Chinese Maritime Customs project


Building on earlier collaborations with historians at Cambridge University and the Second Historical Archives of China, this 2003-07 AHRC-funded project was designed to further understandings of the modern Chinese state, British imperial history, and the history of modern globalization in China, by focusing on the role the Chinese Maritime Customs Service and its staff played in these historical processes. The first step was to produce a new catalogue of the 55,000 files that make up the archives of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service held at the Second Historical Archives at Nanjing. In collaboration with Thomson Gale, 350 reels of microfilms of archival materials from the archive relating to the history of the Customs Service were also published. Project work also encompassed the creation of new reference datasets (notably a database of foreign and Chinese service-listed personnel), a guide to the history and structure of the Customs, and work on visual sources for Customs history, including an autumn 2007 exhibition at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, and other locations.  Research students and research fellows associated with the project researched the life of foreigners employed by the Customs Service, patterns of consumption and its effects on the Chinese state, the Native Customs service, the Service under Inspector General L.K. Little etc.

The Chinese Maritime Customs Service (until 1912: the Imperial Maritime Customs Service)

The Chinese Maritime Customs Service was an international, although predominantly British-staffed bureaucracy (at senior levels) under the control of successive Chinese central governments from its founding in 1854, until 1950 when the last foreign Inspector-General resigned. The present-day Customs General Administration of the People's Republic of China (PRC), and the Republic of China (ROC) Directorate General of Customs on Taiwan both incorporate the CMCS into their histories. The CMCS was the only bureaucratic organ that continued to operate as an integrated institution in China throughout the period 1842-1950. Established to collect taxes on maritime trade when Chinese officials were unable to collect them during the Taiping Rebellion, its functions quickly expanded. It became responsible for domestic customs administration (the Native Customs), postal administration, harbour and waterway management, weather reporting, and anti- smuggling operations. It mapped, lit, and policed the China coast and the Yangzi river. It was involved in loan negotiations, currency reform, and financial and economic management. It was always much more than just a tax collection agency, was well informed about local conditions, deeply involved in local, provincial, and national politics, and in international affairs. Service publications included not only monthly, quarterly, and annual Returns of Trade, but also a regular series of Aids to Navigation and less regular reports on meteorological conditions and medical phenomena, and much else besides. The Service further involved itself in China's diplomacy, organised its representation at nearly thirty world fairs and exhibitions, and ran various educational establishments.

Funding for earlier stages of this work came from the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange, the 1999 Higher Education Funding Council Chinese studies initiative, through the East Asian Institute at the University of Cambridge, the Universities’ China Committee, and the University of Bristol.