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H.B. Morse, Customs Commissioner and Historian of China

H.B. Morse, Customs Commissioner and Historian of China

John King Fairbank
Martha Henderson Coolidge
Richard J. Smith
Copyright Date: 1995
Pages: 328
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130hmd1
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  • Book Info
    H.B. Morse, Customs Commissioner and Historian of China
    Book Description:

    Hosea Ballou Morse (1855-1934) sailed to China in 1874, and for the next thirty-five years he labored loyally in the Imperial Chinese Maritime Customs Service, becoming one of its most able commissioners and acquiring a deep knowledge of China's economy and foreign relations. After his retirement in 1909, Morse devoted himself to scholarship. He pioneered in the Western study of China's foreign relations, weaving from the tangled threads of the Ch'ing dynasty's foreign affairs several seminal interpretive histories, most notably his three-volume magnum opus,The International Relations of the Chinese Empire(1910-18).

    At the time of his death, Morse was considered the major historian of modern China in the English-speaking world, and his works played a profound role in shaping the contours of Western scholarship on China.

    Begun as a labor of love by his protégé, John King Fairbank, this lively biography based primarily on Morse's vast collection of personal papers sheds light on many crucial events in modern Chinese history, as well as on the multifaceted Western role in late imperial China, and provides new insights into the beginnings of modern China studies in this country. Half-finished when Fairbank died, the project was completed by his colleagues, Martha Henderson Coolidge and Richard J. Smith.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6180-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Richard J. Smith
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)
    John K. Fairbank

    In 1931 H.B. Morse, the principal historian of China’s foreign relations, was living southwest of London in the quiet town of Camberley, Surrey. Near Aldershot and Sandhurst, the British West Point, it had become a haven for retired brigadiers and civil servants. The friends that Dr. Morse met at the club, when the sometimes inclement weather allowed him to go there, had helped to build and maintain the British Empire. Indirectly, so had he, by serving the Chinese Empire as a commissioner in the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service. That international establishment, brilliantly directed from 1863 to 1911 by its...

  5. 1 Origins and Education, 1855–1874
    (pp. 5-18)

    Hosea Ballou Morse came from Puritan stock.¹ Descended from seventeenth-century New England ancestors, the fifth-generation Nova Scotian returned as a youth with his family to live in Medford, Massachusetts, near Boston, and later became a loyal Harvard graduate of 1874. Morse apparently retained an inward sense of himself as an American, although he lived almost all his life outside the United States: first in Nova Scotia, for nine and a half years; later in China, for thirty-three and a half years; and finally in England, for twenty-six years until his death in 1934. He resided in the United States for...

  6. 2 Entering China’s Service, 1874–1877
    (pp. 19-37)

    Morse’s recruitment into the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service during the spring of his senior year at Harvard decided the course of his adult life. It was effected by Edward Bangs Drew, who graduated from Harvard in 1863, eleven years ahead of Morse. Drew had become one of Inspector-General (I.G.) Robert Hart’s first American commissioners. Getting in on the ground floor of the Customs Service in 1863 and blessed with a warm and charming personality, not to mention great administrative talents, Drew rose within three years to commissioner status—something later recruits would achieve only after about twenty years of...

  7. 3 Adventures in North China, 1877–1879
    (pp. 38-52)

    Morse’s first posting to Tientsin in March 1877 put him directly under Commissioner Gustav Detring, a “pleasant, intelligent young fellow” of German extraction who had arrived on Hart’s doorstep in October 1865.¹ Although Detring spoke with a lisp that Hart felt would impede his speaking Chinese well, the German commissioner became principal foreign adviser to the well-known Ch’ing reformer Li Hung-chang. As governor-general of the strategic metropolitan province of Chihli (modern-day Hopei) from 1870 to 1895, Li played a pivotal role in Chinese foreign affairs from his base in Tientsin and also led China’s “selfstrengthening movement”—an effort begun in...

  8. 4 Rising in the Service, 1879–1885
    (pp. 53-67)

    As in any bureaucracy, Robert Hart in the Customs Service had to keep looking for talent capable of rising to top positions. Morse had from the first been in this promising category. His early assignments were out of the ordinary and gave him a breadth of experience not granted to most of his competitors. This became evident when Hart sent him to London in 1879. At the time Great Britain was riding high. It was one of the three greatest industrial powers on earth, and the British were busily engaged in extending and consolidating their empire and trading relationships all...

  9. 5 Advising the China Merchants’ Company, 1885–1887
    (pp. 68-87)

    In July 1885 Li Hung-chang wanted two Americans for a pair of special assignments. One was “to take the China Merchants’ Steam Navigation Company’s fleet and property back from Russell & Co., and to stay with them and steer them.” The other was “to rescue Korea on the Customs side from P.G. Mollendorff.” Morse recalled: “I selected the CMSN Company and was [seconded from Customs] to them exactly two years. To Korea, he [Hart] sent H.F. Merrill on the Customs side and O.N. Denny [U.S. consul at Tientsin] on the diplomatic.”¹ That Morse was able to make a choice indicates his...

  10. 6 Shanghai and Pakhoi, 1887–1892
    (pp. 88-102)

    Having done what he could in the tangled affairs of the China Merchants’ Steam Navigation Company, Morse returned to Customs duty as acting assistant secretary in the inspectorate general at Peking for six weeks. This was evidently an appointment that could keep him on salary while he awaited a more substantial assignment, but it also allowed the inspector-general to profit from Morse’s personal report on life as an adviser to a Chinese shipping firm. Morse, for his part, was able to observe the I.G. in action, at full tilt, as always. In 1932 Morse recalled: “In 1887 I was for...

