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Shirley Ann Smith Imperial Designs: Italians in China 1900-1947

Madison and Teaneck (NJ), Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2012, 185 pp., $65

With the rise of China in the «Asian Century», the question of Italians in China seems a natural inquiry. Shirley Ann Smith presents one of the first English-language books on Italians in China before the Second World War. Rich with anecdotes and biographies, this short book is a useful resource in conceptualizing life in China for Italians in the twentieth century under Liberalism and Fascism.
Smith’s stories, paraphrased from diaries and letters, evoke the life of a variegated cast of characters: diplomats, soldiers, and journalists, but not emigrants, as Italian migration to China remained very low. Smith draws upon the postcolonial theory of Edward Said, but makes no attempt to frame this book’s narrative by comparing the experiences of Italians with other countries’ expatriates. It is also unclear why the author cites the world-systems model of Immanuel Wallerstein, because modern Italy did not fit into his theory as a core nation/colonizing nation. Smith faults Italy rather than the model (p. 2).
The strength of this book is its use of well-documented primary sources, but not its organization. The Boxer Rebellion is the focus of three chapters, followed by a chapter on Varè and Ciano, a chapter on Tianjin, and a short conclusion on chinoiserie. Each chapter is freestanding, with repetition between chapters but also repetition within chapters themselves.
Smith begins with Italy’s failed bid for a concession at Sanmun Bay (Sanmen) in 1899. The government of China re-fused to hand it over, after having agreed to the demands of Britain, Russia, France, and Japan, leaving Italy greatly em-barrassed. The Italian state did not respond, but a year later did send troops to suppress the Boxer Rebellion, with Luigi Barzini embedded as a wartime correspondent for Corriere della Sera. Smith contrasts effectively the perspectives of Barzini, a journalist traveling independently, with the letters and memoirs of diplomatic and military officials: their writings remained within the strict bounds of their professions, and consistently defended Italy’s interests. Meanwhile Barzini’s editor, Luigi Albertini, granted him free rein to investigate and evaluate conditions in China. Through his travels and experiences, Barzini came to condemn Western exploitation.
Smith recounts the very interesting story of Giuseppe Sal-vago Raggi, who was the senior Italian diplomat in Beijing dur-ing the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. He led his family and staff to safety in the British legation during the siege, met the Italian sailors who were part of the relief expedition, and amid the postwar chaos delimited a claim for Italian territory in Tianjin (Tientsin in the pre-Communist spelling), establishing a neigh-borhood under Italian law and administration.
The next chapter outlines the careers and experiences in China of two diplomats under Fascism, Daniele Varè and Gian Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law. With the chapter «The City as Text», Smith tours all the European concessions in Tianjin: Italian, English, German, Japanese, Belgian, and Rus-sian. Still today, the architecture of Piazza Marco Polo (formerly Piazza Regina Elena) in Tianjin showcases Italy’s presence in China.
With the final chapter «China as Mirror of the Other», Smith concludes with a survey of Italian chinoiserie since the time of Marco Polo, and a discussion of eighteenth-century Italian op-eras on Chinese themes. The book ends with a comparison between Carlo Gozzi’s drama Turandotte (1720), Puccini’s opera Turandot (1926), and Italo Calvino’s novel Città invisibili (1972). All three imagine China through an explicitly Italian lens, with Calvino framing his novel around Marco Polo’s dis-cussions with Kublai Khan. Marco Polo explains that his de-scriptions of travel across Asia were entirely imaginary, and were all descriptions of different parts of Venice. Calvino’s image is a fitting conclusion for this study of Italian China, but unconvincing as a final explanation for the texts that Smith has gathered together. Those Italians who lived in China for many years, rather than visiting for a short period, moved beyond imagining China to living real, not imaginary, lives in the Middle Kingdom.
The author’s conversational tone makes for easy reading, but in some parts the loose structure leads to problems. In discussing Italy’s shame after the disastrous defeat at Adwa, Ethiopia, in 1896, the author’s unsupported claim that «ac-cording to twenty-first-century historians, it was comparable to American horror and trauma in 2001 after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers» (p. 4) is hardly credible. If a square mile in the middle of Milan or Rome had been suddenly destroyed by international terrorists, killing thousands of civilians, includ-ing women and children, that would make for a better compar-ison. More comparable to Adwa would be the American defeat by the Japanese in the Philippines, in 1942. In general, the author could be much more careful and thoughtful in the use of analogy and context.
This study is very much written from an Italianist point of view. Smith discusses expatriates from other countries who interacted with the Italian community in Tianjin, but makes no attempt to compare Italy with other imperial powers, or to place Italy’s experience in the context of world history, or the histories of migration, colonialism, or Asia. Occasionally the author lapses into caricature, asserting that the Boxers’ «fanaticism spoke to the ancient conservative Chinese need, reiterated adamantly in the present political climate, for isolationism and circumscription of foreign activities» (p. 14), and that Empress Cixi «was happy to see the wrath of the masses of shrieking peasants directed away from her» (p. 15). This short book leaves much room for scholarship to expand the history of Italians in China, beyond postcolonial criticism and into a broader global framework.
Throughout her prose, Smith freely and inconsistently mixes present tense and past tense, which is jarring in a historical study. The book reads as a free-flowing mix of literary criticism and narrative discussion. More analysis of Italian Fascism would have been welcome, beyond the biographical notes on Barzini and Ciano. Were there differences in Italian China under the Liberals and Fascists, or was there absolute continuity between the two regimes? This modest book does not address controversial questions from the history of contemporary Italy, or of Italians in the world. The book’s strengths are its biographies of Barzini and Ciano in China, the descriptions of the Boxer Rebellion, and the photos and descriptions of Italy’s remaining architectural monuments in Tianjin.

Mark I. Choate (Brigham Young University)

 

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