The Chinese Maritime Customs Service: An Interdisciplinary Case Study

Since the early twentieth century, historians began researches on the interrelations between modern China and the Imperial Maritime Customs Service (IMCS) because the IMCS set up a wide range of services in placed of the central government of China. During the Qing period, every western service or system was introduced into China through the IMCS and the IMCS also arranged its Customs revenues to support these western projects.

The development of the IMCS can be seen from its expansion of its local Customs stations – in the 1850s, the IMCS only had 5 stations, but by 1894 it directed over 38 stations in Mainland China, 2 in Taiwan and 3 in Korea. These stations became regional nerve centres of western technologies, and the Marine Department and the Statistical Department were the brain of these centres  The Marine Department was put in charge of China’s meteorology, lighthouses, waterways, coastline, harbour management, anti-smuggling fleets, etc. The Statistical Department was responsible for an even bigger task – qualitative and quantitative data on trade from 1859 to 1949. The ‘Returns of Trade’ and ‘Reports on Trade’ became the most comprehensive and precise data to research the economic history of modern China.

The IMCS staff’s personal records (albums, journals, diaries, correspondence, etc.) are also invaluable. The difference between them and the ordinary ‘old China hands’ is that they did not just live in major cities but all over China,  and they were not outsiders but served in different units in the Chinese government. Thus, these records provide more in-depth perspectives and accurate descriptions.

In pursuit of interdisciplinary researches on these materials of different natures, the Center for Geographic Information Science, Research Center for Humanities and Social Science, Academia Sinica, founded this research project team, consisting of historians, literary experts, geographers, navy officer, and computer scientists. The applications of GIS, historiography, literary analysis and computer visualisation to the IMCS subjects are the parimary goal of this research project.