Victoria’s Wars by Saul David (2006)

The 2nd Europeans, 31st and 70th Regiments of Native Infantry drove the enemy from their cover with great slaughter. I only saw one European amongst the dead; at least a part of one. He was a sergeant of the 2nd Europeans; his cap, grog bottle, and his head was all we saw. There was a letter in the cap, but I could not make out any of it, for it was saturated with blood. (An anonymous British private describing the aftermath of the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, quoted p.136)

This book is unashamed good fun, intelligent, gripping, informative and horrifying by turns.

Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire consists of 400 pages of lucid compelling prose which retell the rattling stories of the British imperial conflicts during the 24 years between Queen Victoria ascending the thrown in 1837 and the death of her much-beloved husband, Albert, in 1861. The period is sometimes referred to as the ‘Dual Monarchy’ and saw the size of the British Empire almost quintuple in size from 2 million to 9.5 million square miles. But this didn’t happen peacefully: the British Army fought 30 or so campaigns during the period. David explains this book will cover the two major and nine medium-sized wars of the period. That’s a lot of fighting.

David disarmingly admits in the Author’s note that he first got addicted to the thrill and swashbuckling adventure of Britain’s early Victorian imperial wars from a boyhood reading of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. When he came to research the period as a mature historian, he discovered that Victoria and Albert had more say in some of these conflicts than had previously been reported.

Thus he had the idea of interweaving his accounts of these (pretty well-known) imperial conflicts with the key events in the lives of the royal couple – how Victoria inherited the throne (in 1837), her coronation (in 1838), her wooing and wedding to Albert (February 1840), and then their periodic interventions in politics through till Albert’s death in December 1861. So a central thread of this narrative is the surprisingly detailed interest the royal pair took in Britain’s imperial conflicts: David quotes the letters which show Victoria being surprisingly sharp and critical of her governments for the way they (mis)managed both the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, and the other conflicts of the period.

The early Victorian wars

The wars are:

  • 1st Afghan War (1839-42)
  • 1st Opium War (1839-42)
  • 1st Anglo-Sikh War (1845–46)
  • 2nd Anglo-Sikh War (1848–49)
  • 2nd Anglo-Burmese War (1852-3)
  • The Crimean War (1853-6)
  • 2nd Opium War (1856-60)
  • The Anglo-Persian War (1856-7)
  • Indian Mutiny (1857-9)

The nature & scope of these ‘wars’

This is essentially a military history, not a political or diplomatic or strategic or cultural history – these accounts take us right into the guts of the fighting and this approach, as always, has numerous benefits.

For a start they make it clear what ‘war’ actually means in each instance, in terms of geographic location and strategic intention. I’ve never really read in detail about the Crimean War before, and so was surprised and enlightened to learn that Britain and France, for a start, need never have fought it.

The conflict arose because the Czar insisted on bullying Turkey into granting authority over all Christians in the ailing Ottoman Empire to Russia. The Turks vacillated between agreeing or giving in to France who, under Napoleon III, also wanted control of the Turkish Christians, and Britain, who saw the whole thing as yet another pretext for Imperial Russia to extend her power south and take control of the entire Black Sea, thus threatening Britain’s supply lines to India.

If the allies had managed to pull Austria into the alliance of France, Britain and Turkey this would probably have sufficed to make Russia back off, but instead, while the diplomats wrangled, Russia sent her armies into the Balkans to besiege strategic towns there with a view to marching on Constantinople. Britain and France decided Russia must not only be threatened out of the Balkans but taught a lesson. This lesson, it was decided, would be the seizure of Russia’s main military port in the Black Sea, Sevastapol on the Crimean Peninsula.

That was it. That was the aim of the Crimean War: to teach Russia a lesson by seizing Sevastapol. But the allies landed 20 miles away to the north of the port, took ages to get all the equipment ashore, slowly marched to the city and then dithered about attacking – all of which gave the defenders of Sevastapol time to create awesome defences around it, thus setting the stage for a long and bloody siege which dragged on through the cruel Russian winters in which thousands of men slept in mud and water and snow and, not surprisingly, died like flies from cholera.

What a miserably mismanaged cock-up. The three battles I’d heard of – at the River Alma, Inkerman and Balaklava – were all subsidiary battles fought only to achieve the main goal, seizing Russia’s only warm water port.

We are used, in our time, to the Total Wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45 and so tend to think of ‘war’ on the same epic scale, fought to obliterate the opponent. It is thought-provoking to read about ‘wars’ of much more limited geopolitical, geographical and military scope and aim, fought with much smaller numbers, using much more primitive weapons.

Blow-by-blow eye-witness accounts

The second feature of a military history like this is its detailed, blow-by-blow description of the actual fighting, the battles and encounters, feints and charges and stands. (David’s book is graced with lots of charming hand-drawn maps – perfectly clear but in a whimsical deliberately archaic style – maps of the whole country affected, and then detailed maps of specific battles. These are vital.)

Thus David’s account of the ill-fated Kabul expedition, or the Crimea, or the Sikh Wars or the Mutiny, are studded with eye-witness accounts, scoured from letters, journals, diaries and official battle reports, which take the reader right into the sweat and fury of battle. Again and again we read the specific actions of named individuals and their vivid terrifying descriptions of fighting off Pathan warriors with swords, parrying Russian soldiers with bayonets, of rushing walls and stockades or helping comrades under fire. This is from the account of Private Wightman of the 17th Lancers describing how the survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade, disorientated and riding back through dense smoke, veered by mistake up the sides of the valley only to encounter Russian infantry:’

My horse was shot dead, riddled with bullets. One bullet struck me on the forehead, another passed through the top of my shoulder; while struggling out from under my dead horse a Cossack standing over me stabbed me with his lance once in the neck near the jugular, again above the collar bone, several times in the back, and once under the short rib; and when, having regained my feet, I was trying to draw my sword, he sent his lance through the palm of my hand. I believe he would have succeeded in killing me, clumsy as he was, if I had not blinded him for the moment with a handful of sand.’ (quoted on p.233)

I guess this sort of thing is not for everyone but if you’re a certain sort of boy or man then you’ll find these hyper-detailed accounts of combat thrilling and exciting. ‘Why do men fight?’ girlfriends have asked me over the years. For the simple reason that it is the most exciting thing a man can experience – or a certain sort of man, at any rate.

One example can stand for thousands: here the young British officer Garnet Wolseley describes the feeling of standing on the battlefield shouting for volunteers, then charging a well-defended enemy stockade in Burma in 1853.

Wolseley could see the numbers of the Burmese above their stockade, urging the British on with shouts and gesticulations. Once again he experienced the thrill of the charge as adrenalin coursed through his veins. ‘The feeling is catching,’ he wrote; ‘it flies through a mob of soldiers and makes them, whilst the fit is on them, absolutely reckless of all consequences. The blood seems to boil, the brain to be on fire.’ (p.169)

Or Lieutenant E.A. Noel of the 31st Foot describes the exhilaration of charging the Sikh artillery at the Battle of Ferozeshah on 22 December 1845. The battle was:

‘murderous, but glorious, the excitement of charging right into the mouth of the guns you cannot conceive.’ (quoted p.101)

Most of the common infantry fought because a career in the army offered the security and pay their lives in Britain couldn’t provide, as well as training and camaraderie and a sense of identity. The officers – as David brings home – were mostly upper-class twits, not least because throughout this era officers could simply buy their ranks and saw the army as a means to social and financial advancement.

Nevertheless, ragamuffin proles or chinless toffs, all or any of them could be swept up in the heat of actual battle and find themselves performing super-human feats.

Heroism

For men under pressure reveal extraordinary capacities. There are accounts of mind-boggling heroism here, of men fighting on single-handed, manning guns after all their comrades are killed, racing across open ground towards walls stuffed with musketeers shooting at them, and so on.

It was during this early period, in 1857, that a new medal, the Victoria Cross was instituted for just such acts of stunning bravery. (David has a fascinating section about the creation, the design and casting of the first Victoria Crosses: they were, and still are, cast from the bronze cascabels – the large knobs at the back of a cannon used for securing ropes – of two Russian cannon captured at Sevastapol, hence the dull gunmetal colour. The remaining metal from these cascabels has still not all been used up; there is said to be enough metal for eighty-five more medals, p.282)

At the battle of the Alma the defeated Russians were limbering up their guns and withdrawing them, when Captain Edward Bell of the 23rd Fusiliers ran forward alone and, armed only with a pistol, surprised the Russian driver, who fled, while Bell seized the horse and led horse and Russian gun back to the British side of the breastworks. For this he later won the first Victoria Cross awarded in the Crimea (p.207).

At the Battle of Inkerman (5 November 1854) Captain John Crosse of the 88th Foot found himself defending the Saddle Top Ridge against advancing Cossacks:

‘I found myself close to a knot of six Russians who were advancing to attack me… I shot four of the Russians, the fifth bayoneted me & fell pulling me down on top of him, the sixth then charged on me & [with my sword] I cut down his firelock on to his hands and he turned back.’ (quoted p.241)

Who needs movies?

Butchery

But, of course, scattered moments of heroism are all very fine, and tend to be remembered by all concerned for the fine light they shed on combat, but fighting boils down to men killing each other in hair-raisingly grisly ways, hacking at each others’ bodies with blunt swords, stabbing and gouging and strangling and bludgeoning, while others are shooting bullets which smash bones, joints, shoot through your eyes or mouth or skull.

Take the relief column under Lieutenant Robert Pollock which was sent to rescue the British hostages held in Kabul (those held back and so not slaughtered in the mountains). As this force went back over the ground taken by the retreating Kabul garrison, it walked over bodies the whole way.

All along the road from Fatiabad lay the remains of the Kabul garrison, the corpses ‘in heaps of fifties and hundreds, our gun-wheels passing over and crushing the skulls and other bones of our late comrades at almost every yard.’ (quoted p.71)

Having rescued the British hostages, this column also withdrew back to India, but was harried all the way by the fierce Ghilzai tribesmen. One of the last to die was Ensign Alexander Nicholson of the 30th Native Infantry. The following day, John Nicholson, just released from Afghan captivity and following the same path to safety, came across his brother’s mutilated corpse, with his penis and balls cut off and stuffed into his mouth, as was the local custom (p.72).

After the Battle of Sobraon (Sikh War, 10 February 1846), the British drove the Sikh defenders back onto a narrow bridge over the River Sutlej which quickly broke. Thousands tried to swim across but were slaughtered by rifle fire and grape and canister shot being poured into the swimming mass at point blank range. Gunner Bancroft described the river water as:

‘a bloody foam, amid which heads and uplifted hands were seen to vanish by hundreds.’ (p.109)

By the same token as he uses eye-witness accounts to describe the progress of battles, giving the sense of total immersion in the gripping, terrifying experience of combat, so David also details the appalling gory butchery and bloodshed of battle. He gives a harrowing account of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, on 25 October 1854:

A corporal who rode on the right of the 13th was ‘struck by a shot or shell in the face, completely smashing it, his blood and brains spattering us who rode near’. A sergeant of the 17th had his head taken off by roundshot, ‘yet for about thirty yards further the headless body kept the saddle, the lance at the charge firmly gripped under the right arm.’ (p.232)

There is an appalling price to pay for all these conflicts and the pages of this book are drenched in blood and brains. Describing the Indian ‘rebels’ at Sikandarbagh, Fred Roberts recalled:

‘Inch by inch they were forced back to the pavilion , and into the space between it and the north wall, where they were all shot or bayoneted. there they lay in a heap as high as my head, a heaving, surging mass of dead or dying inextricably entangled. It was a sickening sight… ‘ (quoted p.342)

I wonder if David did a tally of how many people died during these imperial conquests, men killed in battle, and women and children murdered in the accompanying atrocities by both sides: to the casual reader it must have been several million – the Crimean War alone accounted for some three quarters of a million dead on all sides. So much blood. So many human bodies composted back into the soil.

‘We overtook numbers of their infantry who were running for their lives – every man of course was shot. I never saw such butchery and murder! It is almost too horrible to commit to paper.’ (An officer of the 9th Lancers at the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, p.137)

One example from thousands sticks in my mind: at the siege of Cawnpore, when the ‘rebel’ Indian regiments rose up against their European officers and families, pushing them back into a hastily defended cantonment, a ball from an Indian canon decapitated the son of the British commander, Major-General Sir Hugh Wheeler, leaving the boy’s hair and brains smeared on the wall of his father’s wall. His brains and hair (p.310). In fact, the rebels promised the garrison safe passage down the river, but as they loaded into the boats treacherously opened fire, killing 800 or more. The survivors were thrown into a small building along with Brits from other locations, nearly 200, almost all women and children, and kept prisoner in the blistering heat, without food or water for weeks. When a relief column of British forces approached all of them – 194 women and children – were hacked to death with swords. it is recorded that the killers needed replacement swords because the first ones became blunt hacking on human bone. Then all the bodies were thrown down a well, quite a few still alive at the time, only to asphyxiate under the weight of bloody bodies.

Yes. I know – the butchery, on both sides, during the Indian Rebellion, requires a book of its own. But still, it’s the father having to see the hair and brains of his son smeared across the wall which has stayed to haunt me at nights…

Incompetence

But maybe the main learning from the book is the staggering level of blundering incompetence shown by so many Brits at so many levels. As a survivor of the catastrophic retreat from Kabul, put it, the complete destruction of the allied force was due to the ‘incompetency, feebleness and want of skill’ of the military leaders (p.70) and this story is echoed again and again during these 24 fraught years.

The absolute epitome of mismanaged confused dunderhead behaviour was the Charge of the Light Brigade, sent into the wrong valley against well-placed Russian guns which wiped them out – an event David goes into in great detail (pp.227-237) and which just gets worse the more you understand it.

The entire Crimean campaign became byword for mismanagement, not least in the inability to feed, clothe and medicate British troops who died in their thousands during the first winter besieging Sevastapol. It was this dire situation which prompted T.J. Delane, the editor of The Times, to write an editorial excoriating the incompetence of the army and the government.

The noblest army England ever sent from these shores has been sacrificed to the grossest mismanagement. Incompetence, lethargy, aristocratic hauteur, official indifference, favour, routine, perverseness, and stupidity reign, revel and riot in the camp before Sevastapol, in the harbour at Balaklava, in the hospitals of Scutari, and how much closer to home we dare not venture to say. (p.254)

How the devil did these clodhoppers manage to acquire and run the greatest empire the world has ever known? The book suggests a number of levels at which British incompetence and stupidity operated:

1. The wrongness of basic aims Was it even worth fighting the Crimean War or the Afghan war in the first place? Diplomatic pressure was already making the Russians withdraw from the Balkans; after three years of war, the peace treaty didn’t achieve much more than had been on the table at the start.

Similarly, the First Afghan ‘war’ amounted to an armed expedition into Afghanistan to overthrow the existing ruler – Dost Mohamed – for being too friendly to the Russians and replace him with an exile of our choosing, Shah Suja, who would then owe us undying loyalty. The British force with some 10,000 camp followers fought its way through south Afghanistan, finding it harder than predicted, and eventually took Kabul, forcing Dost to flee and imposing the new ruler. But the people rejected him, we never controlled the outlying settlements, we promised subsidies (bribes) to various tribes which we failed to pay or cut back – and so shouldn’t have been surprised when there was a popular uprising which quickly took Kabul, besieging the Europeans in an indefensible cantonment.

The divided British leadership patched up an agreement with Dost Mohamed’s son in which we were promised free passage over the mountains back to Jelalabad but a) it was winter – the first weeks of January – b) nobody told the various angry tribes who controlled the mountains, and so the vast retreating force of several thousand soldiers and over 10,000 camp followers, were picked off at leisure or died of exposure in the sub-freezing temperatures. Notoriously, of the 16,000 or so total who went into Afghanistan, one – ONE – survivor, a Dr Brydon, made it alive to Jelalabad.

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of William Brydon, sole survivor the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of Dr William Brydon, sole survivor of the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

2. Strategic blundering The Kabul disaster reads like a textbook example of how not to do it. For a start leadership of the expedition was divided between the military leader Elphinstone and the political emissary, Macnaghten. The cantonment where the British Army based itself was significantly outside the city of Kabul; we didn’t build a citadel of strength to act as a secure base; and we relinquished control of the only secure building in the city, the Bala Hissar fort, to the new playboy ruler we had installed, and his harem.

3. Indecision and hesitation This really comes across as a key cause of failure in almost all these conflicts. Even after fighting broke out in Kabul the British leaders refused to take it seriously. Quick and decisive action might have stamped it out, captured the ringleaders and dissipated the local aggression; but the military leaders on the ground hesitated or plain refused to march into the city and so it was lost and the rest followed logically.

The same hesitation or plain refusal to attack leaps out of the account of the Crimean War where a quick attack on Sevastapol immediately after the allied forces had landed might have taken the city and prevented two years of costly siege: but the generals in charge – Lord Raglan for the British, Jacques Leroy de Saint-Arnaud for the French – wanted to wait until everything was ready and everyone had landed etc, thus giving the Russkies time to defend Sevastapol to the hilt. After the hard-fought Battle of the Alma River, with Prince Menshikov’s army retreating in disarray, both generals lost the opportunity to devastate them with the as-yet unbloodied British cavalry.

Only by taking chances are crushing victories won. And the Battle of the Alma could have been a crushing victory; it might even have ended the war… [but] neither Raglan nor Saint-Arnaud had the genius or nerve required to destroy the Russian Army in a single battle. Instead it was allowed to withdraw largely intact to fight another day – with disastrous long-term consequences for the allies. (p.212)

The same reluctance and refusal shines out of David’s account of the Indian Mutiny, a much bigger more complex event, in which there’s one silver thread concerning how the British garrison forced out of Delhi by the ‘rebels’, joined by reinforcements, took the cantonment to the north-west of the city: had they attacked immediately they might have driven the rebels out and squashed the rebellion at its heart. Instead, just like Raglan and Saint-Arnaud in Crimea, they waited, they prevaricated, they said they needed more forces – and the moment was lost (p.307).

Months passed and then waited: had they attacked straightaway who find a secure base above the city and then prevaricate for months and months and months, under the reluctant leadership of Brigadier Archdale Wilson, who drove his officers mad with frustration by continually claiming he needed just a few more guns, ammunition, soldiers, before he launched the attack to retake the city.

A very crude rule emerges from all of these accounts which is: If you see an advantage – SEIZE IT! Even if all your regiments, cavalry, artillery or whatever haven’t totally arrived – if you see the enemy retreating or vulnerable – GO FOR IT. Time and again opportunities were lost for quick, decisive knockout blows because the men in charge hesitated, were afraid, wanted to be sure of total success… and all too often that turned what would have been quick campaigns into brutal struggles of attrition in which tens of thousands died needlessly.

4. Penny pinching Prevarication was often caused by the wish to save money, for another thread which emerges is the way the British wanted to have an empire on the cheap. It’s striking to realise how nothing has changed in the national culture in 180 years – we’ve always been an austerity nation. Garnet Wolseley complained that all the logistics support for the army had been shut down ‘on so-called economical grounds’ and much of the rest contracted out to private suppliers – hence the revolting inedibility of the food provided for the soldiers in the Crimea. Ring any bells?

Thus the disaster at Kabul was partly caused by the Treasury demanding cuts to the costly expedition so that its political leader, Macnaghten, halved the subsidy/bribe being paid to a northern tribe of Afghans – who promptly rose against us; and, in order to save money, ordered a column out to meet a relief force coming from the north instead of waiting – which was promptly massacred.

The Crimea was a classic example of a major war which we tried to fight on the cheap, resulting in military stalemate (we won the side battles of Inkerman and the Alma but obstinately failed to take Sevastapol for years) and the deaths, due to lack of equipment (proper winter uniforms, tents, even food) of thousands and thousands of poor bloody infantry. ‘The Army is a shambles’, he quotes one officer as commenting (p.186). Eventually, the government was shamed by the extensive newspaper reporting of Russell (among others), the reports of Florence Nightingale, and pressure from the Queen, to face the facts that it was going to cost money to win the damn thing.

And David highlights the same mindset at the outbreak of the Indian Rebellion: the government didn’t take it seriously because it didn’t want to take it seriously because it didn’t want to spend the money which ended up being required to put it down. By this stage, twenty years into her reign, Queen Victoria had the confidence to write to her Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, criticising the government for, yet again, being:

anxious to do as little as possible, to wait for further news, to reduce as low as possible even what they do grant…’ (quoted p.327)

I’ve read so many times that the Empire was a device for looting and creaming off vast wealth from colonised countries that I am genuinely puzzled how come an account like this gives the strong impression of a colonial government in a permanent financial crisis, consistently underfunding and under-equipping the army it needed to police the empire, acting slowly, refusing to recognise the severity of the crises it faces and always trying to get away with the cheap option.

David gives a handy checklist for responsibility for the Afghan disaster, which serves as a useful checklist for many of these imperial fiascos. Who was to blame?

  • The political ruler of India, Lord Auckland, for ordering an invasion of Afghanistan which was never really necessary in the first place – the existing ruler was fairly friendly and could have been bribed to be on our side without the loss of a single life.
  • The Tory government, which, in order to save money, demanded a reduction in troop numbers and reduction of local bribes – thus helping to spark the rebellion.
  • General Cotton, the senior military man on first arrival in Kabul, who acquiesced in making the large, indefensible, out-of-town cantonment the main British base.
  • Sir William Macnaghten, the senior political agent on the spot, who deliberately played down the rebellion when it started, refusing to give permission for quick decisive suppressing action, then made a hash out of negotiating with the enemy chieftains (for which he was shot dead on the spot by one of them).
  • Brigadier-General Shelton, the man in charge of the British forces, who made a series of decisions all based on hesitation and caution, which allowed the rebellion to spiral out of control.

5. Unwanted freelancing Another theme is the regularity with which the men on the spot far exceeded their orders from the home government which then found itself forced to back them up. For example, the governor-general of India, Lord Ellenborough, sent Sir Charles Napier in 1842 with a force designed to bring the amirs of Sind, in north-west India, into submission to the British. Instead, Napier fought a series of battles and annexed the territory outright, to the horror of the board of the East India Company (who still, technically, ruled India) and the government of Robert Peel. It was felt to have been unnecessarily aggressive but also – more importantly – incurred unwanted cost: all very well for these soldier chaps to go a-conquerin’ territory, but then someone had to pay for the new lands to be garrisoned, manned, administered and so on, which cost a fortune.

6. Disease Three quarters of the 20,000 British deaths in the Crimea were caused by disease: 10,000 allied lives were lost to cholera, dysentery and fever before the allied armies even arrived at the Crimea, due to the squalid conditions at the base camp of Varna. In the winter of 1855 it was clear both sides in the Crimean War desired peace, but Napoleon III of France let himself be persuaded by the British to keep his forces at the Sevastapol siege through the winter to keep the pressure on Russia. With the result that the French lost more men – at least 30,000! – to disease in the final three months of the war than they lost in all combat operations of the previous two years.

Disease was the bane of all these ‘wars, fought in extreme heat or freezing cold in the plains of India, the jungles of Burma, the snowbound Afghan mountains or the frozen trenches of the Crimea.

