Ronald C. Po. The Blue Frontier: Maritime Vision and Power in the Qing Empire. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
By Dr. Laurie Dickmeyer (Angelo State University)
The Blue Frontier corrects a series of assumptions that scholars have made for years about Qing dynasty China. The story goes that the Qing neglected coastal defense and lost the Opium Wars due to a lack of “maritime consciousness.” Guided by Alfred Thayer Mahan’s work that divided world powers into land powers and sea powers, historians categorized Qing China as a land power and overlooked evidence of efforts to conceptualize its maritime spaces, build navies, and regulate coastal commerce. Although the Qing Empire focused on inland expansion, Ronald C. Po argues that this did not preclude the Qing from pursuing sea power. To prove this, Po turns to the long eighteenth century (1680 to 1799) during the Qing dynasty under the reigns of Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong. Building the case for a Qing maritime consciousness, each chapter addresses a new topic. These include the conceptual framework of Qing maritime policies, maritime militarization, the development of Customs Offices, and maritime writings.
The Qing conceptualized their maritime world, in a non-European manner, as a frontier divided into inner and outer spaces. The inner sea constituted the farthest reaches of maritime authority and governance. The outer sea was an uncertain domain beyond “administrative governance and economic extraction” (51). These classifications dictated the level of administration and naval policing of these spaces. Unlike Western powers, “the Qing did not consider the maritime space connected to its tributary states as part of its inner sea, thereby asserting a kind of colonial predominance” (75).
Maritime militarization from 1683 to 1798 was part of a thorough, formal rule of the coast. The Qing navy began with the conquest of the Ming, was built up during the conflict with the Zheng clan in Taiwan, and matured as the navy policed seas to protect commerce and other maritime activities. Memorials to the emperor focused on four zones, each with its own regional concerns—the Bohai Gulf near the Manchu homeland, the Jiangsu-Zhejiang Zone near the Yangtze River and trade routes to Japan, the Fujian coast and Taiwan Strait with commercial connections with Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, and the Guangdong coast with extensive ties to much of Asia.
Countering another common misconception about China— that theQing were isolationist—the fourth chapter instead highlights how they encouraged transnational trade while maintaining control within inner sea spaces. The Qing created and streamlined the Customs Office (haiguan), which regulated domestic and transnational coastal trade. This office prompted cooperation between the central government and the local commercial elite through the merchant inclusion system (baoshang zhidu) and the cohongsystem, giving commercial elites roles in port governance, harbor management, trade, and connecting Western and Qing merchants.
Po then addresses three eighteenth-century writers, who contributed to a maritime consciousness. Although overlookedby contemporaries, nineteenth-century scholar-officials would later cite their works. Chen Lunjiong’s 1730 The Record of Things Seen and Heard among the Maritime Kingdoms (Haiguo wenjian lu) draws from a family background in commerce to present South China maritime spaces. Based on nearly ten years of work in Java as a trader, Wang Dahai’s 1791 The Desultory Account of the Islands of the Sea (Haidao yizhi) described Dutch control of Java and the Strait of Sunda. Xie Qinggao’s decade-long stay in Western Europe (1783-93) provided the basis for another important work, Records of the Sea (Hailu). These three southeastern authors circulated firsthand knowledge of maritime issues. However, they “failed to offer a comprehensive and substantial strategy that could help protect the Qing” from the potential danger Western powers posed (204).
Ultimately, this book, part of the Cambridge Oceanic Series,is solid scholarship that corrects misconceptions about the Qing’s approach to maritime matters. In the process, Po has reconstructed a history of maritime consciousness and practice during the long eighteenth century that is insightful, clearly written, and carefully researched. Geared towards a scholarly audience (who will likely be grateful for the footnotes and appendixes), historians of China and other scholars with an interest in global and Asian maritime history will particularly value this book’s findings. Those seeking to better understand China’s current claims to the South China Sea and the Belt and Road Initiative may also find useful historical antecedents in this work.