I always ask my students, on the first day of our Western Civilization course, “what is the West?” Here’s what they tend to tell me: that the West is Europe. It’s all of the places where people of European descent have settled. It’s all of the places that have adopted European cultural practices. It’s the part of the world with heritage in ancient Greece and Rome. It’s the part of the world with a Christian heritage.
It gets a little more complicated when we talk about all the people who now live in the parts of the world that they mention, and all of the places that now also have a Christian heritage that they probably didn’t include in their definitions. But I think that my students’ initial answers are important, because they reveal commonly-held beliefs about what is ultimately a cultural construct. The West is an idea, not a place. However, the way in which that idea gets used in everyday life can make it very real. The concept of Westernness as it exists in public discourse elides Christianity with an imagined white racial identity for people of European descent, as well as certain cultural practices. What my students believe on the first day of class is what policymakers who control immigration may also believe. This limited vision of “Westernness” lurks within the current presidential administration’s attempts to limit immigration and to roll back protections for people already in this country, and within far-right European, American, and Canadian discourse on the alleged decline of the white West.
I am a scholar of the European relationship with China during a period of imperial expansion in the nineteenth century. Many of my historical subjects were also concerned about who belonged where, and why, at a moment when nation-states were just beginning to coalesce in Europe, and as imperial webs brought many different people from around the world into contact with one another. Many of the ideas about citizenship or national belonging that European national governments developed at that time involved different levels of inclusion and exclusion, based upon perceived cultural affinity or difference. As a historian, my work means that I have to try to talk to dead people – by reading what they wrote, and interpreting it. That interpretation will always be filtered through the lens of the kinds of questions that I ask my subjects, and those questions are frequently inspired by current events and problems. The issues that I examine are never really over. Nineteenth-century arguments about nationality, ethnicity, and race have continued to inform debates about immigration, so-called Western values, and assimilation in the twenty-first century. But it’s not just a matter of identifying long-term continuities. When my friend Katharine Lee speaks to groups about her work on colonial American women’s history, she tells them that when we look at how ideas worked in society, how they were contested in different places and at different moments in the past, we begin to see the extent to which those ideas are social constructions rather than empirical facts. In the age of fake news, that idea might be unsettling. However, this does not mean that we are post-factual. In our research, most historians are working on, and working out, contemporary problems by confronting the belief that something is the way it is because it has always been that way. By unpacking nineteenth century discussions of immigration, we can begin to work against the notion that national identity and citizenship are primordial, natural, or exclusive.
Mining the past, I aim to address (and contest) a nexus of ideas about European and American identity in the face of global migration: that the West is a geographical and ideological entity under threat of disintegrating. That this West, and its values, must be defended from an assault from many sides – from Islam, from immigration, from internally changing values, and from the rise of other, non-Western powers like China. I like to refer to this set of ideas as National Social Darwinism, but political scientist Samuel Huntington called it the Clash of Civilizations. In the face of global terrorism and problems with integrating post-colonial migrants into Euro-American societies, many have found a reductive version of Huntington’s ideas very compelling: that people of different civilizational backgrounds (Judeo-Christian vs. Muslim) cannot coexist because they possess fundamentally oppositional visions of how society should work. The politicians whom Huntington begat use such ideas to justify restricting immigration to people who share “our” cultural values.
At the heart of any discussion of national belonging are competing legal bases for citizenship. The first is Jus sanguinis: the right of blood, or descent. One’s citizenship is determined by ancestry. Thus, I could more easily become a citizen of Ireland, from which my family emigrated but where I have never lived, than I could of China, where I lived and worked for many years. The second is Jus soli, or birthright. One gains the right to citizenship by being born in a territory. This is the framework that we use in the United States. European nations use a combination of the two in deciding who has the right to citizenship – citizenship generally comes through one’s parents, so that the children of most immigrants do not automatically become citizens of the country in which they are born. This framework has the effect of creating a class of people who have been born, raised, and educated in a country with no guarantee that they can be citizens of that country, giving rise to widespread discrimination, unemployment, and discontent among the second and third-generation – the children and grandchildren of a wave of immigrants who arrived in the 1970s and 80s. Meanwhile, relaxed restrictions within the European Union mean that citizens of other European nations can live and work freely almost anywhere in the supranational territory. (Although that appears to be changing as nations like the United Kingdom withdraw from the union.)
In many European nations, the children of immigrants can undergo a naturalization process. But even this has proven controversial. On one hand, naturalized citizens must usually renounce their original citizenship and pass a test on cultural competence that can require them to distance themselves from the practices and beliefs of their families’ places of origin. On the other is the prospect of multiculturalism – and its potential failure. If citizenship allows for pluralism in cultural practice and belief, can people with different values and priorities form stable communities and societies? If so, how? To which values would they cohere – and in the absence of shared ideologies, what can form a national community? A number of public intellectuals and politicians in Europe as well as the United States and Canada have addressed the problem of integration by explicitly rejecting multiculturalism. These commentators range from university-affiliated philosophers to nativist politicians like Geert Wilders, Jean-Marie and Marine LePen, and our own 45th president. They have amalgamated race, culture, and religious background in calls to secure borders, limit immigration, and to weed out those who don’t belong: If you don’t like it here, go back where you came from.
