US-China Relations in Three Keys: Grand Diplomacy, Trade, and Person-to-Person Interactions

AHA Session 190
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Governor's Square 14 (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Concourse Level)
Thomas H. Cox, Sam Houston State University
Thomas H. Cox, Sam Houston State University

Session Abstract

This panel offers varied perspectives on multiple scales and moments in nineteenth-century U.S.-China relations. Instead of considering this relationship from the familiar perspective of bilateral trade or diplomacy, we are attentive to a more diverse set of encounters. Juxtaposing global, regional, and interpersonal scales of historical connection, the papers in this panel reveal new, consequential contours in nineteenth-century U.S.-China.

The panel’s first paper, by Laurie Dickmeyer, examines person-to-person diplomacy in the less-studied treaty ports of Xiamen, Fuzhou, and Ningbo during the ten years following the U.S.-China Treaty of Wanghia (1844), and reveals the decisive roles played by these local port-specific actors and their cumulative impact regionally along the China coast. Dael Norwood steps back to analyze a different critical moment in U.S.-China diplomacy: Anson Burlingame's 1868 mission.  Situating the mission in the post-bellum “reconstruction” politics of both China and the U.S., his paper argues that the geopolitics of the radical Republican Party and the Qing restoration movement motivated the mutual alignment of Chinese and American international goals – a concurrence that helped limit the mission’s long-term effectiveness.  Matthew T. Combs probes the years around 1868 using varied perspectives, first examining interactions between foreign merchants and Qing officials on the island of Taiwan, and then considering their effects on the global camphor market. The violent skirmishes and diplomatic squabbles of Taiwan, he argues, had an unintentionally large impact, helping to usher in the era of cheap celluloid plastics – and cinema.

This panel suggest that the late-nineteenth century period of U.S.-China relations requires more than just the lens of “the West” and China. Instead, its papers collectively demonstrate the need for multifarious geographical scales and actors.  While Americans negotiated an unequal treaty in their favor, local interactions in treaty ports produced both sincere cooperation and resistance among Americans and Chinese, ultimately revealing the fault lines of the Treaty of Wanghia and leading to new diplomatic efforts by Anson Burlingame.  The large-scale geopolitics of Burlingame’s mission require consideration of national, domestic contexts of the American and Chinese civil wars.  Shifting from the local to the global back to the local, the camphor trade reveals connections unknown to the nineteenth century participants, and heretofore unexplored by historians. Links among geographical scales presented here, from the geopolitical to the interpersonal, signal a historical richness in U.S.-China relations otherwise lost in either strictly large-scale accounts, as well as simple small stories.

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