China and UK

Weihaiwei under British Rule

China and UK

A review by former Guardian columnist John Gittings of a new book about Britain's colonial rule in China; it was first printed in SACU's China Eye magazine 2007.

Weihai book

In the diary of a distant relative of mine, a British naval officer who sailed on the China coast during 1929, I find the following entry. 'Oh, this lovely place, an oasis in a desert. Everything reminds me of Scotland… The small island supports about 100 Chinese… with many sampan fishermen who make extra earnings by taking us to and fro from our ships. The whole China squadron is now here and tomorrow a celebratory Regatta is to be held.'

He was writing about Liugong Island, the naval base that was the raison d'etre for the British concession at Weihaiwei, leased from China in 1898 as part of the international scramble for concessions, which included Hong Kong's New Territories.

The writer visited the temple of the Four Winds outside the walled city of Weihaiwei, which he found 'very disappointing' ('very like a farmhouse at home except for the Chinese tiling'). He spent most of his time organising games among the sailors -- and of course the Regatta was 'great fun': it even included a sampan race!

It was a typically British perspective on a community and a life-style which in retrospect seems perfectly amazing. What was the British navy doing taking over a base illegally occupied by Japan, and how long did Britain maintain this foothold in Shandong province on the east China coast? How did the local Chinese inhabitants -- apart from the sampan fishermen -- react to the occupation?

Weihaiwei, unlike Hong Kong, has been rarely written about and this new volume makes a significant contribution to our understanding. One important chapter deals with the Chinese mercenary army -- the Chinese Regiment -- set up by the British to serve as a military police force. Breaking a promise only to take recruits from locals (most of whom refused to enlist) the British authorities filled its ranks by recruiting young men fleeing famine and disaster elsewhere in Shandong and further away.

There is a revealing report from one of the company commanders, after the regiment had suppressed a local anti-British demonstration in March 1900. It showed 'the readiness of the men to stand by their own officers, even against their own people'

The book also casts interesting light on the use of some 50,000 Chinese peasants recruited in 1916-17, processed at Weihaiwei, and sent to the Western Front to dig trenches and perform other hard labour. While this was being done, Britain and its allies were secretly agreeing with Japan that it should take over Germany's privileges in Shandong province after the war.

As one would expect, this volume sometimes expresses itself in fairly stereotyped language when condemning British colonialism but this does not lessen its value as a serious historical record.

Another important chapter deals quite fairly with the spread of Western ideas and practices in health, education transport and sport as well as the more familiar topic of religion. It makes the interesting observation that missionary activities did not receive much protection from the British authorities who preferred to maintain stability by 'conserv(ing) the old systems and traditional customs.' This was partly due to Reginald Johnston -- famous later as tutor to the boy emperor Pu Yi --who was first sent to Weihaiwei in 1904 and became its last commission in 1927, attending the Rendition Ceremony in 1930.

Weihaiwei under British Rule relies to a large extent on original materials, which are not easily accessible, is written very readably, and contains a great number of vivid photographs. The original authors, Zhang Jianguo and Zhang Junyong, the translator Alec Hill, the Weihai Municipal Archives Bureau and the Cheltenham Weihai Link -- with the help of researchers and many others in Britain and China -- should all be congratulated on their efforts.

John Gittings

Written by Zhang Jian Guo and Zhang Jun Yong 2006 English version, 323 pages. Translated by Alec Hill and Ma Xiang Hong Shandong Pictorial Publishing House, Jinan City, China.

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© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2007 reprinted from SACU's China Eye magazine Issue 16, 2007

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