Written by Maurizio Marinelli.

China is a vast virgin land for economic exploitation that can be opened to human activity and the effort to overcome the difficulties is well justified … all the nations that feel strength, due to their commercial and industrial development, have always looked with active and growing interest to the vast and virgin Chinese market and seized every favourable opportunity to breach the wall enclosing such a treasure, to avoid being second or overpowered in the exploitation of that vast new market.’

Between 1860 and 1945, Tianjin became the site of up to nine foreign-controlled concessions (zujie). What is significant for the relationship between Italy and China is that with the signature of the ‘Final Protocol for the Settlement of the Disturbances of 1900’ on 7th September 1901, following the repression of the Boxers’ Uprising, Italy received an allotment of 5.91% of the Boxers’ indemnity, extraterritoriality privileges in the Legation Quarter in Beijing, as well as the concession in perpetuity of a small zone on the northern bank of the Hai River, in Tianjin, on which to develop an Italian concession. This is the only example of Italian colonialism in Asia.

The area had already been de facto occupied by Italian troops in January 1901, and was set between the Austro-Hungarian and the Russian concessions, the left bank of the Hai River, the Beijing-Mukden (today’s Shenyang) railway track, and the remnant Chinese-controlled territory.

Vessel Lieutenant Mario Valli, commander of the Tianjin garrison, was the person responsible for the military operations and he chose ‘to occupy the next best thing’ (quanto restava di meglio), probably the only part still left untouched by the other colonial powers. An Italian source indicates that government’s thinking that the British would have reserved the best area for themselves. But Salvago Raggi, the Royal Minister in Beijing in 1901, proudly argued that the concession’s territory was ‘the best area’, with prospects for rapid and successful development. The Italian Consul in Tianjin, Cavalier Poma, noticed instead that the area consisted of a populous Chinese quarter, a cemetery, and wetlands, which did not seem to be very promising.

The area originally ceded to the Italian Government consisted approximately of half a square kilometre. Proceeding from the south (where the Hai river flows) to the north (where the railway station is now located) the territory consisted of four parts:

  1. A higher rising area used as a salt deposit (approx. 100,000 sqm.);
  2. The Chinese village (approx. 200,000 sqm.) consisting of, according to Navy Lieutenant Mario Michelagnoli, 867 dwellings. These were mainly huts, built by the salt workers. In his 1921 report, Consul Vincenzo Fileti acknoweldged the high degree of poverty of the dwellers: misery and indigence are the key words used.
  3. North of the village there was wetland, where the water could be as deep as 3-4 metres, and which was usually completely frozen in the winter.
  4. On the more elevated parts of this wetland the dwellers used to bury their dead, so the place had assumed the aspect of a ‘vast abandoned and flooded cemetery.’

The Sino-Italian agreement was signed by the Director of the Chinese Maritime Customs Tang Shaoyi and Giovanni Gallina (successor to Salvago Raggi), stating that: ‘The Italian Government will exercise full jurisdiction in the same way established for the concessions obtained by the other foreign powers’ (Agreement 1901). The agreement clarified that the concession was ceded ‘to promote the development of Italian trade in the northern part of China, and in the Zheli (Chi-li) province in particular’ (Agreement 1901). This corresponded to the acknowledgment of the long sought after ‘equal’ treatment of Italy at the same level of the other colonial powers in China.

Significantly, Chinese historians emphasise that, from an administrative, juridical, police, and fiscal perspective, the concessions were ‘states within the state’ (guozhongzhiguo). For the newly unified Italian nation, the acquisition of the concession represented a historical nemesis, after the repeated failures, which had characterised both Italian colonial policy in Africa and diplomatic relations between Italy and China from the 1866 bilateral Treaty onwards.