The grim dynamic of imperialism

Again and again the same pattern and sequence of events took place: local rulers of land bordering the existing empire refuse to become our allies (Dost Mohammed in Afghanistan) or harass British traders (the ruler of Burma the Qing Emperor in China) so a British force is dispatched to bring them to heel/punish them/force them to let free trade continue.

If they resist in any way, especially if any of our chaps is killed, then the whole thing is converted into a massive Insult and Dishonour to Queen and Country and suddenly the entire nation is whipped up by the government/popular press to avenge/right/redeem this Insult, carrying out ‘the just retribution of an outraged nation’ (p.71) – and a large force is sent to sort them out.

Then it turns out to be tougher going than we thought, there are unexpected defeats, casualties mount up, it takes longer than we expected, soldiers start dying of heat and disease, they have the wrong uniforms (winter for summer or vice versa), run out of ammunition, reinforcements are delayed, individual acts of amazing heroism help to conceal systematic failings of strategy, funding and logistics and so the whole thing drags on, sometimes for years.

Eventually, enough extra forces, ammunition and cannon finally arrive to force a ‘victory’ of sorts or face-saving compromise, news of which is cabled back to a jubilant nation, there’s dancing in the streets, pubs and streets are named after the various bloody battles – the Alma, the Balaklava – medals are handed out, victory parades, the native rulers are arrested, exiled, replaced, the native peoples brutally massacred and cowed into submission… for the time being.

All in all, it is a shameful narrative of bullying, exploitation and hypocrisy but almost everyone was caught up in it, the national narrative. It is inspiring that there were radical thinkers and even MPs who were solidly against the notion of Empire, who consistently thought it directly contradicted Britain’s own rhetoric about Freedom and Liberty. But they made little impression on the jingoistic national culture, which only became more and more imperialistic as the century progressed.

Vandalism

A summary of these years wouldn’t be complete without some mention of European vandalism and destructiveness.

  • After the gruesome retreat from Kabul in which over 10,000 died, British forces were despatched to rescue the European hostages being held west of the city. They successfully rescued them and fell back on a pacified Kabul but realised they couldn’t hold it and retreated back to British India. But not before the force, under Lieutenant Robert Pollock and widely nicknamed the ‘Army of Retribution’, had blown up Kabul’s ‘magnificent Great Bazaar’ amid widespread looting and destruction (p.71), as punishment for the murder of the British envoys whose dismembered bodies had been hung there a year earlier (p.54).
  • During the Crimean War Sir George Brown was despatched with a force to capture Kertch, a vital supply port on the east coast of the Crimean Peninsula. Once they’d captured the relatively undefended town the allied troops went wild, looting homes, murdering civilians and raping women. They also burnt to the ground Kertch Museum with its priceless collection of early Hellenic art (p.261)
  • The Summer Palace of the Chinese Emperors at Beijing was (to quote Wikipedia) ‘widely conceived as the pinnacle work of Chinese imperial garden and palace design… an architectural wonder, known for its extensive collection of garden, its building architecture and numerous art and historical treasures.’ Towards the end of the Second Opium War in 1860, as an Anglo-French expedition force approached Beijing, two British envoys were sent to meet Prince Yi under a flag of truce to negotiate a Qing surrender. When news emerged that the delegation had been imprisoned and tortured, resulting in 20 deaths the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, retaliated by ordering the complete destruction of the palace. It was comprehensively looted and then burned to the ground. The Chinese have never forgotten or forgiven this crime.

Footnotes & insights

This is the kind of fact-packed popular history where even the footnotes are packed with interesting information. There’s a footnote on almost every page and every one is worth reading – from details of the  several assassination attempts on Queen Victoria, the Indian origin of the words sepoy, sirdar, pundit and so on, what a regiment’s ‘colours’ actually are (two flags, one regimental, one for the queen), how the town of Ladysmith in South Africa got its name, and an extended sequence on how the famous Koh-i-noor diamond came to be handed over the British and included in the crown.

The evolution of military hardware

Alongside the thread about Victoria and Albert’s interventions is another thread which dwells on the evolution of military technology during this period. I was fascinated to read about the arrival of steam warships. At first battleships continued to have masts and depend on sail power – if there was wind – but were also equipped with steam engines for when there wasn’t. Only slowly did they make the full transition to steam. I was particularly interested in the advent of a new design of much smaller warship, only 200-foot long, powered by steam and equipped with a small set of rotatable guns. Because of their size these could penetrate up even minor rivers and still deliver punishing artillery fire. They were called gunboats and for the first time really allowed the Royal Navy (and Britain) to extend its might/force/violence into the remotest river frontages all over the globe (p.159).

And so for the first time I really understood the hoary old expression ‘gunboat’ diplomacy’, which is always used to describe Lord Palmerston’s belligerent foreign policy during this period. The use of gunboats is exemplified here by their use in the Second Burma War, 1852-3.

Just as interesting was David’s detailed description of how new ‘rifles’, manufactured at the new workshops on the River Lee at Enfield, hence the ‘Lee Enfield rifle’, were developed to replace the old flintlocks which were still in use at the start of the period, much more accurate at a longer distance, giving our boys a distinct advantage.

A little less interesting, but still giving you the sense of getting a complete overview of the military world of this era, is David’s attention to the evolution of uniforms, away from the heavy double buttoned tunic and the clumsy tall shako hat towards more practical (but still to us, improbably unwieldy) uniform.

Conclusion

This is a compellingly written, exciting and illuminating book on many levels – popular history at its best.


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The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China by David J. Silbey (2012)

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

1. Silbey is an American – he is Associate Professor of History at Alvernia University, Pennsylvania – so for a start it’s nice to read someone who is not a Brit and therefore does not go on and on about the wickedness of the British in a tediously self-hating manner (compare and contrast with the tediously anti-British tone of recent China books by Rana Mitter or Robert Bickers).

Instead, Silbey treats the Brits sensibly, as the dominant imperialist power until later in the 19th century, when more and more European powers began hovering around China like vultures – but as only one among a pack of imperialist nations who all shared the same values and assumptions and, moreover, by 1900, one that was very much losing its European dominance to Germany, its global industrial dominance to America, and, in Asia, was nervously aware of the growing rivalry between Japan and Russia.

2. This is a great read – at a slender 240 pages it’s half the size of most of the other China books I’ve been reading, and is written in a clear style with short declarative sentences retailing facts and events in a lucid, forceful way, not drowning them in political correct attitude or an over-fancy prose style.

To begin with Silbey skips briefly over the prior history of the Qing Dynasty (which was founded way back in 1644), and through the more recent two opium wars with Britain (1839-42 and 1856-60). These passages lack the depth or detail of a John Keay or Jonathan Fenby, but they are well judged as an introduction to the main theme. Slowly the detail builds up along with the pace, until I found myself genuinely gripped and excited by his narrative. I read the whole book in less than a day.

Background

Before he even gets to the account of the Boxer Rebellion itself, I found one early section particularly memorable, mainly because it chimes with my own obsessions/concerns.

For me everything any human being does or says or thinks is secondary to the basic fact that we are breeding like rabbits and destroying the planet. Our ‘cultural’ achievements – much though I spend time and effort enjoying and analysing them – are ultimately trivial compared to the one Big Story of our time, that we are degrading the natural environment wherever we go, driving huge numbers of plants and animals extinct, fouling our own nest and bequeathing our children a poisoned planet.

So I sat up a bit when Silbey himself early on introduced an environmental explanation for the rise of what became known as the Boxer Rebellion. Basically, overpopulation was the fundamental cause for the social instability which plagued China throughout the 19th century and beyond:

  • Population China’s population was 150 million in 1700, around 350 million by 1800, and maybe 430 million by 1850!
  • Environment, flood and famine This explosive population growth was supported by the immense fertility of China’s huge river valleys – specially the Yellow River in the north and Yangtze to the south. But the Chinese didn’t have the kind of ‘agricultural revolution’ that we in the West benefited from during the 1700s. By 1850 even these huge fertile river plains could barely support the galloping population. Thus, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, China’s population was extremely vulnerable to agricultural disaster, caused by drought or torrential rain leading to floods, or when the Yellow River underwent one of its periodic massive shifts of route, leaving devastation in its wake (as it did in 1855). China lived on an environmental and agricultural knife-edge which was almost guaranteed to produce periodic disasters, mass starvation, huge population dislocations. (Silbey doesn’t mention it but Jonathan Fenby’s more overarching account of China 1850 to 2000 describes, in often gruesome detail, repeated outbreaks of cannibalism in famine-stricken areas of China.) Even at the best of times, many millions were reduced to a hand-to-mouth existence on the periphery of their villages, or became migrant labourers roaming the countryside and easily transitioning into the ‘bandits’ who plagued much of non-coastal China – angry young men looking for food/justice/a better life.
  • Secret societies Chinese culture was drenched in respect for authority, for the family dead, for parents, local authority figures and for the Big Daddy of them all, the emperor. There were no political parties. There was no legal way to express opposition or dissent. Anyone who got on the wrong side of the emperor – and, in the second half of the 19th century, that meant anyone who crossed the all-powerful Dowager Empress Cixi – was liable to be beheaded. Hence it was a country alive with ‘secret societies’, cults and underground movements, the more so as so many of the dispossessed migrant workers, deprived of the traditional home, support and constraints of a settled village community, sought safety and validation elsewhere – in what were, basically, gangs.

So unlike Rana Mitter – who centres his (admittedly later) history on the diary of China’s leader Chiang Kai-Shek, or Robert Bickers – who quotes extensively from British traders and officials throughout the nineteenth century – i.e. unlike both those accounts which focus on surviving texts left by high-level, literate social leaders – Silbey digs deeper to put his finger on the key structural forces which help to explain the chronic instability of 19th century China.

And in particular he applies them to the rise of the so-called Boxer movement in the last years of the 19th century: population explosion, poverty, secret societies and then – a catastrophic natural disaster. In 1898 the Yellow River broke its banks, flooding millions of acres and reducing millions of peasants to starvation; the following year, in a cruel irony, there was drought. Huge numbers of peasants took to the road seeking food.

Exterminate the foreigners

The Boxers were mostly illiterate peasants, which explains why we have no manifesto or documentation from, for or about them. There are hardly any photographs of ‘Boxers’, even though their numbers at their peak ran into the millions. They didn’t have a leader, so we have no diaries or correspondence to pore over, no high level meetings to eavesdrop on, no strategies to weight and assess.

Almost the only thing we know about the Boxers is their one, simple, peasant slogan –

Support the Qing, exterminate the foreigners

What seems to have happened is that disparate groups of young men across northern China but especially in Shandong Province, just to the south of the capital Peking (as it was then called), became superstitiously convinced that it – the disaster, the poverty, the starvation -was the fault of the foreigners.

In particular, they blamed the only foreigners that the average peasant ever met or knew about – the interfering missionaries, missionaries from all the European nations, who arrived one day out of the blue in your village and not only began preaching un-Chinese nonsense about a tortured god, but made converts often among the lowest dregs of society – criminals and losers – who promptly used their powerful western backers to start winning village feuds and gaining the upper hand.

Silbey quotes numerous missionaries and journalists who were uncomfortably aware of this trend at the time. Missionaries appealed most to renegade members of society who had nothing to lose and everything to gain by acquiring powerful new western sponsors, but were often despised and scorned by their peers.

So the Boxer phenomenon first manifested itself, to western eyes anyway, as attacks on the Chinese converts to Christianity. Reports of scattered attacks, some murders, some atrocities, filtered into the European legations in Peking in 1898. And then came reports – sporadic at first – of attacks on the European missionaries themselves, which filtered in during 1899.

Occasional attacks on remote mission settlements were not unknown already, so it took a while for anyone to realise something new was happening, something more organised. Silbey reports the scepticism among consular officials in Peking, and even more so among hard-pressed imperial civil servants back in Britain and and the European nations.

The missionaries had always been a problem for imperial officials because they were always wandering far beyond the protection of our minimal military forces and then getting into trouble. For a long time the Boxer thing seemed like more of the same.

The Boxer movement

The Boxers are so-named because they grew out of secret societies and groups who were reviving China’s native traditions of martial arts. In Chinese the name was Yi-he quan, roughly translated as ‘Righteous Fists of Harmony’ or ‘Boxers United in Righteousness’. Boxers was short and snappy, so that’s what caught on with the British and has stuck to this day.

To their martial arts the Boxers added the voodoo belief that the correct rituals and spiritual exercises, for example swallowing bits of paper with magic phrases on them, would make them invulnerable to bullets – something we’ve seen in our own time among some African fighting groups.

Their discipline, their cult-like conviction, the righteousness of their cause, all spread like wildfire among half-starving angry young men in the drought summer of 1899, and through into the spring of 1900. They attacked missionaries and got away with it, they coalesced into larger bands, they stole guns and weapons where they could find them – and then they began to infiltrate the big cities.

The fighting

As 1900 progressed, consular officials wrote reports about the increase in attacks. In the spring Boxers – wearing their trademark red sashes – began to appear in towns frequented by foreigners, intimidating them with hard stares and displays of martial arts.

In April and May reports arrived of Chinese converts being murdered in ritualistic ways, tied to trees, having their arms chopped off and their intestines hacked out.

On June 1 two missionaries were ambushed, tortured and murdered. In late May the first surly, aggressive, red-sashed young men arrived in the streets of Peking, terrifying the Europeans. On May 27 a bloodied Belgian engineer staggered into the Peking embassies to announce that the train line to the coast was being destroyed by Boxers. On 31 May the British ambassador called a meeting of all the foreign consuls and they telegraphed to the coast for help and soldiers. The menfolk of the legations began building defences, reinforcing the existing wall surrounding the European quarter, adding barbed wire and trenches. On 9 June a racetrack just outside Peking was attacked and burned down. Some young Westerners who rode out to see the fun got caught in a firefight and came scampering back. On 11 June the Japanese ambassador, Sugiyama Akira, went with a servant to the train station to check on the arrival of the reinforcements but was shot dead in the streets. On June 13 the last telegraph line was cut. On 14 June several hundred Boxers with flaming torches attacked the legation but were beaten back by a picket of marines. By June 17 the legation quarter was surrounded and the Westerners were besieged, cut off from food, water, ammunition and help.

Thus Silbey shows how a trickle of scattered events slowly snowball into a major historical event -the siege of Peking – without anyone realising.

Several points are worth making about Silbey’s approach:

1. Day-to-day detail

There are numerous different ‘types’ of history writing, but nothing replaces a straightforward account of what actually happened.

Silbey’s narrative covers every available strand of the so-called Boxer Rebellion, the European part of which, the bit which is well-documented and understandable, took place in three or four locations simultaneously. By taking you carefully through it on a day-by-day basis, Silbey helps the reader understand the pressure the players were under, the limits of what they knew, the decisions they faced, why they did what they did – even if, with the benefit of hindsight, it turns out to have been the wrong decision.

Like a video game, this approach puts you in the game

  • Should the European forces set off to relieve Peking by train (quicker but vulnerable) or by river (safer but a lot slower)?
  • Should the Empress Cixi back the Boxers, hitching her star to this unpredictable uprising because it’s the best chance in a generation to kick the Europeans out of China?
  • Or are the Boxers a flash in the pan which the Europeans will crush, in which case she should declare war on them?

Silbey shows how at the start of June contingents of the Chinese army were stationed all along the train track and river from the coast via the city of Tianjin and along the route on to Peking – waiting for orders from the court: were they to make an alliance with the foreign armies in order to attack the Boxers – or ally with the Boxers against the foreigners?

Silbey’s day-by-day approach means that you, the reader, get involved in these decisions and find yourself taking sides, making gambles, taking part. The result is vastly more involvement, commitment and understanding than in the usual run of higher-level histories, which might make throwaway references to this or that battle, generalising, summarising etc.

But in Silbey’s account we are right down in the nitty gritty. When Able Seaman McCarthy is shot down in open ground in front of the fortified walls of Tianjin, Basil Guy a midshipman stays with him to bind the wound, under heavy fire, runs to get a stretcher team which he brings back, then helps the stricken McCarthy to safety. This takes half a page to describe and the reader is shaking at the intensity of the experience; you wonder whether you would have the nerve to do that, to stay with a comrade under heavy rifle and sniping fire, taking every measure to save their life. Guy was awarded the Victoria Cross (p.154).

During the same battle, the allies struggled to take the heavily defended inner wall of the city. Late at night the Japanese, closest to the inner wall, under cover of darkness planted tins of gunpowder against the south gate and set a fuse. Three times they set it and three times the Chinese defenders saw it flaring and shot it out. Until finally a Japanese engineer grabbed a box of matches, ran to the pile of gunpowder, and lit it. Boom! Up went the gate and the engineer was blown to smithereens. Wow – what bravery, fanaticism, madness!

On August 13 the Boxers made what was to be their final assault on the Peking legations, including an attack on the so-called Tartar Wall, an ancient fortification which they’d included in their defences. The section under attack was defended by just two men, Captain Newt Hall and Private Dan Daly of the U.S.Marines. As the attack intensified, Hall left Daly to go get reinforcements. Now alone, Daly, five feet six inches tall and ‘the most prolifically profane man in the history of the armed services’, held off waves of attacks. If he had given in or run away the Boxers would have made a breach, swarmed in and massacred the 500 plus Europeans. For his sweary bravery Daly was later awarded the Medal of Honour.

The day-by-day approach puts this book (for me) in the same league as Simon Schama’s monumental history of the French Revolution, Citizens (1989), or Orlando Figes’ epic account of the Russian Revolution (1996) or – going back earlier – Veronica Wedgwood’s masterpiece narrative of the British Civil Wars of the 1640s, The King’s War (1958).

By dealing with each day at a time, these historians convey not only the events, but something important about the very nature of human behaviour, of time and free will. The outcome of entire wars are shown to hang by a thread. The Chinese had held off the Europeans at Tianjin – if the Japanese engineer hadn’t sacrificed his life to blow the gate, would they have continued to hold out long enough to force the Europeans to run out of ammunition and be forced to retreat? Would the European legations in Peking have been stormed? Would Chinese forces in the rest of China, hesitating about which side to join, have come in on the side of the Empire and the whole thing turned into a genuine war of liberation against the Europeans? Would the Empress Cixi have gone down in history as the woman who liberated China and guaranteed the future of the Qing Dynasty for another century? And China never have fallen to Mao’s communists?

The day-to-day approach shows how truly contingent human affairs are, how people are forced to take all kinds of decisions on the basis of inadequate or zero information, decisions which only later assume huge importance.

All of this – the specificity of human agency and free will, the importance of individuals, the contingency of human affairs, heroism and cowardice, luck or good planning – come over brilliantly in this thrillingly detailed and exciting history.

And all of this is precisely what is lost as you write higher and higher level history, which deals in broader and broader brushstroke, misleading generalisations, giving a profoundly misleading sense that human history is somehow fated, predictable or purposeful.

2. Revealing the precise scope of the war

The day-by-day approach helps you understand a whole range of things. For a start, by the end of the book you’ve grasped the odd shape of the ‘conflict’. Basically, the European legations in Tianjin and further up the river, at Peking, found themselves unexpectedly besieged. A train of troops led by Admiral Seymour set off from the coast to rescue them, but found the track dug up by Boxers and came under repeated attack until eventually they had to retreat in disarray. So, next the Europeans tried the river route up the River Hai to get to Tianjin. But the seaward entrance to the Hai River was guarded by two forts on the north and south banks. So Silber gives us a nailbiting description of the European assault on the forts, infantry fighting their way across the mudflats, while the Royal Navy planned to bring two ships alongside two moored Chinese battleships and storm them – a plan Silber righttly describes as ‘insane’.

But it worked.

And so, having secured the forts, the riverborne relief troops set off up the river and, next, had to take Tianjin to free the besieged Europeans inside. This was a long hard fight in which the Europeans nearly lost. Eventually, they took the city, freed the Europeans and sailed on into another battle, to take the next settlement up the river, Beicang. Silber describes this battle in punishing detail, as he does the next encounter at Huangcan.

The Dagu Forts are significant because it was this which forced the Empress Cixi to make a decision. Support the Europeans against the illegal rebel Boxers, or support the Boxers against the far-from-invulnerable Europeans? She took option B, executed all the advisers who had been pushing for option A (there really not being space in Chinese politics for opposition or political parties – your argument loses, you die), and ordered the Chinese army to engage the foreigners.

At Beicang and again at Huangcan the Chinese army proved tougher and better organised than the foreigners expected. The Chinese lost, but they fought hard, and they withdrew in good order, not just scarpering and abandoning their kit.

The great mystery at the heart of the story is what happened next: after the battle of Huangcan the Chinese opposition suddenly and completely melted away. Before Huangcan the allies had been sniped at and ambushed at every bend in the river; afterwards, it was plain sailing through an empty landscape to Peking.

Why?

Silber invokes the same causes he gave at the beginning of his account: it started to rain. Plenty of journalists had been accompanying the expedition and they, and accounts from soldiers, paint a searing picture of the scorching summer heat of July and August in the north China plain. Dead crops, abandoned villages, bodies of animals and humans scattered across the barren plains. Then it started to rain. And rain. And rain. Crops needed tending, fields looking after, animals shepherded back into health, families needed supporting, flood defences reinforcing. The Boxers disappeared back to their villages. And the Chinese army hesitated.

At Peking, it’s true, the allies did encounter stiff resistance – but this was patriotic: after all, who would want their capital city assaulted and razed by foreigners? The Dowager Empress Cixi and her court had long fled into the western provinces (where, in Fenby’s account, she for the first time in her life witnessed the squalor her subjects endured, living in mud huts or holes in cliffs, suffering malnutrition and starvation in their hundreds of thousands).

After hard fighting, the allies took Peking and liberated the legations who, to their surprise, were generally in better shape than many of the troops – not having spent the previous two months marching through a parched landscape and fighting tough battles. A peace settlement was imposed on the Chinese government. The war was over.

Thus Silbey’s account allows you to really understand the shape and scope of the actual events. It wasn’t a ‘war’ as we think of European wars; it was really a glorified relief expedition which, at several key moments, very nearly failed.

3. Imperial shame

Because Silbey’s account has soaked us in the day-to-day struggles and suffering of everyone concerned – the starving peasants, the angry Boxers, the murdered missionaries, the officials and soldiers on both sides, because it has all been made imaginatively alive and important to us – this makes the atrocities that he describes all the more shocking.

The taking of the three towns (Tianjin, Beicang and Huangcun) was followed by Western reprisals and, because the Boxers were essentially civilians, only sometimes marked out by their red sashes, the reprisals are shockingly indiscriminate. An American contingent came across a group of French soldiers who had corraled about 300 Chinese men, women and children down towards the river and were firing indiscriminately into them – mass murder.

High level historians like Mitter and Bickers use words like racism very freely, so freely that after a while they lose their power. Silbey, by contrast, rarely uses the word – he shows you the thing in action – and this is infinitely more shocking, repellent and shameful.

Plenty of correspondents, even senior army officers and European officials, were horrified at the behaviour of their troops and – crucially – realised that they undermined if not destroyed any claim whatsoever that European ‘civilisation’ possessed any kind of superior values.

