Tuesday, October 5, 2021


Tianjin 1901-1945. The Significance of the Italian Experience, by Maurizio Marinelli

The production of Italianità (Italianness) in the Chinese space

Since the acquisition of the concession in 1901, every unilateral practice of territoriality to assert and enforce control over this geographical area was seen as legitimate.

Ambassador Giovanni Gallina, after signing the concession’s agreement with the Director of the Chinese Maritime Customs Tang Shaoyi, proudly justified the immediate expropriation of the ‘filthy Chinese village’, arguing that all the other powers proceeded to the land expropriation as soon as they occupiethe area of their concession.8 Therefore, after the annihilation of the uncanny Chinese site (1902-04) and the reclamation of the wetlands (1905-06), the Italian colonial government firmly appropriated and thoroughly reinvented the space under its control by approving the new regulatory building code, the police code, and the code of hygiene in 1908.

Despite a slow and uncertain start, the Italian concession in Tianjin became the testing ground of a full-scale pedagogical project of modernity through a radical re-designing of the Chinese space. The enhancing of Italian-style architecture in the Italian concession contributed to generate a collective political and emotional capital which had two fundamental functions: to sustain the Italian government’s claim to legitimise the newly constructed national identity of the recently unified Italian Kingdom (1861-1946), and to gain the international recognition of Italy as a legitimate imperial power on the same level of the other imperialistic nations.

Significantly, Chinese historians Shan Keqiang and Liu Haiyan have emphasized that, from an administrative, juridical, police, and fiscal perspective, the =concessions were ‘states within the state’ (guo zhong zhi guo). Zhang Hongxiang has denounced foreign powers for land expropriation and forced removal of thousands of former residents without compensation. Official documents reveal how officials emphasized that, in the middle of the wars, Tianjin residents suffered immensely, to the extent that their “family businesses were swept away (jiayedangran)”; therefore the officials asked the “civilized countries” (wenmingguo) to avoid the “extreme sacrifice of their land (xishengzhidi).

The Italians, as well as others are accused of having appropriated public land, ontravening the treaties; an entire cemetery was removed and graves destroyed for reasons of public sanitation. There was a specific case of land expropriation, where the salt mines were located (115 mu), and promises of full compensation to the merchants were not kept.

However, for the newly unified Italian nation, the acquisition of the concession became a unique opportunity to affirm Italianità (Italianness) on a global geo-political scale: it represented the long-awaited historical nemesis, after the repeated failures, which had characterized both Italian colonial policy in Africa and diplomatic relations between Italy and China from the 1866 bilateral Treaty onwards.

On 1st March 1896, Italian troops had suffered a devastating defeat in the climactic battle of the first Italo-Ethiopian war, which was fought near Adwa, against Ethiopia’s Negus Menelik II. This defeat triggered the resignation of Prime Minister Francesco Crispi and the fall of his second Government (March 10, 1896), amidst a profound disenchantment with “foreign adventures.”

In the spring of 1899, an Italian attempt to extract from the Chinese government an official recognition of Sanmen Bay (in present day Zhejiang province) as a naval station and Italian zone of influence miserably failed. Veteran Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti (at the helm of the Kingdom’s cabinet five times between 1892 and 1921), referring specifically to the Italian experience in China, defined the unsuccessful attempt with Sanmen Bay as “a waste of a few million (lire) and a national humiliation.” The refusal by the Chinese government to accept the 1899 Italian request – eventually presented in the untenable form of an ultimatum –, was a serious setback for the imagined community of the newly created Italian nation.

Even more so since this rebuff occurred at a historical juncture when all other major powers (Great Britain, France, Germany, but also Japan and Russia) were obtaining concessions and settlements in strategically important locations for their political presence and economic penetration in the Chinese territory. The wound was rendered all the more painful by Britain’s refusal to support the Italian ultimatum in 1899, thus revealing that other foreign powers were not keen for Italy to be part of the ‘scramble for concessions’ and exert its influence in China. Cicchiti-Suriani, writing in 1951 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the acquisition of the concession, pointed out that ‘After the unfortunate prelude of Sanmen, that gesture represented the epilogue of the 1900 international events’.

There is no unanimous consent in the sources concerning the Chinese population living in the area at the time of the transfer: 13,704 according to the 1902 census, around 17,000 people according to Fileti’s report, and 16,500 according Arnaldo Cicchiti-Suriani. It is important to notice, however, the significant reduction since the 1922 census reports 4,025 Chinese citizens, 62 Italians, and 42 from other nationalities were living in the concession at the time. In 1935 the total estimated population was 6,261, of which 5,725 Chinese and 536 foreigners including 392 Italians, but Gennaro Pistolese argues instead that the Italians were ‘about 150 people’. F.C. Jones, in the few lines dedicated to the Italian concession, says: ‘The population in 1937 was 373 foreigners and some 6,500 Chinese’. Judging from these figures, one can deduct two factors: a significant decrease of the overall population living in the Italian concession from 16-17,000 (1902) to 4-6,000 (1922-1935) and a predominance of Chinese citizens. Nevertheless, an in-depth analysis of the Italian sources unmasks the tendency to obscure the presence of Chinese citizens in the concession, relegating them to the role of subalterns.