  11. 7 Tamsui, 1892–1895
    (pp. 103-119)

    When Morse took charge as acting commissioner at Tamsui in March 1892, he was thirty-seven and had had a varied experience in half a dozen posts. Each post had been different, and Taiwan, then generally known as Formosa, was to be different again. Morse would wear two hats while on the “Beautiful Isle”: one as a reform-minded Ch’ing bureaucrat intent on effecting meaningful change, the other as a principal actor in a drama of war and rebellion. Since Morse’s experiences in Taiwan exerted a powerful influence on him in several key respects, let us set the stage on which he...

  12. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  13. 8 Taiwan in the Sino-Japanese War, 1894–1895
    (pp. 120-133)

    Morse met his most exciting challenge during and immediately after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95. This conflict arose out of contending claims over Korea’s status as a tributary state of China. Japan won the initial battle on the Korean peninsula in July 1894—a victory that surprised most Western military observers. During August and September, while Japanese land forces drove deeply into Korea and then Manchuria, the Japanese navy decisively defeated Li Hung-chang’s Peiyang fleet in the Yellow Sea. On April 17, 1895, Li signed the humiliating Treaty of Shimonoseki, which called for, among other things, the ceding of...

  14. 9 Lungchow and Pakhoi, 1896–1899
    (pp. 134-144)

    After the tumultuous Japanese takeover of Taiwan, the four Morses—Hosea, Nan, Janet, and Bertie—were reunited for eleven months in the relative calm of Shanghai. Morse held the rank of deputy commissioner and spent this interim time settling his complex Tamsui accounts and recuperating from both stress and his recurrent illness. In June 1896 he took up a new assignment as full commissioner at Lungchow, a tiny port on the border of French Indochina (Vietnam). This assignment was soon followed by an even shorter stint as commissioner at the woebegone town of Pakhoi, where he had previously served and...

  15. 10 Yochow, 1899–1900
    (pp. 145-161)

    In transferring Morse from Pakhoi to Hankow in Hupei province, with responsibility for opening up nearby Yochow (now Yueh-yang) in Hunan, Hart moved him not only from a marginal area to a central place but also from a French sphere of influence to a British one. It was an extremely ticklish assignment, for in 1899 both the Chinese Empire and the populace in general were in a heightened state of tension. The so-called scramble for concessions of the previous year had left a legacy of hostility toward foreigners in many parts of China—not least Hunan and Hupei. Hunan in...

  16. 11 Long Leave and Resumption of Duty, 1900–1903
    (pp. 162-174)

    According to Morse’s 1909 report to his Harvard class, he and Nan spent their leave time in the United States and Europe without much improvement in health.¹ Hosea attended a reunion at Harvard and went on to England and Switzerland. During this leave, the Morses became reacquainted with his niece Janet, now twelve, and her brother, Bertie, nine, whom they had not seen for four years. It is time now to tell their story more fully.²

    The father of Janet and Bertie, Albert (“Bert”) Morse, was nine years younger than Hosea and thus the youngest sibling of the family. Born...

  17. 12 Heading the Statistical Department, 1904–1908
    (pp. 175-191)

    As early as 1896 Hart had considered appointing Morse to the prestigious position of statistical secretary at Shanghai, but it was nearly a decade before he finally got the job.¹ In his four years at this post (December 31, 1903 to December 31, 1907) Morse served in the top command of the Customs Service, and his work in this department brought him lasting fame. He handled a whole wing of its activities, where all of his hard-won thirty years of experience at the ports and on special assignments could be brought to bear. Although his health continued to pose periodic...

  18. 13 Morse’s Second Career, 1909–1934
    (pp. 192-214)

    Morse’s initial two-year leave was prelude to an already-planned retirement, although he did not give final notification to Hart until the autumn of 1909. During these two years, Morse prepared to devote himself full time to historical scholarship. As he wrote to Charles F. Thwing on January 25, 1909: “I shall now settle down in my Tusculum to quiet study. I have got my books unpacked and am sorting and classifying my papers.”¹ Thwing had graduated from Harvard two years after Morse and for a number of years had been president of Western Reserve (now Case Western Reserve) University in...

  19. 14 Morse as Historian
    (pp. 215-229)
    John K. Fairbank

    The historian’s work is not immutable. Each generation’s interest in the past will be met by its own historians updating the record to meet the interests of their own day. Many contributions are therefore superseded and buried under layers of later writings. The accepted last word of one day becomes the outdated and passé work of a later time. Parts of a work may be incorporated into the accepted “facts” of history, while other aspects of it are marked for “revision,” to be challenged or improved upon. Because the significance of an event at any given time is in the...

  20. Afterword
    (pp. 230-238)
    Richard J. Smith

    It is impossible to know what form this book would have finally assumed if Fairbank had lived to see it to completion. Two things, however, seem evident. One is that John might well have found it uncomfortable to criticize Morse. This is understandable enough. After all, John’s biography began as a tribute to his “adopted grandfather”—a man whose photographic portrait graced his expansive study in Widener Library and then his office in Coolidge Hall for many years. What sort of Chinese-style filiality would permit a grandson to find fault with histsu-fu—adoptive or otherwise? At the same time,...

  21. Appendix A: Summary of H.B. Morse’s Customs Career
    (pp. 239-240)
  22. Appendix B: Obituary of Morse
    (pp. 241-246)
    C.A.V. Bowra
  23. Notes
    (pp. 247-282)
  24. Bibliographic Notes
    (pp. 283-284)
    John K. Fairbank
  25. Bibliography
    (pp. 285-300)
  26. Index
    (pp. 301-315)