Tianjin Foreign Concessions and Cross-cultural Exchange

The history of foreign concessions in Chinese treaty-port cities like Tianjin pose a strikingly unique take on colonialism in China. Foreign entities, namely those from Britain, France and Germany constructed their concessions in treaty ports for the purpose of physically separating themselves from the Chinese community that they deemed as lesser and often as unclean. However, the initial purpose of the foreign concessions did not last. As Zhang Chang and Liu Yue note in the chapter “International Concessions and the Modernisation of Tianjin” the concessions, particularly those in Tianjin, became conductors of cross-cultural confluence – between China and the outside world but also between the colonial powers themselves. The cosmopolitan, ostensibly harmonious nature of early 20th century Tianjin seems to contradict the serious conflict that occurred between the colonial powers and within China itself.

Since the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, foreigners had maintained a history of violence and oppression in China. The actions of colonial powers like Britain, France and later Japan helped to instigate nation-wide conflict like the Boxer Rebellion but also smaller incidents like the Tianjin Massacre of 1870. Decades long turbulence, in combination with racism and jingoism, constituted some of the main reasons why foreign entities established isolated areas or “concessions” within Chinese cities. The concessions were walled communities that were meant to separate the poor Chinese from colonial residents and provide the same general amenities they could find back in their home countries. The physical and social barriers set up through foreign concessions created a distinctive spatial layout in China’s largest mercantile cities like Tianjin and Shanghai. The history of the foreign presence in Tianjin is not totally absolved from animosity with local Chinese, but Zhang and Liu’s chapter indicates that the first decades of the 20th century saw a productive relationship between foreigners and Chinese flower.

The foreign presence in Tianjin helped to spread new ideas to Chinese elites. Arguably the most import foreign export in Tianjin was local democratic government. The foreign concession was run by an elected council and their systems inspired local Chinese authorities in Tianjin to establish China’s first democratically elected governing body that was officially recognised by the Qing government. (94) Perhaps even more consequently, the move to adopt democratic provincial institutions in Tianjin was directly endorsed by Yuan Shikai, the future President and self-declared Emperor of China. Neither foreigners nor Chinese were immune to the effects of cross-cultural confluence. Foreign children who were nannied by Chinese amahs often spoke Chinese as their first language and didn’t fully absorb their home country’s language until they attended school in the concession. Language skills in Chinese and various European languages were also important for career advancement. Foreign subjects working in customs houses were required to learn Chinese. As the foreign presence in Tianjin grew, Chinese citizens could become a part of the “social elite”  by learning European languages and studying abroad. (99)

The wealth and modernisation that flowed through Tianjin as a result of its bustling trade and significant colonial presence saw western-style materialism spread to wealthy Chinese outside of the concessions. Wealthy Tianjin businessmen adopted western-style exuberance. Some of these businessmen built European-style estates but added touches of traditional Chinese culture, such elaborate gardens. Through cultural exchange with foreign entities, Tianjin turned into a diverse, thriving city where cross-cultural confluence became a part of the urban fabric.

Zhang Chang and Liu Yue could engage further with this period in Tianjin’s history by discussing how the events of the First World War and the Sino-Japanese conflict affected the concessions and the citizen’s willingness to engage with those from other countries and absorb cultures. Despite this gap, they make it clear that Tianjin became a site of positive confluence between China and the outside world.





Chang, Zhang, and Liu Yue. “International Concessions and the Modernization of Tianjin.” In Harbin to Hanoi: The Colonial Built Environment in Asia, 1840 to 1940, by Victoir, Laura, and Victor Zatsepine, eds., edited by Laura Victoir, and Victor Zatsepine. Hong Kong University Press, 2013. Hong Kong Scholarship Online, 2014.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *