mohist values and passed judgment on Jesus according to Confucian virtues. As a “Confucian explorer of natural laws” (p. 71), Zhigang approached the West with a conviction that it could be made sense of with the universalizing principles from the Chinese tradition.

Unlike the inquisitive and rationalizing Zhigang, the Tongwenguan 同文館 interpreter Zhang Deyi 張德彝 (1847-1919) displayed throughout his writings a “penchant for frivolity” (p. 117). The most well-traveled and most prolific diarist among late Qing diplomats, Zhang would eventually serve on a total of eight missions abroad. In chapter 3, focusing on three early journals written between 1866 and 1872, Huangfu reads the open and curious style of Zhang’s accounts as reflective of a “certain detachment from China’s external crisis,” resulting from his having come of age in the cooperative atmosphere of the Tongzhi restoration era (p. 115). Zhang’s journals, entitled “shuqi” 述奇 (accounts of curiosities), were marked by their distinctly ethnographic approach, documenting with great zeal Western social etiquette, games, dances, and theatre. As a “collector of curios,” Zhang Deyi assumed the persona of a record keeper of the fantastical and extraordinary. Yet he also went the furthest in humanizing the West. Exhibiting a composed manner in his encounters with Westerners, Zhang believed that “people in all parts of the world belonged to one family” and that cultural misunderstanding was the source of all Sino-Western conflicts (pp. 131-132). At the same time, however, his cultural relativism sometimes led him, in dialogue with Europeans and Japanese, to define Chinese values in a reductionist Confucianism.

As the Qing established permanent legations in Europe in the late 1870s, it also began sending more established literati to head its missions. In chapter 4, Huangfu examines the 1877-1879 mission of Guo Songtao 郭嵩燾 (1818-1891), the first resident Qing minister in England and France, whose enthusiastic embrace of the West in his journals famously provoked a conservative backlash back home. Following Stephen Platt’s work, Huangfu complicates Guo’s accommodative approach to Western ways by tracing his intellectual lineage to his native Hunan during the Taiping war, when Guo and others rediscovered the Ming loyalist Wang Fuzhi 王夫之 (1619-1692), who sought in his studies a re-examination of ancient rites in order to find a way out of the chaotic mess of the Ming-Qing transition (see Stephen R. Platt, Provincial Patriots: The Hunanese and Modern China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007, especially pp. 34-63). If Guo did not exactly develop Wang’s anti-Manchu spirit, he nevertheless became convinced that the Qing had departed from the Way of the sages in the Three Dynasties. Guo’s engagement with the West, then, was not simply a passive acceptance of superior foreign institutions. Instead, he came to the surprising conclusion – through an intricate process carefully parsed by Huangfu – that the Mandate of Heaven could now be found in the British political and education systems. Guo also took a serious attitude in learning about Western science and technology, meeting frequently with European scientists and engineers, while conferring with Chinese students studying these subjects. Yet he was inclined to find in Western scientific methods the idealized unity of Song Neo-Confucian and Han learning for which many of his generation strove. Despite his flexible interpretation of geography and history and his open attitude to learning new ideas, Guo nevertheless found justification for the ways of the West in the values held dear by a Confucian scholar-official.

