The title of this book seems to both evoke a mysterious, now lost, time, and condemn itself to obscurity as an irretrievably niche subject treatment. However, as another reviewer has commented, this seemingly super-specialist period of Chinese history is brutally relevant for understanding China today and the new generation of young Chinese professionals and politicians that will in all probability come to have a great effect on the world during our lifetime.
Bickers tells the history of the clash of two proud, arrogant and xenophobic civilisations both over-engaged with their own honour and grandeur. The main protagonists, Britain and China, are not considered in isolation, but with all the chaos that the international settlements and harrumphing diplomats of America, France, Germany and Japan brought with them. Bickers shows how the European civilisations argued, traded, bullied and brow-beat their way up China's coast and inland up her rivers, carving out national concessions and international settlements, such as that at Shanghai, along the way. He also describes the Chinese reaction, and the disownment of the Qing empire that had the misfortune to be in charge when these forces came to bear on China by the modern Communist Party. The constant contemporary re-invocation of this "century of national humiliation" is shown to colour the way young China thinks and interacts with the world today.
The story is told at both macro and micro levels, and Bickers regularly illustrates wider phenomena with telling personal tales of the post-modernist micro-history type which serve to bring the lost world of the Chinese treaty ports to life in a way which would be impossible for a purely political, high-level narrative. A good example of this is the adventures of Hugh Hamilton Lindsay and Karl Gützlaff in Chapter 1, `Unwelcome Guests', along with the grumbles of the Canton traders, which illustrate the patronising mystique with which the Chinese, and the Qing, were viewed and portrayed, the conflation of personal with national honour, and the frustration with restrictive trade laws and yearning for more. His portrayal of the microcosmic worlds of the isolated European lighthouse overseers should also be noted for his ability to make a seemingly dry subject both interesting and shocking.
The Scramble for China also deserves attention for its cool, incisive treatment of some enduring issues. For example, Bickers' treatment of the Qing court does not attempt to conceal, indeed brings out the subtlety of its position as both Manchu in its internal identity and Chinese on an international level. It also shows the irony of the contrast of the Qing Emperor at the beginning of the period, both China embodied and more than China, painted as a powerful tyrant by the European press, and a cunning player in the Great Game who cannily played off one European power against another, with its failing position towards the close of the period, its popular support eroded by anti-Manchu, anti-foreign nationalists, and forced to rely on foreign support to survive, eventually becoming the rulers of a powerless Japanese puppet state, Manchukuo.
There are two major criticisms I have with this interesting work which adds greatly to the recent cull of books on China which in the main focus solely on the nation post-Communist revolution. The first is that the book has a very heavy preponderance of the Western viewpoint, and it would be greatly enhanced by looking at the contentious issues considered through Chinese as well as European eyes. This isn't to say that the book is wholly without Chinese perspective, but there is definitely a much greater focus on Western perceptions, and there is nothing to match the many European micro-histories weaved into the narrative.
My second criticism is that one of the most interesting instances in which Bickers does consider the Chinese perspective - viz. the modern day colouring of Chinese attitudes as a result of the scramble for China - receives only a modicum of discussion, consisting of a couple of pages in the Introduction and the final chapter. I can't help feeling that there is a lot more Bickers could have expanded on here, as it is evident that he is extremely well-informed as far as Sino-European relations are concerned.
Having said this, I would definitely recommend this to anyone wanting to get a better understanding of modern China. The Scramble for China deserves a place on the shelf next to Kissinger's On China and McGregor's The Party.