This tendency reached its climax in 1935, when Pistolese affirmed: ‘Our concession has a demographic consistency superior to the other concessions in Tien-Tsin’, and he reports the data of the Japanese concession (5,000 people), British (2,000), and French (1,450). This mystification contributed to the fascist regime’s construction of a self-reflexive and self-congratulatory image, based on cultural reproduction: the successful infrastructural projects that beautified the area were indicative of the outstanding success of the Italian spiritual and civilizing mission in this ‘faraway extension’ of the motherland. Therefore, the Italian concession became a transposed miniature representation of the alleged success of the Italian nation.

The operative mechanisms of spatial territoriality and cultural reproduction revealed an intrinsic character of ethnic displacement and class exclusivity: in Tianjin the Italian planners reinforced the separation between the foreigners and the indigenous residents, unless the Chinese were able to live up to the foreigners’ status and contribute to the ‘aristocratic’ flavour instilled on the concession’s built form.

The outcome was a miniature venue of Italianità, as demonstrated by the replica of Italian-style architecture both on the two main squares (Piazza Regina Elena and Piazza Dante) and the main roads (Via Roma, Via Principe D’Udine, Via Matteo Ricci, Corso Vittorio Emanuele III). The christening of the other space and its occupation with neo-renaissance and romanesque Italian villas, was the unique Italian response to the challenge of finding a collective unified identitary form, both in terms of national culture and national identity, visà-vis the other European great powers operating in Tianjin.

Each foreign concession developed its residential area for the expatriates of the colonial power (and for wealthy Chinese citizens) using building styles that were reflecting, reproducing and imposing the stylistic traditions of each individual country. The Italian area’s architecture was dominated by the neo-renaissance style and became known as ‘the aristocratic concession’. Cultural reproduction contributed to the emergence of hagiographic representations. Imagining an entity like the ‘modern’ Italian nation and projecting it onto China, through the construction of the Italian ‘neighborhood’ in Tianjin, was a way of building a positive story up around the Italian citizens and, intentionally, beyond: this took the form of a master narrative of benign colonialism, where the colonial agentsbecame the positive characters of a specific national success story.

The Italian concession in Tianjin had the characteristics of a hybrid community, with foreign and Chinese citizens living in a small area de iure defined as a permanent foreign possession but de facto dwelling on the Chinese soil. Yet it was a community ‘imagined’ according to a specific scheme of projective self-perception, and therefore represented as a ‘neighborhood’ bridging multiple worlds: Italy and China, but even more so, Italy and the other foreign powers operating in Tianjin.

Narratives and Counter-narratives of the Italian Imperial Dream

The craftsman of the Italian concession was Vincenzo Fileti, who was the Consul General of the concession between 1909 and 1919 and the key promoter of its development and transformation into the so-called ‘aristocratic concession’.29 In his 1921 report, Fileti portrays the Chinese people as unwilling to abandon their rigid obstinacy, insensitive to any western innovation, and even ignorant and superstitious; since they belonged to ‘a closed civilisation jealous of its own ideology which they consider much superior to the western one’. The colonial agent’s lexicon contributes to building the collective political and emotional capital necessary to deconstruct the alleged Chinese superiority complex and proclaim instead the superiority of his own civilisation.

This is the sine qua non used to justify Fileti’s agenda and his vision of China as ‘a virgin land’ ready for exploitation:

Today the European and American capitals, and for the most part Italian labour, have succeeded in building there about 3,500 miles of railways, a very small amount considering the total surface of China … It is therefore a vast virgin land for economic exploitation that can be opened to human activity and the effort to overcome the difficulties is well justified … all the nations that feel strength, due to their commercial and industrial development, have always looked with active and growing interest to the vast and virgin Chinese market and seized every favourable opportunity to breach the wall enclosing such a treasure, to avoid being second or overpowered in the exploitation of that vast new market.31 The idea of catching up and accelerating the process of conquest and exploitation –to compensate for Italy’s late arrival on the globalimperialistic arena– is a constant leitmotiv in Italian colonial literature.