Having ‘liberated’ Peking, the allied troops went on a rampage of killing, raping and looting. Officers and officials tried to prevent it, and Silbey recounts the story of one American soldier who was tried and convicted of murder and rape and sentenced to life imprisonment; and this attempt at keeping control contrasts with, say, the behaviour of Japanese troops in China 30 years later who were given complete freedom to murder, rape and torture the Chinese at will. There was a real difference in attitude, with the best of the allies trying to prevent atrocity. But all too often they failed, and they certainly failed when it came to the wholesale ransacking the Peking.

Silbey doesn’t judge, he just shows. And by taking us so thoroughly into the feel and pressure of the time, by taking us so close to the sweating, fearful people of those days, makes us experience the atrocities with a similar visceral intensity – more powerful than any amount of name-calling or political correctness. Less is more.

4. Patriotic hate and the fall of the Qing

The Empress Cixi came back to Peking, her tail between her legs, and appointed the aged statesman Li Hongzhu to negotiate a crushingly humiliating peace treaty with the allies. A huge indemnity was forced on China, which she was still paying off 40 years later. The Western rapes, murders and looting shook the  Chinese intellectual class to the core; quite obviously ‘Western values’ were about as humane as Genghis Khan’s. They smile and invite you to tea with the vicar but, given half a chance, will ransack your capital city and rape your women. 

Cixi’s gamble had failed. She had backed the wrong side. More starkly than in some of the other accounts I’ve read, Silbey highlights how her failure condemned not only her dynasty, but the entire tradition of imperial rule, to the dustbin. Patriots and intellectuals growing up during this crisis not only saw at first hand that Westerners were violent, exploitative hypocrites – but just as clearly that the entire structure of imperial rule had failed and had to go.

5. The allies

So far I haven’t mentioned one of the dominant threads in the story which is that the expedition to relieve the besieged legations was strikingly multinational. Forces from Britain, British India, France, America, Japan and Russia took part. Again, by drilling down to the daily nitty-gritty Silbey reveals the highly complex world of competing imperial rivalry which operated, from staff level all the way down to individual soldiers. When the allied force finally took Tianjin, there was a race, an actual race, between the Japanese and British to get to the city flagpole and be the first to raise their flag over the liberated city. There was even more intense rivalry about which nation’s forces would be the first into besieged Peking (again it boiled down to bitter rivalry between the British and Japanese).

Silbey makes the point (as does Bickers in his book) that the Boxer conflict took place at exactly the same period as the second modern Olympic Games were happening in Paris (summer 1900). Exactly the same spirit of international rivalry was on display in China.

6. The aftermath

I’ve mentioned that one of the medium-term consequences was the end of the Qing dynasty, which itself contained the seed of another 75 years of further turmoil for China.

But it was really the rivalry between the allies which was full of portent and omen. The armies of France, Britain, Russia, Japan, America not only fought alongside each other against the Boxers and Chinese army – they watched each other and assessed each other. Spookily, at the Peking victory parade, the Japanese examined the Russians with a very appraising eye, noticed by onlookers. Four years later Japan would provoke a conflict with Russia in which she would whip the hapless Slavs, and consolidate her sense of being a World Power and entitled to a major role in Asia – a sense of entitlement which would lead her to annex Korea in 1910 and then invade north China in 1931.

It is fascinating to learn that conquered Peking was partitioned into sectors, each run by a different power – exactly like Berlin in 1945. All through the story the Germans had behaved with egregious brutality, inspired by their wicked Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who made a speech to departing troops telling them to take no prisoners and to inspire the same terror as their forebears, the Huns under Attila.

Silbey goes on to detail how the Chinese fled the brutality of the German sector, which became a ghost town, and flooded into the relatively well-run American sector. Apparently, when the Americans came to pull out a year later, the Chinese raised a large petition begging them to stay. The Americans brought order, stability, law, as well as clean water, medical facilities, schools and so on, something even their own authorities couldn’t provide until…. well, when exactly? The 1980s? The 1990s?

Conclusion

This is a thrillingly powerful, well-written, lucid and thought-provoking account of the Boxer Rebellion and the allied expedition to relieve Peking – bristling with all kinds of ideas and insights into the period itself, but also into the very nature of war and politics, of heroism and failure, of the scope and possibility of free will and action in a world constrained by society, history, politics and culture.

They did what they thought right, some of it wicked, some of it wrong, some of it foolish and deluded, some of it inspired and heroic. They were flawed people, constrained by their times, just as we are, in ours. For as Silbey writes:

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

Judge not lest ye be judged. A clear, well-written factual account of these kind of events is vastly more illuminating – and ultimately damning – than any amount of editorialising and name calling.

American cartoon (by Joseph Keppler for Puck magazine) satirising the foreign powers squabbling over China's corpse in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion

American cartoon (by Joseph Keppler for Puck magazine) satirising the foreign powers squabbling over China’s corpse in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion


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The Scramble for China by Robert Bickers (2011)

Bickers obviously knows a hell of a lot about western intervention in nineteenth-century China – or the story of the Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire 1832-1914, as the book’s sub-title puts it. Unfortunately, he attempts to convey this wealth of information in such a long-winded, round-the-houses manner, choked by a prose style which manages to combine academic jargon and whimsical archaism, that a lot of the time it’s difficult to tease out what he’s on about.

For example, the early chapters open with an unnamed ‘he’ doing something melodramatic and striking, thus creating an arresting opening – but take a page or more getting round to explaining who ‘he’ is, what ‘he’ is doing, where and when and why, thus leaving us in the dark.

They shouldered their way in. At Mr Lindsay’s order, Mr Simpson and Midshipman Stephens put their shoulders against the barred entrance to the Daotai’s quarters and heaved, twice. (Opening of chapter two)

Who? Where? When? Why? Patience, grasshopper. All will be revealed… eventually.

Was it a dream? Were his eyes deceiving him? He pressed forward through the crowd, the report goes, to get a better sight of the strangers, and “immediately began rubbing his eyes”. (Opening of chapter three)

Who? Where etc. Wait. Wait and see. Wait quite a while, in fact, for Bickers to make himself clear.

These teasing anecdotes, once finally explained, themselves take a while to be placed in the wider historical moment, which Bickers tends to explain both repetitively and obscurely. Quite regularly I didn’t know who he was referring to or when because the narrative jumped unpredictably between one set of characters and another, and (very frequently) back and forward over time. The only really consistent thing about his approach is his use of colourless academic phraseology and his scorn for the no-good imperialising westerners.

At first sight there appears to be a good deal of ‘background colour’ – the third chapter prides itself on going into great detail about the role of theatre and opera in Chinese society, from the professional heights of Peking Opera to the most amateur of local productions. Unfortunately, a lot of these purple passages, when you really look at them, merely state the obvious.

To give an example, the ‘he’ described in the opening of chapter three turns out to be a Chinese bystander who’s heard about two Europeans who have arrived out of the blue at Shanghai in – well, the date is lost in the yards of verbiage, I genuinely couldn’t figure it out – and who have blundered into a public opera production. This is Bickers’ cue to write pages about the Chinese opera and theatre tradition. Sounds fascinating, right? Alas, these pages are written thus:

But what was being staged depended on the occasion, and who was paying – the temple, a guild or a private patron. We cannot know, but we do know that the temple and the gathering so rudely interrupted by these bumptious foreign travellers were part of the fabric of Shanghai life and culture, in which were tightly interwoven the sojourning communities of commercial China, men from afar, whose trading activities were a key component of its wealth and importance. (p.59)

This one long sentence informs us that this big temple in Shanghai was part of Shanghai life and culture. Golly. Communities of sojourners (sojourner = ‘a person who resides temporarily in a place’) were – in case you hadn’t twigged – ‘men from afar’. OK. And that the trading activities of travelling merchants ‘were a key component of [Shanghai’s] wealth and importance’. ‘Tightly interwoven’ sounds impressive, doesn’t it? What does it mean, though?

I.e. when you take this grand-sounding sentence to pieces, it doesn’t tell you anything that wasn’t already fairly obvious. This is true for thousands of passages throughout the book: sound great, don’t tell you a thing.

Obscurity 

I’ve gone back and reread the opening pages of chapter three, twice, and I genuinely cannot actually work out when the action quoted above is taking place. You have to wait until three pages into the chapter before there is any reference to an actual date, and then it’s to two dates at once, one or both of which may refer back to a scene described in the previous chapter (I think), a reference which, in turn, required me to go back and double-check those dates.

In other words, this book requires quite a lot of double-checking and cross-referencing just to figure out when the thing is happening. Here’s the date reference I’m talking about:

Understanding what they were congregating for on this dreary October day in 1835 and had been watching on that wet June morning in 1832, and why at a temple, will help us develop a fuller picture of the China that first Lindsay and Gütlzaff, and then Medhurst and Stevens, were so intent on interrupting with their presence. (p.53)

This is what I mean by a round-the-houses manner. The opening of chapter three is deliberately obscure and teasing but… becomes no clearer as it goes on, in fact becomes in many ways more obscure and confusing as it goes on. All that really comes over is Bickers’s anti-British attitude (‘so intent on interrupting’) which is, indeed, the central thread of his account.

All this makes for a very frustrating read. Obviously Bickers knows masses about this subject – it is a tragedy for us readers that he can’t set it down in a straightforward, understandable manner.


The sound of his own voice

Complementing the obscure structuring of the book is the convoluted prose style.

1) Long paragraphs Bickers’ paragraphs routinely last an entire page and often longer, so on opening the book anywhere the reader is faced with a blank wall of words, with no way of breaking the text down into smaller, manageable units of meaning. I continually found myself losing the drift of a 2-page long paragraph, my eyes glazing over, suddenly snapping out of it and then having to go right back to the start to figure out what was happening.

2) Long sentences These mammoth paragraphs are indicative of the book’s general long-windedness. Bickers is reluctant to write a simple declarative sentence. He prefers long, swelling periods, dotted with commas to indicate the proliferation of subordinate clauses and – if possible – the insertion of one or two additional facts in parentheses, to make them as ornate and rhetorically over-wrought as possible.

You know those suitcases which are so over-stuffed you have to sit on them to try and get them closed? Bickers’ sentences are like that. And is this over-stuffing done in the name of presenting the facts clearly? Alas, no. Nine times out of ten it is to achieve an effect of style, a rhetorical repetition of phrases or artful alliteration, the deployment of irony or sarcasm – all techniques which are more suitable to a creative writer than to a historian.

And so, yet again, the Tianhou temple at Shanghai played host to parley, and the crude theatrics of private diplomacy, as Medhurst in particular stood, or rather aimed to sit, on his dignity as yet higher officials, the Customs superintendent (with a foreign cloak, he noted) and the district magistrate, came along in turn to sort things out, and found the foreign intruders rudely rebuffing the requirements of propriety when meeting officials of the great Qing. (p.52)

Note the attempts at humour – ‘or rather aimed to sit’. Note the insertion of a parenthesis, which itself contains two grammatical parts ‘(with a foreign cloak, he noted)’. Note the fondness for alliteration, for the sound of his own style – ‘rudely rebuffing the requirements’. Note that rather than describing or explaining the attitudes of the participants, Bickers prefers to convey them through irony verging on sarcasm – ‘the great Qing’.

Basically, this is a historian trying to write like a novelist.

3) Old fashioned Ironically for someone who is so determined to take a loftily modern, politically correct point of view of the old British Empire, Bickers’ prose, as well as being convoluted to the point of incomprehension, is also addicted to very old-fashioned locutions and vocabulary. Since I often couldn’t work out what he was on about, I found myself drawn to collecting his oddities and archaisms (= ‘a thing that is very old or old-fashioned, especially an archaic word or style of language’):

  • History was ever a public act, but it was also ever a private passion. (p.16)

Leaving aside the fact that this grand sounding period means less the more you think about it, there is the phrasing to savour – ‘ever’ to mean ‘always’? Really? In 1817 certainly. In 1917 maybe. But in 2017? Reading so many Victorian journals, tracts, articles has obviously infected Bickers’ style. But this is far from being a one-off oddity:

  • Lindsay was ever deadly serious, of course, and Medhurst too. (p.75)
  • There were private interactions, too, as there had ever been. (p.224)
  • Music was ever also a private pleasure, a private relief, a source of succour. (p.228)
  • Such confidence in the foreign ability to know China better than the Chinese themselves was to be oft rehearsed. (p.39). ‘Oft’?
  • All understood the law, he averred… (p.41) ‘Averred’?
  • All this fury and posture came to nought. (p.46)
  • The bells in Macao were quieted at the request of his physicians, but it all proved to no avail. (p.46)
  • Emigrants from Fujian, who had long sojourned in the city… (p.54)
  • The colonial consolidation and expansion of the emperor’s predecessors was largely foresworn… (p.66)
  • The Qing could but capitulate… (p.324)

Odd that Bickers is so loftily dismissive of the old imperialist bullies when he himself sounds so like a mutton-chopped lawyer out of Dickens:

  • The tension among the Company men in China persisted thereafter… (p.25)
  • … they aimed to get their complaints heard elsewhere along the coast and transmitted thereby to Peking… (p.26)
  • Scholars have begun in recent decades to look beyond the rhetoric of some schools of Chinese statecraft, particularly insofar as it articulated hostility to commerce.. (p.62)
  • Thereafter he held an intendant post in Zhejiang… (p.72)
  • Charles Elliott, by now the British superintendent of trade, rushed to Canton from Macao in cocked-hatted full dress uniform, evading the blockade and thereby deliberately adding himself to the hostaged fray. (p.78) ‘The hostaged fray’?
  • There were ‘mixed feelings’ from The Times, at the conclusion of a ‘miserable war’, and the ‘ill-gotten gains’ therefrom. (p.84)
  • Jardines had fourteen receiving ships by 1845, and usually ten thereafter… (p.92)
  • Like most of the early missionary community in China, he secured a post with the official British establishment during the war, and turned it into a secure position thereafter… (p.94)
  • In this way they rationalised their operations somewhat. (p.106)
  • Telegraph lines snaked their way thereafter to China. (p.164)
  • [The convicted murderer John Buckley] went quietly to his death, the site guarded by twenty-four policemen in case an attempt was made to rescue him, and he was not thereafter missed. (p.180)
  • For almost a quarter of a century thereafter the firm grew and diversified… (p.185)
  • Thomas Hanbury and his ilk were wedded to their interests in the Settlement at Shanghai… (p.189)
  • At least in Britain there was a Public Records Office, and in principle archives were transferred to public access, but nothing of that like existed in China. (p.376) — I don’t think I’ve ever read ‘like’ being used in this way before. ‘…nothing of that like…’ Surely you or I would write ‘but nothing like that existed in China’, but where would be the fun in that?

Alliteration Alliteration self evidently promotes sound and rhetoric over factual content and meaning.

  • Lindsay instantly resumed a pointed game of protocol and precedence. (p.21)
  • Their later frantic, frequent queries… (p.27)
  • It complained that the authorities in Canton were corrupt, capricious and cruel (p.28).
  • All wanted friendly and fruitful relations… (p.41)
  • They left that afternoon with a promise that a polite and properly formal response to their petition would follow. (p.41)
  • Instead they indulged in recondite debates about terms and texts. (p.73)
  • [Nathan Dunn’s exhibition of chonoiserie in London in December 1841] inspired catcalls and copycats… (p.88)
  • Such consular conveniences, compounded by confusions… (p.107)
  • [The Taiping rebels] fought fanatically and fiercely. (p.120)
  • … fifteen years’ worth of precedent and practice. (p.155)

Maybe Bickers is modelling himself on the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. In at least one place he does in fact directly quote Gilbert & Sullivan – on page 78 referring to the ‘little list’ being used in negotiations with the Chinese, a phrase which is the focus of a well-known song from their operetta about Japan, The Mikado (1885) (in fact, Bickers likes the jokey reference so much, he makes it again on page 194).

Hendiadys and pairing Why use one word when you can use two – ideally alliterating or rhyming – to deliver that knockout rhetorical punch?

  • Confident, nonetheless, they memorialised now more readily and steadily. (p.370)
  • … ongoing debates and disagreements… (p.374)

Fancy-ancy just for the fun of playing with words:

  • These shows… brought curious orientals to accompany the oriental curiosities on display in London. (p.89)
  • As successive reports made their way back to Britain, and as the lobbyists worked their words… (p.80)
  • But abate it they could not, or abate it they would not… (p.113)
  • Nearly all foreigners could or would still only talk a pidgin English… (p.114)
  • The act of uprising – daring to stand and daring to fight… (p.120)
  • But he could not, or would not, pay them. (p.126)
  • Parkes had grown up as British China grew up. He had grown with conflict and he had grown accustomed to conflict. China was his adult life, his only life… (p.138)
  • The men were there to fight and fought there well. (p.162)
  • So Robert Hart had had his fill of life in the foothills of the China apocalypse, had seen how vacuum would follow and violence ensure if the Qing could not hold… (p.196)
  • This new Peking, the object of romantic contemplation, suggested a China that might be appreciated rather than caricatured, and savoured rather than savaged. (p.221)

Singular nouns or nouns without an article This a real addiction of Bickers’ style, it occurs throughout on every page and gives the prose a stilted, hieratic feel:

  • [Lindsay] was ready to perceive slight and note omission… (p.22)
  • Now Lindsay was sailing north without invitation… (p.24)
  • … he and his retinue had been denied audience… (p.24)

Shouldn’t that be, ‘denied an audience’? It’s not wrong, it’s just that denying many of these nouns an article turns them from specific instances or events into lofty-sounding abstractions – makes them and the sentences they appear in just that wafer-thin bit more stilted and precious than they need be. More portentous and pretentious, to adopt Bickers’ own manner.

  • The predictable regularity of the internationalised trading world was periodically upset, as in any port city, by human failing and misadventure… (36)
  • They knew so well many of the possibilities that lay beyond their reach by imperial order, and engaged in shrewd estimate and wild conjecture… (p.65)
  • Nor was [the emperor Daoguang] the despised feudal archaism of the Marxist history of communist-era China, which castigated the failures of the late-Qing monarchs to combat imperialism’s assault. (p.67)
  • Those Napier-ordered bombardments of the Canton forts were simply ‘minnows’ compared with the just desserts of Chinese obstruction and insult that were to be meted out by British warships. (p.77)
  • The British helped inform this comedy of error. (p.86)

As with the other elements of Bickers’ style it gives the impression of acuity and insight without providing any actual information. The proliferation of these rhetorical tricks explains why you can read whole page-long paragraphs, arrive exhausted at the end, and then wonder why you don’t appear to have learned or remembered anything.

  • The Canton RegisterCanton Courier, and the more ambitious and scholarly Chinese Repository, edited by Elijah Bridgman, the first American missionary to China, all conveyed up-to-date news, description and opinion across the seas. (p.36) Why not descriptions?
  • Every contact with Chinese officials was an occasion for slight. (p.44)
  • It administered each in the way which seemed best, or most pragmatic at the time, and given considerations of resource and capacity. (p.69) Why not ‘resources‘?
  • Bouts of fighting were interspersed with parleys and negotiations, and with defence of insecure occupations of Chinese islands… (p.81) Why not ‘the defence’?
  • Stronger still would be the accumulated body of printed and private report… (p.89)
  • … the consequent legal haziness of their operations generated much correspondence and dispute. (p.93)
  • But domestic crisis was no small matter when rumour swept around… (p.114)
  • If stray shots passed over there would be formal complaint and stern rebuke. (p.127)
  • European initiative needed Chinese resource. (p.156)
  • The Customs delivered increasing resource as foreign trade grew… (p.198)
  • The development of official banks of information and report by consul and commissioner… (p.218)

So Used as an emphasiser, and in an unusual position in the word order, in a very old-fashioned way:

  • Indeed it will help if we understand more about the temple itself, which so stood out on the Shanghai waterfront close by the Customs House and under the highest point on the city wall, and which so stands out in these two landmark accounts of foreign visits to the city…This way we can better understand the China of the early 1830s outside the narrow confines of the factories, the roads, Macao, that narrow semi-foreignised sliver of the Canton delta that so overfills accounts of the early Sino-foreign encounters. (p.53)

Indeed, it would have been better for the gentle reader of these rhetorical tricks which so embellish and so adorn the purple prose of this grandiloquent historianographer, if his exuberant verbosity had been somewhat reined in and replaced with useful and understandable factual content.

Presage Bickers likes this word.

  • The foreign traders, all of them, were to be held hostage for the drug, without fresh food, without their servants, worried that the commissioner’s little list… presaged individual arrests and possibly torture. (p.78)
  • The sight of the burning buildings… presaged some more years of violent Canton problems. (p.101)
  • All such minor disturbances of men and women could presage consular grief. (p.114)
  • An estimated 7 million people were affected by the floods and dyke-failures that presaged the great change [of the course of the Yellow River in 1851] (p.136)
  • This turn to antique China also presaged the opening of another front in the foreign campaign. (p.221)
  • Margary’s slaughter presaged another round in China’s despoliation… (p.260)
  • The new blockade was to presage a new phase in the campaign… (p.296)

The use of ‘presage’ is typical of Bickers’s preference for the orotund and bombastic as opposed to the plain and simple.

Inversions of normal sentence order which makes sentences sometimes difficult to understand.

  • Quickly to the Company’s aid came instead other parties and volunteers… (p.26)
  • What commercial bliss it was that hot Canton spring… (p.78)
  • Rare it was that ‘the preacher commences and ends his discourse without a single intervention’. (p.111)
  • Always in Peking, I think, someone will in fact have heard him. Always someone will have heard the young foreigner belting out song in the capital’s dry air. (p.229)
  • Always there were exceptions… (p.249)
  • Fearful too were Chinese residents and local authorities. (p.349)

Incomprehensible In fact the combination of all the above tricks and jackanapary makes some sentences simply incomprehensible.

  • And what was eventually left over, why, when the hullaballoo was over, and when Lin’s officers had spent three weeks in April and May overseeing the smashing of the balls of opium and their flushing out to sea at Humen, close by the Linten anchorage, then what a market there was for it, and what prices it could now fetch discreetly, much more discreetly, sold along the coast to friends disappointed by the diversion of the spring stock. (p.79)
  • Along the coast with the British Cantonese went nonetheless, or followed soon after. (p.101)
  • Gods of ignorance and bafflement reigned over the China theatre. (p.397)

Sojourners sojourning As mentioned above, a sojourner is ‘a person who resides temporarily in a place’. Lots of westerners came out to newly-opened-up China to make a quick fortune then go home; they are pretty obviously ‘sojourners’, if you choose to use this antique term. But lots of Chinese, both native and immigrants from the south-east Asian diaspora, also came to ‘sojourn’ in the new Crown colonies Britain had wrested from China. Hence there was a whole lot of sojourning going on, and the text doesn’t let us forget it:

  • Sojourners and settlers prefer familiarity to adaptation… (p.62)
  • [The Qing empire] was well used to dealing with sojourners from outside its formal domain… (p.69)
  • Cantonese migrants and sojourners were quick to see additional value in association with the British… (p.102)
  • Robert Fortune’s second sojourn in China… (p.105)
  • They [westerners] were sojourners, mostly… Their sojourns were not short. (p.117)
  • Shanghai itself fell on 7 September 1853 to a sojourner coup. (p.125)
  • The sojourner was mentally relocating, settling in, his sense of where he formally belonged shifting. (p.168)

Personification

  • Arrogant opium swaggered its way along to the newly opened ports. (p.92)

Not traditional history writing, is it?

