Colonialism in Shanghai, China’s Global City: Former Bristol PhD student Isabella Jackson on how she wrote her new book

Isabella Jackson describes how her new book emerged from her 2012 PhD thesis here at the department, a process, it sometimes seems, that involves unlearning all the things that had to be learned in order to prepare the thesis. Isabella’s story of presenting her findings on modern Chinese history actually began here in the department 14 October 2002, when as a 1st year undergraduate she gave a seminar presentation on ‘The Chinese World Order and the West’ in my class on the Boxer Uprising in China. After her BA, she took the MA here, then an MPhil in Modern Chinese Studies at Oxford as part of her preparation for the PhD. Robert Bickers

How do we develop our own original line of argument in a research project? And what makes a book from a PhD dissertation? These are two of the biggest questions faced by doctoral students, one early in their research and the other nearer to graduation. When I began my PhD in 2008, I had a one-page outline of a project to investigate how the International Settlement at Shanghai was managed. My supervisor, Professor Robert Bickers, pointed out that while he and one or two others had written about the Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC), a British-dominated colonial body, as part of wider examinations of colonialism in China, no dedicated study of this state-like institution and its long tentacles existed. But another professor in the department warned that institutional history was deadly boring (not quite his words). I knew I needed to provide more than an analysis of how the SMC functioned and how it influenced the city, but I did not know what that might entail.

The Council of 1936-1937, with American, British, Chinese and Japanese members. Image courtesy of Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol. HPC ref: Bi-s085

So I got reading, noting anything that leapt out as surprising; Professor Rana Mitter, who taught me during my MPhil at Oxford, is a great advocate of paying attention to what is surprising in our research. What kept striking me was the paradox of it being an International Settlement but an expression of British colonialism. How justified was the ‘International’ moniker? I found that as time went by, particularly from the late 1920s, the SMC was increasingly transnational in the members of the council, its staff, and the networks in which those councillors and employees moved. I called this form of colonialism ‘transnational colonialism’. It was still important to demonstrate the huge impact of the SMC on Shanghai, its residents, and the politics of the period, particularly the growth of Chinese nationalism, but I now had a thesis of potentially wider interest to people beyond the field of Shanghai history.

The Shanghai Municipal Archives on the Bund

After a year in the Shanghai Municipal Archives and longer writing up, I completed my PhD in 2012. The next job was to adapt my thesis for publication as a monograph. My PhD examiners made many useful suggestions, and they needed more convincing on aspects of my argument, so I knew the areas that had to be strengthened. A couple of people advised me to leave my thesis for six months and come back to it afresh, when I’d be able to see its strengths and weaknesses more objectively, which I did. I’ll never know whether this was a good plan in my case or not, but in retrospect, I wish I had ploughed straight on with the book rather than breaking my momentum. What prompted me to get back to it was meeting the immensely encouraging Lucy Rhymer, Commissioning Editor for Asian Studies at Cambridge University Press, at a British Association for Chinese Studies conference. She liked the look of my paper and asked if I was publishing my PhD. I promised to send her a proposal that month, and it was just the push I needed to start to see my project as a potential book aimed at a wide range of readers.

A book proposal requires the writer to focus on key words, audience, market, and significance. Summarising each chapter in terms of the claims I was making helped me develop a punchier style. I now needed to locate my work in relation to the existing field in a different way to a dissertation literature review, which shows how a project builds on and departs from the existing scholarship. I had to demonstrate not only that there was a ready market for a book about how precisely colonialism worked in Shanghai, but also that I was taking a different approach to existing books on Shanghai and historical Sino-British relations. As much of that work is by none other than my excellent supervisor, Robert Bickers, this was a delicate task! I related my work to comparable colonial sites, from smaller treaty ports in China and the colony of Hong Kong to municipalities in British India and even Egypt, which was subject to both British and French imperialism.

Lucy asked for sample chapters, so I revised what I thought were my strongest chapters and she sent them out for review. The anonymous readers’ reports provided more guidance as to how to make the manuscript more book-like. By this point I thought I was stressing the significance of my findings a lot, but I needed to do it even more explicitly. Writing my response to the readers was perhaps the most useful stage: much of what I wrote in answer to their critique went into my Introduction, setting out my stall as directly as I could. Next I had to deliver the full manuscript to go back for review, and this time the readers were satisfied, as were the Cambridge Syndicate in turn, and I got the contract for the book. For the first time I had a deadline, and there is nothing like a deadline to get me writing. Three months later I sent off the final manuscript, fully indexed. Every stage since then has been enjoyable: seeing the proofs laid out like a real book, choosing the cover image, and finally receiving my own copies.

The Cambridge University Press Syndicate, which takes the final decision on whether to offer a contract for a book. Source:

The project has come a long way from the one-page outline with which I began my PhD. It remains to be seen how readers will respond to my argument about transnational colonialism in Shanghai, but I am confident that I am making a new contribution to debates that should be taken into account as we seek to understand the different permutations of colonialism in China and beyond.

My new book

Isabella Jackson, Trinity College Dublin

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