Italian colonialism in China: the concession of Tiānjīn (1901-1947)

The city of Tiānjīn (天津, port of heaven) was at the end of the 19th century one of the main locations for commercial trade between Europe and China. For its geographical position at the end of the Grand Canal on the Pei-ho river, Tiānjīnwas considered the Beijing port (about 120 km from the capital) and was open to the trade with the West, as treaty port, in 1860. The British, the French and the American settlements were the first to be established in the city. Tiānjīnsoon became the place witnessing the deepest process of westernization and socio-cultural transformation of urban and social life in China. At the same time, the foreign presence allowed the port to develop and become one of the most important in Asia. Between 1895 and 1902, new settlements within the territory of the treaty port were also assigned to Japan, Germany and Russia, and finally to Belgium, Austria-Hungary and Italy.

The permanent presence of foreigners in China was granted and exploit through the legal institution named “concession”.

The establishment of the concessions was the main consequence of the signing of the unequal treaties (bù píngděng tiáoyuē, 不平等 条约), which constituted the legitimate basis for the colonial Powers, in order to obtain exclusive rights, to build and operate infrastructures, new urban settlements, ports, railways, exploit mineral resources and to exercise territorial jurisdiction in strategic areas, without any reciprocity being extended to the hosting country. The bilateral agreements were often drafted and signed in a condition of coercion, almost always with the implicit threat of the use of military force. From the presence of all those elements derived the expression, used by politics and adopted by the historiography, “unequal treaties”.

Overall, in Tiānjīn the foreign concessions reached an area of about “15.5 square kilometers, approximately eight times larger than the original settlement” (British, French and American) and the entire front along the river Pei-ho became territory administrated by foreign Powers. Tiānjīn so became in few years also the most sophisticated, multicultural and economic environment built by the foreign communities in China. “It is difficult to verify the accuracy of the available statistics”, but it is believed that at the time of the first international settlements the population of Tiānjīn was close to “300,000” people and reached a million inhabitants around “1920”, of which about 10,000 were foreigners of different origin.

The stable foreign presence in the early 1900s transformed the city into a dynamic and ambitious multinational project, involving citizens of different nations, living within a few square miles of territory.

As China historian Maurizio Marinelli has noticed, each concession became in few years the architectural and social representation of the different cultural origins, meanwhile the international community used the territory to promote and organize activities of different nature and purpose. Among them, the Italian concession of Tiānjīn was the only Italian territorial presence in China. It was the selected ground of the government ambitions to elevate Italy’s political and military rank at the same level as other European Powers on the continent. After having suffered the humiliating experience of the first Ethiopian War in 1896, the Italian government considered the establishment of a concession in China as an opportunity to return to the leading path of the international geopolitics.

The Italian concession was formally instituted with the signing of the Protocol dated 7 September 1901. Italy acquired the concession with the same extraterritoriality privileges granted to the other Powers. The merit of the political and the diplomatic success was attributed to the marquis Salvago Raggi, who ordered on 21 January 1901, before the signing of the Protocol, to the lieutenant Mario Valli, commander of the Italian troops under the command of marshal Alfred von Wandersee, to occupy the suburb along the Pei-ho river, in an area bordering the territory already occupied by Russia and Austria-Hungary. The final agreement about the concession was later signed by count Giovanni Gallina, who succeeded Raggi, on 7 June 1902. The text of the agreement contained 14 articles, which recognized the boundaries, the Italian jurisdiction and the right of ownership of properties for the Italian citizens. The Chinese community could reside in the territory. The concession was awarded perpetually, and no lease payment was asked.

The concession did not have an easy beginning. The project started with the expropriation of the territory that was in a part of the city that was unfavourable, indeed not suitable for the residence of a western community, because it was in an unhealthy location, which had to be reclaimed. It included an abandoned area that was used as a salt deposit and a village inhabited by the saline workers. The population counted about 17,000 souls, living in a state of absolute poverty.

The immediate advantage of the location was, instead, the proximity to the train station, which was an important crossroad for routes of commercial trade towards northern China.

Italian politics favoured the intervention and the acquisition of the concession in China, but the Italian government did not contribute to the initiative with the necessary financial resources. Initially, the concession did not receive any financial support and had to cope with its own resources to expropriate the properties. The expropriation costs were added to those necessary for the reclamation that the Italian consular administration gained through the ongoing search for the financial support of individuals and private institutions. The foundation works started with the budget surplus obtained from the sale of the private properties of the concessions, to which also the tax revenue streams locally applied was added.

Japanese Surrender, Tientsin, China, October 1945.
From the Louis R. Jones Collection (COLL/935) at the Archives Branch, Marine Corps History Division.