Tired and jaded

It is an oddity of this book that Bickers’ tone is tired and jaded with the whole western adventure in China before it has even started. Very early on he starts using phrases like ‘once again’ and ‘yet again’, when in fact what he’s describing is happening for the first time. This quickly conveys to the reader that Bickers is frightfully bored with the oh-so-predictable cultural misunderstandings or western bullying or the absurd scenes of everyone standing on their dignity which he depicts.

  • At Shanghai as at Hong Kong, and in every foreign community, such sentiments… were to be expressed again and again… (p.134)
  • Again it all began in Canton… (p.136)
  • And here we are again at the closed gates of the city and at the closed door of the yamen… (p.146)
  • It was the old story, of China coast savviness about Chinese duplicity… (p.213)

This tone conveys the regrettable sense that Bickers feels blasé and superior to the events he’s describing and the poor saps enacting them. If only the human race had given Bickers something a bit more interesting and novel to write about! There’s a striking passage which introduces the First Opium War where he tells us how awfully over-familiar the whole thing is:

The course of events that followed are well known. How Lin Zexu was sent as a special commissioner to investigate the problem in Canton and to put a stop to the trade, how he made his way overland to the city and set about making his mark: all of this has been much narrated. (p.77)

Is it well known, though? Has it been much narrated? Do you know all about Lin Zhu and his overland trek and what happened next? I certainly didn’t. In fact, that’s why I’m reading a book about the scramble for China, precisely to learn about this history, not to be patronisingly told that I ought to know all about it all already.

This passage (there are plenty more in the same vein) crystallised my feeling that Bickers is far too close to his subject matter and makes a kind of rookie error in assuming that his readers share his specialised knowledge and are all as blasé and bored by it as he is.

But many of us have barely heard any of this story before and it is his responsibility to tell it to us. Alas, Bickers is so over-familiar with events that he has to resort to fancy prose and attitudinising to keep his own interest up. I, on the other hand, was hoping for a simple, reliable and clearly written account of the events of these hundred years in China.

Alas, I didn’t get it here. Bickers’ account of the First Opium War is confusing, but not as confusing and partial as his account of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) on pages 118 to…. well… his account just fizzles out somewhere ten pages later – which I was particularly looking forward to. As if determined to confuse, he begins his account of the Taiping Rebellion, one of the most epic events in world history, in mid-chapter, after some pages which give the impression they are going to be a description of the cosy lives of the China British. He introduces this vast historical subject with these words:

But then enter the younger brother of Jesus Christ who came to discomfort all their lives… (p.118)

If you didn’t know that the leader of the Taiping Rebellion was a religious visionary who really did think he was the brother of Christ, this opening would be incomprehensible. In fact, Bickers doesn’t give an account of the overall Taiping Rebellion at all – he is only interested in it insofar as a) it demonstrates and was arguably caused by, the destabilising presence of Europeans on China’s coasts and b) it impacted the British settlements at Canton and at newly colonised Shanghai (where, for example, in 1853, the British – from the protection of their walled settlement – could watch pitched battles between the Taiping army and the imperial Qing forces).

The accounts of the Taiping Rebellion in the books by John Keay and Jonathan Fenby are both much clearer and much more penetrating than in Bickers. These two historians clearly explain the causes and consequences of this truly epic conflict, possibly the largest civil war in all human history, anywhere, a titanic devastation which led to the loss of as many as 20 million Chinese lives, maybe more.

The same frivolous and off-hand approach characterises Bickers’s treatment of the contemporaneous but distinct Nian Rebellion (1851-68), given only a brief page here (p.135), fleetingly explained but not analysed in any depth.

The brief mention of the Crimean War (on pages 134 and 135) neither explains that conflict nor its geopolitical ramifications for the European powers in China. Bickers briefly points out that the war had a distinct Pacific element – a fascinating idea I’d never come across before – but then frustratingly drops the subject completely. This feels like a massive and fascinating topic completely ignored. So disappointing. I bought this book precisely to understand the geo-political implications and context and motives for the sequence of China-oriented wars of the nineteenth century, and that turns out to be the very last thing on Bickers’ mind.

This confusing melange of super-brief references to these huge and super-important wars then segues abruptly and, as usual, in a very offhand way, into a typically arse-over-tit account of the Second Opium War (1856-60).

So the foreigners placed their faith in the Qing, once they had warred with them, beaten them, and humiliated them. Again, it all began in Canton. (p.136)

Note the tired and jaded tone as he casually begins a confusing account which spools onto page 150, with a vivid but hard-to-follow explanation for the (scandalous) British burning of the Emperor’ Summer House. OK. But in the 14 or so pages which cover it, Bickers nowhere mentions that he is describing the Second Opium War – you have to know that already. He is so close to, and over-familiar with, his subject, he just assumes that we all know about this stuff already. But we don’t. That’s why we bought your bloody book in the first place.

Towards the end I was genuinely appalled when the only mention he makes of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the first war in modern times in which a non-European nation (Japan) thrashed a European one (Russia) is the following. (He’s explaining how, after the Boxer Rebellion was finally quelled, the European nations demanded reparations but, for the most part, didn’t seek to acquire new territory. Apart from Russia):

Russia failed to conform, though, and hung on in Manchuria with 200,000 troops. So the British and the Japanese opened up a new world of international politics by entering into a formal alliance in 1902, breaking with decades of British practice, and in 1904-5 the Japanese smashed Russian forces in Manchuria and Siberia, shocking the European world, and offering new hope for the colonised and threatened. (p.349)

The Russo-Japanese War doesn’t even get a sentence of its own, but is shoehorned into the second half of a sentence which starts in 1902 and ends in 1905. Wow.

The republican revolution which finally overthrew the Qing Dynasty – and ended 3,000 years of rule by emperors – in October 1911, is dealt with – including the accident which sparked it, the spread of revolt, the seizure of power by Sun Yat-Sen, the abdication of the emperor, and the handing over of power to general Yuan Shikai – this seismic event is dealt with in 10 sentences – half a page – and not returned to.

Thus does Bickers leap over hugely important geopolitical, strategic and military events in order to get back to lambasting western businessmen living in sin with their Chinese mistresses, making fortunes from the opium trade and lobbying for more access to Chinese markets.

This is a sociological essay about the British in China, not a history.

Academic jargon

By this stage the reader has realised that Bickers isn’t interested in giving a chronological account of what happened during China’s century of humiliation; he isn’t interested in analysing or explaining the complex geopolitics of a weakened China caught between coastal invaders like the British and, towards the end of the period, the Japanese – all overshadowed by the ever-present threat from the land-grabbing Russian empire in the west and north.

He isn’t even very interested in any of the other European nations – the French and Americans get only a few walk-on parts, while the Portuguese, Dutch or Germans are hardly mentioned at all.

Instead, what becomes clearer and clearer is that Bickers thinks he is giving a kind of cultural history of the British in China.

That’s a fine ambition but he doesn’t live up to it. There is nothing at all in the book about, say, Chinese art or poetry, nothing. What there is, is repeated references to the way the Chinese or British performed as if on a stage with each other, or the way Chinese artefacts (and people) were shipped off to London to be put on display in various public shows and the big European expositions of the later Victorian era, or the way the colonisers engaged in practices and policed sites and shaped public space, and so on. Instead of interesting stuff about Chinese culture, what Bickers gives us is a lot of Eurocentric academic jargon.

Over the past forty years or so, the mind-set and terminology of (mostly French) modern literary theory/history/sociology pioneered in the 1960s and 70s by, say, Roland Barthes or Michel Foucault, has congealed to form a higher entity called just Theory – an attitude and set of jargon which has spread out to infect study of all the humanities subjects at university.

I’m extremely familiar with this all-purpose semi-sociological terminology from the many art exhibitions I go to, where contemporary artists no longer make ‘art works’ – they engage with issues of gender and sexuality, or money and class or whatever, carrying forward projects which use strategies of this, that and the other, which taken together amount to their practice. What used to be called ‘works of art’ are now more often than not the sites of their engagement with some issue or other, where the artists subvert conventional narratives of whatever or challenge this, that or the other norm or convention.

This all-purpose academic jargon has a number of purposes. Firstly, like academic jargon down the ages, from the ancient world through the Middle Ages – it makes the author sound clever. Secondly, it makes it all sound very serious: no longer painting a picture or developing a photo, an artist is now engaged in their practice – like a serious professional, like an architect or a GP. Thirdly, it is all very active – none of that old bourgeois standing around in front of an easel, an artist now engages with, subverts, challenges and questions and interrogates and a whole load of other action words. All very exciting and edgy.

At the same time many of the words have a very clinical and scientific feel: not only the artist, but especially the art critic, is no longer subject to the wishy-washy whims of their bourgeois imagination, but gives the impression of applying rigorous scientific procedures: artists have ‘projects’ and ‘practices’ which are enacted in ‘sites’ and ‘spaces’. Anything like a sculpture or installation reorientates the ‘space’ around it, maybe reorders ‘spatial hierarchies’, probably ‘challenges’ accepted ‘narratives’ or what a work of art can be, and so on.

Another feature of Theory Language is that a little of it goes a long way: these terms have become remarkably all-purpose: you can apply them to almost any human activity and come out sounding serious, weighty and profound.

The only snag is that – although this kind of language, used sparingly, conveys a sense of power and thrust and importance and intellectual force,

a) it doesn’t, on closer examination, really tell you anything at all
b) used too much, it quickly turns into a vacuous jargon of empty slogans – just as the public very quickly got sick of Theresa May telling us she represented ‘strong and stable leadership’ (and turned out to represent the opposite) so an artist, or curator, or critic, or historian who goes on and on about ‘practice’ and ‘projects’ and ‘sites’ and ‘narratives’ in an effort to sound meaningful and scientific and precise – runs the risk of ending up like a cracked record playing the same meaningless jargon over and over again; far from subverting anything, this kind of jargon ends up reinforcing existing conventions about art writing. In fact, it is the new set of conventions.

Examples of academic jargon

Display is an important idea for Bickers. European merchants built big houses – he takes it as an example of ‘display’. They hosted lavishes dinner – more ‘display’. Chinese objects were sent back to London – where they were put on ‘display’. As if grouping these pretty everyday activities under a semi-scientific singular noun gives us all a special insight into human activity, grouping them all together somehow explains… something.

  • China was in this way [exhibitions of China bric-a-brac in London in the 1840s] being normalised as an object for such display and ethnographic and other curiosity. (p.89)
  • Such displaydisplay at table, architectural display – announced probity and confidence (to each other, to Chinese merchants), but it also spoke of vulgarity and extravagance. (p.99)
  • Admiration for the appearance of the Sikhs, the ‘colour’ they were felt and said to have brought to China, and to British display in China… (p.163)
  • What became the routine display of China at such forums was a key strand in the project that Hart was leading. (p.204)

Engage and engagement At a recent internet conference I attended there was a list of banned words; if you mentioned one you had to contribute to the swear box (all money coughed up was sent to a charity for refugees). ‘Engage’ and ‘engagement’ were top of the list. Why? Because they means everything and nothing; because they are empty buzzwords.

  • Farmers engaged in handicraft production. (p.64)
  • The ordered business of its routine engagement with the world at the treaty ports elsewhere was able to continue… (p.352)

Enterprises and projects

the British Empire didn’t carry out strategies or policies, apparently. It engaged in projects and enterprises.

  • At the heart of the official British China enterprise… (p.206)
  • The foreign China enterprise at Shanghai was actually truly a real-estate imperialism… (p.222)
  • They were men of commerce and outside what was formally recognised as British empire, and their enterprise was multi-national and often makeshift. They had no imperial project. (p.382)

Sites and spaces Both make pretty run-of-the-mill places sound important and exciting, and make it sound as if you’re saying something especially perceptive and insightful about them.

  • This book explores the world which created that final photograph and its many sites and fields of action. (p.14)
  • A popular temple was also a commercial and economic site… They were embedded in the daily public space of the city. (p.16)
  • The rural landscape was pocked with market sites. (p.65) — It is so much more emphatic and intellectually demanding than simply writing ‘markets’ or ‘market places’.
  • [Just outside harbour boundaries, opium] was stored, and there were established new sites for conflict and the low-level disorderliness that filled the consulate letter books. (p.93)
  • The new ports were like many of the other sites of power around the Indian Ocean. (p.105)
  • As the new roads and buildings grew up in the treaty ports they were to acquire new memorials, and new sites for commemoration and celebration. (p.112)
  • It might seem odd that we can find so much insistent quiet emphasis on the symbolic ordering of foreign space [the British insisted on having a grand ex-palace to be their legation in Beijing]. Partly this was a response to understandings of Chinese conceptions, a breaking out of spaces and sites allotted them for reasons they interpreted (rightly sometimes) as intentionally demeaning. But they had their own such practices already… (p.206)
  • Foreign observers chuckled at Chinese geomancy, at fengshui, even as they fashioned symbolic landscapes themselves, sacralising space, creating sites for pilgrimage, reflection and remembrance. (p.207)

In this last example Bickers is describing how the British built graveyards wherever they settled. Note how he goes out of his way to ridicule the British who, he claims, chuckled at Chinese geomancy but – at least according to Bickers’ confidently post-imperialist view – were themselves every bit as superstitious and irrational in their treatment of ‘space’ – i.e. building cemeteries. Ha ha ha, silly old British.

But as with almost everything Bickers writes, a moment’s reflection makes you question this casual criticism and superiority: geomancy or fengshui are to some extent optional practices; organising the hygienic and orderly burial of the dead are rather more of a necessity. But – and here’s my point – Bickers has conceived and written this sentence not to make a factual statement – but to score politically correct points over ‘the foreigners’.

  • Peking, resolutely, was different to all the other sites of the foreign presence, different in scale, meanings, history, experience and climate. (p.215)
  • the Inspectorate General was the site in time of an entirely novel private experiment of Hart’s. (p.227)
  • There were of course other sites of jubilee. (p.309)
  • China long remained a site of foreign male opportunity. (p.311)
  • Homes, memoirs show, now became sites for the assertion of the supremacy of the European woman over her servants… (p.313)
  • Real Chinatowns became fictionalised nests of opium dens and sites of the despoliation of white girls by Chinese men. (p.364)

Space

  • [Western music] served to mark space in new ways. (p.228)
  • So at Shanghai they ordered space, responding as quickly as they were able to the breathtaking speed with which opportunities were seized, innovations latched onto, loopholes explored. They also ordered Chinese use of public space, imposing new norms of behaviour, turning urination into a minor criminal category. They also attempted to order aspects of private space: the gambling house, the brothel, the household. (p.224)

On reflection, where Bickers writes ‘space’ he really means ‘behaviour – but ‘space’ sounds more abstract, intellectual and scientific. And, in his usual hurry to denigrate Europeans and the British at every turn, he turns the imposition of regulations like banning people pissing in the street into a bad thing. Maybe we should return to the days of men randomly urinating in the street? Similarly, maybe gambling houses and brothels shouldn’t have been regulated. Naughty, naughty Europeans with their silly imperialising laws.

Practice A super-useful word which can be applied to almost any human activity to make yourself sound impressively intellectual. For example, my postman for the most part engages in letter-delivery activities but has recently expanded his practice to encompass the manual transmission of parcels in the course of which he transitions from the public space of the pavement, governed by one code of conduct, to the private space of my porch, which has become a site for intrapersonal exchange and dialogue i.e. we have a bit of a chat whenever he knocks on the door to deliver a parcel.

Used in this pretentious way ‘practice’ has become a buzzword which lends your text the authority and the spurious pseudo-scientific precision of an anthropologist or ethnographer or sociologist. But like so many of these terms, it mostly just dresses up banality and the bleeding obvious.

  • Officials often had little time intellectually for popular religious practice. (p.61)
  • Buddhist in origin, but adopted far beyond Buddhist practices, [the festival] involved opera performances, processions and bonfires… (p.61)
  • But that containment [of foreign traders by the Chinese] was too restrictive, too contrary to emerging European interests and practices… (p.157)
  • As the concessions and settlements merged spatially with the rest of the developing cities, their autonomous judicial systems and practice routinely returned to deportation as a legal punishment. (p.160)
  • It was a queer affair, the extension of Tongzhi restoration practice to overseas diplomacy… Burlingame was carefully and explicitly instructed not to follow practices which might prompt reciprocal demands on Peking.. (p.212)
  • There were descriptions and assessments too of Chinese practice. (p.281)
  • North China farmers knew that into their brittle world had come new forces, with alien ideas and practices… (p.341)
  • And the practices of the new combined forces of Boxers, the Yihequan, ‘Boxers united in righteousness’, gave them mastery over foreign things… (p.342)
  • Foreign office archives practice was in theory quite clear. (p.375)

Lovely sentence this last one, don’t you think?

Network Not found so much in other Theory-mongers, this word makes you sound like you’re all across modern technology and the internet and the groovy, cool, multi-connected world.

  • [The Taiping Rebellion] was a revolt informed by the new intellectual currents from over the oceans which were at work in Chinese cities and in the networks of people, goods and ideas that flowed through them… (p.120)
  • The swiftness of the incorporation after 1860 of the new sites of treaty port China into these far wider networks shows just how interconnected it already was. (p.156)
  • Globalisation, international migration, the growth of British and other European empires and the networks that cut across and through them, all had a bearing on developments in China. (p.156)
  • China was already deeply embedded in new-fashioned networks… (p.157)
  • So the Inspectorate general became the centre of its own network of stations, as well as a node in wider networks – regional meteorology, the international round of display and representation… (p.204)
  • The growing presence, and relative ease of transmission of goods and people, locked China more and more closely into knowledge networks, not least geographical and scientific ones. (p.165)
  • By 24 October 1860, when allied troops paraded into the heart of the imperial capital escorting Elgin and Gros, two bands in the vanguard heralding their intrusion and the imminent treaty ceremony, China was already being fashioned steadily into new networks – of communications, of people, of ideas. (p.157)

‘New networks of communications, of people, of ideas’ – this is vacuous modern corporate jargon: it could be an excerpt from the press release for any big company, bank or government department – it has that hollow corporate ring, impressive, vibrant-sounding and absolutely empty of meaning.

Scripts and performance This is another classic piece of sociological jargon in which people are depicted as hollow puppets helplessly ‘performing’ ‘scripts’, putting on performances – which they called living and making decisions but which we – everso wise Posterity – can now see as ritualised and formulaic ‘performances’:

  • The China script for the performance of British power and identity in the treaty ports was borrowed from the Subcontinent. (p.162)
  • Many missionaries played at the local level the China game of compensation for injury and damage, property restitution and repair, and symbolic gesture – judgement and proclamation set in stone, or transfer of communally important sites as punishment… Some did so to show how powerful Church and mission were, how actively they could help; to reassure and protect existing converts, and to tempt others. Such action could also provide a stage for the rehearsal of the national honour script, the dignity of the nation residing in the person of the missionary and his flock. (p.249)
  • But as 3,000 troops and labourers disembarked at Langqiao Bay in May 1874, a more routine script was being rehearsed… (p.254)
  • His death was incorporated into the same empire script that he rehearsed as he travelled… (p.260)
  • The limits of this private enterprise imperialism, of the sweaty plans of Bland and his ilk were reached on the early Sunday of of 28 July 1913, when Bruce and his band blundered noisily into sleepy Zhabei, and nobody met them to play their scripted part in the local drama of Settlement expansion. (p.369)

Transgressions and subverting and challenging and interrogating etc. Sounds so exciting and edgy and revolutionary. But is all too often applied to really boring and obvious descriptions in an effort to jazz them up.

  • As guardians of order and peace they saw such large gatherings… as sites of transgressions of moral order. (p.61)

What he means is that prostitutes often plied their trade at big Chinese festivals. Who’d have thought? Pretty transgressive, eh?

Actually, there isn’t as much transgression here as I find in the commentary of art galleries; and only one or two mentions of another favourite of Literary Theory, ‘desire’, used as a kind of bland, all-purpose, catch-all term for sex in the widest sense. Although there are quite a few references to brothels and prostitutes – mainly, of course, pointing out how brothels and prostitutes followed western land grabs and settlements, thus proving what racist hypocrites Europeans were. Oh, and many of them took Chinese mistresses, as well. How vile and disgusting, only white men have ever taken mistresses, and only in China.

Prose like concrete

The direction of Bickers thought is always upwards towards sweeping generalisations. Converting a specific argument between a specific Chinese and English into the generic term ‘dispute’, or particular local laws and customs into the generic word ‘practice’, is always to leave the specific and colourful behind in the name of scientific-sounding but in reality vague and generalised concepts. Move in this direction enough and you are left with sentences which are so generalised they could be about anything, anywhere. It just makes long stretches of this book really, really boring.

Always there were exceptions, men and women horrified by this new world of local conflict and dispute that could unfold as people converted. But the mission enterprise was nonetheless mired from the start in such local dispute, at the same time as it was enmeshed with the wider foreign world in China through nationality, affinity, language, marriage, and wider kin networks. (p.249)

It’s like reading concrete. It’s like being stuck in a supermarket car park looking at thousands of shopping trolleys, all the same. Dispute, insult, practice, site, spatial integration, networks of communication, sites of display, imperial spaces, networks of engagement, circuits of empire, colonial display, imperial sites, the China project, the China enterprise, blah blah blah.

I should have been warned off by the reviewer on Amazon who said reading this book was like walking through thickening mud.

Some, such and many Bickers also has a peculiar way with the words ‘there’, ‘some’, ‘such’ and ‘many’: by peculiar I mean that I’ve read thousands of books, paying close attention to their style, and never come across anyone use those words so eccentrically and idiosyncratically. He is fond of ‘fray’ which recurs many times; and ‘odd’.  It is tempting to embark on an analysis of these short, common words for what they reveal about Bickers’ eccentric uses of them – but this review is long enough already.

  • Such permission was certainly given to some… (p.374)
  • Such fear held good there. (p.374)
  • Such memory is the product of hard state work. (p.392)

A simpler soul might write ‘this kind of’ permission or fear or memory – but Bickers is a sucker for rhetorical effects.

Bullying sanctimoniousness

It goes without saying that a modern white, middle-aged English academic will have completely absorbed the political correctness of their university context and so be extremely, comprehensively, sarcastically critical of the white, middle-aged Englishmen of the past. A modern politically correct academic could take no other attitude.

They are all racist imperialist saps; we, dear reader, are by contrast morally unimpeachable and live in an age of complete enlightenment. Thank goodness the modern West which Bickers is a part of doesn’t go around invading other countries and plunging them into decades of chaos and civil war; thank goodness the modern West doesn’t build encampments in foreign countries – Iraq, say, or Afghanistan – protected from angry natives by huge walls inside which the soldiers and civil servants of the occupying forces, blissfully uninterested in the local culture, are provided with all the pleasures of home.

