Too Scrambled

This is my review of The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 (Allen Lane History) by Robert Bickers.

"The scramble for China" must be culled from "the scramble for Africa" but seems less apt since the British, French and American officials were sent to nineteenth century China not to colonise a disparate group of kingdoms and tribal areas, but to infiltrate the coastal regions of a vast area under the centralised if sclerotic control of the Qing dynasty.

This book contains a good deal of social history which seems fairly unremarkable and so of limited interest. For instance, it seems only natural that British workers sent to China should send for familiar products from home. The author's tendency to switch backwards and forwards in time with frequent digressions makes for a confusing read.

I was most interested in the major historical events – the Opium Wars or Taiping Rebellion – for the issues they raised. How could the upstanding Victorians possibly think it was in order to purchase Chinese goods with opium? To what extent did exposure to Christian missionaries trigger rebellion that was so troublesome to the Qing? However, too many very condensed sentences, weighed down with detail, in which it is at times hard to work out who or which settlement is being referred to tried my patience too far, and I have reluctantly set this book aside. The subject matter is potentially fascinating and the author clearly very knowledgeable and unpretentious, but the tortuous written style is hard going.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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