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Colonialism in China - HIS00124M

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Jon Howlett
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22
    • See module specification for other years: 2024-25

Module summary

For more than a century after the First Opium War of 1839-1842, European powers, along with the United States and Japan, competed for wealth and prestige in China, compelling the weakened Qing Dynasty to sign a series of ‘unequal treaties’. These treaties opened the once-proud ‘Middle Kingdom’ to foreign trade and settlement. With the vanguard of merchants and diplomats came soldiers, bankers and missionaries. Resistance to foreign intrusion led to a series of wars and rebellions that resulted in the collapse of the Qing. In the final decades of the declining dynasty, prominent reformers [deleted 'had' here] pursued ‘self-strengthening’ to counter foreign countries’ military and technological superiority. ‘Saving the nation’ remained the central political issue of China’s Republican period (1912-1949). The efforts of nationalists and anti-imperialists to counter foreign influence defined the course of China’s twentieth century. It was not until the Communist revolution of 1949 that victory over imperialism within China was finally proclaimed.

On this course, students will analyse China’s colonial past from a variety of different perspectives, using a wide array of primary materials. They are not expected to have any prior knowledge of Chinese history or culture. Together we will explore: debates between historians over the historical realities of China’s colonial past and its contemporary significance; the everyday realities of colonialism in the ‘contact zones’ of the treaty ports; and the ways in which anti-imperialist struggle shaped modern China. It is more important than ever that countries like Britain, which played a central role in China’s ‘Century of Humiliation’, understand how China’s colonial past has shaped its nationalist present.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Autumn Term 2021-22

Module aims

The module aims to:

  • Develop skills of source analysis and interpretation;
  • Assess a range of source material and relevant secondary works; and
  • Develop students’ powers of evidence-based historical argument, both orally and in writing.

Module learning outcomes

After completing this module students should have:

  • Acquired an understanding of the broad contours China’s colonial past.
  • Be familiar with debates over the nature of colonial activity in China, and its contemporary significance.
  • Explored the value of different historical approaches to understand the topic.
  • Engaged with a wide variety of primary source materials.

Module content

Teaching Programme:

Students will attend eight weekly two-hour seminars in weeks 2-9.

The provisional outline for the module is as follows:

  • Briefing seminar
  • On Difficult Terms: Imperialism, Colonialism and ‘Semi-colonialism’ in China
  • Opium Wars and Unequal Treaties
  • Self-Strengthening and Reform
  • Colonialism and conflict: the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901)
  • The Treaty Ports
  • Race, gender, class and power
  • Nationalism and anti-imperialism
  • ‘Never Forget National Humiliation


Task Length % of module mark
Long Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students will complete a 2,000-word essay for formative assessment, due in week 6 or 7 of the autumn term, for which they will receive an individual tutorial. They will then submit a 4,000-word assessed essay for summative assessment in week 2 of the spring term.

For further details about assessed work, students should refer to the Statement of Assessment for Taught Postgraduate Programmes.


Task Length % of module mark
Long Essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive written feedback consisting of comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission. They will also receive verbal feedback at an individual tutorial. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their formative work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline. Supervisors are available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment for Taught Postgraduate Programmes.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

Robert Bickers, Empire Made Me: an Englishman Adrift in Shanghai, Abingdon: Penguin, 2003.

Rana Mitter, A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Julia Lovell, The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China, London: Picador, 2012.

William T. Rowe, China's Last Empire: The Great Qing, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, reprinted 2010.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.