Yes, the modern historian, embedded in this wonderful Western culture, is sooo superior to his great-great-great-great grandparents who did just the same in China or India. In an account of a speech the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury gave in 1898, Bickers makes sure to point out that it was infused with the outdated ideology of social Darwinism, that he spoke ‘complacently’ and that his imperialist audience ‘chortled’.

What’s ironic is that Bickers’ own account is drenched with the cultural ideology of our times – sanctimonious political correctness – and that he himself never loses an opportunity to ‘chortle’ at the inferiority of other people – in this case, our ancestors. Bickers displays exactly the same patronising tone towards people who can’t defend themselves, as he lambasts haughty imperialists for displaying towards their victims.

Bickers laughs at the British merchants and soldiers, the consuls and captains he depicts, for importing the comforts of home, for bringing in English plants and trees, for building Anglican churches, for ordering prints and paintings of reassuringly patriotic subjects to hang on their walls, and even sending for familiar foods, rather than the bewildering local cuisine.

They wanted and recreated the familiar. They wanted their cigar brought, and then their newspaper. So they made themselves at home on the Huangpu, the Min, Gulangyu island, the slopes of Hong Kong, as snug as they could manage, and read weeks-old news about the real world over the ocean in a fug of finest Havana. (p.117)

Silly selfish saps!

And in their insatiably imperialist lust for profit, Bickers points out that some British firms even sold guns and ammunition to the warring sides in the Taiping Rebellion! The horror of those racist imperialist profiteers! Luckily, we now live in a blessed and enlightened age, when the British government would never dream of selling arms and airplanes, guns and implements of torture to Third World regimes, to countries like Saudi Arabia, who use the planes we sell them to bomb civilians in Yemen. Never ever.

— To be perfectly clear: I find a lot of the historiography of the British Empire, generally written by guilty white liberal men who bend over backwards to be politically correct in every way, to be revoltingly smug, superior and sanctimonious. To assume that their responses to the problems those people living in the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s and so on faced – their motivations to travel where the opportunity was, to set up companies, to trade and make money, to seek a living and a career – were all somehow uniquely wicked, and only the British ever did this or displayed imperialistic behaviour – never displayed before or since by any other nation (including the countless Chinese merchants they traded and set up companies with, or the genuinely bestial Japanese Empire) – and to assume that these are all behaviours which we moderns, in our infinite wisdom, have completely outgrown.

In my opinion, every human being is born into struggle – against their biological destiny, their physical flaws, the illnesses and accidents we are all prone to, against the psychological damage of childhood and education, against the cultural and technological limits of their time and position and, above all, the crushing necessity to make a living, to earn a crust, to eat and drink and stay alive.

My opinion is the same as John Locke’s, that we do better to commiserate our common frailty and sinfulness with our fellow humans – to sympathise with other people, to understand their suffering and pain, to help and aid those who are alive, now, today – and to empathise with the tribulations of those who came before us, who struggled through their own challenges.

But people like historians of empire, who appoint themselves judge and jury over the past, who lump the entire population of Britain into one undifferentiated pile labelled IMPERIALISTS so they can sneer and ridicule and belittle our benighted ancestors, well they run the risk of themselves being lumped in with the Britain of our times, being judged by the same strict broad-brush approach which they apply to the past – and found wanting. Was Bickers not alive during the invasion of Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan, the financial crash of 2008, the Brexit vote or, at its widest, the election of President Trump? In a hundred and fifty years time won’t he be lumped in with this violent, war-starting, financially ruinous era?

And – the most obvious crime of our age – he is living through the destruction of the planet’s life forms and the tipping point of global warming. In a hundred and fifty years time Bickers too – with his flying round the world and globetrotting, a privileged western academic who ‘travelled extensively, visiting many of the haunting sites scattered across China that feature in the book’ (as the blurb puts it) – will be lumped in with the stupid, blinkered generation who arrogantly took it as their prerogative, as their right, as their entitlement, to burn up fossil fuel, to heat up the atmosphere, and to permanently damage the planet – and all in order to write his sarcastic quips about his obscure forebears.

And, if anybody reads books a hundred and fifty years hence, this type of morally superior historian will be judged all the more harshly because they have forfeited the possibility of themselves being forgiven by the unremitting harshness, judgmentalism, superior and supercilious attitude which they apply so flippantly and casually to people who died 150 years ago, and who cannot speak in their own defence. ‘Judge not lest ye be judged,’ as a dead white man said long ago.

Seen from this perspective – of condemning the helpless dead – judgmental histories like Bickers’ are a form of bullying. And when I see any form of bullying happening right in front of me, although I may not like the victim very much, my instinct is to side with the underdog, with the person being subjected to relentless vilification by someone in power over them.

But the relentless patronising of the past is not only morally offensive, it’s also plain dumb. Repeatedly Bickers comes up with the revelation that these businessmen and traders and merchants and bankers were out to make a profit! That merchants and bankers came out from Britain to set up businesses, to trade, and to make money! God, the implication is – how grubby and tacky and awful, all this fussing about money and profits!

The implied contrast is with morally pure academics, swanning around the world paid for by government grants, unfurling their deathless prose for the benefit of lesser mortals who have to scheme and plan and graft, to set up businesses, borrow capital, employ staff, hire premises and equipment, do deals and live with the permanent risk of going bankrupt or having your offices, staff or family attacked by anti-western zealots. What losers they must be, eh!

Bickers describes how a lot of the China traders got very rich very quick which, it is implied, was a contemptible thing. What depraved wretches! Lucky for us that we live in an era of perfect equality, with no disparities of income and wealth, either here in perfectly governed Britain, or in contemporary not-at-all-capitalist China. Aren’t we so right to feel superior to the past and their despicable get-rich-quick mentality 🙂

Eurocentric

The final irony is that, despite all his fashionably anti-imperial attitudinising, this book is in fact written overwhelmingly from the white western point of view. To be precise, from the British and, by and large, English point of view. Chaps’ diaries are used to put chaps down. Chaps’ accounts of their adventures are used to criticise chaps’ racist attitudes. Chaps’ reports back to the East India Company or Parliament are used to chastise chaps’ crudely mercantile way of thinking.

Oh silly, silly Victorians who knew nothing about multicultural studies or LGBT rights, who thought only in terms of their own age, cultural and social norms. How blinkered some people can be! Could they not guess how they would be judged in 150 years time and reorient all their actions accordingly?

Also, a thorough account of ‘the scramble for China’ really ought to include not just the British but the French, Portuguese and Dutch, with large roles for the Russians and Germans, all of whom got in on the act, scrambling for their own treaty ports and concessions. But in this book there are hardly any accounts of other countries’ activities.

All in all, this book is emphatically not a historical account of the multi-national scramble for China – it is a cultural and sociological study of ‘the British in China 1832-1915′ and its title really should have conveyed that more accurately.

And above all – irony of irony – for such a politically correct writer, there are hardly any Chinese voices in the text. This may be for all kinds of structural reasons, such as that many of these encounters weren’t recorded on the Chinese side, or that the archives were lost in the various revolutions and rebellions. But the fact remains that this is yet another book about the white British empire, by a white British historian, which relies overwhelmingly on the efficient and detailed record-keeping of white Victorian imperialists – in order to twist and quote them out of context with the sole intention of proving what awful racist money-grubbing insensitive imperialists they were.

In other words, through the academic jargon and preening rhetoric, there is little in the facts and nothing in the attitude which are either new or interesting. The Scramble for China conforms entirely and dully to the politically correct dogmas of our time.

Extended example

The Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) was just one of several native Chinese uprisings which overlapped with, or promoted reprisals from, the European powers to create a terrifying vortex of violence right at the end of the nineteenth century. What you’d hope for from a long (400-page) historical account of the period might be an attempt to disentangle these events, to patiently explain and analyse them. Bickers does the opposite.

War was fought across Manchuria, as Russian forces razed Amur river cities, and smashed their way south into Manchuria and north out of Port Arthur. It was fought in Tianjin, the foreign concessions besieged by Boxer bands and the Qing army. It was fought all the hot dusty way to Peking, as a multinational force of foreign troops slogged their way to the capital and relieved the besieged legations and Christian cathedrals. War was fought in Shanxi province, as German and British columns tramped to Taiyun, slaughtering opposition on the way… War was fought between Boxers and Christians, between Qing armies with Boxer allies, and the ‘Eight Power’ allied expeditionary force. It was fought by British marines and Japanese infantry, as well as by Sikhs, Bengalis, Black Americans, Annamese, Algerians and a British regiment of Chinese from Weihaiwei… It was a cruel war: a war between states, a civil war, a fight for personal survival… (p.346)

My critique is simple: every one of these incidents (the battles and campaigns) and ideas (for example, the very mixed nature of the armies) ought to receive extended treatment so that the reader can understand these key events and these important issue better; can learn something.

Instead, this vast tangle of events and ideas is made subordinate to Bickers’ addiction to fancy rhetoric, to the single flashy rhetorical trick of starting a lot of sentences with ‘war was fought’ or ‘it was fought’. Sure, the repetition rams home the idea that there was a whole lot of fighting going on; but the most basic elementary entry-level journalistic questions – who, what, where, when, why and how? are ignored – not in the name of some compelling insight or new thesis – but in the name of grand-standing rhetoric.

Bickers is more interested in describing the way news of these events back home was chaotic and often fabricated, how reports were made up by European journalists or editors, along with staged photographs and how some of the very first newsreel footage in the new technology of moving pictures was also generally faked and rigged.

Golly! News is fabricated and created by fallible and/or profit-seeking papers, magazines and media outlets! Wow! Yes indeedy, Bickers is here to tell us that coverage of far-away wars is often sensationalist and inaccurate.

There was a dearth of authenticity in this much-faked war, characterised and impelled as it was by forgery and wild rumour (p.355)

To read Bickers you’d think this must be the only war in history characterised by ‘forgery and wild rumour’ – as opposed to the obvious fact that, as the saying coined a century ago puts it, the very first casualty of war is truth.– This is a truism. A cliché. A threadbare, bleedingobvious commonplace taught to every GCSE schoolchild. Why am I reading it in a book written by a professor of history as if it is a dazzling new discovery?

My contention is that Bickers knows an awesome amount about this period, but fails to report it clearly or accurately, preferring to corral it all into either a) huge paragraphs designed to show off his rhetorical prowess, or b) long sections filled with tedious academic jargon which, upon a closer reading, always turn out to be obvious and banal.

To adopt Bickers’ own sociological terminology, this book is history ‘recruited’ and ‘refashioned’ for personal ‘display’ and ‘aggrandisement’.

This example is far from unique. A few pages later he does the same thing again. In among the chaos of the turn-of-the-century conflicts there was a lot of looting and pillaging (as, I believe, has occasionally happened in other wars) – but do we gets details, context, causes or consequences, useful facts and analysis to help us understand and remember each of the distinct outbreaks and incidents? Nope. We get another set-piece of booming rhetoric:

They looted at Tianjin; they looted at Peking; they looted everywhere in between, and far out into the northern provinces. They looted for days, for weeks, for months. They looted arsenals, granaries, mints and palaces. They looted the instruments from the old Jesuit Observatory. They looted salt stocks and Tianjin, and treasure from pawnshops. They looted houses and hovels. They looted tombs. They took furs, silks, paintings, jades and porcelains. They looted gold-plate from the roofs of temples. They took books and statues. What they did not like or could not take they trampled underfoot, tore, burned or wrecked. (p.350)

OK, I get it – there was a lot of looting. But who, what, where, when, why and how? Not in this book, you won’t find these basic questions answered.


Conclusion

This long book is a struggle to read. The average person-in-a-hurry could pick up pretty much all they need to know in half an hour by reading these Wikipedia articles.

What this 400-page book gives you which Wikipedia doesn’t, is vast amounts of anthropological-ethnographic-sociological jargon, almost entirely about the Western, and specifically British, individuals involved in the opening up and colonising of China.

There are brief descriptions of festivals or temples, a bit about Peking architecture, many scattered details about relevant places and events though generally delivered in a confusing way – but little or nothing about Chinese art or poetry, history or attitudes, culture or politics – and nothing you can really grasp or learn from about the big wars in Victorian China and their geopolitical implications. And that was the main reason why I bought this book.

Instead, there are lengthy sociological disquisitions about the spread of Christianity through missionary activity (chapter 8), the rise of the Chinese Customs Authority under the legendary Ulsterman Robert Hart (chapter 7), a lengthy account of how Hart’s Customs helped organise a comprehensive network of lighthouses along China’s coast in the 1870s and 80s, which leads on to the western gathering of data generally, about the meteorology of the coast or of Chinese diseases (chapter 9).

Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? But because it is all couched in the limited and stereotyped jargon of ‘practices’ and ‘networks’ and ‘sites of insult’ and ‘imperial enterprise’ etc, and because Bickers never drops his anti-British sentiment (lighthouses were – shockingly -built to make imperial trade safe and guarantee profits! meteorological data designed to help imperialist shipping! medical reports to help the racist westerners better able to exploit etc) it isn’t. It ends up all sounding the same. He manages to make a riveting period of history sound really boring.

Last thoughts

For my £15 I had to wade through hundreds of pages of preening prose and abuse being thrown at long-dead profit-hungry, racist imperialists – but did ultimately emerge with two newish (to me) thoughts:

  1. The China British were always a sort of spin-off of British India, using the same slang, building the same sort of houses, treating the locals, especially their servants and mistresses, with the same appalling and often violent condescension. And the Forward Party of China colonists really thought they could hoodwink and bully the British government back home into supporting an incremental takeover of China through piecemeal wars and ‘punitive actions’ – raucously calling for more and more belligerent intervention. This, after all, was all how we slowly acquired India. Hmmm. Interesting.
  2. Right at the end of the book Bickers describes how he has himself been subjected to harangues and lectures by modern young Chinese criticising him personally for being British and therefore to blame for the ‘century of humiliation’. What is interesting is that these young people have absolutely no experience of any of the events they cite (the violence of 1842, 1860 or 1901). But this story – how their country was subjected to a hundred years of imperialist conquest, a hundred years of victimhood – has been drummed into them by the Chinese state. Why? Bickers explains that, after the Chinese government violently repressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and arrested and imprisoned the reform-minded leaders who let it all get out of hand, they then undertook a sweeping review of Chinese education designed to emphasise the uniquely nation-saving achievements of the Chinese communist party and why all Chinese should be forever grateful to it. In order to boost its role as the goody in the story, the communists emphasised the irredeemable baddyness of all foreigners, of Western Imperialism, be it British, French or Russian, and also to lump in the decades of abuse from Japan as somehow permitted and encouraged by those imperialist farangs.

It is fascinating to learn that the anti-western feeling of many of China’s young educated people is more powerful and passionate today than it has ever been – and that it is encouraged by state-sponsored history books, courses and teachers.

The final chapter of Bickers’ book is thirty pages devoted to a rather boring description of how archives and records were rescued from China during the 20th century, and how a patchwork of researchers has set about writing more accurate and unjingoistic accounts of western, and especially British, imperialism in China. Fair enough.

The irony is that they are doing so at the same time as China’s authorities are also sponsoring a highly tendentious anti-western narrative. Bickers worries that this could lead to quite dangerous results:

A globalised China is not new; but a powerful global China is unprecedented. That provides new food for thought, especially as Chinese youth come out into the world equipped for instinctive indignation at China’s past humiliations and what they feel to be contemporary echoes of those. The awkward confidence that such sensitivity engenders in them might make for all of us a very awkward world. (Final words of the text – p.399)

Worrying, eh?

And this leads onto a final thought of mine, which isn’t in the book at all – that we live in an age of Victimhood, of ever-multiplying victim narratives competing to be heard. The Jews have a well-established Holocaust narrative which is now enshrined in Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27). Black History Month has been going since 1970 in the States, 1987 in the UK. Since as far back as 1909 there’s been an International Women’s Day, now held on 8 March. These are state-sanctioned days or periods solemnly commemorating what are, at heart, victim narratives.

But away from these official victim narratives, the sense of being victimised and humiliated proliferates in the modern world – the entire Arab world, for example, blames Europeans and especially the British for allowing Israel to be founded, for giving their countries stupid arbitrary borders, for interfering and undermining their nations in any number of 20th century coups and invasions, and for continuing to kill Muslims in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria – victim narratives which can be compiled into recruiting literature for al-Qaeda or ISIS.

I’m not passing judgement on any of these or the numerous other narratives of victimhood of our time – just pointing out the fact that the last pages of Bickers’ book make a riveting contrast to the previous 400. For the first 400 he gives hundreds of quotations from bombastic, jingoistic, imperialistic, often overtly racist, patronising and violently confident China pioneers, settlers and apologists all boasting about their power and might and supremacy. Right at the end of the book there is a loud screeching of brakes as you are suddenly dumped into the 21st century and find yourself surrounded by voices all clamouring to show off their weakness, to show you their wounds and their suffering, all competing to show you how vulnerable and abused and humiliated they have been.

Read newspapers and magazines from 1911 and they’re all about power, might and conquest; read newspapers and magazines from 2011 (when this book was published) and it’s a wall of helplessness, victimhood and suffering.


Related links

Other reviews about the history of China or the Far East

Tintin: Hergé and his creation by Harry Thompson (1991)

Slow evolution and complete revamping

The important things to grasp about Tintin are:

a) how old he is – he first appeared in the 1920s!
b) how long it took for his inventor – Georges Remi, who created a pen name by reversing his initials from GR to RG, hence Hergé – to evolve the finished, clear-line look of his mature bandes dessinées or ‘drawn strips’
c) how the early black and white strips were cut down, re-edited and coloured before being republished in the 62-page book format we’re all used to
d) and that mid-way through his career – in the 1940s – the Tintin Studio revisited the first half dozen of the books and comprehensively redesigned, redrew and often even rewrote them to bring them into conformity with the mature style

Thus any attempt to discuss the evolution of the Tintin drawing style is challenged from the start because it’s almost impossible to access the original versions of the first six or seven books in order to make a considered assessment.

Publishing history

From 1929 to 1939 the stories were published in Le Petit Vingtième, a youth supplement to the right-wing Catholic Belgian newspaper, Le Vingtième Siècle.

In 1940 the Germans invaded France and Belgium. Le Petit Vingtième was closed down, but Belgium’s leading newspaper, Le Soir, continued to publish and Hergé became editor of its youth supplement. As such he was well-placed to commission new Tintin adventures.

After the war, there was another hiatus, not least because Hergé was investigated for alleged collaboration with the Nazi regime i.e. working on a Nazi-approved newspaper. When he was finally exonerated, the leading publisher, Casterman, approached Hergé with the idea of creating a weekly journal devoted solely to his creation – Le journal de Tintin. It was in this journal that the ten last stories were published, through to Hergé’s death in 1983.

Early stories

The first Tintin story was published in 1929. The early design is stiff and awkward and the ‘storylines’ of the first few books – Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, Tintin in the Congo, Tintin in America – don’t amount to much more than a ramshackle sequence of slapstick adventures. The ‘hero’ is very obviously based on a boy scout and childishly immune to danger and assault. Most of the other characters are stereotypes of the popular culture of the day – evil Russian Bolsheviks, stupid lazy Africans, and gangsters, cowboys, and Indians in America.

Nonetheless, Tintin was popular from the start. Thompson makes clear just how popular by telling us that Le Petit Vingtième‘s editor hired an actor to play Tintin and invited a crowd, and a load of other journalists, to meet ‘Tintin’ at Brussels’ main train station, each time one of the stories came to an end. It worked – each time the actor (and his white terrier) was mobbed by excited fans!

Capitalising on this popularity, the newspaper strips were republished as best-selling books.

However, it was only in 1942 that these books were routinely colourised (and the resulting strips edited and shortened to fit each book’s 62-page format). The newspaper strips themselves remained in black and white until 1946.

It was also only in the 1940s that Hergé, by now running a dedicated Tintin studio, had the resources to go back and get his team to redesign and redraw the best of the early adventures, bringing them into line with the claire ligne style which he had by then evolved. This explains why the first seven or so books exist in two versions (though the original black-and-white versions are hard to find).

A striking example of this revisionism is The Black Island, which went through three versions. The first was serialised weekly from April to November 1937. It was published in book form in 1938. As part of the Tintin Studio’s overhaul of the earlier tales in the 1940s, they produced a new, second, colourised version of the story in 1943, reducing the number of pages from 124 to 60.

But the story is set in the UK and when Hergé’s British publishers, Methuen, began to prepare an English translation, they were upset by numerous inaccurate representations of British life. Methuen made a list of 131 errors of detail which they asked to be set right. And this led the Tintin studios to rework the book completely, resulting in the completely updated and redrawn 1966 version, the only version you can now buy. Because this third version was done at the mature peak of the studio’s style, it is sometimes thought to be the best-drawn story of all.

Insights

– Tintin was virtually the first cartoon series in Europe to use speech balloons. This innovation came as a revelation to contemporaries and was hugely influential.

– Just as novel was its invention of ‘bande dessinée‘, literally ‘drawn strips’ or just ‘strips’ – i.e. a strip or sequence of pictures which tell a story. The sustained use of this format, over a course of weeks and months, to tell a coherent narrative using the same characters, was a radical innovation.

– It took Hergé some years to perfect his style of ligne-claire or clear line drawing. This is characterised by clear, strong lines of the same width outlining the people and objects in the story, with little or no cross-hatching or shading. Shadow isn’t suggested by shades of black or grey, but darker versions of the unshadowed colour. The total effect is of a wonderful brightness and clarity.

– Thompson points out how, in Hergé’s mature style, only the faces are comic – the rest of the body, the positioning of all the bodies in architectural space, the cars and gadgets and features of the outside scenery or interior furnishing, are all depicted in brilliantly economical and precise line drawing. It is hard to put into words why this is so immensely, even thrillingly, satisfying.

– Photographic realism From The Blue Lotus onwards Hergé and his growing team of assistants carried out thorough research – of the cultural and political backgrounds to the stories, but also scouting out, photographing and sketching real locations to use as settings for the story.

The hyper-accuracy of the later strips can be seen in the dazzling, almost technical drawing of countless artefacts:

The technical accuracy of these drawings of cars, boats, planes etc, the fine detail and finish in the depictions of wonderfully-engineered machines, gave the Tintin books the same thrilling beauty that I found in Dinky cars and Airfix models when I was 8 and 9 and 10 years old.

I think the simple technical accuracy of the  machines is an under-appreciated aspect of the Tintin books. It is present on almost every page and quite routinely outshines the human figures and even the sometimes silly plots.

– The fundamental element in Tintin’s character is the ever-optimistic boy scout. Hergé had been an enthusiastic boy scout as a teenage, and had drawn cartoons for the Belgian boy scout magazine. Tintin never loses his innocence and morality.

– Left to right Along with the obvious features of the bande dessinee and ligne claire is another recurrent element: in the mature strips Tintin always progresses from left to right; danger always comes from the right; if Tintin is pictured moving left, it is in retreat or a setback.

