Remodeling Tianjin: A New History of Globalization in a Chinese City

Pierre Singaravélou, Tianjin Cosmopolis: Une autre histoire de la mondialisation, Paris, Seuil, 2017. 384 pp., € 24.00.

Reviewed by Gabriel Doyle, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales

In the study of European imperialism in China, the Boxer rebellion that shook the Qing Empire at the turn of the twentieth century is an unavoidable cornerstone. Nonetheless, some phenomena tied to this rebellion still nourish new studies, such as Pierre Singaravélou’s book Tianjin Cosmopolis. His book is focused on a short period of time, between 1900 and 1902, when an international municipal government took over the city of Tianjin, located about 100 kilometres from the capital Beijing. Addressing a series of events that have been, according to the author, “curiously eluded by historiography” (81), the book offers a study of turn-of-the-century globalization, fitted into the streets of a Chinese city.

Couverture_TianjinThe battle for Tianjin in June and July 1900 saw the Boxers confront a military alliance of Austro-Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, German, Russian, American, French, and British troops. The difficult Allied victory led to the creation of a “provisional government” (29) that administered Tianjin until 1902. Singaravélou recounts the story of this provisional government through the lens of various urban reforms more or less successfully implemented during these two years: police and security, urban planning, sanitation, and exploitation of natural resources such as salt. The author dedicates a chapter to each domain of urban reform, in addition to an introduction about the fight for Tianjin, a study of local inter-imperial rivalry within the city’s streets, and a concluding remark on the posterity of this urban experience.

The book is thoroughly based on a wide range of sources: the provisional government’s tribunal archives, located at Harvard’s Widener Library, French and British diplomatic and military archives, personal testimonies, contemporary printed sources, press articles evoking occupied Tianjin, as well as objects brought back by European soldiers. One can only regret that no non-Western sources were used, apart from Chinese maps of Tianjin. Yet, Singaravélou handles his corpus and secondary sources well enough to prevent his research from taking a Eurocentric turn.


Tianjin in 1900: In red, along the river, the European, American, and Japanese concessions

Formed of administrators from ten different countries (including China), the provisional government was more a proactive municipality than a military occupation. It developed a tramway line, the first public toilet system and urban police force in China, it built main roads made of asphalt, and dismantled the city’s medieval walls and castles. These walls had previously separated the old city from a patchwork of foreign concessions, where consuls ruled in autonomy according to extra-territorial rights. The provisional government also authorized the extension of these concessions towards the old town. Thus, by the time it left China in August 1902, Tianjin’s urban fabric had undergone irreversible change.

Still, the provisional government’s radical reforms would have been a failure without the use of local knowledge, made of Chinese and foreign “men of the field” (91), as well as through the continuation of some Qing administrative practices. Singaravélou shows, for example, that inhabitants of Tianjin had the right to oppose reforms through petitions, in complete continuity with the previous rulers’ mode of governing. He also underlines the “noteworthy agency” (130) of the shengkong, the surrounding village communities, in helping the government police the city’s vicinity.

Highlighting local agency brings the author to question the colonial complexion of this urban experience. The government’s concern for legitimacy leads him to differentiate its actions from what was simultaneously happening in colonial cities, where administrations tended to “under-invest” (204) in urban reform. Singaravélou doubts the foreign municipal policymakers’ imperialism for another reason: owing to its concern for local support, the provisional government’s interest could occasionally differ from the foreign consulates’ imperial designs. Nevertheless, he does not ignore that this urban change was imposed upon the city’s inhabitants, during which they endured severe and arbitrary violence by foreign troops, and were subjected to labor exploitation and an inherently unequal legal system.

Tianjin was therefore modernized in a semi-colonial context, in which the city’s population, Chinese dignitaries, foreign armies and consuls, and the provisional government mingled in rivalry and negotiation. In these arrangements, Japan played a central role. The Japanese army was instrumental in the military victory against the Boxers and the country provided the provisional government with key administrators that stayed influential in China after 1902. Singaravélou highlights the various seeds of Tianjin’s modernization, which, when intertwined, made it also a global experience.


Japanese painting representing the Allied entrance into Tianjin’s old city controlled by the Boxers. Source: Library of Congress

Despite lasting only two years and being set in Qing China, Tianjin’s case may be of interest to a vast array of historians of cities because of the nuanced picture Singaravélou gives of such rapid transformation. The author’s interest in a “material history” of a both “destructive and transformative globalization” (336 and 338) can be of particular use to the study of urban change in other areas that were not under direct colonial yoke, such as the Ottoman Empire or Qajar Persia.

Tianjin Cosmopolis is thus worth a look for the readers of this blog who master French. Crossing the language barrier is often an enriching experience when linking urban and global history: it can lead to literature written in other languages than English focused on cities with global ties. But a translation of such works into English could both increase the number of readers and open up historical debates. Both endeavors seem even more appropriate when discussing globalization.


Gabriel Doyle is a French-Australian Ph.D. student in history at the CETOBaC-EHESS in Paris. His research concentrates on the intersection between European diplomacy, local relief, and urban change in late Ottoman Istanbul (1890–1923).



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