Robert Bickers’s Out of China is a book that demonstrates how the interpretation of imperialism during the twentieth century shaped China, and ideas of China. It is, of course, therefore an important topic to understand not only China’s history, but also modern-day Chinese nationalism. This is of no small significance given China’s rise as a superpower, as Bickers poignantly directs us with his first sentence: „Nationalism matters in China, and what matters in China matters to us all.“ (p. XXXI) The author sets out his argument in the introduction, drawing on the power of myth and constructed narratives in the making of history. Both China and foreign nations relied on certain assumptions to remember the past. He begins with the example of the „No dogs and Chinese“ sign, which many Chinese claimed was erected at the entrance to a public park in Shanghai during the early twentieth century. Various race restrictions (both formally regulated and informally imposed) certainly applied in Shanghai during the time, and the sign has been remembered in China as a clear depiction of the indignities suffered by the Chinese people at the hands of foreign imperialists in their own country. On the other hand, many Britons who lived in China during the twentieth century argued that these sentiments of racial discrimination did not exist, at least not on their part, and that the supposed sign was imagined by Chinese nationalists who wished to encourage anti-foreign sentiment. Bickers notes that there appears to be no evidence that the words „No dogs and Chinese“ were ever inscribed on a park sign, but the furor over such a sign and what is signifies, is the object of his attention. The author shows how the power of certain stories, images or narratives (notwithstanding their veracity or perhaps lack thereof) have shaped varying Chinese and foreign viewpoints about China.
In Out of China, Bickers picks up chronologically from where his 2011 Scramble for China ended, with the First World War. Chapter one, „Armistice“, sets the scene with the end of hostilities and the foreign presence in China. Bickers covers a lot of necessary ground and ends by highlighting the Chinese expectations and disappointments in their quest for sovereignty over foreign concessions. This leads into the next chapter, „Making Revolution“, which takes up the theme of violence, protest and revolutionary zeal. Bickers explores the political changes taking place in China, the hopes and aspirations of various Chinese figures on the prospect of revolutionary change and what it signified on the one hand, and the equal sense of foreboding that many Westerners felt in China on the other during the turbulent period of the 1920s. The third chapter, „Good Earth“, then explores the ideas about the countryside and the Chinese Communist Party’s focus on China’s rural hinterland. Here, narratives and myths abounded. For example, many Westerners saw the Chinese countryside as a place of poverty and famine, and missionaries turned to the rural areas trying to „save“ the mass of Chinese souls there. The Chinese communists likewise understood the countryside as a place that not only represented the past, but one which was ripe for the first fruits of their revolution. The hinterland was therefore both simultaneously a place of disappointment or lament and one of opportunity for various Chinese and westerners alike.
The next three chapters broadly look at ideas of modernity and Sino-British relations during wartime. Chapter four, „Talking it Over“, examines the diplomatic attempts of the Guomindang to rid China of imperialism. Extraterritorial rights were at the heart of the foreign presence and it represented different things to a growing number of the Chinese populace and political elites (who yearned for the revocation of foreign rights), and many in the foreign communities who were unwilling to let go of their privileges. This lays the groundwork for the next chapter, „China in the Mind“, which demonstrates how Western views of China shifted from contempt and distrust to greater sympathy with the onset of the conflict with Japan. Chinese thinkers had also started to consider what it meant to be Chinese in light of ideas of „modernity“, which would help overthrow foreign control in China. In chapters 6 and 7 („Monkeys riding Greyhounds“ and „Allies of a Kind“), Bickers examines wartime attitudes, Sino-British relations and ideas of urban modernity, taking particular examples from the ideas circulating in the Shanghai International Settlement. He also shows how the Second World War and its aftermath shaped Sino-British relations with reference to British attitudes towards China as a wartime ally, and China’s disappointment over Britain’s retention of Hong Kong.
The following three chapters, „Foreign Experts“, „Light of Asia“, and „Monsters and Demons“ examine the era of Communist rule. Bickers demonstrates the continuing importance of the presence of foreigners and Sino-foreign relations in the rhetorical understanding of the „new China“. Chapter 8 explores the transition from Guomindang to CCP rule. From spies to lessons about foreign imperialism fuelling anti-imperialism to the continued need for foreign advisers and support, China’s relations with foreign nations were an important part of the ideological rhetoric of the era. The idea of China learning from the West, as Bickers shows, was also a persistent and familiar Western view of China’s path to modernity. China’s relations with other countries was shaped by the continued rhetoric of anti-imperialism. The author traces the ideological shift in Third world internationalism (which peaked in 1964 then fragmented), and China’s border disputes with India and the USSR, which had their roots in border settlements from the imperialist era.
The last two chapters bring us closer to the present day. Chapter 11, „Unfinished Business“, begins with a story about the famous „ping pong diplomacy“. Bickers touches upon Sino-Japanese relations, war apologies and the narratives of history still shaping establishing Sino-foreign relations in the 1970s, while also throwing a glance at Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao. Chapter 12, „Haunted by History“, is a very short part focusing on the retrocession of Hong Kong, Red tourism, colonial legacy and remembrance. In some ways, given the recent issues in Hong Kong, it is a shame this chapter is so light.
This book provides a much-needed account of how Chinese nationalism was formulated in connection to foreign imperialism, and the ways in which Westerners have variously understood China. Bickers gives equal treatment to the various myths and narratives that were used by both Chinese and foreigners in China. It is an accessible, engaging and well-written book, which guides the reader through the key moments and the various constructed narratives of China during the twentieth century from the First World War and ends with a reflection with the present day. It is filled with interesting stories, and Bickers draws out many colourful characters in his narrative. He is heavily reliant on Western sources, but this does not diminish his argument. It is a tall order to cover most of the twentieth century, but Bickers does it well for its audience of both specialists and lay readers. Today, given China’s rise as a superpower, it is certainly important, and of interest, to know more about what has powered China’s trajectory. The historical narrative, now so tightly bound to Chinese nationalism, is a key part of this. Readers are given a very good sense of what this means in the context of the recent history of China and for the present day.