– If the first few, naive adventures are open to accusations of patronising racism, quite quickly Tintin becomes the egregious defender of native people, especially children. Think of the classic scene in Prisoners of the Sun (1946) where Tintin defends a young Quechua boy named Zorrino from Spanish bullies. Maybe the first instance comes early in The Blue Lotus (1934) when Tintin defends a hapless rickshaw puller from the odiously racist American businessman, Gibson. Later in the same book he saves a Chinese boy, Chang Chon-chen, from drowning in a flooded river.

– Zhang Chongren At the end of the newspaper run of Cigars of the Pharaoh, Hergé mentioned that Tintin’s next adventure would be set to China. This prompted a Belgian Catholic, chaplain to the Chinese students at the University of Leuven, to write to Hergé asking him to be sensitive about what he wrote about China.

Hergé agreed and in the spring of 1934 the chaplain introduced him to one of the Chinese students, the young Zhang Chongren. Zhang and Hergé were the same age, both born in 1907, and from this chance introduction sprang a deep and lifelong friendship.

Zhang introduced Hergé to Chinese history, culture, and the techniques of Chinese art including the delicate art of calligraphy. As a direct result Hergé for the first time:

  • tried in The Blue Lotus to be meticulously accurate in depicting the places Tintin visited
  • to give a real sense of the mature and complex politics of the contemporary world – The Blue Lotus is startling in its depiction of the violent arrogant Japanese and the revolting racism and/or corruption of the westerners in Shanghai’s International Settlement
  • shows the influence of Chinese art in its greater clarity and stylisation
  • actually includes the Chinese characters for Zhang’s name in a couple of key places (shop fronts and dock warehouses)

In the story Tintin befriends a young Chinese boy with the not-very-disguised name of Chang Chong-Chen and there is a striking scene where Tintin explains to ‘Chang’ how Europeans think of Chinese in terms of cartoon stereotypes. Chang bursts out laughing at westerners’ ignorance and prejudice. It was really a very bold stance for a children’s cartoon to take in 1934, and it drew criticism from pro-Japanese businesses and politicians and even from the Japanese ambassador to Brussels himself.

– Tintin’s alternative geography Whereas he had been blunt and insulting about the USSR, America, Africa and Japan in the first few books, the occupation of Belgium by the Nazis made it dangerous for Hergé to depict real countries. But Hergé had in any case begun to develop the notion of fictional countries, closely related to real ones but simplified and exaggerated. For me the most memorable are the ruritanian East European countries of Syldavia – home of King Ottakar – and its aggressive neighbour Borduria, which reappears as the setting of the masterpiece The Calculus Affair. Here it is depicted as half-Eastern Bloc and half-fascist country complete with its own secret police, ZEP, led by Colonel Sponsz, and a fascist military dictator, Marshal Kûrvi-Tasch.

The process had begun with the fictional South American dictatorships of San Theodoros and Nuevo Rico depicted in The Broken Ear (1938), and continued right to the end, with ‘Sondonesia’ bearing a striking resemblance to Indonesia, and ‘Khemed’ to Jordan, in Flight 714 (1968).

The original names

Tintin remains Tintin but almost all the other characters were given new names by the translators (Michael Turner and Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper) when they turned the stories into English:

  • Milou is translated as Snowy (the name needed to be five letters long to fit the often small speech bubbles)
  • Archibald Haddock / le capitaine Haddock remains Captain Haddock
  • Le Professeur Tryphon Tournesol becomes Professor Cuthbert Calculus
  • Detectives Dupont et Dupond become Thompson and Thomson

List of works

1929–1930 Tintin in the Land of the Soviets
1930–1931 Tintin in the Congo (2nd version 1946)
1931–1932 Tintin in America (2nd version 1945)
1932–1934 Cigars of the Pharaoh (2nd version 1955)
1934–1935 The Blue Lotus (2nd version 1945)
1935–1937 The Broken Ear (2nd version 1943)
1937–1938 The Black Island (2nd version 1943, 3rd version 1966)
1938–1939 King Ottokar’s Sceptre (2nd version 1947)

With the Nazi takeover of Belgium in 1940, Tintin’s character as a journalist fighting crime was quietly dropped. As Thompson points out, at this point Tintin changes from being a fearless journalist to being a fearless explorer. An unintended consequence was that – forced to drop the cheap satirical and topical gags of the early books – Hergé had to concentrate more on strong plots and deeper characterisation.

1940–1941 The Crab with the Golden Claws
1941–1942 The Shooting Star
1942–1943 The Secret of the Unicorn
1943 Red Rackham’s Treasure
1943–1946 The Seven Crystal Balls

With the end of the war, new Tintin stories began to be published in a new journal devoted just to him, Le Journal de Tintin.

1946–1948 Prisoners of the Sun
1948–1950 Land of Black Gold
1950–1952 Destination Moon
1952–1953 Explorers on the Moon
1954–1956 The Calculus Affair
1956–1958 The Red Sea Sharks
1958–1959 Tintin in Tibet
1961–1962 The Castafiore Emerald

Final works

For me the canonical Tintins stop at this point – the last two completed stories, Flight 714 and Picaros never had the same place in my heart.

By contrast, The Castafiore Emerald still has a strong 1950s vibe in all kinds of details, like the beatnik beard of one of the journalists or the tweedy formality of Madame Castafiore and her maid. That late 1940s/1950s atmosphere still lingered on in my own childhood, in the clothes and attitudes and essential decency of my parents and their friends, when I was small.

Whereas these last two bandes dessinées were a) produced after a notable break b) are visually more part of that late 1960s/1970s environment in which I turned teenage – less suits and ties, more windcheaters and machine guns; less remote and childlike baddies of the moon books or the Bordurian dictatorship of Kûrvi-Tasch of The Calculus Affair – more hijackings and the PLO,

1966–1967 Flight 714 to Sydney
1975–1976 Tintin and the Picaros

1986 Tintin and Alph-Art – radically unfinished at Hergé’s death in 1983.

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The Art of William Heath Robinson by Geoffrey Beare (2003)

This is a comprehensive coffee-table-sized biography of William Heath Robinson, stuffed with scores of marvellous black-and-white and colour illustrations. It is a joy to hold, read and gaze at.

Heath Robinson has become a byword for preposterous contraptions, but the thing which comes across from this slow, thorough and breezily-written narrative of his life and work, is the extraordinary diversity of his output. He produced a huge variety of types of illustrations, cartoons, commercial art and atmospheric watercolours. In fact at least one of the reviews on Amazon laments that there aren’t enough of the crazy contraption pictures. Well, there are plenty of books devoted solely to Heath Robinson’s absurdist gadgets: this book sets out to present the full range and skilled accomplishment of the man.

Range

Heath Robinson was born in 1870 and died in 1944. His father and brothers were magazine illustrators, so early on doors were opened and contacts arranged. Rather than attempt any kind of overview of his life (which you can get from the Wikipedia article), I am just going to give examples of the types of image he created.

Black and white Illustrations

He did colour and b&w illustrations for Shakespeare and children’s classics e.g. The Water Babies. His edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream shows the influence of the Japanese prints which first arrived in the 1860s and 1870s, and had become commonplace by the turn of the century. White – big white spaces, contrasted with very fine, one-line outlines i.e. not roughed-in or sketched but clinically precise defined lines. And black, the use of solid undifferentiated black for trees, buildings, outlines, whatever – to create extremely clear, classic, crisp images.

Following his illustrated Shakespeare, Heath Robinson suggested an illustrated edition of Rabelais’ late medieval comic masterpiece, Gargantua and Pantagruel (1904), which allowed him full reign to depict grotesque and sometimes scary human figures and faces, unlike anything else he ever did.

Coloured illustrations

Distinctly different from the black and white line illustrations are the fabulously atmospheric colour illustrations he did during the same period. Some of the Shakespeare ones are stunning in their delicate colouring and phenomenal detail.

But my favourites are the extraordinarily vivid colour illustrations he did for Rudyard Kipling’s 15-page poem, A Song of the English, a hymn to the British Empire, its farflung capitals, and the toil and risks taken by the sailors who bind it together through trade and war.

Authored books

Heath Robinson only wrote and illustrated three books of his own, but they are masterpieces of weird imagination. In the earliest, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902), the eponymous uncle falls asleep looking after a baby, which is promptly stolen by the mythical Bag-bird, resulting in Lubin taking trips around the world to find and bring the baby back.

Along the way Uncle Lubin invents a variety of devices from an air-ship to a ramshackle submarine. You can see in these illustrations the seeds of the later career concocting crazy contraptions.

War satire

The advent of the Great War dried up the market for luxury illustrated books like the ones Heath Robinson had been illustrating. Paper was short, tastes had changed. Luckily Heath Robinson had been busy developing a tidy side-line in cartoons and commercial work (adverts), alongside the book illustrations. When one of his early publishers went bankrupt he was able to switch career into providing cartoons for the growing number of up-market weekly magazines. Thus Heath Robinson managed parallel careers as illustrator and humorous artist until the slump in the book trade in the early 1920s killed the market for illustration.

His facility with comic cartoons is exemplified in a series of three books of satirical drawings about the war itself – Some “Frightful” War Pictures 1915), Hunlikely! (1916), and the brilliantly titled The Saintly Hun: a book of German virtues (1917).

Given how grotesque we know he could be from the Rabelais pictures, the notable thing about the war cartoons is their restraint – any animus is completely subdued to the comic end. Although there are sometimes silly contraptions involved, for the most part the cartoons focus on absurd activities, like blowing cold air at British soldiers in the trenches to give them neckache, and so on.

Twenty years later the Hun were back, this time in Nazi uniforms. Heath Robinson embarked on another series of cartoon satirising the enemy. But you can see at a glance what has happened in those twenty years, namely he has become the Heath Robinson of fame and legend, a byword for elaborately home-made machines, for preposterously complex and unnecessarily convoluted devices concocted to carry out simple or absurdist ends.

You can also see how the human figures have evolved. By the 1940s they have become much more standardised. Although often characterful, the figures are far more restrained than the fatter, guffawing figures from the Great War.

The deliberate sameyness of the human figures, their frequent reduction to emotionless ciphers, is to emphasise the craziness of the contraptions. To put it another way, the human figures become more sober and realistic in exactly the degree that the machines become preposterous and improbable.

Heath Robinson is quoted as saying that the comic result is partly achieved by making the people involved take their operations with deadly seriousness. In the Great War cartoons fat sergeants and guffawing sergeant majors are laughing at the silliness of their tactics. In the WWII cartoons, the po-faces  of the participants are part of the point.

Cartoons

It was in the 1920s that Heath Robinson really acquired a wide reputation for the outrageous contraptions which he created in hundreds and hundreds of freelance cartoons for a wide range of magazines.

Adverts

He also applied his by now distinctive style and imagination to create adverts for various products.

How to…

In the 1930s Heath Robinson collaborated with the humorous writer K.R.G. Browne on a set of comic ‘How to…’ books designed to take the mickey out of modern living – How to live in a flat (1936), How to make a garden grow, How to be a perfect husband, How to be a motorist.

These still rely on preposterous exaggeration for their comic effect, but they are notable for having a much cleaner line, much more white space. The amusement is partly in their aerodynamic Art Deco lines.

Just a glance back at the high-contraption works makes you realise he was deploying a completely different, stripped-down style in these books, which relies on a relatively simple (if absurd) idea for its humour – the one-trick idea of his collaborator – rather than the intricately tortuous chain of machinery characteristic of his own invention, such as:

Watercolours

So by the 1920s Heath Robinson had established the cartoon style for which he would become known as ‘the Gadget King’; his name was well on the way to entering the language to describe any jerry-rigged, home-made and bodged-up contraption.

But the tendency of this brilliant book, throughout, is to emphasise the phenomenal technical skills which underlay this achievement, specifically his astonishing gift of linemanship and draughtsmanship, apparent from the earliest of his luxury illustrations of Shakespeare, of Hans Christian Anderson, the Water Babies and so on.

And in particular the book brings out a completely overlooked area of his achievement, Heath Robinson’s astonishing mastery of watercolour. Right at the start of his career Heath Robinson had ambitions to become a landscape artist and, although the need to earn a living drove him into illustrations and then cartoon work, he never ceased painting beautiful, atmospheric watercolours for his own pleasure.

Many of these were published in this 2003 volume for the first time, in large-scale illustrations printed on high quality paper which really bring out their delicate beauty.

Hard not to be thrilled by the delicacy and taste of these sensitive, evocative watercolours. Beare points out how Heath Robinson uses a unity of tone i.e. the colours are mostly from the same part of the colour spectrum in order to convey a subdued but subtly varied impression.

Dulwich Gallery and the Heath Robinson Museum

This beautiful book was originally published to accompany an exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery which I visited, back in 2003. The author says the exhibition and book are designed to encourage support for the idea of establishing a permanent home for Heath Robinson’s work, as cartoonist, illustrator and serious artist.

So it’s lovely to come full circle, because what made me take this book down off my shelf was the fact that I recently visited the new(ish) Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner, north-west London, which was opened as recently as October 2016 and which, despite being rather small, provides a perfect setting to display a surprising amount of this wonderful artist’s inspiring, uplifting and often very funny work.

P.S.

Heath Robinson named his cat Saturday Morning.


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Edward Ardizzone’s Illustrations @ the Heath Robinson Museum

The Heath Robinson Museum opened in October 2016 to provide a permanent display of the 1,000 or so art works they own of Heath Robinson’s marvellous cartoons and illustrations. It is worth visiting for that alone. But the Museum also has a temporary exhibition space and this has recently been devoted to a wonderful show about the book illustrations of Edward Ardizzone.

Edward Ardizzone at work © The Estate of Edward Ardizzone

Edward Ardizzone at work © The Estate of Edward Ardizzone

Quick biography

Ardizzone is a distinctly later artist than Heath Robinson, born in 1900 compared to Heath Robinson’s 1872. He was a solidly 20th century citizen, compared to Heath Robinson the late-Victorian.

And an art career also came harder for him than for the older artist: whereas Heath Robinson’s father and brothers were illustrators who gave their brother advice, examples and contacts, Ardizzone had to earn a living as an office clerk for some years, while fitting in his study of art in the evenings and weekends.

Ardizzone only began to get paid work as an artist – illustrating books and doing adverts and illustrations – in the early 1930s. In 1936 he inaugurated the series he’s best known for, the books describing the adventures of a boy named Tim, with Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain.

In the 1950s and 60s Ardizzone’s name became associated with children’s books – he wrote and illustrated an impressive 18 or so stories of his own, many of which I loved when I was a boy. And he also gave a distinctive look and feel to The Otterbury Incident (1948) by Cecil Day-Lewis and Stig of the Dump (1963) by Clive King, among many others. Altogether he illustrated an impressive 170 or so books for adults and children.

Illustrations of Trollope

The exhibition at Heath Robinson Museum features illustrations from Tim and Stig, but also explores other areas of his work, including the illustrations he produced for adult books. The show includes the 25 illustrations he did for Trollope’s first two Barchester novels, which have never been exhibited before.

The Lookalofts and the Greenacres - Edward Ardizzone illustration from Barchester Towers (1953)

The Lookalofts and the Greenacres – Edward Ardizzone illustration for Barchester Towers (1953) © The Estate of Edward Ardizzone

They are wonderfully vivid and characterful. Ardizzone is quoted as saying an illustrator needs to do more than just make pictures, he needs to get inside the characters and the plot and the atmosphere – and this certainly comes over in the best of the works here.

Bertie in the ha-ha - Edward Ardizzone illustration for Barchester Towers (1953) © The Estate of Edward Ardizzone

Bertie in the ha-ha – Edward Ardizzone illustration for Barchester Towers (1953) © The Estate of Edward Ardizzone

The more you look at an illustration like Bertie in the ha-ha the better, and funnier, it gets. The pose of the two dissolute chaps, their wild check trousers, the disapproving ladies looking down, are all captured with subtle humour. Note the way Ardizzone uses lines for the sky, for the grassy slopes, intenser cross-hatching for the vertical side of the ha-ha; the characteristic feathery look of the trees in the background.

A selection of children’s books

The second section of the exhibition features the better-known children’s illustrations, including Stig of the Dump, as well as his late illustrations for Graham Greene’s The Little Fire Engine and Robert Graves’s Ann at Highwood Hall.

But some of the most enjoyable illustrations are for less well-known books by Eleanor Farjeon and James Reeves. I particularly liked the four or five illustrations of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza from The exploits of Don Quixote as retold by James Reeves from 1959. What a world of sorrow is in Sancho Panza’s slumped shoulders…

'Sancho followed dolefully after his master' - Edward Ardizzone illustration of Don Quixote © The Estate of Edward Ardizzone

‘Sancho followed dolefully after his master’ – Edward Ardizzone illustration of Don Quixote © The Estate of Edward Ardizzone

And the sweet and tender depictions of childhood he made for The Little Bookroom (1955) by Eleanor Farjeon. Farjeon is quoted as saying of one of his drawings, ‘All of childhood is there’, a spot-on description of Ardizzone’s incredibly sweet and innocent depictions of children taking a bath in front of a real fire, or reaching up to pay over a shop counter, or simply reading a book.

Edward Ardizzone illustration to The Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon (1955)

Edward Ardizzone illustration to The Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon (1955) © The Estate of Edward Ardizzone

As a boy in my local library I noticed something which the exhibition points out – which is that Ardizzone didn’t just provide illustrations for inside the book and a jacket picture, but provided a complete design for the book jacket, with the title and author’s name written in his distinctive hand-writing, both on the cover and the spine, giving the books a very distinctive look on shelves, particularly in local libraries.

Ardizzone’s distinctive approach to designing not just the picture but the entire frame and font of the book cover are also evident in his art work for Ealing Studios, and the show features the poster he made for the Ealing Studios production of Nicholas Nickleby.

Nicholas Nickleby film poster by Edward Ardizzone

Nicholas Nickleby film poster by Edward Ardizzone © The Estate of Edward Ardizzone

London life in watercolour

The show also includes a third strand from his oeuvre, which is the watercolour pictures he painted of local London life, especially around his home in Maida Vale, north London. These are distinctly more knowing than the children’s illustrations, with tipsy sailors or soldiers snogging women in furtive corners or eyeing up passing ladies. And not only is the subject matter different, but the lines and outlines seem broader, cruder, while the watercolour tones make the pictures deliberately rougher, matching the subject matter.

Public Bar at the George by Edward Ardizzone

Public Bar at the George by Edward Ardizzone© The Estate of Edward Ardizzone

Analysing Ardizzone’s line drawing

Some illustrators, like Heath Robinson, are noted for their cleanness of line, an addiction to clarity and space which is often compared with the Japanese prints which their generation grew up revering. Ardizzone feels the exact opposite, his figures created by a kind of obsessive working and reworking of figures in multiple lines and pen strokes and the liberal use of cross-hatching. There’s a deliberate sense of incompleteness and unfinish – the cross-hatching doesn’t try to reach the edges of the relevant area, it merely hints and sketches at them. Part of the charm is in the sense of rough and readyness.

The faces, also, are very characteristic: created with the minimum of lines and indications, the noses just a tick, the eyes the merest of commas. It is rather magical how Bertie in the ha-ha’s expression of lofty indolence can be conveyed with so few lines. The faces are a kind of still centre, while the rest of the world is dramatically roughed out with multiple rough-hewn lines and shade: the more I look at it the more I realise how the different surfaces are created by different techniques: the horizontal lines of the sky, the feathery outlines of the tree, the obsessive cross-hatching of the vertical wall, the skimpy scattered lines of the grassy slope, the dark frock coat, the complicated check suits…

There’s something about the repeated lines of, for example, the Stig illustrations which gives them a strange kind of accuracy and presence, a shimmering sense of hovering attention, a blurry sense of movement. The beauty is in the imprecision – or maybe in the way the rough cross-hatching and blurry outlines conspire to create a quick, acute fleeting impression.

The watercolours, by contrast, have far fewer lines or you just can’t see them so well because of the heavy washes of colour. Either way, they feel blunter and heavier and this is often appropriate to the harsher, more adult realities he is conveying.

After soaking up the watercolours for a while, you return to the line drawings with renewed appreciation for their lighter, daintier effect. Take the lovely illustrations of carefree childhood for the book The Suburban Child (1955) by James Kenward.

Badminton was the game of suburbia's great days - illustration by Edward Ardizzone © The Estate of Edward Ardizzone

‘Badminton was the game of suburbia’s great days’ – illustration by Edward Ardizzone © The Estate of Edward Ardizzone

Look at the extensive use of cross-hatching and parallel lines, used to create almost everything in this image – shadowed fence, foliage, roller, sky, roofs, walls. In fact there are hardly any spaces untouched by lining and hatching and the eye is immediately drawn to these few white patches – the faces of the adults and the little girl, the boy’s white hat, the sheen on the roller, maybe along the top of the fence – which help give the image its dynamic feel.

Comparison with the watercolours helps you appreciate the way the outlines of the figures and objects in so many of Ardizzone’s illustrations, created with repeated lines and hatching, gives them such vigour and vibrancy.

Nostalgia

Above all, for viewers of a certain age, Ardizzone’s distinctive line drawings bring back the warm emotions and comforts of childhood, the happy memories prompted by the Tim books, Stig and the others, read in well-worn library copies of the 1970s.

This is a small but beautiful and evocative exhibition which sheds interesting light on a much-loved artist.

Related links

The Heath Robinson Museum, Pinner

The Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner Park, an easy 5-minute walk from Pinner Tube station up the Metropolitan Line, is an unalloyed joy and delight.

The Museum opened in October 2016 and houses some 1,000 artworks by this brilliant and prolific artist, cartoonist and illustrator. Not only is the collection a thing of joy and wonder, but the museum is sited next to an open-air cafe which serves yummy food, both set beside a tree-lined lake in the picturesque Pinner Memorial Gardens. It is a perfect Sunday outing.

The Heath Robinson Museum (right) next to Daisy's In The Park cafe (left)

The Heath Robinson Museum (right) next to Daisy’s In The Park cafe (left)

Why Pinner? Because Heath Robinson moved here with his young family in 1908, doing much of his best work at a house in nearby Moss Lane, where he is now commemorated by a blue plaque.

Museum layout

The Heath Robinson museum in fact consists of just one main display room but it is an education in itself to witness just how much information can be conveyed in one room. The most interesting feature is the way his life and career is told on a continuous strip extending right round the room at waist height, and undulating and curving a bit like a solidified scroll. This tells HR’s full life story with explanations of key aspects of his career. Some pictures are embedded in the scroll, while above, at head height, is a series of black and white prints, and then over our heads hang a sequence of really large full-colour, poster-size illustrations.

The Heath Robinson Museum showing the waist-level information shelf, mid-height prints, and high-up posters, plus the model contraptions in the middle

The Heath Robinson Museum showing the waist-level information shelf running round the wall, the mid-height prints, and the high-up colour posters, plus the model contraptions in the middle

There’s an audio guide or commentary. Just tap it against the symbol next to a relevant illustration and it gives a bit of commentary and opinion about it.