However, the Italian ‘imagined community’ in Tianjin capitalized on the rhetoric trope of the ‘civilizing mission’ attributed to the newly created Italian nation. The Italian colonial experience in Africa, especially in the 1890s, was characterized by a strong emphasis on Italy’s “proletarian” colonialism, which was allegedly less pernicious than the others since it would have been ‘aimed to secure better land and greater prosperity forits indigenous citizens’.

At the same time, Italy almost seemed to have a duty to implement a precise pedagogical design of ‘modernity’, transforming the natives into European-style consumers: in fact lieutenant Gustavo Bianchi describes the natives in Ethiopia as ‘eager to possess weapons, objects, trifles and instruments that belong to Europeans’, but since ‘they cannot understand things that they only hear about’, he argues that the Italians should teach them how to dress, how to build their houses, how to farm their land, in other words, how to desire and acquire consumption tastes similar to the ‘civilised’ European people.

In the Chinese context, the mandate to extend the Italian culture is used to legitimise the use of the concession to promote the mercantile expansion. Italians officials and intellectuals alike often capitalize on the rhetoric trope of a ong-standing friendship between Italy and China, which goes back to the celebrated cross-cultural intermediation of Venetian traveller Marco Polo (1254–1324), and even more Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci (1552–1610).

On 26 April 1927 Professor Ugo Bassi, in a lecture given at the Fascist University of Bologna, celebrates the contributions of the two illustrious Italians and concludes: ‘Our magnificent Italian progeny has offered to the whole world vast continents and new knowledge, affirming herself always and in every field, first among all the others.’

Fileti’s 1921 accurate description of the Italian concession area is less high-sounding and more pragmatic, but he also reveals revealing the juxtaposition of external and internal space. The external space is also imbued with quantitative elements. These allude to the various possibilities of economic exploitation, with regard to the vastness of the indigenous territory, and in comparison with other foreign powers. The internal space is tinged with emotions such as pride, greed, and arrogance, which became even more prominent with the transition from the liberal state to the fascist regime.

As Ugo Bassi emphasizes: ‘Even Italy, the most civilized and famous people throughout Europe was tempted by the same propulsion of greed, which was a characteristic of other nations’.

However, Bassi also reiterates the mantra of Italian benign colonialism: ‘The Italians proud as usual of the humanist tradition of their motherland and the Roman civilisation brought to the indigenous people, where they could, aid and rescue’. The alleged magnanimous behaviour of the Italian ‘liberators’ is contradicted by the first-hand account of Medical Lieutenant Giuseppe Messerotti Benvenuti.

In fifty-eight letters and 400 photographs to his mother (taken between September 1900 and September 1901) he documented the relations between the different military troops, mentioning the killing, the looting and other atrocious excesses, and in the end he sadly concluded:
"If our soldiers did less harm than the other armies it is due to the fact that, even though they (the Italians) always went everywhere, they always got there late, when the villages had already been burned and plundered. The few times they arrived on time, they behaved like the others."

But the Italian colonial literature prefers to embrace and firmly uphold Fileti’s argument that Italy could not miss the opportunity to mark off China ‘as an actor and observer in that world where probably new global destinies were developing.’Fileti’s hagiographic description contributes to construct the metanarrative41 of salvation of the Chinese space, and allegedly the Chinese people, from poverty and indigence.

In 1936, in line with the fascist dream of Empire-building, engineer Rinaldo Luigi Borgnino wrote an enthusiastic article, arguing against the possibility of ceding the territory back to China. The alleged legitimacy of keeping the concession was based on the highly civilizing motivations demonstrated by the Italians, as revealed by the progressive ‘evolution’ of that ‘small territory.’

Before the Italian intervention the area was ‘miserable’, ‘noxious’, ‘desolated’ and ‘sad’. After the Italian acquisition, the area had become a stage display of Italianness: a model of modernity and hygiene. With a clear self-congratulatory tone Borgnino boasted that among the most impressive achievements there were advanced civil engineering and infrastructural projects, such as wide roads, elegant buildings, a modern hospital, electricity and potable water in all the houses, an advanced sewage system, and public landscaping.

A local British newspaper, mentioned by Borgnino, defined the Italian concession as ‘the most pleasant residential neighbourhood among all the concessions’. The representation of the concession as a ‘neighbourhood’ of exquisite Italianness became a recurrent colonial rhetorical trope, indicating pride in the motherland. This reached its climax with military general Cesare Cesari’s 1937 description:

By 1943, however, the concession had a garrison of circa 600 Italian troops and not many civilians were left. On 10 September 1943 it was occupied by Japan, since Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic relinquished the concession to the Japanese-sponsored Chinese National Government (which was neither recognized by the Kingdom of Italy, nor by the Republic of China). On 10 February 1947 the concession was formally ceded back to China by post-war Italy.