ABSTRACT

Like other Asian states such as Japan, Siam and Burma, China’s political and economic sovereignty came under immense external pressure between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries as the land and sea empires of Europe competed for control of territories they considered suitable for settler, mercantile and plantation colonies. Yet in some respects, the attempt to subordinate China was different, given its own past as an Asian hegemon. Historically, China had been a formidable regional power, able to extend its control over the trade and transfer networks of Eastern Eurasia, the West Pacific Ocean and the East Indian Ocean, via both mercantile and tribute trade. 1 Unburdened by the fictive, formal equality that cloaked the machinations of the European state system, China’s hegemony under the Ming and Qing dynasties had been the structuring political and economic fact undergirding state relations in the region. 2 While the precise extent of this power waxed and waned, and was often contested by other regional powers such as Japan and Korea, 3 Europe’s eventual subordination of the empire at the heart of the “Sinocentric world economy” during the nineteenth century was both unexpected and unprecedented. 4