Professor Robert Bickers

B.A. (Hons), Ph.D.(Lond.)

  • BS8 1TB

1992 …2020

Research output per year

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Personal profile

Research interests

Specialises in the history of colonialism, and in particular of the British empire and its relations with China and the history of Shanghai (1843-1950s), and modern Chinese history. I have recently published China Bound: John Swire & Sons and its World, a history of the British company John Swire & Sons in the context of, and as a case study in, nineteenth and century globalization as experienced by and shaped by some of the actors involved. My previous book, Out of China: How the Chinese ended the era of Western Domination (Allen Lane, and Harvard University Press, 2017), was shortlisted for the 2018 Wolfson Prize for History. This is available as a Penguin Books paperback in the UK. I am interested, too, in experimenting with how we tell such histories, and in thinking about what stories we tell, and have been collaborating with colleagues in a 'Creative Histories' initiative. For more on which see our new article in History Workshop Journal.

My earlier work includes Britain in China (1999), and three books published by Allen Lane/Penguin: Empire Made Me: An Englishman adrift in Shanghai (2003), The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 (2011) and Getting Stuck in for Shanghai: Putting the Kibosh on the Kaiser from the Bund (Penguin, 2014). My interest in the world of British colonialism more broadly underpins a volume in the Oxford History of the British Empire companion series that I edited on British communities across the worlds of formal and informal empire. I am also interested in cemeteries and photographs (and the lives they live), clipper ships, lighthouses and meteorology in China, giants and circuses. Other recent books include a volume co-edited with Jonathan J. Howlett, University of York: Britain and China, 1840-1970: Empire, Finance, and War, and with Isabella Jackson, Trinity College Dublin: Treaty Ports in Modern China: Law, Land & Power.

I direct the Hong Kong Kong History Project, and the Historical Photographs of China digitisation initiative. I also formely ran an AHRC-funded project on the history of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, was  Director and Co-Director of the British Inter-university China Centre, a Co-Director of the AHRC-funded REACT Knowledge Exchange Hub, and led an ESRC-funded project, 'Colonialism in comparative perspective: Tianjin under nine flags' (2008-11).

Blog: Twitter: @bickers Facebook: /scrambleforchina

Teaching and supervision

I welcome proposals in any area of modern Chinese and East Asian history, in most areas of colonial history, but particularly in the history of Sino-Western relations, the Chinese Maritime Customs service, and the treaty port world: foreign society, politics or culture in China, its rise and its fall and its legacies. I would like to see projects that aim to make use of the visual archives held in Historical Photographs of China, and I would also be interested in creative approaches to history more broadly.

Do please contact me informally by email in the first instance. Let me have an outline of what you want to do, and why it needs to be done, a cv, and an indication of why you want to undertake postgraduate work, and how you would intend to fund it. The best formal application is one that has been discussed and developed beforehand, and will include a reasonably detailed proposal (say 3-4 pages outlining the key research question, state of the field, sources, and potential structure). All projects evolve as we work on them, of course: it would not be research otherwise.

I am interested in supervising across a range of areas related to my research both in terms of region, theme, and method. Amongst PhD students supervised in the past are those now holding posts at: ExeterYorkHong Kong Baptist, Nanyang Technnological, Shanghai Jiaotong, Macau and Wuhan universities, as well as the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and Trinity College Dublin. Recent students include:

  • Dr Jon Chappell, 'Foreign Intervention In China: Empires And International Law In The Taiping Civil War, 1853-64'
  • Dr Sabrina Fairchild, 'Fuzhou And Global Empires: Understanding The Treaty Ports Of Modern China, 1850-1937’
  • Dr Andrew Hillier, ‘Three Brothers in China: a Study of Family and Empire’
  • Dr Gao Yuqun, 'Missionary Cases and Chinese society, 1844-1898'
  • Dr Alex Thompson, 'The British state at the margins of empire: extraterritoriality and governance in treaty port China, 1842-192
  • Dr Sara Shipway, 'Britain's Trade Relations with Germany in China during the First World War
  • Robert Nield, ‘More of a myth than a reality: The British treaty ports of Wenzhou and Jiangmen’, MPhil
  • Dr Vivian Kong, 'Multiracial Britons: Britishness, Diasporas, and Cosmopolitanism in Interwar Hong Long'
  • Dr Catherine Chan, 'Empire Drifters: The Macanese in British Hong Kong, 1841-1941'
  • Dr Philip Burnett, ‘Music and mission: a case study of the Anglican-Xhosa missions of the Eastern Cape, 1855-1880’
  • Dr Katon Kai Chun Lee · 'Suit Up: Western Fashion, Chinese Society And Cosmopolitanism In Colonial Hong Kong, 1910-1980

My current students include:

  • Sarah Pearson, 'John Shore, Lord Teignmouth, and the transition to British rule in India, 1768-1834'
  • Chris Wemyss, 'One World City, Two Administrations: The Impact of Britain and China on the Development of Identity in Modern Hong Kong, 1980-2014'
  • Gemma O’Neill · ‘Exploring the development of a Hong Kong political identity between 1945 and 1979’
  • Thomas Larkin · ‘Anglo-American relations in Nineteenth Century Hong Kong’
  • Xiao Liu, ‘The development of meteorology during the period of the Republic of China (1912-1949) based on the relationship between meteorology and politics’
  • Jiayi Tao, ‘UNRRA in China, 1944-47’
  • Alex Monro, ‘The formation of Chinese Communists in France in the 1920s’
  • Wai Li Chu · ‘The Cold War and Sino-British negotiations over Hong Kong’s future, 1979-1984’
  • Ignatius Rao
  • Sijie Ren
  • Le Tian

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  • Research Output

    The Scramble for China: Foreign devils in the Qing empire, 1832-1914

    Bickers, RA., 2011, Allen Lane. 496 p.

    Research output: Book/ReportAuthored book

    Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai

    Bickers, RA., 2003, Columbia University. 410 p.

    Research output: Book/ReportAuthored book

    Britain in China: community, culture and colonialism, 1900-1949

    Bickers, RA., 1999, xii ed. Manchester University Press. 276 p.

    Research output: Book/ReportAuthored book


    Morris D. Forkosch Prize of the American Historical Association

    Bickers, Robert (Recipient), 2004

    Prize: Prizes, Medals, Awards and Grants

  • Activities

    Building shared futures from photographic remains: Kenyan visual heritage and urban life

    Neil C M Carrier (Organiser), Robert Bickers (Contributor), Elizabeth Haines (Contributor) & Ephraim Wahome (Contributor)

    1 Jan 201931 Jul 2019

    Activity: Other activity typesCollaboration

    ‘“All Roads Lead to Hong Kong: Paths of Becoming a Hong Kong Historian” Roundtable discussion and Exhibition Launch of “Hong Kong Through the Lens” Exhibition

    Vivian Kong (Organiser), Chris Wemyss (Organiser), Robert Bickers (Organiser), John Carroll (Organiser), Nathan Kwan (Organiser) & Joyce Lau (Organiser)

    5 Jun 2019

    Activity: Talk or presentation typesCommunity engagement, including convening focus/advisory groups

    'All Roads Lead to Hong Kong': People, City, Empires

    Vivian Kong (Organiser), Chris Wemyss (Organiser), Robert Bickers (Organiser), John Carroll (Organiser), Nathan Kwan (Organiser) & Joyce Lau (Organiser)

    6 Jun 20197 Jun 2019

    Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in conference

    Supervised Work

    Changing British attitudes to China and the Chinese, 1928-1931

    Author: Bickers, R. A., 1 Dec 1992

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)