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© Maria Bugrova

The Imperial Chinese Maritime Customs

The abstracts from report "The role of Great Britain in the "opening" process of China by the West in the 2nd part of the XIX century" addressed to the International Congress of Asian and North African Studies (ICANAS-XXXVII), 2004

From the first unequal treaties between western powers and China till the Treaty of Shimonoseki which was terminated on the signing on the 17th of April of 1895, Great Britain and other western powers made efforts to “open” China and broke down “opium wars”. As a result of their military pressure, some Chinese ports were opened for foreign trade. However it’s necessary to point out to the fact that the opening of China didn’t mean the start of business relations between foreigners and the Chinese only. Great Britain issued the challenges of strategic character, namely consolidation its positions in world partition, where the role of China was considerable.

The “opium” wars and inner disorder in China provoked the wave of rebellions the most large-scale of which was the Taiping. About 1853 Shanghai was occupied by insurgents, that’s why custom’s official – taotai was to leave town.

Except of “old China hands” there were the Englishmen who served as Chinese subjects. They were the representatives of Chinese Maritime Customs and other specialists, recruited as engineers, teachers and so on for training Chinese personal. The work of Chinese Maritime customs was considered by the Englishmen just as the successive beginning of reorganization of Chinese society. This institute was nominally a Chinese one, but in fact for decades it was the instrument of expansion and foreign control not just under Chinese finance, but under Chinese state machinery. As a matter of fact there was adaptation of progressive western experience of organization and conduct of the affairs. American and English official representatives considered the growth of smuggling and the suspension of custom’s payments as the instruments of diplomatic pressure on the Chinese authorities.

From the same moment of its establishment Inspector General devoted itself not only to duty collection. G.N.Lay became the first man responsible for the opening of new Custom Houses and foreign staff. Lay G.N. get his title of Tsung-shui-wu-ssu as head of Maritime Customs. He translated his title as “Inspector General” of customs. The service became well-known in China as “Maritime Customs” for it’d be easer to identify ancient collectors known as “Local customs” in 29 stations in Empire, included 5 sea ports. In 1842 Tsungli Yamen empowered him to build Chinese fleet, recruit staff and struggle with smuggling, piracy and rebels. In spite of the skills of G.N.Lay as an organizer and brilliant knowledge of Chinese language, he was dismissed for abuse of confidence of the Qing Government. R.Hart was appointed as an I.G. of Maritime Customs instead of G.N.Lay in 1863.

The control of Chinese Maritime Customs could promote the growth of imported goods. Under Robert Hart’s rule as Inspector General the Maritime customs became a chief financial pillar of the Chinese Government, provided both unprecedented and reliable revenue from foreign trade and useful security for foreign loans and indemnities.

The first proposal of it was made by foreign consuls, offered to authorities of Custom House in Shanghai to engage foreigners who’d assisted to collect duties from foreign vessels. Prince Gong considered this suggestion as a rational one. As a result of it 29th of June 1854 the Treaty was concluded by taotai and Consuls of Britain, France and United States. Its article No.1 declared: “The chief difficulty … of Customs having consisted in the impossibility of obtaining Custom House officials with the necessary qualifications as to probity, vigilance and knowledge of foreign languages … the only adequate remedy appears to be the introduction of a foreign element into the Custom House establishment in the persons of foreigners, carefully selected and appointed by the Taotai”. According to the mentioned treaty the Chinese authorities could engage foreign staff as inspectors. Thus Shanghai became the first treaty port in China where the Custom House had a foreign element. After some positive results of the foreign inspectors’ work this model was applied in other treaty ports in 1858.

It’s necessary to point out to the fact that there was not the uniform system of duty collection in Qing Empire. The functions of control institutes were divided between three ones: the Board of Revenue, Grand Council and Tsungli Yamen. The Board of Revenue made up before the end of each year a general estimate of the funds that will be required for Imperial purposes during the ensuing year and apportioned the amount among the various treasuries and collectorates throughout the Empire. The estimate was submitted to the Emperor, and when sanctioned copies were circulated to all the viceroys and governors.

Long practice has created in this way a sort of equilibrium between provincial and imperial demands. The remittance to the capital was forwarded with reasonable punctuality. But through the system worked well enough in times of peace and plenty, it was bound to break down in times of stress. No attempt was made anywhere to adjust taxation to expenditure by means of an annual budget, either Provincial or Imperial.

It’s necessary to point out to the fact that if the local rebels took place from time to time in different provinces, done economic harm, on the other hand China conflicted with western military aggression. After the demands of Peking were satisfied all the rest of the taxation would appear to belong to the Provincial authorities to spence as they may please.

The Peking authorities were continually trying to extract as much as possible, while the local authorities were continually trying to part with as little as possible. According to these conditions the western powers were not able to receive its indemnities and continue to develop trade relations with China. It’s necessary to remember that under the mentioned treaties’ terms the foreign consulates could be established in Peking and Qing Government was to appoint some officials to connect with foreign representatives.

The activity of the Maritime Customs under the control of Inspector General was successful and clear, all collected duties regularly paid by the custom’s administration to Chinese treasury. For example under the control of R.Hart the customs of 4 Guangdong ports collected 3 millions taels of income, although customs controlled by local authorities paid less then half of 1 million taels. As compared with other services whose incomes were fixed, the collection of Maritime income increased twice, and was a model of honesty and order. It formed 76,28 % of all customs’ takings in China.

Speaking about the new Maritime customs it’s necessary to point out their principle difference from the local Chinese customs. First of all, the incomes of Maritime customs were transferred directly to Central Treasury. Secondly, the staff of Maritime customs contained considerable foreign contingent. Thirdly, duty collectors (the Chinese in origin) were not usual agents of the Central Government, but provincial officials, combined duties of collection of fees and their immediate duties. Foreign commissioners didn’t collect duties by themselves. Their functions didn’t go beyond control of timely collection of duties (as a rule in the local banks) and issuing of receipt before the shipment. Their main responsibilities were to control and check amounts of local recipients. The last were representatives of provincial government and passed money not to Peking but to Governor or Vice-governor of the province where the port was situated. All payment orders came first of all to governor who retransferred them to custom treasuries. Thus, in theory custom’s income in the treaty ports could be classified as a part of the province’s income where it was collected. In fact, governor has never considered the custom income as under his control. In spite of the fact that some part of this income passed to the provincial needs, non-officially it was under the control of the Board of Revenue.

Thus, Maritime customs at the head of R.Hart played the role of bridge between West and East. On the one hand as a Chinese servant Hart used his good reputation to maintain good relations with power structures if China. He assisted Chinese Authorities to solve all important problems between China and foreign states, but he tried to do it without violation of Chinese tradition. At the same time Hart continued to research China, read books, improved the Chinese language, and organized the band, played as a rule western music twice a week in the public park. He tried to accustom the Chinese to western culture. Custom published booklets for exhibitions in Europe, illustrated catalogs on Chinese medicine, music, fauna, flora, tried to introduce European readers to “secrets and mysteries” of Qing Empire.



Chinese Bank where R.Hart had its money deposit.





Post Office, Beijing (1896)





R.Hart and foreign staff of Chinese Maritime Customs





Fig. 10






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