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Breaking With the Past: The Maritime Customs and the Global Origins of Modernity in China.

Breaking With the Past: The Maritime Customs and the Global Origins of Modernity in China. By Hans van de Ven. (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2014. Pp. xiv, 396. $60.00.)

In the last decade, the opening of new archival records on the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (CMC) has led to a burst of new scholarship. The CMC was a foreign officered tax bureaucracy that administered China's customs revenues and administration from the 1850s until the Communist Revolution in 1949. Led by a series of British inspectors general through almost all of its existence, and officered by a multinational staff, the CMC upheld much of the treaty system that framed China's relations with foreign powers in the century following the Opium War. Hans van de Ven of Cambridge University, who worked with Chinese archivists in making these materials available to scholars, has now published a history of this important institution.

The author presents a history of the CMC from its beginnings in the 1850s to its end with the Communist Revolution in China in 1949. The author focuses his attention on the top: particularly the four men who filled the position of inspector general: Sir Robert Hart 11863-1910], Francis Aglen [1911-1927], Frederick Maze [1929-1943], and L. K. Little [1943-1950]. The book examines their approaches to leading the CMC, and how they dealt with the Chinese government and foreign powers.

This work stands out among the large and rapidly growing literature on the bureaucracy. It is the first book to survey the entire history of the CMC and does so in a concise 309 pages of text. There are areas in which the book breaks new ground. There is an excellent discussion of the changing place of China in the global economy in the 1880s and 1890s, and van de Ven gives new attention to the CMC's role in administering foreign loans. The section on the period from 1945 onward offers a great deal of altogether new material. Overall, this book is the clearest and most concise introduction to the CMC available.

The reviewer has two reservations. At times van de Ven is overly sympathetic to the inspectors general. Readers hear nothing of the widespread criticism of Hart from many directions in the latter years of his career. The author gives Maze a pass for extraordinary behavior during the war with Japan, which included attempting to serve both sides of the Sino-Japanese conflict and desertion of his post. Second, contrary to the author's claim that "little work has been done on the Customs Service," there is a substantial literature dating back to the 1930s, and it is growing (7). Van de Ven does not always situate his own interpretations in light of the existing research or make full use of the secondary literature available. Donna Brunero's 2006 book on the bureaucracy in the 1920s and 1930s is never cited, and Stanley Wright's monumental Hart and the Chinese Customs, while mentioned, is rarely referenced. As for Chinese scholarship, Tang Xianglong's remarkable Zhongguo jindai haiguan shuishou he fenpei tongji (Beijing, China, Commercial Press, 1992), the only statistical breakdown of the allocation of customs revenues from the nineteenth century, is not cited. These flaws notwithstanding, this book is an important contribution to the field.

Richard S. Horowitz

University of California, Northridge

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Author:Horowitz, Richard S.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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