Chinese Maritime Customs Service

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Chinese Maritime Customs Service
Ensign of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service.svg
Ensign of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, 1931–1950
Agency overview
Superseding agency
Jurisdiction Qing dynasty
HeadquartersPeking (1854–1929)
Shanghai (1929–1941)
Chungking (1941–1949)
Taipei (1949–1950)
Minister responsible
Agency executives
Parent agencyMinistry of Finance
Imperial Maritime Customs Service
Traditional Chinese大清皇家海關總稅務司
Simplified Chinese大清皇家海关总税务司
Literal meaningGreat Qing Imperial Customs Taxation Service

The Chinese Maritime Customs Service was a Chinese governmental tax collection agency and information service from its founding in 1854 until it split in 1949 into services operating in the Republic of China on Taiwan, and in the People's Republic of China. From its foundation in 1854 until the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the agency was known as the Imperial Maritime Customs Service.[3]


From 1757 to signature of the Treaty of Nanking by the Chinese and British governments in 1842, all foreign trade in China operated through the monopoly Canton System centered on the Southern Chinese port of Canton (now Guangzhou). The treaty abolished this monopoly and opened the further ports of Shanghai, Amoy (Xiamen), Ningpo (Ningbo) and Foochow (Fuzhou) to international trade and brought with it the need for a mechanism to collect customs duties payable on business transacted in these places.[4][5]


The customs house in Canton. Built in 1914, it was the oldest surviving customs house in China
The historic customs house on the Yangtze waterfront in Hankou (Wuhan)

Largely staffed at senior levels by foreigners, the Service was controlled by Chinese central government throughout its history. It was effectively established by foreign consuls in Shanghai in 1854 to collect maritime trade taxes that were going unpaid due to the inability of Chinese officials to collect them during the Taiping Rebellion. Its responsibilities soon grew to include domestic customs administration, postal administration, harbour and waterway management, weather reporting, and anti-smuggling operations. It mapped, lit, and policed the China coast and the Yangtze. It conducted loan negotiations, currency reform, and financial and economic management. The Service published monthly Returns of Trade, a regular series of Aids to Navigation and reports on weather and medical matters. It also represented China at over twenty world fairs and exhibition, ran some educational establishments, and conducted some diplomatic activities. Britons dominated the foreign staff of the Customs, but there were large numbers of German, U.S., French, and later Japanese staff amongst others. Promotion of Chinese nationals into senior positions started in 1929.[6]

After two decades of operation, the system collected about one third of the revenue available to the government in Beijing. In addition, foreign trade expanded rapidly because international trade was regulated and predictable. Foreign governments benefitted because there was a mechanism to collect revenues to repay the loans that they had imposed on or granted to China. By 1900, there were 20,000 people working in forty main Customs Houses across China and many more subsidiary stations.[7]

Inspectors-General and notable officers[edit]

The agency's first Inspector-General (IG), Horatio Nelson Lay (李泰國), was dismissed in 1863 following a dispute with the Imperial court to be replaced by Sir Robert Hart (赫德), by far the most well known IG, who served until his death in 1911. Hart oversaw the development of the Service and its activities to its fullest form. Among his many contributions were the establishment of the Tongwen Guan or School of Combined Learning, which produced numerous translations of works on international law, science, world history, and current events; the postal service; and the Northern Navy. Hart established China’s central statistical office in the Maritime Service in Shanghai and the Statistical Secretariat (1873–1950) and following the Boxer Uprising, set up Customs College to provide educated Chinese staff for the Service.[8] Hart was succeeded by Sir Francis Aglen (1869–1932) (安格联) and then by his own nephew, Sir Frederick Maze (1871–1959) (梅乐和), who served from 1929–1943. In January 1950 the last foreign Inspector-General, American Lester Knox Little (李度), resigned and the responsibilities of the Service were divided between what eventually became the Customs General Administration of the People's Republic of China, and the Republic of China Directorate General of Customs on Taiwan. It was the only bureaucratic agency of the Chinese government to operate continuously as an integrated entity from 1854 to 1950.[9]

Amongst the many well-known figures who worked for the Customs in China were Willard Straight, botanist Augustine Henry; Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe, Norwegian; Samuel Cornell Plant who was the First Senior River Inspector from 1915 and for whom the Plant Memorial was raised in his honour; G.R.G. Worcester (1890–1969), River Inspector from 1914 to 1948, and author of seven published books on the Yangzi River; novelist and journalists Bertram Lenox Simpson (known as Putnam Weale) and J.O.P. Bland; and historian H.B. Morse. Medical Officers attached to the Customs included John Dudgeon, in Peking, James Watson at Newchwang and Patrick Manson at Takow and Amoy. The Hong Kong Chinese businessman and political leader Robert Hotung served as a Customs clerk for two years (1878–1880).

A number of early Sinologists emerged from the Service, including linguist Thomas Francis Wade, Edward Charles Bowra, and Charles Henry Brewitt-Taylor.

