Clothes and Nationality

From the North-China Herald of December 12, 1868

(Editor's note: The problem of extending consular protection in China to foreign nationals of Chinese descent has perplexed those concerned for a very long time.)

Sir Rutherford Alcock has astonished the world by another of those wonderful lucubrations which bid fair to gain for his regime an historic reputation. He has now discovered that great practical inconvenience results from the difficulty of distinguishing persons of Chinese descent who claim British protection - literally, Singapore men - from bona fide subjects of the Emperor; and that it is desirable to provide against this possible confusion. To attain this object, he has hit upon an expedient so arbitrary, that it has excited unmitigated censure and disgust. He has ordered that the class in question shall, "while residing or being in Chinese territory, discard the Chinese costume and adopt some other dress or costume whereby they may readily be distinguished from the native population. In the event of their infringing this rule they shall not be entitled to claim British protection or interference on their behalf."

It seems to us that the high Public Servants in China are singularly fond of threatening to withdraw from their countrymen the privileges of their birthright. It was absurd enough to threaten that an Englishman who had not paid his yearly tax of $5 should be left at the mercy of Chinese Officials, in the case of any difficulty. But to make a man's nationality depend on his clothes, is so outrageous as to be amusing. And what renders the edict more astounding is, that it has received the sanction of Lord Stanley. The approval was formal no doubt; the idea can have emanated from no less extraordinary a centre than Peking. But there is the fact that the Home Government have approved and sanctioned it. Officials are very fond of finding a precedent; but they must have been puzzled in this instance, unless they fell back on the tyrannical act passed in the reign of George II forbidding the Highlanders to wear their national costume. We shall next have an order making tall hats compulsory, as tending to give an air of respectability to the British merchant; or knee-breeches and gaiters in order that the Chinese may know the wearer to be an ecclesiastical dignitary.

And this brings us to another point. If the government or its officers have power to legislate for a man's costume in one sense, they must be able to do so in another. If they can order Chinese subjects of the Queen to wear English clothes, they can order Her Majesty's English subjects not to wear Chinese clothes. We can fancy what a cry would go up from Exeter Hall, if an order in this sense were to flow from Sir Rutherford's fertile pen. Yet it would be quite as sensible as the other.

For what are, really, the inconveniences to be overcome in the case of Singapore Chinese; what do they do under cover of their Chinese clothes, which renders it necessary that the British lion should be laid bare to the eyes of all beholders. There are few such in Shanghai. We must go south to find a motive for the order. In Foochow, Amoy and Canton the "persons of Chinese descent" are more plentiful. What is the head and front of their offending? Simply that, in virtue of their apparent nationality, they get a pull in buying produce, which they afterwards improve by falling back on their real allegiance. A Chinaman can of course buy from a Chinaman more cheaply than a Foreigner can, but a Foreigner can - or is supposed to be able to - pass his goods through the country more cheaply than a native. A Chinese-British subject gets the advantage both ways; and why should he not? Who is injured by his action, unless it be the foreign merchant with whom he can compete on more favourable terms? But foreign merchants do not complain. The new edict is not to satisfy them. Its object is to "maintain friendly relations between British subjects and Chinese subjects." In other words it is issued in the interests of the Chinese, who chafe at being occasionally "sold" by - that is to say, at losing an occasional opportunity of squeezing - a foreigner in disguise. To prevent this, they cry aloud to strip the sheep's clothing from the wolf's back, and it is stripped accordingly.

We have tried very hard to conceive any other harm a disguised British subject could do, but have utterly failed; nor have we been more successful in our inquiries from others.. The only conclusion we can come to is, that the notification is a result of official laziness. Chinese merchants who have been "sold" by a Singapore man complain to their officials; their officials complain to the Consuls; and this is troublesome. What easier than to destroy the source of trouble by tearing off the disguise from the incarnate deception. The act may be arbitrary; the threat of denationalizing a man because he wears a peculiar coat may be ludicrous; but the worry of these constant complaints will be saved.

From the North-China Herald of December 12, 1868:


We subjoin a translation of a memorial that has been addressed by sixteen Chinese descended British subjects to H.B.M. Minister on the subject of his late notification regarding the dress. They would have done better perhaps to have repudiated the notion that it lies in the power of Sir R. Alcock or any other British authority to prescribe what clothes they shall wear.

To Sir Rutherford Alcock, K.C.B.

H.B.M.'s Envoy Extraordinary Minister Plenipotentiary, and Chief Superintendent of Trade in China.

The Petition of the Undersigned, British Subjects, of Chinese Descent, resident in Shanghai, HUMBLY SHEWETH:

That your Petitioners have read and carefully considered Your Excellency's dispatch and Notification, dated at Pekin the 7th day of October, 1868, relating to the conditions under which Chinese descended British Subjects may reside or travel in China under British protection, and your Petitioners while humble submitting to Your Excellency's Notification, beg to submit the following suggestion for Your Excellency's consideration and approval.

