Hopes Unrealised
: The minor British treaty ports of Wenzhou and Jiangmen

  • Robert Nield

Student thesis: Master's ThesisMaster of Philosophy (MPhil)


This dissertation is a study of colonial port cities in the context of China’s former treaty ports. It addresses the question why so many British-sponsored treaty ports in China failed as centres of British commercial activity. My research focuses on two case studies: Wenzhou, opened in 1877 as one of the first treaty ports that was not the result of force majeure; and Jiangmen, the last to be opened in China proper, twenty-seven years later. Very little scholarly attention has been paid to these two, or indeed to any of the lesser treaty ports. My work is a step towards redressing that deficiency, and argues that the study of smaller, unsuccessful treaty ports changes our understanding of colonial expansion and interaction with indigenous systems in ways that concentration on the larger ports does not.

My research develops four central arguments: that mercantile considerations regarding the opening of treaty ports could be misplaced or over-ridden; that practical difficulties could frustrate potentially profitable endeavour; that treaty-port status benefited Chinese interests, in some instances more than foreign ones; and that the treaty ports were not homogeneous. Challenging the claims made by many historians, my key findings are: that even smaller ports were capable of frustrating colonial and imperial aims; that not all commercial and infrastructural change in colonial port cities was attributable to the colonisers; and that superior Western technology could be adapted by local interests in pursuit of their own ambitions.

Using archival sources and other contemporary records, this thesis demonstrates that the study of small and unsuccessful ports, an area hitherto neglected by scholars, augments literature that is too often concerned only with large and successful ventures. My findings challenge the conclusions drawn from such studies, and demonstrate that general theories do not always apply to specific cases.
Date of Award23 Jan 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorRobert Bickers (Supervisor) & Robert Julio Decker (Supervisor)

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