Imperial History in a Post-Imperial Setting: Power, Patriarchy and Pardon

Chinese scroll with illustration of the iron steamer Nemesis and a British man-of-war, accompanied by a 55-line Chinese poem [1840c_ChScrollNemesis_D40019-04_left]
Chinese scroll c. 1840 with illustration of the iron steamer Nemesis and a British man-of-war, accompanied by a 55-line Chinese poem. Image courtesy of the British Library.

Catriona Pennell 
History Department, University of Exeter

In 1942, Arthur Waley – English orientalist and sinologist – described the first two decades of the twentieth century as ‘a great turning point’ in Anglo-Chinese relations. It was in this period that poets, professors and thinkers began to visit China instead of soldiers, sailors, missionaries, merchants and officials.[1] These ‘men of leisure’ travelled ‘not to convert, trade, rule or fight, but simply to make friends and learn’.[2] Over seventy years later, these sentiments were at the forefront of the international PhD symposium on ‘Imperial Expansion and Globalization’ convened to ‘mark the friendship between the Department of History at University of Exeter, Durham University and Peking University’ between 10 and 13 July 2015.[3] Over the course of four intense days, twelve PhD students and three academics immersed themselves in debate, discussion and cultural exchange. While the topics of the papers covered Warley’s four core issues of imperial contact – belief, economics, governance and conflict – the atmosphere was always cordial and welcoming.

I felt privileged that my first visit to China was within this setting of cultural and academic accord. Spending time with our hosts, both in the formal setting of the symposium and during our “downtime” visiting some of Beijing’s most famous landmarks, gave me a good deal of time to reflect on what it meant to partake in intellectual exchange on the history of empire in a post-imperial setting. How far had we really moved into a post-colonial era? Was our academic relationship genuinely based on mutual respect and understanding? The remnants of Britain’s colonial relationship with China were never far away. This was both obvious – in the fact that the working language of the symposium was English – and more subtle; for example, the realisation that the phrase ‘I won’t kowtow’ originated from the British McCartney Mission to China in 1793.[4] There were also gentle reminders of other European influences; as a vegetarian a staple (and delicious) food item during our visit was “danta” – miniature savoury egg tarts based on the Portuguese recipe introduced to China via its first and last European colony, Macau.

But elements of imperial rule continued to run deep beneath the surface of this four-day exchange. Power, patriarchy and a sense of historical responsibility were identifiable themes of both the papers presented and the dynamics within which the exchange took place. The opening panel of the symposium sparked fruitful discussion on the nature of British imperial power in times of crisis, whether political, economic or in a period of conflict and its aftermath.[5] In parallel, I reflected on the power dynamics evident within the conference setting. The tranquil setting of Peking University’s Centre for Aesthetics and Arts Education – with its internal waterways, skylights and exquisite artwork – could not disguise the setting’s lack of neutrality. Power imbalances were perhaps most visible in the post-paper discussions. It was clear by the questions posed by British researchers to their Chinese peers that a degree of inequality existed in terms of access to archives and up-to-date historiography (whether owing to supervision styles, language, geography and/or financial reasons). Alternatively – and with absolutely no sense of malice – the questions from Chinese researchers to their British peers often highlighted the latter’s lack of knowledge about particular aspects of Chinese history and Anglo-Chinese imperial relations.

The second day of the symposium explored three key themes: imperial responsibility; prestige; and paternalism.[6] The recurring image of the British Empire as the patriarchal head of a family of nations led me to reflect on the fact that out of twelve speakers, only a third were female. The gender balance of the PKU delegation was 50:50, perhaps unsurprising for the first Chinese institution to accept female students (in 1920). Rather disappointingly, less than 30 per cent of the British PhD students in attendance were female. This was, in some ways, rebalanced by the fact that out of the three academics leading the delegations, two were female (including myself). But this did not detract from the gender hierarchies at play during the four days. The experience confirmed for me that imperial history – like much of academia more generally – remains dominated by male researchers and often works within structures that permit the continuation of patriarchal dynamics that can serve to silence and delegitimise female voices. Future symposiums, modelled on this one, should consider the ways in which not only research ideas and questions can be exchanged, but also research cultures and ‘best practice’ in order to emphasise values such as respect and equality irrespective of gender and professional status.

Throughout the four days, the issue of responsibility and historical apology was never far from my mind. Before the panels had even started, during the course of our informative tour of the PKU campus at the start of the first day, I experienced something familiar to me from my time volunteering in Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon: an overwhelming need, as a British citizen, to apologise on behalf of my nation’s historical track record.[7] This was not something our gracious hosts demanded of me; it was a much more instinctual reaction and its intensity surprised me. Located close to the Old Summer Palace northwest of the city centre, significant parts of Peking University were torched and looted by British and French troops during the Second Opium War (1860), an event forever inscribed in Chinese history books as a low point in China’s humiliation by foreign powers. This is a wound that very few British people know about yet has been described as China’s ‘ground zero’.[8] During the panel discussions we explored issues of responsibility and culpability and debated the nature of the historian’s role – is it to assign blame? Or is it to offer the foundations for debate and reflection through rigorous research and exposure of the evidence? However, the specifics of Britain’s destructive legacy in nineteenth century China remained something of an elephant in the room. Participants and hosts of the 2015 international PhD symposium at PKU alike spoke frequently of forging international dialogues and mutual understanding, echoing sentiments voiced by Prime Minister David Cameron during his second diplomatic visit to China in December 2013.[9] However, I’m left feeling that more needs to be actively done within the academic community and its public engagement activities to engage with this painful past if a genuine relationship based on friendship and mutual understanding is to develop between Chinese and British universities such as ours.


[1] Arthur Waley ‘A Debt to China’ (1942) reprinted in Hsiao Ch’ien (ed.), A Harp with a Thousand Strings: A Chinese Anthology (London: Pilot Press, 1944).

[2] Cited in Wang Gungwu, Anglo-Chinese Encounters Since 1800: War, Trade, Science and Governance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 7–8.

[3] Title page of conference brochure distributed to delegates.

[4] As raised by Wei Yungaoli’s paper on Anglo-Chinese relations before the Opium War. See also Mick Jagger, ‘Kow Tow’ by Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart, Primitive Cool (Columbia Release, 1987).

[5] Papers by Liu Xu (PKU), Michael Cressey (Durham), Rachel Chin (Exeter), Matthew Heaslip (Exeter) and Sun Ying (PKU).

[6] Papers by Simon Mackley (Exeter), Xie Yongchun (PKU), Thomas Rodger (Durham), Wei Yungaoli (PKU), Ryan Patterson (Exeter), Poppy Cullen (Durham) and Liang Yuetian (PKU).

[7] Historical apology is the focus of a current AHRC ‘Care for the Future’ Early Career Award led by Dr Arman Sarvarian (University of Surrey). See (accessed 21 July 2015).

[8] Chris Bowlby, ‘The palace of shame the makes China angry’, BBC News Magazine, 2 February 2015. See (accessed 21 July 2015).

[9] David Cameron, ‘My visit can begin a relationship to benefit China, Britain and the world’, Guardian, 2 December 2013. See (accessed 21 July 2015).

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