1st.- As to change of the dress. Your Excellency while ordering a change from the present Chinese costume does not name any particular dress, and your Petitioners request the liberty of being allowed to adopt a mode for themselves, they object to any European dress, because a great number of Chinese of the lower classes, in the English, French, and American Settlements, not being Chinese descended British Subjects, are attired wholly or partially in such a costume, thereby appearing more like Portuguese or half castes than British, while they know of no Chinese born British subjects who have discarded Chinese dress and assumed European costume.

2nd.- Your Petitioners humbly submit, as a change more in consonance with their personal feelings, as well as more agreeable to their position as subjects of a free nation, and one by which moreover they could be readily distinguished as Chinese descended British subjects, that they be allowed to assume as in accordance with Your Excellency's Notifications aforesaid, their ancestral dress worn during the Ming dynasty; for this reason, that their forefathers being pure Chinese, were forced two hundred years ago by the conquest of their country by the Manchu Tartars to seek the hospitality of neighbouring countries, and notably that of Great Britain; under whose equal laws and wise institutions they have up to this time continued to enjoy peace, and comparative prosperity.

3rd.- Your petitioners are willing to pay due respect to officials presiding in a Chinese Court of Justice, but only such respect as is consistent with English custom, they looking upon themselves as British in every sense of the word and only amenable to British laws and customs.

And your petitioners will ever pray.

And fourteen others.


Much has been said and written about the remarkable edict which emanated from Peking relative to dress. It was at first unintelligible, and conjectures were freely made in different quarters as to the scope and intention of the mysterious manifesto. Of course we were bound to believe that it meant something, but what it meant was a profound puzzle. Every one remembers the memorable sermon of the Archbishop of Toledo which "smelt strongly of apoplexy" and so this wordy edict savoured of that paralysis which seems to have been until very recently the prevailing disease at the Northern Capital. At first it was believed to be the prelude to a blow at the enterprising English Missionaries who have lately anticipated the freshest Parisian fashion, and discarded butterfly bonnets for coiffure a la Tea-Pot. The words "Chinese Descent" however satisfied the reader that this solution was not "a happy thought;" and it gradually dawned on the mind that an allusion to Singapore Chinamen was intended. This point being gained, however, the question arose why should any attempt to interfere with the costume of these harmless persons be made? They are not really "social evils" in any dress, and to make them uncomfortable by compelling them to assume habits for which they have a distaste, is an act of caprice if not of tyranny. In an aesthetic point of view we have a right to say a word or two on the subject. We regard clothes in a different light from that in which the author of Sartor Resartus holds them. We cannot regard garments as of necessity, shams, impositions, and tawdry hypocrises. Clothes are selected by each race in obedience to a subtle sense of the fitness of things. The sedate Turk appropriately clothes himself in flowing robes, the sombrero and the gaiters become the Spaniard, and the Chinaman loses his most distinctive badge of nationality if robbed of his queue. There is some difficulty perhaps in explaining this phenomenon, but it is not easy to reconcile one's self to any violations of the great Law which assigns to one nation a Turban, to another a chimney-pot hat, and to another a long and intricately-plaited tail. We of course have been speaking aesthetically which is the nearest equivalent with which we are acquainted to that convenient mode of using terms denominated the Pickwickian sense. Let any one who doubts us, however, look at the hideous object which a Chinaman who apes European attire presents. The wide-awake hat assorts ill with the twisted hair, and the shapeless legs are exhibited in grotesque ugliness in any garb save the national silk pantaloons.

This feeling appears to have actuated the minds of the petitioners who addressed the British Minister a few days ago. "The British subjects of Chinese Descent, resident in Shanghai: observe with great truth and propriety. "As to change of the dress, Your Excellency while ordering a change from the present Chinese costume does not name any particular dress, and your petitioners request the liberty of being allowed to adopt a mode for themselves - they object to any European dress." - The reason for this objection is given farther on, and is, it seems to us, a very cogent one.

The respectful suitors who (to make an obvious pun) curiously enough object to redress, urge that the Chinese who affect Foreign raiment in Shanghai are not respectable as a class, and that it is not pleasant for men of definite position to be stamped with a badge of inferiority, or social disgrace. It would have been well however, had the petitioners stopped here. They have a grievance and of course, as owning allegiance to the British Crown, they claim the true and inalienable British right of grumbling, but it would have been wiser to have avoided suggestions. The idea of a change to the costume of the Ming Dynasty, we pointed out yesterday, is absurd in the extreme, and we fear that the introduction of so odd a suggestion into a memorial which is in other respects sensible enough, will damage the cause of the petitioners, and give Sir Rutherford Alcock a favourable opportunity for long and argumentative rejoinders. They might have fairly demurred to a compulsory change, in any respect. The law under which a British subject can be compelled to adopt a costume suiting the view of his Government, has yet to be written; and still more imaginary is the right of the latter to withhold from him the privileges of his nationality in the event of contumacy. But a simpler plan than either would be to discard the system of shaving the head, which marks submission to the present dynasty. The objection might be raised that the petitioners would then subject themselves to the name of "Chung-mao" (Long-haired) given to the Tai-ping rebels; but this is one H.B.M.'s Minister would surely treat as light, since after the aid given by the British Government in putting down the Taipings, the Chinese Government could hardly allege this similarity of costume as a grievance.

Contributed by Eric Politzer