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La France en Chine, 1843-1943 Review

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La France en Chine, 1843-1943, a collection of articles by different authors and edited by Jacques Weber, seems like it would be a book of diplomatic history, about relations between France and China. In fact, it has a very different focus: France's influence and activities in China, ranging from trade, to missionaries, gunboats to troops, concessions to political struggle, with a focus above all else on education. This makes for a somewhat arbitrary book in what was selected to be included, but which is surprisingly novel in an era of either general amalgated statistics or a focus on purely cultural or macro-level studies, with a strong narrative that has a balanced perspective on the nexus and structures, nature and type, of Sino-French relations, and which incorporates enough detail and specifics to make for a personable and interesting book with real characters. Even after many years from my first read through, remarks on French universities being critiqued for only churning out revolutionaries and agitators, unlike the doctors and lawyers of British schools or the engineers of German colleges, or the French belief in commerce following the language rather than language following trade, provide both levity and an intriguing look into the nature of French influence in China and French imperial conceptions.

What remains of the elegant French part of Shanghai is one of the few signs of France's century in China

What remains of the elegant French part of Shanghai is one of the few signs of France's century in China

The introduction to the book, written by the editor Jacques Weber, is a general history of the opening of China and the installation of concessions and foreign influence in the country, first by the British, but followed rapidly by other nations, such as France. and the installation of French missionaries in the country, the Catholic missionaries spreading out into the countryside with the assurance of security provided by a French protectorate. After this, Weber writes of the chronology of the French role in the hypothetical break up of China, and the expansion of French financial interests in the country, the installation of French military forces in the country, the attempts at expanding French commerce, the coolie trade, the relationship to the rise of Chinese nationalism, the relative French disengagement from an active policy during the Warlord years, the advance of the Nationalists in nibbling away at French privileges, and then the failed attempts at appeasing Japan and their steady abrogation of French control, leading to the end of a century of French influence in China, with all of its modest results.

After this, the first part of the book looks at French missionaries, with a number of chapters describing French missionaries in China and the French protectorate over Catholic missionaries instituted after the Second Opium War, starting with the historical perspective from the initial attempts at Catholic proselytization in the country. Catholicism encountered numerous problems with attempting to convert the Chinese, due to concerns about the mixing of women and men in churches, suspicion of foreigners, and above all else the uncompromising attitude of the missionaries which interfered with traditional Chinese customs. France's protectorate over Catholic missionaries was an important part of French influence, one coveted by Italy and Spain, but supported by the Pope for much of the period and vigorously defended by France.

The remaining two chapters look at the missionaries on the local and regional level, in Sichuan and the Tibetan border regions showing how the missionaries worked and wished to extend French influence, and their implantation, effects, and relationship with the local regions. They were important in aspects such as developing medicine, promoting French propaganda during WW1, providing stability in the Tibetan border regions, but after the war the French religious protectorate seemed increasingly obsolete and Chinese Catholicism sought to liberate itself from foreign domination. In both regions however, Catholicism was only a tiny minority faith, with only a vanishingly small fraction of the population converting.

Part 2 moves onto French instruction and education efforts in China. This starts by examining the French role in building the Chinese naval arsenal at Fuzhou, which rapidly developed as the most important naval shipyard in East Asia by the 1870s, and it generated substantial economic benefits for France as well as extending French influence - but only briefly, because once it was constructed the French were shown the door. Furthermore, it was the French themselves who just a decade later would destroy it in the Sino-French War of 1884-1885. Ironically the French would once more be charged with reconstructing the arsenal after the First Sino-Japanese War, but with much less vigor and interest this time and on a much smaller scale.

After this, French education in Shanghai is the following topic, focusing on the center of French education and influence in China. The French aimed to extend admiration for French culture and learning of the French language to encourage their economic and commercial interests in the country. This led to a creation of numerous French schools in Shanghai often by religious figures such such as the Université Aurore and which rapidly grew into an expansive and important university. Many of the graduates would become key members of the Chinese elite, serving in important diplomatic posts, The Institut technique franco-chinois by contrast, was formed to replace the same German institution, and proved to be much less successful. Furthermore, in the 1920s, French schools in China began to be buffeted by Chinese nationalism and efforts of the Chinese governments to control them, and even more importantly by the relative decline of French influence in China which limited France's appeal.

Many Chinese students went abroad to study in France in the 1920s, the focus of the following chapter. Despite the large numbers - or because of them - this was characterized by significant problems with insufficient acculturation of the students in France and a lack of the intended on-the-job training in the intended professional matters. It did have a massive political impact as many of the students in France were exposed to Communism and Socialism, and out of 80 of the important Communist Party leadership in 1943, no fewer than 17 had been educated in France - including Zhou Enlai, future prime minister, Li Fuchan, an important economic planner, and even Deng Xiaoping. There were more successes with later university students in France, although they again tended to mostly focus on political and human sciences in France, rather than medicine or engineering, and many came back without having gotten a true education, because of the failings of student preparation and support, which meant that the relative share of French-trained students in the Chinese elite was lower than for other countries like Britain, Japan, or the US, despite the total number of students having studied in France being larger than any other country save America.

The third section looks at the military component of French contacts. Starting in the early 1900s the French began to post gunboats on the Yangtze, focusing initially on expanding their influence and commercial penetration in China, and then later after 1907 moving to a more defensive posture of protecting their nationals and interests in the country. This would come to include in the early 1920s large numbers of Chinese ships that were officially under the French flag. However, like with other aspects of French influence, the French were obliged to retreat by the growing force of Chinese nationalism in the 1930, and ultimately evicted by the Second World War.

