Short Teaching Module: Colonialism and Local Power

Steven Pieragastini
Front page of a newspaper in Chinese


Colonialism and imperialism can take many forms, but more often than not these do not entail direct and strict control from a distant imperial metropole. As a matter of necessity, empires must work with local agents, and perhaps counterintuitively, empires can create uncertainty over territory and legal jurisdiction that offer opportunities for individuals and social groups that might not have them otherwise. We can see these dynamics at play in the treaty ports, leased territories, and concessions of Western imperial powers (and later Japan) throughout East Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The primary sources referenced in this module can be viewed in the Primary Sources folder below. Click on the image or texts for more information about the source.
This short teaching module includes guidance on introducing and discussing the three primary sources.


We often assume that colonialism or imperialism would mean the total control of one group/nation/society over another, but we should distinguish between settler colonialism, where the native population is displaced, forcibly assimilated, or eliminated, from more common forms of control where outside powers seek accommodations with and rely on local elites. It is also worth differentiating pre-modern empires from early modern colonial empires, which spanned the globe and coincided with the development of global capitalism (buttressed by the transatlantic slave trade and cash crop plantation agriculture), as well as the mad dash for empires in the nineteenth century, which combined industrialized technologies of transportation, communication, medicine, and warfare with a missionary zeal to “civilize” colonial subjects and a noxious ideology of white supremacy. Additionally, historians use various terms such as informal empire, spheres of influence, and semi-colonialism to refer to diplomatic and jurisdictional measures (such as treaty ports, leased territories, and concessions) that allowed foreign powers to gain significant economic benefits without direct, or at least with minimal, political and military control. In any case, perhaps counterintuitively, colonialism/imperialism often created grey zones of sovereignty and jurisdiction, and thus provided opportunities for “entrepreneurs” of various stripes. Even at the high point of global imperialism in the late nineteenth century, a close examination of colonial contexts reveals the importance of non-state actors and international networks.

A clear set of examples of these phenomena come from the treaty ports, leased territories, and concessions of Western imperial powers (and later Japan) throughout East Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the outset, it is important to counteract the view of contemporary Westerners, which informed later historiography and popular perceptions, that Asian polities were “closed” and had no notion of international relations until they were forced open by outsiders. Simultaneously, while there is certainly more than a kernel of truth in the phrase “gunboat diplomacy,” local powers did not simply surrender and hand over all authority to outside powers, but instead drew on established practices of trying to manage interactions with groups on their frontiers (including pluralistic legal systems).

Unlike colonial possessions, which might be the site of “civilizing mission” experiments in education, public health, architecture, and so on, imperial powers were not committed to intensively administering semi-colonial territories such as concessions and treaty ports. Since local powers de facto no longer had jurisdiction over the territories in question either, local elites and foreigners (mostly businessmen but also missionaries, diplomatic officials, soldiers, refugees, drifters, and others) were left to build a system of laws and administration that could apply to the multinational populations within. In the treaty ports of China and Japan, foreigners were generally subject to the laws of their home country rather than Chinese or Japanese law, resulting in numerous incidents of unpunished malfeasance. These territories also had to develop creative adaptations to handle legal disputes, such as extraterritorial courts and the “Mixed Court” of Shanghai’s International Settlement (see Pär Cassel, Grounds of Judgment: Extraterritoriality and Imperial Power in Nineteenth-Century China and Japan). Matters could be complicated further when multinational organizations, such as missionary orders or corporations, were involved in legal matters, or when non-governmental actors enlisted diplomats and government officials in their various legal cases.
Needless to say, such complexities offered ample opportunities for those seeking to evade a particular legal regime. Treaty ports and concessions could serve as a sanctuary for political dissidents, for example, or provide a neat means of avoiding tariffs. In the latter case, although Qing China had established a maritime customs service (mostly staffed by foreigners at the higher levels), its work was extremely difficult, as traders could travel with an array of national flags to suit any situation they might encounter, and “petty traffickers,” who carried goods on their selves, could easily disguise themselves as travelers. The opium trade, gambling, and prostitution overlapped with smuggling and other illicit activities, greatly enriching those most effective at leveraging legal grey zones (see Philip Thai, China’s War on Smuggling: Law, Economic Life, and the Making of the Modern State, 1842-1965). For instance, in treaty-port Shanghai, the most powerful person in the city was not a foreigner but a low-born, illiterate gangster named Du Yuesheng (杜月笙) whose eventual prominence made him the chosen intermediary for the authorities of the Shanghai French Concession with the Chinese population of the concession, who greatly outnumbered the French themselves and other foreigners. In many respects, Du was in charge of the French Concession.