And in the centre of the room are some entertaining models of some Heath Robinson contraptions. So although it’s only one room it takes a good 30 to 40 minutes to go round reading everything and looking at everything (and laughing out loud).

Potted biography

William Heath Robinson was born in Finsbury Park in 1872 into a family of artists. His father was an illustrator for newspapers and magazines, and William and his brothers used to copy him as well as drawing things in the family garden and nearby park. Eventually all three brothers became illustrators.

William hankered to be a landscape artist and landscapes remained his first love, but a man needs to eat and, through contacts of his father and brothers, he quickly found work which rewarded his stunning draughtsmanship and eye for detail. From the turn of the century he provided lavish colour illustrations to editions of children’s classics such as Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales and Legends (1897), The Arabian Nights (1899), Tales from Shakespeare (1902), Gargantua and Pantagruel (1904), Twelfth Night (1908), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1914) and The Water-Babies (1915). Several of these titles are available in the Museum bookshop as luxurious hardback editions.

'So full of shapes is fancy' (Twelfth Night) by William Heath Robinson

‘So full of shapes is fancy’ – Twelfth Night (1908) by William Heath Robinson

The most amazing thing about this picture is that it’s set during the day. The topmost part of the facade opposite is in full daylight – so this isn’t a night-time scene, as the dim darkness suggests – it’s a beautifully poetic evocation of daytime shadow.

In 1909 Heath Robinson was commissioned to illustrate Kipling’s multi-part poem, A Song of the English, written to convey the far-flung nature of the British Empire and the heroism of the men, in particular the sailors, who toiled to preserve it. The pen and watercolour illustrations are quite dazzlingly brilliant.

It’s startling that a man capable of such powerfully visionary pictures could also write and illustrate a children’s book of his own, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902). This is the strange tale of a man who falls asleep minding his baby by a brook only for it to be stolen by the ‘bag-bird’, resulting in a series of adventures to remote picturesque locations like Arabia or the Arctic to try and find the missing babe. Uncle Lubin features in a number of images here, including large poster-size versions of Lubin flying in a typically fraying-string and hand-made balloon.

The Aeronaut from The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902) by William Heath Robinson

The Aeronaut from The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902) by William Heath Robinson

Contraptions and gadgets

In fact, Uncle Lubin is sometimes regarded as the start of HR’s career in the depiction of unlikely machines – the enormous range of illustrations and cartoon of complicated hand-made contraptions featuring ropes and pulleys, levers and handles, and incongruous household elements like umbrellas and kettles, absurdly and unnecessarily complicated devices erected to carry out incongruously simple or far-fetched activities. It is the mind-boggling array of such devices which gave the language the adjective ‘Heath Robinson’ which can be applied to any absurdly complex and jerry-rigged contraption.

'Stout members of the sixth column dislodge an enemy machine gun post on the dome of St Paul's' by William Heath Robinson

Stout members of the sixth column dislodge an enemy machine gun post on the dome of St Paul’s by William Heath Robinson

Heath Robinson realised that the contraptions are funnier, the more seriously they are taken. Therefore every element of every device is imagined down to the tiniest pulley and knotted string, and all of the army of technicians and engineers and soldiers and scientists are going about their business with the utmost seriousness. He said that the viewer has to believe in the subject as seriously as the characters themselves.

Deceiving the Invader by William Heath Robinson

Deceiving the invader as to the state of the tide by William Heath Robinson

Two World Wars

The market for top end, luxury, lavishly colour-illustrated books dried up with the advent of the Great War. Heath Robinson had been providing comic cartoons for a variety of publications and, when war broke out, began a stream of humorous cartoons satirising the enemy in three books – Some ‘Frightful’ War Pictures (1915), Hunlikely! (1916) and The Saintly Hun: a book of German virtues (1917). All three volumes are collected into one book, available in the bookshop.

Twenty years later, the saintly Hun was back again and Heath Robinson produced another set of war cartoons, this time noticeably satirising official British war efforts. As the commentary points out, maybe the Nazis were just too unspeakable to laugh about.

The war was of course a period of rationing and austerity, with everyone being encouraged to ‘make do and mend’, not throw anything away, but patch and fix things. There’s an obvious link between the increasingly home-made, amateur DIY which the whole population was forced towards, and the relevance and popularity of Heath Robinson’s cracked contraptions.

A warm welcome for every parachutist by William Heath Robinson

A warm welcome for every parachutist by William Heath Robinson

Cartoons

After the Great War the early lavish illustrations gave way to a flood of humorous drawings for magazines and advertisements. In 1934 he published a collection of his favourites as Absurdities. For example:

You could go a bit heavy and wonder if this between-the-wars interest in absurdity echoes and anticipates the French existentialist emphasis on the absurdity and futility of human existence. The French had Jean-Paul Sartre and the Resistance; we had Heath Robinson and Dad’s Army; the Nazis had the Horst Wessel Song; we had Noel Coward and comic songs like Don’t Let’s Be Beastly To The Germans.

The intellectual summer holiday reminded me of my recent visit to the Wolfgang Tillsman exhibition at Tate Modern, where everyone had their heads stuck in the exhibition pamphlet. Works like Testing teeth typify his deployment of massed ranks of managers and technicians, scientists and supervisors, to give the joke machinery added solemnity and pomposity. They remind me a lot of the government departments where I’ve worked.

Designs for living

The 1930s saw the first big wave of self-improvement books and guides and manuals. Only recently at the British Museum exhibition of landscape watercolours, I was reminded of the Shell guides, written by poets and writers of the day and illustrated by leading artists, which were designed to get the reading public motoring off into the country to explore the counties of England, or pulling on their hiking boots and setting off a-rambling.

It was in this climate that Heath Robinson was paired up with the humourist K.R.G. Browne to illustrate a brilliant series of ‘how to’ books – How to live in a flat (1936), How to be a perfect husband (1937), How to make a garden grow (1938), poking fun at new trends and fashions for ‘modern living’.

Romantic possibilities in modern flats by William Heath Robinson

Romantic possibilities in modern flats (1936) by William Heath Robinson

In 1933 Heath Robinson did his marvellous cartoon illustrations for the first of the Professor Branestawm books written by Norman Hunter – The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm – which I read and loved as a boy.

Adverts and commercial work

It is also striking to learn that Heath Robinson provided illustrations, straight or comic, for some 100 commercial products, several of which are included here, notably his cartoon-style ads for Hovis bread and some of the humorous illustrations he did for the leather-making firm of Connolly Brothers.

Heath Robinson’s watercolours

But the aspect of his work which I wasn’t expecting and which crept slowly up on me as I walked round, was the strength and power of his more serious work – the early Shakespeare and literary illustrations, for sure, but also the really stunning watercolours and landscapes which he produced throughout his life.

Eastern Market Scene by William Heath Robinson

Eastern Market Scene, watercolour by William Heath Robinson

The commentary explains that, quite separately from his commercial work, Heath Robinson continued to paint landscapes in his spare time – sometimes pure pastoral, sometimes with whimsical fairies and goblins, sometimes with more spiritual-looking Greek or idealised human figures ghosting through them.

Girl on a riverbank by William Heath Robinson

Girl on a riverbank, watercolour by William Heath Robinson

The cartoons are often very, very funny, all the funnier the more carefully you follow through their ludicrously intricate machinery. But some of these watercolours and spiritualised landscapes are masterpieces in a completely different mood – brilliantly evocative and powerful, strange and haunting.

The commentary points out that Heath Robinson made careful use of deliberately limited tone and palette – the washes come from the same colour base i.e. almost all greens in the watercolour above, variations on blue in the Twelfth Night illustration at the top of this post, more greens in the landscape below. An almost Japanese sense of the unity and harmoniousness of the colours creates a wonderfully dreamlike impression.

Landscape with tall tree and haystack by William Heath Robinson

Landscape with tall tree and haystack, watercolour by William Heath Robinson

As you soak up Heath Robinson’s command of watercolour and the tonal unity of these works, it makes you appreciate all the more how he combined this colour control with the immaculate draughtsmanship so obvious in the cartoons to produce a synthesis – wonderful tonal harmony controlled by breath-taking design – in the best of his fairy, Shakespeare and literary illustrations. And makes you go back to marvel at them all over again.

And, as the exhibition shows, this incredibly diverse artist could also use the same combination in another flavour or style or ‘voice’ altogether – away from the fantastical fairy world, in a style which depicts the modern world with no comic intent but with the same breath-taking linesmanship and colour harmony to create a wonderful sense of warmth and friendliness.

Heath Robinson’s art is at home in the world and makes the viewer, also, feel profoundly, safely at home.

What a really great artist, a brilliant illustrator, a hilarious cartoonist, and a wonderfully evocative watercolourist. This is an absolute treat of a museum!

Credit

All Heath Robinson images reproduced with kind permission of the William Heath Robinson Trust and © The William Heath Robinson Trust.


Related links

China: A history by John Keay (2008)

Keay crams China’s dense and confusing 3,000-plus-year history into 580 pages, divided into 16 fact-packed chapters, with plenty of notes, diagrams and, above all, lots and lots of maps. It’s a very big subject – it’s a lot to digest!

He explains at the start that many Western accounts race through the earlier periods in order to get to the first European arrivals in China (around 1500), slow down to dwell on the imperialist nineteenth century – ‘our bit’ of Chinese history – and then really linger over the disasters of the 20th century – the 1912 Republican Revolution, the Warlord Era, the Japanese invasion, World War II, the Civil War, communist victory, the long Maoist nightmare, and finally the slow crawl out of tyranny into the state capitalism of the nineties which continues to the present.

Keay deliberately inverts these priorities, devoting an unusual amount of space to the earliest era of proto-Chinese history, the period of myths and legends when many of the founding ideas about Chinese identity and lineage were laid down by semi-historical figures. By contrast he relatively skimps on the modern period, particularly on the troubled 20th century – after all, there are plenty of other books about all that.

This is just one of the several ways Keay deliberately sets out to question, challenge or overthrow the accepted narratives of Chinese history.

Conflicting versions of ancient Chinese history

Rule 1: China is obsessed by its history and its cultural continuity. The traditional narrative has the ethnic Han Chinese developing in the northern, ‘core’ area of the Huang He or ‘Yellow River’ valley, before slowly spreading their culture outwards. Traditional history describes how there were a legendary ‘five emperors’ before 2000 BC, who were followed by three pre-imperial dynasties. The three pre-imperial dynasties are:

  • Xia – 2070 BC – 1600 BC
  • Shang – 1600 BC – 1046 BC
  • Zhou – 1050 BC – 256 BC

BUT

1. The increasing pace of archaeological discovery in the past 30 years (freed from the Maoist dictatorship, paid for by new capitalist wealth, and often prompted by the frenzy of new building work going on in China) has produced more and more evidence to undermine this centuries-old view. The Chinese are proud of their very early tradition of casting bronze to make sculptures and bells, enormous bells. But now findings from the south and west of the country are suggesting that bronze-casting peoples who used a proto-Chinese script existed side by side with, and maybe even before, the northern ‘founders’ of the Chinese state. Scandal.

2. From the earliest times China has possessed a written record of its dynasties and rulers. But the archaeological record is turning up evidence consistently at odds with the traditional periods and dates for the rise and fall of the pre-imperial kings and/or dynasties (above) given by tradition. The traditional timeline is being undermined and no new synthesis or scholarly consensus has yet emerged. The historian of early China is in a tricky limbo, for the time being.

3. It’s a straw in the wind, a symptom of this general overhaul of Chinese history, that the Chinese for centuries considered there to have been ‘Four Great Ancient Capitals of China’ (Beijing, Nanjing, Luoyang and Xi’an (Chang’an)) – but that during the twentieth century archaeology has revealed the size and importance of other ancient cities to such an extent that the number has slowly been doubled, with the inclusion of Kaifeng (added in the 1920s), Hangzhou (added in the 1930s), Anyang (added in 1988) and Zhengzhou (2004).

4. Even more controversially, Keay relates the discovery of a set of Caucasian ‘Tarim mummies‘ in the eastern part of the modern province of Xinjiang. These startling finds have led some scholars to speculate that working with metal – and particularly bronze – the wheel, chariots and so on, may have been introduced into China from the West. Not, admittedly, from Europe but the cultures of the Caucasus or India or Tibet. Or maybe not. The debate rages. But for a culture which prides itself on its uniqueness, its separateness and its ancientness, this is shocking stuff.

Needless to say, scholars in China have had some difficulty with this. (p.41)

Keay continues this theme throughout the book with examples too many and too complicated to quote. But again and again he says that modern scholarship, set free from nationalist and communist tyranny, is now chipping away at the traditional narrative of a northern, solely Han origin for Chinese culture. This long tradition in fact relies on a series of Han historians who worked at the courts of the various Chinese dynasties, and who shaped their narratives to please their masters and the cultural expectations of the day.

But increasingly we realise that at many, many periods, large parts of China were not under the control of the Han Chinese. Many non-Han kingdoms and dynasties rose and ruled for centuries other key parts of Chinese territory – At its simplest, many non-Han peoples ruled China.

An already well-known example is the Manchu people (which Manchuria is named after). The Manchus form the largest branch of the Tungusic peoples. They are descended from the Jurchen people, who established the Jin dynasty (1115–1234) in China, and then went on to found the Later Jin dynasty (1616-1636), and then, famously, China’s final dynasty, the Qing dynasty (1636–1912).

It would be hard enough if Keay were simply retelling the ‘traditional’ Han-focused history of China in his book – long and complex and alien enough to be demanding – but in this book he relates both the ‘traditional’ account and then highlights how it is being undermined at all points by new archaeological, textual and ethnographic evidence.

The only comparison I’m in a position to make is with my own people, the English. It would be as if there were an ‘official’ version of the history in which the English had ruled England from time immemorial, had invented all its culture and, despite some changes in dynasty, handed down one continuous language and culture. And then modern scholars came along and began to unearth and present a radically different story, that the ancient Britons had driven out earlier peoples before being themselves colonised by the Romans, then by various tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, then the long wars with the Viking Danes, then the conquest by a completely foreign people, the Normans, not to mention the imposition of foreign kings in the shape of James I of Scotland, William of Orange and George I of Hanover.

As I write this I am still reading the section about the Song Dynasty, which lasted from 960 to 1279 (although, true to his revisionist approach, Keay points out that the official dates for most of these dynasties are ‘optimistic’: they tended to consolidate true power somewhat after the official start date and to have lost their grip long before the official end date: there was more chaos and interregnum between dynasties than traditional Chinese historiography likes to admit). Although it appears to have been a period of artistic flourishing in the Song-held area, Keay’s narrative is just as much about how much of China was held by long-lasting alternative dynasties and ethnic groups – the Jurchen in the far north, the Khitan and Lao in the north, the Xia in the middle Yellow River valley, the Nanchao in the deep south on the border with Vietnam, and the Uighurs west in Xinjiang.

When Keay quotes 11th century courtiers and poets criticising the way the Song had to give large payments or tributes to the Khitan, it reminds me exactly of how the critics of Aethelred the Unready complained at his abject payment of Danegeld to the voracious Vikings around 1000 AD.

Think of the complexity of English history over the past 3,000 years – and then multiply that by a continent. It is a huge and confusing history, though this volume does a marvellous job of telling it, helped along by a vital supply of maps and frequent timelines for the numerous dynasties (and overlapping dynasties and kingdoms).

Barriers to understanding Chinese history

But it isn’t just the size and geographic scope and ethnic complexity of the story (and the fact that the old versions are being superseded by new discoveries) which make Chinese history so hard to assimilate. Right at the start of the book Keay spends some time outlining the cultural difficulties so many Europeans have in getting to grips with Chinese culture or history.

1. The Chinese language

Logograms European languages (and Arabic, apparently) use symbols (letters) to depict individual sounds, and build up ‘words’ by assembling these individual ‘letters’ together. Chinese is radically different. It consists of logograms or ‘characters’, each one of which stands for a different idea or concept. To quote Wikipedia:

A well-educated Chinese reader today recognizes approximately 4,000 to 6,000 characters; approximately 3,000 characters are required to read a Mainland newspaper. The PRC government defines literacy amongst workers as a knowledge of 2,000 characters, though this would be only functional literacy. School-children typically learn around 2,000 characters whereas scholars may memorize up to 10,000. A large unabridged dictionary, like the Kangxi Dictionary, contains over 40,000 characters, including obscure, variant, rare, and archaic characters; fewer than a quarter of these characters are now commonly used.

The picture is complicated by the way that each pictogram can have radically different meanings depending on the precise tone and intonation of the sound attached to it – there are, apparently, five distinct tones which can be used in Chinese pronunciation to drastically alter the meaning of a written symbol and no recognised way of conveying these in Roman script.

In addition, pronunciation varies hugely across China, so that numerous regional dialects are mutually incomprehensible; two Chinese may be able to read the same newspaper, but would pronounce the characters so differently as to be unintelligible to each other.

Writing system Western scholars have been struggling for centuries to devise a system with which to transliterate the logograms into Latin/Roman script, before then translating the transliterations. From the late 1890s to the late 20th century many Anglophones used the Wade–Giles system, produced by Thomas Wade and systematised in Herbert A. Giles’s Chinese–English Dictionary of 1892.

Its drawbacks were:

a) it used nearly as many diacritics or apostrophes, hyphens and various supernumerary markings to convey the variety of intonations as it did letters, making it hard to familiarise yourself with
b) it wasn’t used in America or other European countries

To try and sort out the confusion, from the 1960s onwards Wade-Giles has been steadily replaced by the Hanyu Pinyin system which transliterates Chinese characters into a different set of letters. This is progress, but has the bad side-effect that many if not most Chinese places, people and events can go under two different names: for example, Peking (Wade-Giles) or Beijing (pinyin); Mao Tse-tung or Mao Zedong.

Keay tells us that something like 75% of all Chinese words in translation have been changed in the past thirty years from Wade-Giles to pinyin, but we are living in a period of transition in the way Chinese is written in English, a confusion which Keay describes as having ‘catastrophic’ consequences for Western understanding of Chinese.

Mismatched vocabulary Their words are not our words. Our words are not their words. Thus, in the final chapters, Keay tells us that Chinese doesn’t really have words for ‘democracy’ or ‘human rights’. Instead these concepts have to be translated into characters which have vastly different, traditional connotations. Part of the belated reforms to the state and culture in the 1920s involved trying to update the language so it could cope with modern (Western) ideas (p.487).

A striking passage on page 461, he explains that the mistranslation of one character, yi, caused decades of trouble. A number of the treaties which the Western powers compelled the Chinese to sign in the 1840s and 1850s contained the word yi, which some translators gave as ‘foreigners’. (In a fascinating side issue, apparently Chinese nouns don’t indicate whether they’re singular or plural.) But other translators translated yi, widely used in this and other treaties to refer to the European side, as ‘barbarian’ – which the British in particular took as a huge racial insult.

The ramifications of the mistake, if that is what it was, were enormous. More even than opium this tiny monosyllable poisoned diplomatic exchanges, and would require an article of its own – number 51 – in the 1858 Anglo-Chinese Treaty of Tianjin. It infected the translation of other Chinese characters and slewed the interpretation of whole passages, invariably rendering them more reprehensible to foreign readers. It fouled Anglo-Chinese relations: it permeated racial stereotyping; and it corrupted – and still does – most non-Chinese writing on the entire course of China’s history… ‘Never has a lone word among the myriad languages of humanity made so much history as the Chinese character yi,’ writes Lydi Liu. (p.462)

Thus the difficulty and untranslatability of the Chinese language isn’t a remote academic issue, but central to centuries of misunderstanding working in both directions – so that the West has misunderstood Chinese ideas and intentions, but also China has been unable to understand or assimilate western ideas, without first placing them into entirely alien and inappropriate contexts.

2. Multiple dynasties and names

Language aside, there is another basic problem with the sheer numbers of Chinese rulers. There have been hundreds and hundreds. Over its 4,000 year (?) history, China has had numerous would-be ‘dynasties’, of which only a score or so are recognised as ‘canonical’, and of which there are Five Big Ones. Keay – sounding a lot like my old history teacher – says these need to be memorised:

  • HAN 202 BC – 220 AD (contemporary with the later Roman Republic and early Empire)
  • TANG 618-907 AD (from the Heptarchy to a unified England, or the early period of Muslim expansion)
  • SONG 960-1279 AD (roughly contemporary with the Crusades 1095-1291)
  • MING 1368-1644 AD (from Edward III to the start of the Civil War; or the early Ottoman and Mughal empires)
  • QING (or Manchu) 1644-1912 – from the time of Charles I to the Great War

Minor dynasties could overlap i.e. there be two (or more) competing dynasties at the same time in different parts of this huge country. For example, during the period from 907 to 960 there were no fewer than five dynasties in the heartland of the lower Yellow River and ten distinct kingdoms in the south!

Another complicating factor is that later dynasties often took the names of earlier dynasties in order to invoke their power and authority: these are distinguished by adding an indication of timing or a geographical location (former Han or Eastern Han).

At the individual level, emperors might also take a number of names – they had personal names, temple names, dynasty names and sometimes period names, with no consistent naming convention over the full 3,000 year reach. Sometimes they took the names of ancient and venerable predecessors, but without the convenient tradition – in Western Europe at any rate – of numbering same-name rulers. Instead emperors (or would-be emperors) have their dynasty name attached to the beginning of their title: thus Song Taizong (r.976-997), Song Renzong (r.1022-63), Song Shenzong (r.1068-85) and so on, where Song indicates the dynasty name. This is always written in italics.

Later, during the final dynasty, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) emperors were named after the period during which they ruled, their so-called era name which always starts with ‘the’ – thus the Shunzhi Emperor (r. 1643–1661), the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1661–1722), the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–1796) and so on. Though I read this through carefully several times, I still don’t pretend to really understand it…

3. Concern for the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ distorts Chinese history

And running like a thread through the narrative, Keay highlights the concern of most Chinese historians to present the history of China as One Unbroken Lineage. Very early on, the concept evolved of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ i.e. that a dynasty and its emperor enjoyed its power from Heaven and that, in turn, their job was to ensure harmony and balance here on earth.

This didn’t stop competing family members, usurpers, scheming eunuchs, queen mothers, rebellious generals and invading foreigners fighting like ferrets in a sack for Total Rule. But it meant that

a) when someone finally came out on top, there was an established sense of harmony, balance and Good Rule for them to follow, multiple traditions bolstered by hordes of followers of Confucius, who taught respect for the past and the necessity for a deeply hierarchical social order.
And b) that, looking back, the Chinese historians we rely on for much of our accounts, excluded or marginalised from their narratives incidental rulers or dynasties which didn’t suit a neat linear progression of the Mandate of Heaven.

Thus eleventh century historians like Ouyang Xiu and Sima Guang made the official pedigree of rulers flow through the northern Five Dynasties of the period – because they were based in the north, the ‘traditional’ birthplace of Chinese culture and rule – and downplayed the history of the Ten Kingdoms of the south, even though by this period the majority of the population of China lived in their territory in the south. Because they didn’t fit the tradition.

