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Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service

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Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs

The initiation of the foreign Inspectorate General of Customs was, to some extent, an accident.

In 1853 the Xiao Diao Hui (小刀會 Short Sword Society) revolted in Shanghai. The French, British and American Consuls found it necessary to transfer the responsibility of Customs administration to foreigners. After discussing it with the Acting Susongtai Taotai (蘇淞太道台, better known as Shanghai Taotai) Wu Chien-chang (吳健彰, better known as Samqua 爽官 in the nineteen century), Horatio Nelson Lay (李泰國1832-1898, 1st IG 1858-1863) was appointed British Inspector to supervise foreign trade and set up the Inspectorate General of Customs at the Shanghai Bund.

In 1858 Lay successfully convinced the Qing Court to extend the system of the foreign Inspectorate to other treaty ports. Hence, he was given a more formal and powerful title – the Inspector General (IG).

Established to collect taxes on maritime trade when Chinese officials were unable to collect them during the Taiping Rebellion, its functions quickly expanded. It became responsible for domestic customs administration (the Native Customs), postal administration, harbour and waterway management, weather reporting, and anti-smuggling operations. It mapped, lit, and policed the China coast and the Yangzi river. It was involved in loan negotiations, currency reform, and financial and economic management. It was always much more than just a tax collection agency, was well informed about local conditions, deeply involved in local, provincial, and national politics, and in international affairs.

After the almost-suppression of Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, Lay was dismissed by the Qing Court in 1863 and Sir Robert Hart was appointed the second IG and moved the Inspectorate to Peking in 1864. Although the relationship between Lay and the Qing Court was never smooth, Hart became the most trusted foreign national in the Imperial state and he was probably also one of the most trusted Qing officials. He served the Court for over five decades. He left China in 1908 and never returned, but the Qing Court preserved his title and salary as the IG until he death in 1911.

During the period of 1863-1911, Hart expanded the IMCS all over China. When Hart was appointed IG In 1863 there were only 13 Customs stations in China, but when he left China, there were over 50 stations (four in Korea and two stations succeeded from the IMCS because of the Fist Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895).

As the IG, he helped the Qing Court to establish the Tongwenguan (同文館 the interpreter school), the postal service and the Northern Navy. He established China’s central statistical office in the IMCS in Shanghai (Return’s Department 1867-1873; Statistical Secretariat 1873-1950), and set up the Customs College for the IMCS. As a foreign national, he became the Qing Court’s unofficial consultant general in foreign affairs. In every national crisis Hart helped China negotiate with the foreign powers and the Customs revenues became the most stable security for indemnities.

Hart’s IMCS staff consisted of nationals from over 20 countries, although most of them were British. Some of these foreign nationals were college graduates from ivy league universities, such as Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge. However, in his reign, the Chinese staff’s salary and status were significantly lower than that of their foreign colleagues. Most of the Chinese staff were assigned to low-end posts, such as typist, shupan (書辦), interpreter or copyist.

Generally speaking, Hart and his IMCS endeavoured to help the old Middle Kingdom build up a modern Imperial state in the 48 years of his reign, although after 1900 Hart became too old and ill to this job. Contemporary Chinese officials were very grateful for his contributions. His policies became the IMCS’s doctrines and the word ‘Hartian’ was coined to describe his mentality.

Museum of History and Philology, Taipei, Taiwan

Bristol University, UK