Inspectors-General, full and officiating[edit]

# Incumbent Start of Term End of Term
1 Horatio Nelson Lay 12 July 1854 15 November 1863
2 Sir Robert Hart 15 November 1863 20 September 1911
Sir Robert Bredon 20 April 1908 17 June 1910
Sir Francis Aglen 17 June 1910 25 October 1911
3 25 October 1911 31 January 1927
A. H. F. Edwardes 31 January 1927 31 December 1928
4 Sir Frederick Maze 8 January 1929 31 May 1943
C. H. B. Joly 8 December 1941 1 March 1943
Kishimoto Hirokichi 8 December 1941 15 August 1945
5 Lester Knox Little 1 June 1943 January 1950

Life in the customs service[edit]

Even higher level 'indoor staff' could have their difficulties in the nineteenth century, as the buying power of their salaries varied with the price of silver, and the extra year's pay every seven years which Hart had negotiated for them in place of a pension did not always allow for adequate saving for retirement. Family travel costs were at the officer's expense, so not all took punctually their due of foreign leave of two years on half pay after the first seven years, and subsequently every ten years. They were subject to all the usual hazards of life in China from illness and civil disruption and difficulties in providing for the education of their children, which often involved family separations. To some extent this was compensated by the strong esprit de corps. A network of friends was sustained across changes of post by letter-writing, quite frequently the duty of their wives.

Sir Robert Hart could be a sympathetic boss, but he insisted on high standards of efficiency and honesty, and, for those aspiring to the highest rank of Commissioner, a thorough knowledge of written and spoken Chinese. His most likely young men spent a year or more in Beijing learning Chinese under his supervision, which also allowed him to evaluate other characteristics that would enable them to act sensibly and rapidly in crisis situations demanding immediate response without referral back to him. The compensations included a short working day, which meant the later afternoon could be spent exercising and socializing, going to the races, playing tennis, taking part in amateur dramatics or musical performances, and later enjoy dinner parties, which might include 'absurd games', or a musical interlude.[10]

Ensigns of the Customs Service[edit]


Records of individual senior and junior staff in the Chinese Maritime Customs are preserved in the School of Oriental and African Studies, London (SOAS). Archives and Special Collections

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hart retired in September 1907 but retained his title as Inspector-General until his death in 1911. Sir Robert Bredon was Officiating Inspector-General from September 1907 until his resignation in 1910. Aglen then acted until being appointed official IG in October 1911.
  2. ^ Maze was interned when the Japanese took control of the Shanghai International Settlement in December 1941. As a consequence, until his release in 1943, Maze's functions were split between operations within areas controlled by the Chinese government (C.H.B. Joly, OIG 1941–1943) and, until 1945, areas controlled by the Japanese and their puppet government of Wang Jingwei (Kishimoto Hirokichi, OIG 1941–1945).
  3. ^ Chinese Maritime Customs Project, University of Bristol
  4. ^ Robert Bickers, "Revisiting the Chinese maritime customs service, 1854–1950." Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 36.2 (2008): 221–226.
  5. ^ Henk Vynckier and Chihyun Chang, "'Imperium In Imperio': Robert Hart, the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, and its (Self-) Representations," Biography 37#1 (2014), pp. 69–92 online
  6. ^ Dr. Chihyun Chang, “Modern China’s Customs Services: A Brief Introduction,” (Academic Sinica)
  7. ^ The Chinese Maritime Customs Service: Forgotten History,” Stina Björkell, quoting Prof Han Van der Ven, University of Cambridge, GBtimes January 25, 2008.
  8. ^ Chang, Modern China's Customs Services.
  9. ^ Chinese Maritime Customs Project, University of Bristol
  10. ^ Mary Tiffen, Friends of Sir Robert Hart: Three Generations of Carrall Women in China, Tiffania Books, 2012


  • Bickers, Robert. "Revisiting the Chinese maritime customs service, 1854–1950." Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 36.2 (2008): 221–226.
  • Brunero, Donna (2006). Britain's Imperial Cornerstone in China: The Chinese Maritime Customs Service, 1854–1949. Routledge. Google Book [1]
  • Chihyun Chang. (2013) Government, Imperialism and Nationalism in China: The Maritime Customs Service and Its Chinese Staff. New York: Routledge, Routledge Studies in the Modern History of Asia. ISBN 9780415531429 (hbk.) ISBN 9780203075845 (ebook).
  • Crawford David S (2006). "James Watson, MD, LRCSE – an Edinburgh trained physician and surgeon in northeastern China 1865–1884" (PDF). J. Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.
  • Drew, Edward B. "Sir Robert Hart and His Life Work in China." The Journal of Race Development (1913): 1–33 online.
  • Eberhard-Bréard, Andrea. "Robert Hart and China's statistical revolution." Modern Asian Studies 40.3 (2006): 605–629. online
  • Fairbank, John King (1953). Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842–1854. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Horowitz, Richard S. "Politics, power and the Chinese maritime customs: The Qing restoration and the ascent of Robert Hart." Modern Asian Studies 40.3 (2006): 549–581 online.
  • Tiffen, Mary (2012). Friends of Sir Robert Hart: Three Generations of Carrall Women in China. Tiffania Books.
  • van de Ven, Hans (2014). Breaking with the Past: The Maritime Customs Service and the Global Origins of Modernity in China. Columbia University Press. Google Book [2]
  • Vynckier, Henk, and Chihyun Chang, "'Imperium In Imperio': Robert Hart, the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, and its (Self-)Representations," Biography 37#1 (2014), pp. 69–92 online
  • Wright, Stanley Fowler (1950). Hart and the Chinese Customs. Belfast: William Mullen and Son for Queen's University.

External links[edit]