Written by Camilla Casale & Claire Ping, under the supervision of Dr. Gaoheng Zhang.
Although not as well-known as with other major European colonial powers such as France and the United Kingdom, Italy too had a significant colonial expansion after its Unification in 1861. While primarily targeting the African continent for its expansion, it is rarely mentioned that the Kingdom of Italy was granted a concession in the town of Tianjin in China on the 7th of September 1901. This event will prove to greatly change and liven the cultural, political and economic exchanges between the two countries up to this day.
History of the Tianjin Concession
The Boxer rebellion
From 1899 to 1901, an anti-foreign colonial and Christian movement took place all over China. The main causes that led the United in Righteousness group rebels to act against foreigners and Christian missionaries were the increasingly harsh conditions brought on by drought, violent floods in the Shandong area, and the increasing weariness towards the growth of foreign power in Chinese politics. Indeed, in order to counter attack this growing force and to protect their interests, foreign powers sent in troops to suppress the rebellions. Most of the soldiers were sent in by Japan, Russia Britain, the United States, France, the Austria Hungarian empire and Italy. This was one of the first diplomatic strategic battles that Italy had taken part in since its Unification, and was oneof their main chances to prove to be at an equal level to the other Western forces. As the Empress dowager had decided to use the rebellious force to push away the foreign powers, China was eventually made to pay reparations to these countries when they finally took over the capital in August 1900.
Partition of lands among powers
With the defeat of the Boxer Rebellion, every foreign power that intervened was given, as a result of their involvement, a concession in the north-eastern town of Tianjin. The allotted 46 hectares of land to the Italian government granted them the right to control and administer the land starting on the 7th of June 1902. This is the first and only instance of Italian colonial expansion in the Asian continent, which had at that point mainly concentrated in the Mediterranean neighboring lands. It is believed that the Italian troops had mostly been given the most undesirable part of the land since other greater colonial forces had taken the most profitable areas. But the Royal minister in Beijing, Salvago Raggi, would argue that they had actually received “the best area”. Regardless of this, the Italian kingdom’s intent was to “promote Italian trade in the northern part of China” (Agreement of 1901). This gave the newly established Italian nation-state confidence in being treated as an equal power to the other western spheres of influence. Throughout the years, the concession proved to be strategically important, especially during WWII as the Italian troops stationed there amounted to about 600 to help the Axis powers. The concession was finally released back to Chiang Kai-Shek’s Republic of China government, after Italy’s surrender in the war and its transformation into a republic in 1946.
Legacy of the Tianjin Concession and the Italian town
Although it has been many years since the Italians have left Tianjin, the cultural impact of their presence can still be felt today. The town itself has been transformed into a touristic area that boasts of restored colonial architecture and “Italian style” scenery (意式风情). The construction of the new “Italian Town” on the ground of a former colonial space reveals China’s preoccupations with its national identity and international prestige as a rising superpower in the 21st century. By transforming a colonial concession into a tourist site for consumer purposes, the state manages to turn a humiliating memory into a form of cultural promotion that reaffirms China’s national prestige and justifies more diplomatic ties with the West based on economic values.
The desire to reaffirm and promote Italianità (“Italian essence” or “Italian spirit”) was central behind the original construction of the Italian concession in Tianjin. As traditional Chinese architecture was swapped out for Italian street names and churches, the concession was transformed in order to represent a sense of elegance and class superior to the surrounding native Chinese towns. In fact, during the colonial era, the only population permitted to live in these new elegant Neo-Renaissance styled buildings were Europeans of high standing and Chinese from an exceptionally high social class. The emphasis on hygiene and a sanitized modernity became central to the Italian project and resulted in the forced removal of salt stocks that formed the source of livelihood for most Chinese residents in the area. Meanwhile, the construction of mobility systems such as road and infrastructure were key parts of the project. As a result, the concession in Tianjin became a space to showcase the power and prestige – whether real or imagined – of newly unified Italy in the early-20th century.
Ironically, the same space becomes part of a larger Chinese project to globalize and increase international prestige as one moves into the 21st century. The Italian concession in Tianjin was one of the first former concession areas to be transformed into a tourist site in China. From 2002 to 2005, the Tianjin government carried out the restoration of the Italian concession in collaboration with Italian architecture firms and archival agencies. A public company named the Tianjin Haihe Developing Investment Co. Ltd (HEDO) led the project. At the end of the restoration, the former concession had been converted into a fashionable entertainment hub with an “exotic” European flavor. Restaurants, bars, cafes and the former homes of famous Chinese residents line the streets that radiate out from Marco Polo Square, which now forms the entrance and central point of the district. Interestingly, the “Italian Town” is almost always referred to in a positive way while the humiliation of its colonial past seemed to be forgotten by officials and tourists alike. The district is often promoted in local newspapers and tourist pamphlets as a symbol of Tianjin’s global identity (both in the sense of a modern globalized city and in that Tianjin was the site of multiple foreign concessions in the early-20th century). On popular Chinese travel forums , “Italian Town” is promoted as one of the top sites to see in Tianjin. In travel logs published online, Chinese tourists often describe the place as romantic and having an exotic attraction. Photographs of restored colonial architecture and scenic European-styled streets often accompany these reviews. The tragic past that these foreign architectures represent are almost always neglected. Instead, the restored former concession seemed to serve a more contemporary discourse that places emphasis not on China’s past as the weak and colonized, but on the country’s present image as a globalized and consumerist power.
Entrance to the Italian town of Tianjin & Marco Polo Square in Tianjin
The commercial and consumerist nature of the project is also explicit. Foreign architects have criticized HEDO’s restoration project as merely cleaning up the façade of buildings with cheap labor. Instead of restoring the buildings with the aim of preserving history, the project more closely resembles an effort to create an upscale consumer district with a “historic” touch to serve the middle and upper-middle classes. In fact, buildings were restored as commercial instead of residential spaces while former residents were relocated. This commercial turn reveals China’s new relationship, based on economic links and consumerism, with the same Western imperial powers that were once its colonizers.
The case of the Tianjin concession marks two important moments in mobilities between Italy and China: the initial construction of the concession in the early-1900s and the transformation of the neighborhood into a tourist or commercial district with “Italian flavors” after the year 2000. In this case, a former colonial space that originally served the purpose of reaffirming Italy’s international prestige has been reclaimed and turned into as a symbol of China’s new globalized and consumerist identity.
Sources and further readings:
Li, Xiqing (2011). Tianjin Italian style town. Tianjin: Tianjin University Publishing House, 2011.