The French also had a military occupation corps in China, particularly at Beijing for assuring the security of the French legation, and a particularly important mission in an unstable China riven by different warlords during the 1920s. As with almost all elements of French influence, the French sought to use their military occupation corps to promote their economic interests and prestige. Its end came in the Second World War as the Japanese took over its area of operations and it rapidly became isolated and at the mercy of the Japanese, leading to its effective dissolution and soon thereafter imprisonment.

In the fourth section, the subject is France's diplomatic interests, concessions, and zones of influence, starting with French diplomatic representation in China. This includes both the history of relations with China, the creation of consulates starting with the Treaty Ports under the July Monarchy, and the French embassy in Beijing, and the particularities of movement in China such as internal passports required by Qing governors to go to certain provinces.

A second chapter looks at the French on the islands of Amoy and Kulangsu, in Fujian, the latter being an important commercial port in the Strait of Taiwan. It focuses on the creation of an international settlement there (actually encouraged by the Chinese to oppose Japanese influence), and the French community and French commerce. Later on it also includes French military sales and contact, French cultural and religious actions, and the collapse of the French position during WW2.

Opium fields in Yunnan: these were an important part of the revenue of French Indochina

Opium fields in Yunnan: these were an important part of the revenue of French Indochina


French influence and opium in Yunnan were directly linked, as Yunnan was an optimal growing region for Chinese opium, some of which was exported to (and effectively encouraged by the French) Indochina. This was upset by the increasing efforts to eradicate the drug starting in 1906, but ultimately opium recovered during the Warlord period in China with opium providing a vital source of funding and commercial activity for Chinese warlords.

For the final section, Shanghai and its French concession takes center-stage, the first chapter discussing the installation of the French concession, its organization and governance, the difficult relationship between the French municipal council (without any Chinese representation) and the Chinese, and other subjects during the first several decades of its existence, up until 1880.

The second part discusses the construction and improvement of Shanghai's French Concession, pointing out how once again it was used as an attempt to expand French economic and commercial interests through enhancing French prestige, which led to the French launching significant urban renovation efforts and infrastructure development, and attempting to make it be as French looking as possible in character. Despite this development, the French Concession never became as important and economically dynamic as the International Concession, even if it was elegant and fashionable.

In the final chapter, the end of the French Concession of Shanghai is relayed, showing how the Japanese advance during the Second World War in China, and then the collapse of France in 1940 led to a French isolation, and ultimately the French giving up their territory in 1943 out of an interest in preserving their more important colonial possessions in Indochina. The French Concession in the meanwhile had served an important role as a place of shelter for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese refugeese who fled to its neutral territory,

La France en Chine makes for a refreshing and interesting, direct, clear, and cogent look into what the mechanisms of French influence were in China. By taking the key areas of French influence, missionaries, schools, education, soldiers, and concessions as the point of departure, it is able to give a much more direct look into how French influence functioned, rather than relying upon abstractions or generalities. This is backed up by an array of good illustrations and pictures, which accompany every chapter, and it has a good overall introduction to provide for context and to tie them together.

The best part of the book's analysis is its focus on education and schools. This is shown in multiple ways: French schools in China are one, particularly the Université aurore, which shows the significant influence and quality of education by the list of important and influential Chinese graduates. The outflux of Chinese students abroad in France in the 1920s another, and again both the actual process and the effects is very well integrated.. As is common with most French history books there is an impressive amount of quantitative statistics, and an excellent look into the nature, mechanisms, reasons, and results of the various French policies in China. Shanghai's school is a great case in point, showing the battle for influence waged between France and Germany, with the French taking it over after WW1, and how it fit into French objectives of promoting their influence through creating a French-trained and French-speaking component of the Chinese elite - which also shows the limitations of this model, since this elite led to radical changes in China, but not necessarily the hoped for expansion of French influence.

The contrast of French and Anglo-Saxon approaches to the extension of their influence in China is an excellent feature. While the French promoted their culture and language, with the hope of spreading their commerce thanks to this, the English simply traded - and their language and culture followed in tow. Thus, what a distinction between the elegant and calm French concession in Shanghai, and the hectic Anglo-Saxon side! Different mentalities, ideologies, and niches of overseas expansion and commerce are shown in relief.

But the book inherently has some elements which it does not mention, but seem like they would have been an excellent inclusion in the book: what about French intelligence in China, the cooperation with the Japanese, French loans, the nature of the French sphere of influence in Yunnan and Guangdong, French officers and military assistance to the Chinese military, etc.? The book, despite its section on missionaries in the Tibetan marches, is slanted to the Yangtze and Shanghai and is not nearly as much interested in the rest of the country. And what about the purely cultural and ideal side of the relationship, the influence of French thought and culture in China and the stereotypes, perceptions, and images that the Chinese held of the French and the French of the Chinese? There is always more to add, and the book shrinks at times from a more intense and deep investigation of the Franco-Chinese relationship.

What it does bring to the table is enough to make it a stimulating read, which gives a better understanding of just what informal empire and colonial influence looked like, and which is valuable for understanding the nature of Franco-Chinese relations during the century between the opening of China and the rejection of the foreigners. Not the most ambitious and daring of books, but well organized, structured, and an excellent companion to any researcher on China's century of humiliation and France's informal empire.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas

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