On 1st March 1896, Italian troops had suffered a devastating defeat in the final battle of the first Italo-Ethiopian war, which was fought near Adwa, against Etiopia’s Negus Menelik II. This defeat led to the resignation of Prime Minister Francesco Crispi, amidst a profound disenchantment with ‘foreign adventures’. The new Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti, referring specifically to the Italian experience in China, defined the former unsuccessful Italian attempt, in the spring 1899, to obtain the official Chinese Government’s recognition of the Sanmun bay as a naval station and Italian influence zone in Zhejiang, as ‘a waste of a few millions (of lire) and a national humiliation’. This rejection by the Chinese Government when it received the 1899 Italian request and the ensuing ultimatum, caused a serious wound in the imagined community of the newly created Italian nation, especially since that rejection occurred at a historical moment when all the other foreign powers (Great Britain, France, Germany, but also Japan and Russia) were obtaining concessions and settlements in locations strategically important for their political presence and economic penetration in the Chinese territory. The wound was even more profound because the 1899 Italian request and ultimatum were not supported by Great Britain (Bocca 1961: 157-188; Pistolese 1935: 305-306) revealing that the other foreign powers were not keen on seeing Italy exerting its influence in China. Cicchiti-Suriani, writing in 1951 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the acquisition of the concession, pointed out that ‘After the unfortunate prelude of Sanmun, that gesture represented the epilogue of the 1900 international events’.

There is no unanimous consent concerning the Chinese population living in the area at the time of the transfer: 13,704 according to the 1902 census, around 17,000 people according to Fileti’s report, and 16,500 according to Arnaldo Cicchiti-Suriani. The 1922 census reports 4,025 Chinese citizens, 62 Italians, and 42 from other nationalities. In 1935 the total estimated population was 6,261, of which 5,725 Chinese and 536 foreigners including 392 Italians, but Gennaro Pistolese argues that the Italians were ‘about 150 people’ . F.C. Jones, in a few lines dedicated to the Italian concession, says: ‘The population in 1937 was 373 foreigners and some 6,500 Chinese’. These figures indicate how spatial reorganisation determined a significant decrease of the population, from 16-17,000 (1902) to 4-6,000 (1922-1935), and a clear predominance of Chinese citizens living in the Italian concession. Nevertheless, Italian sources tend to obscure any hybrid character and annihilate the presence of Chinese citizens in the concession, relegating them to the role of invisible subalterns. This tendency reached its climax in 1935, when Pistolese affirmed: ‘Our concession has a demographic consistency superior to the other concessions in Tien-Tsin’, and he reports the data of the Japanese concession (5,000 people), British (2,000), and French (1,450). This mystification contributed to the fascist regime’s construction of a self-congratulatory image, based on cultural reproduction: the successful infrastructural projects that beautified the area were indicative of the outstanding success of the Italian spiritual and civilising mission in this ‘faraway extension’ of the motherland.

Each foreign concession developed its residential area for the expatriates of the colonial power (and for wealthy Chinese citizens) using building styles that were reflecting, reproducing and imposing the stylistic traditions of each individual country. The Italian area’s architecture was dominated by the neo-renaissance style and became known as ‘the aristocratic concession’. Cultural reproduction contributed to the emergence of hagiographic representations. The Italian ‘imagined community’  in Tianjin capitalised on the rhetoric trope of the ‘civilizing mission’ attributed to the newly created Italian nation: this was based on the 1890s claim that ‘Italy’s was a “proletarian” colonialism’ and therefore less pernicious than the others, since it would have been ‘aimed to secure better land and greater prosperity for its indigenous citizens’.

Imagining an entity like the ‘modern’ Italian nation and projecting it onto China, through the construction of the Italian ‘neighbourhood’ in Tianjin, was a way of building a positive story up around the Italian citizens and, intentionally, beyond: this took the form of a master narrative of benign colonialism, where the colonial agents became the positive characters of a specific national success story. The Italian concession in Tianjin had the characteristics of a hybrid community, with foreign and Chinese citizens living in a small area de iure defined as a permanent foreign possession but de facto dwelling on the Chinese soil. Yet it was a community ‘imagined’ according to a specific scheme of projective self-perception, and therefore represented as a ‘neighbourhood’ bridging multiple worlds: Italy and China, but even more so, Italy and the other foreign powers operating in Tianjin.

Maurizio Marinelli is Senior Lecturer in East Asian History and Co-Director of the Sussex Asia Centre at the University of Sussex. Image Credit: CC by Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.