Theses Doctoral

Guns, Boats, and Diplomacy: Late Qing China and the World’s Naval Technology

Fong, Sau-yi

Previous historiography on late Qing naval technology has been geared toward locating the root causes of the Qing’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. Pushing back against this teleological view of late Qing naval development, this dissertation underscores the global, multidirectional, and highly contingent processes undergirding the Qing’s naval rebuilding project in the late nineteenth century. Starting from the 1860s, the Qing empire strove to reassert itself as a competitive naval power by establishing new dockyards and arsenals; procuring arms, warships, and machineries from abroad; as well as dispatching educational missions to European naval schools, technical institutes, factories, and shipyards. The Chinese diplomats and students that the Qing sent overseas served as transnational agents who cultivated close-knit networks with Western diplomats, merchants, shipbuilders, military officers, and arms manufacturers. These networks formed the basis upon which the Qing navigated a global marketplace of warships and armaments spanning Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

Tracing the personal, material, and institutional networks connecting late Qing China to the world’s naval technology reveals how the Qing engaged actively in a global regime of arms production and arms trading. This regime, driven by the transnational sourcing of raw materials and the export-oriented tendencies of Western arms manufacturers, gave rise to a shared, decentralized, and surprisingly open terrain of material circulation and technological transmission. It produced highly fluid circuits of military industrial products and knowledge that blurred the boundaries between the arms race and the arms trade, secrecy and openness, competition and collaboration. This dissertation shows how the Qing tapped into these tensions through intertwining networks of trade and diplomacy. It also shows how the material and logistical processes underlying the importation of warships, machineries, and shipbuilding components constituted crucial channels for the transfer of naval engineering knowledge from the West to China.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Lean, Eugenia Y.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 17, 2022