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The Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs and the Negotiation of International Law, 1842-1911

Chinese Custom Houses and Sino-Western Encounter in the Unequal Treaty Era (1854-1949)

Outline, including interdisciplinary dimension

The Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service developed in the context of the Opium Wars as China came under increasing Western pressure to standardise its tariff collection system. Once China opened up to foreign trade in the nineteenth century, a network of customs houses developed across China. The customs houses were important sites of Sino-Western encounter, operating on multiple levels. Western and Chinese staff worked alongside each other; the customs service was part of the Chinese government but the senior staff were overwhelmingly Western; within the walls of the customs houses, captains and traders were paying taxes to China via a bureaucracy dominated by Western traditions and practices. Despite their importance, the proliferation of the customs houses has never been systematically studied.

The primary output of this research will be an interdisciplinary PhD dissertation to explore the nature of Sino-Western encounter in the customs houses. The student will be supported by interdisciplinary, international supervision including history (Queen's), anthropology (Queen's) and Historical GIS (IrAsia, Aix-Marseille University).

The research will be informed by the collation of a database on Chinese customs houses, comprising quantitative, textual and visual data; a secondary output of the research will be to make the database public. The database will be prepared with intersectoral, interdisciplinary guidance, as the student will work with specialist advisors from digital humanities (Queen's) and the museum sector (Ulster Museum) to ensure the database has value to both scholars and the wider public.

Leading the Customs during this period of rapid expansion was Sir Robert Hart, Inspector-General from 1863 to 1908. Hart dominated the Customs and influenced Chinese society and administration far beyond it, and his life and significance are now being explored by the Sir Robert Project at Queen's. The student will also be expected to prepare papers for publication and other academic outputs to contribute to the Sir Robert Hart Project events. The PhD research will also contribute to the Sir Robert Hart project programme of public communication through websites, exhibitions and social media.

This PhD research will rely primarily on textual sources and visual materials held at Queen's and elsewhere. The Sir Robert Hart project will also be holding an open call for the many Northern Irish families whose ancestors worked in the Chinese Customs Service to share their personal records, and we hope that this PhD may be able to draw on those resources.

Key words/descriptors

china, sino-western, customs, custom houses, globalization, taxation, architecture, digital humanities, photography, online exhibition

First supervisor

Dr Emma Reisz - School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics

Second and third supervisors from a complementary discipline

Dr Maruska Svasek

Dr Aglaia De Angeli

Supervisors’ track record of PhD completions, plus excellence and international standing in the project area

Reisz and De Angeli are jointly leading the Sir Robert Hart Project at Queen's, co-funded by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Funding has also come from the British Academy, JISC and other sources.
Reisz has 1 PhD completion and 1 in progress (both as first supervisor).
Svasek is a leading scholar of transnationalism, movement and cultural production. Svasek has multiple completed PhDs.

Intersectoral exposure and/or international mobility

(e.g. secondments to/collaboration with partner organizations)

3 months: Virtual Shanghai project, IrAsia, Aix-Marseille (PI, Prof. Christian Henriot);
1 month: Ulster Museum (William Blair);
1 month: University of Shanghai;
1 month: China Customs Museum (Beijing)

Describe briefly the international profile of the partner

Virtual Shanghai ( is the leading online source for information about historical Shanghai, and is a pioneer in Digital Humanities. Christian Henriot is a world-leading scholar of Chinese history, with particular expertise in European architecture in Shanghai.

The Ulster Museum has a world-class record in creating historical exhibitions with major impact and popular appeal, led by William Blair (e.g. Art of the Troubles, new Modern History exhibition).
Queen's has an established and developing link with Shanghai University, one of the leading centres in China for historical research.
The Sir Robert Hart Project at Queen's has a partnership with the China Customs Museum in Beijing, China’s national museum of the Chinese customs service.

Training that will be provided through the research project itself

Expertise in nineteenth century Sino-Western relations;
Proficiency in using a range of primary sources, including textual (reports, archival documents, newspapers) and visual (photographs, drawings, lithographs);
Expertise in historical writing; expertise in data collection, management and analysis.

Examples of additional training in non-research transferable skills

Digital humanities skills and entrepreneurship (e.g. developing an online exhibition), including technical skills (use of Omeka, Neatline);
Heritage database and content management skills, including technical skills (ContentDM, SQL etc.);

Museums/heritage and communication skills (communicating ideas to a wide audience, displaying material in a museum or physical space, displaying material online or in a virtual space, using social media);
Teamwork skills (working as part of a diverse project, working with those with complementary skills);

International working, including both European and Chinese partners.

Expected dissemination of results: peer-reviewed journals, seminars, workshop and conferences at European/international level

(e.g. public talks, visits to schools, open days, QUB impact showcase)

Creation of an online public database of customs houses in China; participation in an international conference in Belfast on space and place in Sino-Western encounter with an emphasis on the Late Qing period (2019);

Participation in the Sir Robert Hart Project programme of seminars and colloquia, including ongoing research into space and photography;

Working papers (e.g. Sir Robert Hart Project WP series, Bristol Chinese Customs WP series);

Support to publish at least one journal article.

Expected impact activities

(e.g. public talks, visits to schools, open days, QUB impact showcase)

Online exhibition exploring the Chinese Customs houses and those who worked in them, Western and Chinese;

Linked up to the Queen's-Belfast Chinese Customs Staff Database;

Online mini-exhibition on the Shanghai Customs House to connect with the Virtual Shanghai website; public activities encouraging the public to share their family mementoes and memories of life in and around the pre-1949 Customs;

Participation in the QUB impact showcase and other Queen's events.