Their obsession with creating a consistent linear pedigree to bear out and justify the theory of the Mandate of Heaven means that the traditional, old Chinese historians have to be handled with caution. Having explained all this Keay routinely gives more space to alternative dynasties and entire non-Han kingdoms than the Chinese tradition likes to. It is another example of the way he’s not just telling one story, but comparing and contrasting multiple stories which we, the readers, are expected to grasp and evaluate for ourselves.

4. China name dyslexia

Even more basic, we can’t help it but we Westerners just find it difficult to remember Chinese names. They look and sound very similar. For example, the timeline of Western Zhou kings from 1045 to 770 BC goes: Wen, Wu, Cheng, Kang, Zhao, Mu, Gong, Yi, Xiao, Yi, Li, Gonghe, Xuan and You. If you read it through once:

a) it seems as if there are several repeats because several of the names are very similar
b) some of the names have distracting meanings in English e.g. Gong, You
c) adding to the difficulty is that they are all very short, just one or two syllables. Compare and contrast with the ancient names we’re used to from the European tradition – Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great. I’m not saying they’re better, just pointing out that they’re longer and so there’s more for the ear and mind to hang on to and distinguish.

Right at the start Keay himself remarks ‘Non-Chinese readers will be appalled by the swarm of same-sounding people, places and titles lying in wait for them. (p.52)’ and he isn’t wrong. Every time I picked the book up I had to go back a few pages to remind myself where I was and who I was reading about: which dynasty or kingdom, which era, which set of rulers, fighting which set of non-Han enemies, and so on.


Some memorable ideas

Beyond these few points I won’t make any attempt to summarise Chinese history, it is far too vast and complex: read Wikipedia, or this excellent book. But a few things have stuck in my mind.

No stone, no old buildings China is deficient in quarriable stone. The eastern part is soft loess and alluvial silt, fertile for agriculture with no stone in sight. From time immemorial the Chinese built in wood. Scrolls and artworks show immense cities and dazzling palaces from the time of the European Dark Ages onwards. But wood perishes and burns (and civil wars have repeatedly led to entire cities being razed to the ground), so hardly any of China’s ancient architecture survives. Unlike the ruins of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, there is not much to see.

Confucian conformity Keay describes the long waxing and waning of China’s three philosophical traditions – Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. Confucianism emphasises right-thinking, self-scrutiny and self-correction until you bring your mind into harmony with the heavens, the emperor, the ancestors and society around you. Because I know more about Chairman Mao’s terrifying tyranny of Right Thinking I found that every time I read about Confucius and Confucian traditions, it just made me think how Chinese culture’s long-held belief in the priority of the mass and society at large over the individual has made it a natural home for dictatorship and tyranny.

Compare and contrast with the irreverent knockabout vulgarity of Anglo-Saxon individualism, which is littered with eccentrics, rebels and dissidents, and which underpins our ideas of modern democracy i.e. that everyone is entitled to their opinion and to free speech to express it in and to freedom of association to form parties and groups who can argue and lobby for their ideas.

Reading this deeply into Chinese history makes you realise how vast is the gulf between our Western democratic individualism and the Chinese mind-set, even today. From earliest times the emperor was subservient to the Mandate of Heaven, everyone was subservient to the emperor, and the Confucian system was one of unrelenting hierarchy and subservience in every social situation. The entire tradition produced what Keay describes as ‘a stifling degree of social conformity’ (p.349). Seen in this perspective the terrifying mind control of the Maoist years, in which millions of victims were singled out because they were rich peasants or traders or teachers and subjected to ‘re-education sessions’ in which they had to reveal their past errors of thought and learn ‘correct thinking’, appear just a continuation of Confucian notions that the individual must bring his thinking into harmony and alignment with the ancestors, the emperor and society around him (it’s always a he).

China and the West China had an advanced civilisation while Europe was in the Dark Ages, how come Europe came to dominate China by the 19th century etc etc blah blah? Having read this account the answer is fairly obvious:

  • Chinese culture preached slavish submission to the emperor; Europe was convulsed by widespread revolutions which overthrew oppressive rulers in the name of liberty and freedom from as early as the 1640s, and which led to (various competing forms) of democracy.
  • Confucianism despises merchants and trade and business. According to Confucian scholars the highest calling in life was being a Confucian scholar. On the contrary, the West, despite superficial distaste, in fact worships and glorifies the trader, the merchant, the successful businessman, the plantation owner, the Indian nabob, anyone who made it rich and bought a big estate in the country.
  • In China innovation was punished. Innovation and change, like the formation of any ‘party’ or lobby group, were seen as subverting the static harmony of the Celestial Kingdom and directly threatening the emperor, his huge bureaucracy, and society at large. From the Middle Ages through to the 19th century, any attempt to change things generally resulted in punishment, exile or execution. If any reforms were carried out, they had to be camouflaged as returns to an idealised past, invoking the names of past emperors or dynasties. Thus it was that figures as diverse as  Britain’s first envoy to China, George Macartney, and the father of modern communism, Karl Marx, both agreed that China’s political system had completely outlived its relevance and was a hollow shell just waiting to collapse.

Foot binding Under the Song Dynasty, by about 1100, binding the feet of girls and women had become commonplace. As soon as they could toddle girls’ feet were securely bent and bound, each toe bent and held under the sole by rope or rags. The binding was never taken off, but only changed as feet grew (or tried to). The result was girls and women were in constant pain, their feet sometimes growing to only half their intended size, permanently deformed and bent double like a birds’ claws. Hundreds of millions of girls and women were reduced to an agonising hobble. Maybe a third of China’s female population was tortured this way, for the best part of 800 years. Given the size of the Chinese population, Keay remarks that the Chinese custom of binding girls’ feet may have caused pain and suffering to more people than any other activity in human history (p.326).

One reason the Song dynasty is remembered The Song dynasty ended in the 1270s. It was followed by three other Big Dynasties which followed each other without much hiatus – the Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912). But all three were somewhat compromised. The Yuan and Qing were imposed from outside by non-Han peoples; the Yuan by Mongols and the Qing by Manchu northerners. So for many Chinese to this day, both dynasties are somewhat unauthentic. The only ethnically Chinese dynasty was the Ming, but they are now associated with China’s long decline, the era when China’s international standing began to slip in comparison with the European nations who increasingly visited and oppressed her.

By contrast with these three compromised dynasties, the Song – untainted by foreign rulers or national humiliation – is sometimes considered, by Chinese scholars, to be a peak of peace, culture and achievement, even if it did end while Henry III was on the throne of England.

The name China When Marco Polo visited China in the 1270s, it had come under the rule of the Mongols. The Mongols had had to fight their way south from Mongolia through the part of northern China long-held by the Jin people, before confronting and overthrowing the reigning Song dynasty. As a result, from their perspective, the Mongols tended to refer to all the southern enemy as Jin – or Chin, as they pronounced it. Thus the Mongols who hosted Marco Polo and showed him round referred to the ‘natives’ as Chin and through one of the many mistranslations and misunderstandings which characterise China’s interaction with outsides, in Polo’s account of his adventures, this became Chin-a.

That’s one theory, anyway.

Magna Carta and Genghis Khan I was struck by the coincidence that Genghis Khan and his Mongol army, having fought their way across northern China, captured Beijing on 1 June 1215. And on 15 June 1215, exactly a fortnight later, King John of England grudgingly signed the ‘Magna Carta‘, effectively a peace treaty in his civil war with his own nobles. Two worlds, one emphasising its Asiatic tyranny, the other laying the basis of civil rights and democracy.

Chinese history in one map

This animation gives a sense of the ebb and flow of Han power over this vast geographical region.


Related links

Other reviews about the history of China or the Far East

Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 @ Tate Modern

Tillmans and Tate

Wolfgang Tillmans is German – as you’d expect from the name – but has spent a lot of time in the UK. He studied at the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design in the early 90s, then moved on to London and, although he’s had spells in the States (New York, of course), he still has a studio in London and divides his time between here and Berlin.

Also, although photos of him from the 1990s make him look like a punk or street kid, a member of the hoody generation, Tillmans has in fact created a tidy place for himself within the British art establishment.

  • Between 2009 and 2014 Tillmans served as an Artist Trustee of the Tate Board. He is also a member of the museum’s Collection Committee and the Tate Britain Council
  • Tillmans was the first photographer – and also the first non-British person – to be awarded the Tate annual Turner Prize, in 2000
  • In 2014 Tillmans won the Charles Wollaston Award, the main prize of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition
  • In 2015 Tillmans was awarded the Royal Photographic Society Centenary Medal and an Honorary Fellowship
  • In 2015 Tillmans was commissioned to create the official portrait of retiring British Museum director Neil MacGregor

Quite the establishment darling then, and with a very close connection with Tate which is – uncoincidentally – now giving him this huge 14-room exhibition.

Iguazu (2010) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Iguazu (2010) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Tillmans’ photography

Tillmans was born in 1968 and so is a youthful 48. His career consists of ‘explorations of the possibilities of modern photography’. As a young gay student his early works depict bohemian men and, apparently, he was hailed as a chronicler of that queer boho scene – something he’s been trying to escape ever since.

Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza (2012) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza (2012) by Wolfgang Tillmans

In fact the show reveals a determination to explore and diversify, to range over a huge variety of genres – portraits, still lifes, sky photographs, astro-photography, aerial shots and landscapes.

But he is just as interested in the presentation of the works as the subject matter, and this is one of the main themes of the show. It is emphatically not just a series of huge glossy photographs. Instead, there is a systematic exploration of the tremendous range of the media, of shapes and sizes and styles and formats, which the photographic image can come in.

There certainly are the big colour prints he’s famous for, but also photocopies and black and white prints, some enormous, some tiny – some expensively framed, some not – some are enormous and formally hung, some are in a cluster of Polaroid-size snaps just pinned up to the wall.

Also there are rooms full of display cases showing the range of arty or fashion magazines he’s worked for. Other rooms show collections of articles from newspapers and magazines concerning ‘issues of the day’, juxtaposed with relevant or related photos.

How we consume the image is as much a part of the show, as the images themselves.

Collum by Wolfgang Tillmans

Collum by Wolfgang Tillmans

Every room an installation

Quite quickly you realise that ideas and issues about photography are just as important as the images themselves

Thus, right at the beginning we are told that each room is a separate entity; each room has been individually created and curated – ‘specially configured’ – to address specific issues or themes or topics. The intention, then, is that each room (as a unique assembly of images) serves a double purpose – addressing varied issues and subjects but also exploring the wide range of formats which images can come in, ‘exploring’ the nature of the photographic image.

Operating on the basis of the fundamental equality of all motifs and supports, through this continual re-arranging, repositioning, questioning and reinforcement, Tillmans avoids ascribing any ‘conclusions’ to his work and thus subjects his photographic vision to a perpetual re-contextualization

To professional theorists of photography and the digital image, for all art and media students generally, this show is a goldmine of conceptualisation and theory. To ordinary gallery-goers simply curious to see arresting, beautiful or imaginative images… maybe not quite so compelling.

paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse (2014) by Wolfgang Tillmans

paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse (2014) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Read the booklet

Indeed at the entrance to the exhibition the visitor attendant on the door tells us there will be no wall labels giving context and information, as is usual in most modern art exhibitions. Instead, the visitor is told they must consult the free booklet given out at the door to read up on what each room is about, what it is trying to say, the idea behind the installation.

There are 14 rooms so that’s 14 short essays. That’s quite a lot of reading, quite a lot of information processing to be done before you even look at anything.

And the only snag is that, the more you read, the less impressive the concepts and ideas become. As early as room 2 we learn that Tillmans spends a lot of time in his studio, making prints, planning exhibitions, collecting materials, gathering ideas and so on. Thus room 2 contains photos of… his studio, which, like most workplaces these days, consists mainly of computers on messy desks, with odd shots of cardboard boxes full of bottles, a colour photocopier taken to pieces and so on. It looks, in fact, like a really boring office.

But the commentary tries to gee it up by quoting from the man himself. Among other things it tells us that Tillmans has often described the core of his work as:

translating the three dimensional world into two dimensional pictures.

Wow. Profound. Isn’t this a tad… obvious? Do you think there has been any artist since about 1300 and any photographer since about 1850 who hasn’t been aware that they are engaged in transferring the 3D world onto a 2D surface?

In room 3 we learn about Tillmans’s project to travel the world and deliberately spend just a few days in each place photographing his first impressions, untainted by any understanding or knowledge of the local culture. He did, we are reassured, use ‘a high resolution digital camera’. And this approach led to some pretty impressive revelations, to a number of ‘shrewd observations about contemporary worldviews’.

For example? Well, he noticed that the shape of car headlights has changed in the past few decades. Herr Tillmans detected that car headlights are now much more angular than they used to be which, giving them, as the booklet helpfully explains:

a predatory appearance that might reflect a more competitive environment.

Golly. He spent four years travelling round the world and discovered… that car headlights are more angular than they used to be. Do you see what I mean by the ‘concepts’ and ‘ideas’ underpinning the show not being that…. impressive. Don’t get me wrong: the photos of car headlights are beautifully shot, big, perfectly in focus, very much like… well… high def adverts for car headlights.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern featuring Headlight

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern featuring Headlight (left)

Room 4 is devoted to a series of display cases showing a project titled truth study centre which has been rumbling on since 2005. Photos, newspaper and magazine clippings, objects, drawings and copies of his own images are laid out in cases to highlight the revelation that – the media sometimes contradict themselves, politicians sometimes make statements about things they don’t understand, scientific knowledge is limited and partial, you shouldn’t believe everything you read.

I’m helping my daughter revise for her GCSE Media Studies exam. I know for a fact that these are the kinds of ‘insight’ which are quite literally taught to every 15-year-old schoolchild in the country.

It began to dawn on me that if you expect people to spend a lot of time at your exhibition reading about your ‘insights’ and ‘concepts’ – it would be a good idea to have something worth reading about. By room 5 I stopped reading the booklet for any ‘insight’ it gave me, but purely as a source of unintentional comedy.

Another example of the overconceptualisation of the stunningly banal is room 7, a nice-sized room with roof-height windows looking out over the Thames. In it are placed a very expensive sound system and some state-of-the-art loudspeakers which are playing a loop of tracks by Colourbox, an English band from the 80s that Tillman likes. And some benches to sit on.

That’s it. The idea seems to be that bands spend months in music studios recording music on incredibly hi-quality digital equipment – and then lots of people listen to this music through dodgy headphones via their mobile devices. The Big Idea seems to be: doesn’t that seem a bit of a shame?

I sat staring out at the view, tapping my feet to Colourbox and reading the rest of the booklet in a private game of ‘bullshit bingo’, spotting pretentious clichés and choice examples of curator-speak (otherwise known as ‘art bollocks’). According to the booklet the music room – ahem, I mean the installation entitled Playback Room – is:

An example of Tillman’s curatorial practice, he has chosen to include it here to encourage others to think about how recorded music can be given prominence within the museum setting.

Well, I bet nobody’s ever thought of playing music in an art gallery before. Truly we live in an age of exciting innovations!

The Painted Word

In his blistering satire on the 1970s New York art world, The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe describes how it suddenly dawned on him – as the new movements of minimalism and conceptual art became prominent in the early 1970s – that the concept, the idea, the project, the word, had now become the truly creative part of a work of art – and that the actual painting or photo or sculpture, was merely an appendage, an afterthought, a kind of dubious, oh-do-we-really-have-to illustration of the idea for the work.

The idea, and its formulation in words, was now the creative achievement. Hence his title – the insight that a lot of modern art is merely a sort of painted word. I couldn’t help thinking of Wolfe as I was obliged at the start of each one of the 14 rooms here to read the short essay in the booklet to find out what the devil the room was on about. Increasingly ignoring the text, I had the subversive idea of looking closely at what was actually on display.

Four thoughts

1. Abstracts Once you actually focus on the art, then a number of the really large abstract prints, in the series named Silver and Greifbar, really stand out. Large swirls of colour which are apparently created without using a camera but by manipulating light and chemicals directly onto photosensitive paper. Big bold and attractive – though maybe because they look so much like the abstract expressionists I’ve been reading about recenty. They are a sort of cross between abstract expressionism and a funky advert for ice cream being mixed. Or maybe shots of campari or whiskey being twirled in a glass.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern featuring Greifbar 29 (left) and a portrait of a guy picking his toenails (through the doorway)

Good, aren’t they? And massive. Immersive. And immensely familiar because you feel like someone somewhere has surely been making pictures like this for decades, but you can’t quite remember who. Maybe they haven’t. Either way, big and very relaxing.

2. Ugly A lot, in fact every single one of the many, many portraits sprinkled throughout the exhibition, are ugly. Some of the famous people – the usual arty suspects like Vivienne Westwood or Patti Smith or Morrissey – are fairly old and raddled to start with, but even the various-sized portraits of his young gang, his mates, scruffy sneaker-shoed arty types in dodgy-looking flats and apartments, gay men, gay women, young boho types, ALL of them are done with a deliberately unflattering, anti-romanticism.

In this respect Tillmans combines, to my mind, the deliberate willful ugliness of much modern photography and contemporary art, with an extra helping of the traditional German taste for the grotesque, a lineage which stretches from Dürer, through the German Expressionists, to George Grosz and Otto Dix and on to Joseph Beuys – a lot of German art has foregrounded ugliness, crudity and ungainliness. No grace. No poise. Scruffy unshaven blokes in duffel coats. Clunky hairy people with all their spots and pimples.

Given his queer punk credentials it’s a little surprising how few sexually explicit photos there are here, but it’s entirely characteristic that the two really rude ones – of a man’s bollocks and a woman’s pussy – are hairy and unglamorous. Shrewdly composed and framed, alright – beautifully in focus – technically perfect – but determinedly, almost brutally, real. (See below) The aesthetic is in the refusal to retouch, soften, smooth out or prettify. In cold white light, in perfect focus, in unforgiving colour –this is what it is.

3. People reading the booklet instead of looking at the art Half way round I noticed just how many of the visitors were standing heads-down, intently studying the curator’s booklet and not looking at all at the supposed ‘art’. As a private joke, I began to take photos of visitors reading the booklet instead of looking at the art. I like to think this is a new artistic genre which I have just invented – ‘Photos of visitors to a Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition who spend more time reading the booklet about the exhibition than actually looking at the works in the exhibition’. Maybe I’ll enter my portfolio for the Turner Prize.

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #1

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #1

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #2

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #2

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #3

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #3

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #4

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #4

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #5

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #5

4. ‘Practice’ Usually in the commentary on a contemporary artist we learn that they are challenging, subverting, investigating, questioning and engaging with contemporary issues – more often than not these days, issues of gender and identity, the favourite subject of artists and curators alike.

Tillman does all that, of course, but I couldn’t also help noticing the obsessive repetition of the word ‘practice’ in the booklet:

  • … these elements [photographing everyday life and contemporary culture and displaying the prints as whole-room installations] remain central to his practice…
  • … cultural attitudes towards race, gender and sexuality have become more open over the three decades since he began his practice…
  • [the sound room is] an example of Tillman’s curatorial practice…
  • [since his high school days Tillman] has found ways to resist the idea that the photograph is solely a direct record of reality. In 2011, this area of his practice was compiled for the first time in his book Abstract Pictures
  • An acute awareness of fragility endures across Tillmans’s practice in all its different forms…
  • Since 2014 he has allowed performance to become a more prominent strand of his practice…
  • Portraiture has been central to Tillmans’s practice for three decades…

This word ‘practice’ always reminds me of GPs or vets – probably because, looking after two children and two cats as I do, I spend a LOT of time either at the vets or the GPs’ – and so I kept finding myself standing in front of big or little photos, of the sea, or a dusty car, or a garden weed, or ships in China or a roll of paper or someone’s bollocks, with the titles of James Herriot’s vet books drifting through my mind in ironic counterpoint.

If Only They Could Talk

If Only They Could Talk

Let sleeping vets lie

Let sleeping vets lie

It shouldn't happen to a vet

It shouldn’t happen to a vet

The sea

The final room contains two huge photos of the sea. Like lots of Tillmans’ giant pics, what’s not to like? Big bold beautifully shot, nicely framed.

However, because none of us can be expected to really get these photos unless we’ve read the booklet and had the curators properly explain to us what we’re looking at, I quote the relevant paragraph in full:

Symbol and allegory are artistic strategies Tillmans is usually keen to avoid. The State We’re In, A 2015 is a departure from this stance: the work’s title is a direct reference to current global political tensions. Depicting the Atlantic Ocean, a vast area that crosses time zones and national frontiers, it records the sea energised by opposing forces, but not yet breaking into waves. Differing energies collide, about to erupt into conflict.

Now do you understand this photo? (And thanks for the tip that the Atlantic Ocean is vast and crosses several time zones. I might pass that on to my daughter for her GCSE Geography exam which she is taking tomorrow. The Atlantic Ocean is very big. One to remember. Where would we be without artists, curators and their amazing insights?)

Conclusion

Although most of the text and installation paraphernalia was bollocks, I actually enjoyed this exhibition. The music room was nice and relaxing and the really big abstracts (the Silvers and Greifbars, the series showing rolls of paper as abstract shapes) are wonderful. The enormous photos of the sea or a market in Africa or a dusty car or the messy desk in his studio or two guys playing chess in China are all very quaffable, easy on the eye, slip down a treat.

I spoke to another visitor who commented that it was all very ‘cool’ in the older sense of the word – there was absolutely no emotional affect in any of it. Once you realised that the ‘concepts’ and ‘installations’ were based on incredibly simplistic schoolboy ideas (pictures are 2D representations of a 3D reality, it might be nice to have music in galleries, cars are sleeker than they used to be, attitudes to gender and race are more relaxed than they were thirty years ago, some of the stuff you read in newspapers isn’t strictly true) you felt free to ignore them completely, and just drift among this haphazard selection of all kinds of photographic images – large and small, colour or monochrome, framed or tacked to the wall – and like whatever takes your fancy.

And without the verbiage of the booklet – if you consciously ignore the attempt at conceptualisation, the frameworks of the installation and so on – then the real message that comes over is one of enormous randomness – haphazardness, aimlessness, arbitrariness. Sea, a weed, a car, some random people, a computer, big abstracts, rolls of paper, magazines, more random people – it’s like going for a walk through Google Images – each done to technical perfection, with a high gloss finish, perfectly in focus, made with Germanic precision – but completely odourless, uninflected, unaffecting.

In fact it bears out one of the few bits of the booklet which had any real purchase – that Tillmans believes in ‘the fundamental equality of all motifs’. Everything is the same. As an old boss of mine used to say, When everything’s a priority, then nothing’s a priority. Alles ist gleich. The apple tree outside his window, Hannah the lesbian, the Atlantic Ocean, a cardboard box, some Chinese guys, some Pakistani guys, a desk, a waterfall, a shiny red car, the Director of the British Museum, some students in a room…

It all goes into the Tillmans machine and comes out wonderfully and completely bereft of meaning or significance, entirely inconsequential – and so, all taken together, producing an effect of great calmness.

A very relaxing and soothing experience – and if you throw in a game of bullshit bingo or watching-people-read-the-booklet, very funny too.

Vielen Dank, Herr Tillsman.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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