The China Consuls

British Consular Officers, 1843-1943
Coates, P.D.
Date published: 
January 1988

Too little attention has been paid to the overseas officials of Britain's imperial era. This book tells the story of one such body, the China consular service. The author is uniquely qualified to write the story. As a young man he was himself a consular officer in China, learned to speak and read Chinese with unusual fluency, and was on active service with a Chinese division during the Allied defeat in Burma in 1942. In retirement he has spent years in meticulous research among the archives. Writing in a lively style, with an eye for a good story, he paints the service warts and all and brings back to life some outstanding men, some failures, and some black sheep. He shows what abno rmal lives officers in the China service led. Their careers were spent in exile in an alien and far-off country. They had to protect law-abiding British from the Chinese and to protect the Chinese from British crooks and ruffians. They dealt interminably with Chinese officials who initially regarded Westerners as crude barbarians and who were resentful of Western imperialism. They encountered riots and civil wars, whilst home leaves were infrequent and costly, and separations from wives and children disrupted family life. These strains were too much for very many officers. In writing this book the author had the general reader primarily in mind, but it is not likely to be superseded as a work of reference for academic specialists in this period of Chinese history, and the administrative historian will find novel information about methods of recruitment into the service and about Foreign Office adminstration. It sets a new standard for studies of this type.