By the 1890s, a shift in tone has taken place in the writings by the Qing minister to England and France, Xue Fucheng 薛福成 (1838-1894), who, despite his fame in the late Qing, has received the least historiographical attention (see Helen Hsieh Chien, trans., The European Diary of Hsieh Fucheng: Envoy Extraordinary of Imperial China. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993). As the last residential Chinese ambassador in Europe prior to the Sino-Japanese war, Xue’s journals, studied in chapter 5, were tinged with its own imperialistic and colonial rhetoric. A former advisor to the Qing self-strengthening leaders Zeng Guofan 曾國藩 and Li Hongzhang 李鴻章, Xue followed a pragmatic approach to diplomacy (and to diary-writing), but also to his eclectic reconciliation of Chinese and Western ways. At first convinced, like some of his mid-nineteenth-century peers, of the theory of “Chinese origins for Western learning” (Xixue Zhongyuan shuo 西學中源說), Xue later described various Western practices and institutions with a syncretic language taken from an assortment of Chinese ideas – Confucian, Daoist, pre-Han learning. The only significant distinction he upheld between the West and China was the tradition of the Three Bonds in human relations, which, as Huangfu points out, suggested a rigid and increasingly weak interpretation of Chinese tradition. On the other hand, Xue’s journals were marked with a racial awareness (exemplified in his use of the character zhong 種) unseen in previous diplomatic accounts and with an aggressive argument for the extension of the Qing empire via the establishment of consuls and the settling of Chinese nationals abroad. Prior to the post-1895 onset of full-fledged Western imperialism in China to the introduction of Social Darwinism, Xue already envisioned China to be in a global competition with other modern nation-states. For the moment, however, his rhetoric was characterized less by a sense of crisis than by a cultural confidence built up during the preceding decades of self-strengthening and diplomatic missions.

In his congratulatory preface to Zhong Shuhe’s 1985 collection of essays (which were also entitled Marching toward the World, the erudite and cosmopolitan scholar Qian Zhongshu 錢鍾書 (1910-1998) commented that he had neither enough patience nor humility for the sometimes self-aggrandizing accounts of Qing travelers abroad. For Qian, a master at cross-cultural comparisons, these writings demonstrated exactly what the English saying, “the traveller’s leave to lie,” and the Chinese adage “the monk from afar knows how to read sutras” (yuanlai heshang hui nianjing 遠來和尚會念經) forewarned, that travelers who had returned from abroad tended to misconstrue things (“Qian Zhongshu xu” 錢鍾書序, in Zhong Shuhe 鍾叔河, Zouxiang shijie: jindai Zhongguo zhishifenzi kaocha xifang de lishi 走向世界: 近代中國知識分子考察西方的歷史. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1985, p. 1). With her dissertation, Jenny Huangfu has shown us that, in fact, much insight and understanding can be gained by taking these travelers and their accounts of the West seriously and by engaging their world on their own terms. As she points out in her Conclusion, which provides a succinct review of the different modes of seeing and writing used by the diplomat-travelers, what matters is not accuracy of description but the “interpretive schemes” that the Qing diplomats used to make sense of a different world in familiar terms (p. 294).

By restoring agency to some of the important but overlooked individual actors who were at the center of the Sino-Western encounter in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Jenny Huangfu’s study helps us to reevaluate the conventional failure narrative that still overshadows our understanding of the self-strengthening era and to unveil some of the “native syntheses of the West” that may have contributed to later reform thinking at the turn of the twentieth century. As such, this dissertation serves as a timely contribution to late Qing cultural and intellectual history. It also has much to offer anyone interested in issues of cross-cultural mediation, diplomacy and transnationalism, as well as travel writing.

Ke Ren
Department of History
Johns Hopkins University

Primary Sources

Journals of late Qing diplomats and travelers collected in a) Zhong Shuhe 鍾叔河, ed., Zouxiang shijie congshu 走向世界叢書 (Changsha: Yuelu shushe, 1980s) and b) Wang Xiqi 王錫祺, ed., Xiaofanghuzhai yudi congchao 小方壺齋輿地從鈔 [The Xiaofanghu Studio collection of geographical works] (1891-1897)
Collected writings, letters, and diaries of various Chinese officials, literati and Western personnel
Archives of the Zongli Yamen 總理各國事務衙門, Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, Taiwan
Chouban yiwu shimo籌辦夷務始末 [A complete account of our management of barbarian affairs], Tongzhi chao 同治朝 [Tongzhi reign]
Various nineteenth-century English newspapers and periodicals, including The Times, The Pall Mall Gazette, The Birmingham Daily Post, The Cornhill Magazine, and The Newcastle Courant

Dissertation Information

University of California, San Diego. 2012. 351pp. Primary Advisors: Joseph Esherick and Paul Pickowicz.


Image: Bin Chun. 转型中国 [link].

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