Similarly, in an utterly misguided attempt to build a rival to British Hong Kong, at the end of the nineteenth century the French had leased a portion of the Leizhou Peninsula from the Qing known as the Guangzhouwan Leased Territory. Although it was administered from Hanoi as part of French Indochina, the leased territory attracted very little interest in Hanoi, let alone in Paris, and the French handed over the management of day-to-day affairs of the leased territory to a network of businessmen-smuggler-gangsters with ties to Hong Kong and Macao, led by Chen Xuetan (陳學談, known by the Cantonese pronunciation of his name Tsang Hoc-Tam), who controlled the police, the chamber of commerce, the houses of gambling and prostitution, the opium trade, most of the real estate, and much more. In several instances, the French administrators of the leased territory had to ask Chen’s permission before taking a certain course of action rather than the other way around. This arrangement was maintained when the Japanese occupied the leased territory during World War II, and when it was returned to Chinese sovereignty after World War II, and only ended when the Communists captured the region in late 1949 and subjected it to repeated and intense mass campaigns against smuggling, prostitution, and gambling. Thus, we can see the local variations of global empires (even between nearby Hanoi and Guangzhouwan) and their often-shallow imprint on local society. The foreign concessions of China were primarily a space for Chinese residents to operate in and take advantage of; aside from architecture and urban planning, there is not much of a direct colonial legacy in these spaces.

Modern governments, in this context postcolonial governments, tend to like tidy national histories defined by heroic struggles for liberation from foreign imperialism, but reality was much more complicated than that. Shared interests and common purpose could override cultural, religious, or national divisions; in places like Shanghai, a multinational group of elites acted in concert to protect their shared interests, even when their countries were at war with each other, as during the Taiping Rebellion. The exigencies of the moment could transform the maddeningly complex issues of sovereignty and jurisdiction into an advantage; at various points, the Chinese government relied on smugglers for certain essential goods at the same time that it was trying to suppress them for smuggling other goods. Examining colonial and semi-colonial contexts from the ground up demonstrates the importance of looking beyond the nation-state, which in the twentieth century became the default system of political organization globally, as well as looking beyond narratives that project the nation back into history (see Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China).

Primary Sources

Chamber of Commerce Newspaper from Guangzhouwan, China

Front page of a newspaper in Chinese
The image is of the front page of a newspaper (商業旬報 Shangye xunbao) published in 1934 by the Chamber of Commerce in Guangzhouwan (廣州灣商會 Guangzhouwan shanghui). Guangzhouwan was a territory on the Leizhou Peninsula in southern China that the French Republic leased from the Qing Dynasty at the end of the nineteenth century. Guangzhouwan fit into a broader scheme to expand French influence in southern China from their new acquisitions in Tonkin, though it never nearly lived up to its billing as a “French Hong Kong.” Questions for students might include: What does the language used in the document tell us about the composition of commercial interests in the leased territory? What does the newspaper tell us about the power relations between the French and the local population?

Chinese Troops during the Xinhai Revolution

Photograph of about 20 soldiers posing in front of a building
Image of Chinese troops dispatched by the Shanghai daotai of the collapsing Qing Dynasty to protect Xujiahui during the Xinhai Revolution. In contrast to earlier political crises during the treaty port era, French police or troops were not sent in to Chinese territory in November 1911, in part because the change of regime had been so rapid, but also because the French did not want to alienate the revolutionaries, who repeatedly claimed that they posed no threat to foreigners. Questions for students: Why would Chinese officials send troops, in the middle of a revolution, to defend the lives and interests of foreigners, who were primarily able to acquire those interests as a result of imperialist aggression? What do the clothing and weaponry of the troops show about foreign technological and cultural influences in China at that time?

Hangzhou elites in 1935

Photograph of five men standing
The image shows an eclectic group of elites in Hangzhou in 1935, including Shanghainese gangster-businessmen Du Yuesheng and Zhang Xiaolin, Peking Opera star Mei Lanfang, Mayor of Hangzhou Zhou Xiangxian, and Japanese Consul at Hangzhou Yuzo Matsumura. Mei, Du, and Zhang were visiting Hangzhou to gather and donate funds for flood and poverty relief in the region. Though based in Shanghai, Du and Zhang had networks extending throughout the Jiangnan region, including in Hangzhou, where Zhang got his start. Though not as well-known or industrialized as nearby Shanghai, Hangzhou was also partially under a regime of foreign concessions following the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, and Japanese interests were especially strong there. Questions for students include: Why would gangsters engage in philanthropy? What do these philanthropic efforts tell us about the power/weakness of the central government at this time? Why would Chinese politicians, actors, and gangsters work so openly with a representative of the government of Imperial Japan, which at this time was invading and occupying larger and larger sections of northern China?


Steven Pieragastini is a Lecturer in History at Whittier College. He received his PhD in History from Brandeis University in February 2017. His book manuscript based on his dissertation focuses on the history of the Catholic Church in modern China and its relationship with the Chinese State. He has also published on the history of universities in Shanghai and the intersection of imperial projects in China’s borderland regions.

How to Cite This Source

"Short Teaching Module: Colonialism and Local Power," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/short-teaching-module-colonialism-and-local-power [accessed December 7, 2021]