In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Unequal Treaties and the Treaty Ports

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • A Discursive History of the Unequal Treaties
  • Unequal Treaties and International Law
  • Treaty Ports in Context
  • Treaty Port Economy
  • Chinese Maritime Customs Service (CMCS)
  • Treaty Port Communities
  • The End of the Unequal Treaties
  • Legacy and Afterlife: Modernization, Imperialism, Nationalism, and Transnationalism

Chinese Studies The Unequal Treaties and the Treaty Ports
Dong Wang
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0148


The “unequal treaties” and the treaty ports are two intricately linked elements of modern China’s experience with the world from 1843 to 1943 and beyond. The legal framework of treaty ports was rooted and developed in a series of documents signed between China and foreign countries that are considered by the Chinese to be unfair treaties. Although the definition and exact number of the “unequal treaties” are subject to fierce debate, it is generally agreed that a total of at least fourteen countries concluded unequal treaties with China, and that there were forty-eight treaty ports under a binding international treaty, except for three self-opened ports—Sandu Ao (Santuao), Yueyang (Yochow), and Qinhuangdao (Chinwangtao)—that were voluntarily opened by a Qing imperial decree in 1898 under the same trade regulations as the treaty ports. Among the nineteen Chinese provinces, by the early 20th century only Shanxi, Shaanxi, Gansu, Henan, and Guizhou had no treaty ports. Not necessarily located on the coast or near navigable water, the treaty ports were the “ports of entry,” but also something more. In historiographical terms, the treaty ports have been variously characterized as sites of paramount importance, as centers of controversy, and as a significant dimension of the encounter between China and the world. During the first half of the 20th century, the foreign presence and establishment served as the “port of entry” to the study of modern China for two generations of Western scholars, epitomized by Hosea Ballou Morse and John King Fairbank. From the 1980s on, social, cultural, and bottom-up approaches took the China history field by storm, in tandem with the master narrative of nation-states and transnationalism through nation-states. In the Chinese-speaking world, scholarly interest in the history of treaty ports is no match, to say the least, for research into issues surrounding the unequal treaties. China’s recent rise, especially the prosperity of former treaty port areas since the late 1970s, has prompted reconsideration of whether the Western presence did indeed matter in modern China. There is still a considerable hiatus to be covered regarding the interplay between bilateral and transnational aspects of the treaties and the ports. This article intends to further the study of the many dimensions of the treaties and treaty ports phenomena as viewed from the development of the main historical paradigms of Anglophone and Chinese research and the major source collections in Chinese, English, and Japanese.

General Overviews

Among quality general studies of treaty ports, Coates 1988, written by a former British diplomat posted to China in the 1930s, and Wood 1998, written by the former head of the Chinese collection of the British Library, stand out for their empirical minutiae, clarity, and sanguine portrayals. They reveal character and paint the big picture “more clearly than the larger events on which history like to dwel” (Coates 1988). Together with Mayers, et al. 1867 and Morse 1966, Fairbank 1969 epitomizes the study of China’s international relations and treaty ports by at least two generations of Western scholars. In contrast, Bickers 1999 offers a comprehensive social and cultural approach, the dimension of which has been extensively expanded, as seen in Nield 2015 and Bickers and Jackson 2016. Wang 2013, with its own style, demonstrates the conceptual progression of scholarship on foreign and Chinese roles within the context of Sino-American history.

  • Bickers, Robert. Britain in China: Community, Culture and Colonialism, 1900–1949. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1999.

    Reflects the shift of scholarly emphasis from diplomatic history to a broader scope of society, colonial culture, and the settler community. Argues that the foreign actors and establishment (e.g., the treaty ports, international settlements, and concessions) are valuable topics for an understanding of the British imperial history and China’s tangled relations with the world.

  • Bickers, Robert, and Isabella Jackson, eds. Treaty Ports in Modern China: Law, Land, and Power. London: Routledge, 2016.

    A collective work to advance the study of the treaty ports. Comprises twelve chapters that explore the legal and land system, technological innovations, shipping infrastructure, migration, and other topics.

  • Coates, P. D. The China Consuls: British Consular Officers, 1843–1943. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1988.

    A fair account, with bountiful humor, of the British China consular officers during the century of the unequal treaties and treat ports. Makes plain that foreigners in China were not a monolithic body of imperialists. Divided into three parts, covering the first five ports, from the second peace settlement to the Boxers, and China’s collapse and resurgence. Contains a list of the British China Consular Service members and a chart of the forty-seven British consular establishments in China.

  • Fairbank, John King. Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842–1854. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969.

    First edition published by Harvard University Press in 1953. Focuses on the creation of the treaty system. A classic example of Fairbank’s impact-response interpretation of modern Chinese history, although Fairbank, in the 1969 edition, was candid that he would have looked at the treaty ports through the prism of social institutions if he were to write this book at the end of the 1960s. The author’s self-critical agenda for future generations of scholars proved surprisingly prescient, for it has been pursued to this day.

  • Mayers, William Frederick, N. B. Dennys, and Charles King. The Treaty Ports of China and Japan: A Complete Guide to the Open Ports of Those Countries, Together with Peking, Yedo, Hongkong and Macao. London: Trübner, 1867.

    A monumental first book on treaty ports and other important cities in China and Japan, chiefly compiled by then British consular officers. The appendix contains tables of different steam companies transporting people and goods to and from the Far East.

  • Morse, Hosea Ballou. The Trade and Administration of the Chinese Empire. Reprint ed. Taipei: Cheng-wen, 1966.

    Original printed in Shanghai by Kelly and Walsh in 1908. Provides a comprehensive introduction, in thirteen chapters, to China as of 1907 from a foreign (particularly British resident) vantage point. But it is a history “except in bits and pieces,” in Morse’s admirer John Fairbank’s words. Chapter 8 contains a rich and solid profile of the forty treaty ports in the nineteen provinces. Morse had firsthand experience working in several treaty ports of China.

  • Nield, Robert. China’s Foreign Places: The Foreign Presence in China in the Treaty Port Era, 1840–1943. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2015.

    Indicates something of the continued feelings for the bygone world of treaty ports among former treaty port inhabitants. Covers a wide range of ground involving foreign places in modern China.

  • Wang, Dong. The United States and China: A History from the Eighteenth Century to the Present. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.

    More than a history of Sino-American relations. Connects different frameworks for interpretation of China’s past through thematic foci on the state behavior of the Qing, Beijing, and Nanjing governments in foreign affairs; the role of external forces in China’s nation-building and integration into the world system and community; and the relationship between nationalism and globalization—and between national and international histories.

  • Wood, Frances. No Dogs and Not Many Chinese: Treaty Port Life in China, 1843–1943. London: John Murray, 1998.

    A well-written, comprehensive book. Very skilled in presenting a balanced and honest view of the treaty ports that have bound together human lives.

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