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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: 2024-25
    • See module specification for other years: 2021-22

Module summary

China’s rise to superpower status has made it more important than ever for historians to understand how its colonial past has shaped the country today. For more than a century after the First Opium War of 1839-1842, foreign powers competed for wealth and prestige in China, forcing the weakened Qing Dynasty to sign a series of ‘unequal treaties’ that opened the ports of the once-proud ‘Middle Kingdom’ to foreign trade and settlement. In China, the colonial period is known as the ‘Century of Humiliation’.

Students on this course will analyse China’s colonial past from a variety of different perspectives, using a wide array of primary materials. Together we will explore: debates between historians over the historical reality and contemporary significance of China’s colonial history; the everyday realities of colonialism in the ‘contact zones’ of the treaty ports; and the ways in which anti-imperialist struggle shaped modern China. We place a particular emphasis on deconstructing state narratives to explore histories from below, with a focus on race and gender.

Students are not expected to have any prior knowledge of Chinese history, language or culture.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2024-25

Module aims

The aims of this module are 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

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Demonstrate a knowledge of a specialist historiographical literature;
  • Present findings in an analytical framework derived from a specialist field;
  • Solve a well-defined historiographical problem using insights drawn from secondary and, where appropriate, primary sources.
  • Set out written findings using a professional scholarly apparatus.

Module content

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1. Students will then attend a 2-hour seminar in weeks 2-4, 6-8 and 10-11. Weeks 5 & 9 are Reading and Writing (RAW) weeks during which there are no seminars, and during which students research and write a formative essay, consulting with the module tutor. Students prepare for eight seminars in all.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

  1. On difficult terms: imperialism, colonialism and ‘semi-colonialism’ in China
  2. Opium wars and ‘unequal treaties’
  3. Self-strengthening and reform
  4. Colonialism and conflict: the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901)
  5. Treaty ports as colonial spaces
  6. Race, gender, class and power
  7. Nationalism and anti-imperialism
  8. ‘Never forget national humiliation’: legacies of colonialism in China


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

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students submit a 2,000-word formative essay in week 9.

A 4,000-word summative essay will be due in the assessment period.


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

Module feedback

Students will typically receive written feedback on their formative essay within 10 working days of submission.

Work will be returned to students in their seminars and may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their formative essay during their tutor’s student hours—especially during week 11, before, that is, they finalise their plans for the Summative Essay.

For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 25 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For reading during the module, 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).
  • 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, 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.