In looking for a positive definition of civilizational belonging – what forms an imagined community, as opposed to just defining those who exist outside of it – populists who oppose immigration and citizenship rights for immigrants have, in the last twenty years or so, revived an argument from the era before the Second World War: that European identity has a Christian heritage. There is some logic to this argument: the idea of Europe as a coherent geographical space grew out of medieval Christendom. However, in law and in practice, many of Europe’s nations and municipalities have emphasized the secular nature of civil society. This does seem contradictory. How can Europe be both Christian and secular? The leaders of European nativist parties, like LePen, borrow from a select group of nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophers to reconcile this paradox by arguing that Christianity has greater capacity for reason than other religions, and by implication, that rationality created the conditions for the alleged hallmarks of Western Civilization: the spirit of questioning that contributed to the Enlightenment and enabled the emergence of republicanism, which led the subjects of monarchies to transform themselves into active, free citizens. However, that idea requires a lot of deliberate historical amnesia. The chief proponents of Enlightenment-inspired governance in France – small-r republicans – advocated not only for a separation of church and state, but for religion to have no place at all in public affairs – or even on European soil. This secular republicanism (laicité, in French), contributes to another vein of anti-immigrant, and especially anti-Muslim rhetoric, but in theory, it also applies to Christianity.
If Europe has a Christian heritage, why are Christian symbols and Church activities to be limited in public life? Historian Rogers Brubaker, in an interview earlier this year, argued that wielding the idea of Christian heritage is about “belonging rather than believing” – that certain people in the West see themselves as Christians “because they are Muslims.” The critique here is not of Christianity itself – indeed, Catholic activists have been among the strongest proponents of immigrant rights and champions of the dignity of all, including refugees. Rather, for Brubaker (and for me) the trouble lies in the way that policymakers and nativists wield Christian identity as means to exclude certain kinds of people from the Western body politic. Because if this were just about Christian heritage, then Christians of all races and ethnic backgrounds would be welcome. And that has not been the case. While some politicians have prioritized the resettlement of Christian refugees, Asian, Romani, Middle Eastern, and Latin American migrants often face deportation from Western nations without regard to religion.
We actually find people on both sides of the immigration debate, in Europe and in North America, framing a problem in the same terms – that the West once belonged to Christians, mostly white ones, and that those white, somewhat secularized Christians are being asked or forced to share their ideological, political, and geographical space with ideologically dissimilar people who did not originally belong there – Jews, Muslims, black and brown Christians. This is a myth, and it is a dangerous myth. Even among people who embrace the idea that various beliefs and backgrounds can coexist, the mythos of a primordial West presupposes that there is an original people who have a bit more of a right to occupy that space, based on their history in it; newcomers -whether they are welcomed, tolerated, or cast out – remain outside of the historical body politic.
The problem with this way of thinking is that, quite plainly, it’s historically inaccurate. Christianity was not formed in a hermetically sealed Europe, and then handed intact to the world. Europeans, Americans – Westerners – have been grappling with the question of who belongs for a very long time. There are often-cited confutations of the myth of Europe’s being fully Christian: medieval Spain, with its mix of Muslims, Christians, and Jews; the Arabic preservation of the classical texts that sparked the Renaissance: Muslim, Ottoman rule over much of Central and Eastern Europe, and the continued presence of Muslims in those territories today; and the Asian provenance of many of the inventions that enabled the so-called age of discovery and European expansion. These are all important, but they still position the non-West at the periphery of Western history, or cast East and West as separate entities whose borders happened to overlap. While historians have long argued that this was plainly not the case, we have often been drowned out by the political value of producing and re-producing civilizational clashes.
I attempt to look beyond where divergent histories touched one another in my research on the relationship between Europe and China. My work is transnational; I examine histories across national boundaries. As the term trans implies, transnational history blurs binary conceptions of what exists inside and outside of the nation, and finds in its genealogy roots that extend to other places. The idea of the West is a somewhat transnational idea – it assumes certain cultural connections across national lines – but it still employs a boundary, demarcating what is inside and outside, or what Stuart Hall called the West and the Rest. Nevertheless, transnational history can make that boundary fuzzy, and maybe even make it disappear. The ideas of East and West are mutually constituted and profoundly unstable concepts, in large part because they share a lineage.
Over the last quarter-century, scholars of imperial and colonial history have sought to expand what it means to do European History: first, by examining how profoundly Western nations were involved in global, imperial endeavors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most recently, our mission has been to insist, at increasing volume, that colonizing and colonial spaces did not just come into contact, or influence one another – that they occupy a shared historical space, if not a shared historical memory.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Jesuit priests who went to China were part of the imperial Chinese court. They created knowledge by working with Chinese astronomers, some of whom converted and now bear the same proximity to sainthood as their European counterparts. Some of the Enlightenment philosophers who articulated such concepts as popular sovereignty studied Chinese concepts like Confucian virtue, in which people exist in relationships of mutual obligation, and the ruler’s primary task is to serve the people, and the Mandate of Heaven, which allows the overthrow of regimes who failed in their obligations to their subjects. In other words, the history of Europe and the West is a global history – and not in the old, Euro-centric way. Western history unfolded in conversation with the Americas and with China; the history of Christianity, and Enlightenment, and the concept of European descent does not have a single root.
However, in the last two decades, legislation in a number of European nations, and in the Canadian province of Quebec, has put increasing pressure on religious minorities to conform outwardly to what many in government – and particularly in France – regard as universal values. What does that mean? In this conception, “good” citizens put aside individual religious obligations to show a public commitment to a particularly defined common interest. Although we can see this across Europe, and into North America, France is a particularly instructive example.
There is a strong suggestion that proper French citizens “get” secularism in the public discourse surrounding laws against the public display of religious affiliation. That is, they perform it without thinking, either because they aren’t terribly religious or because they and their families have long histories of republican citizenship. According to this line of thought, newcomers (or their parents and grandparents) come from places where there is no distinction between public secularism and private religion, so they engage in behavior that multigenerational citizens find detrimental to the body politic, marking themselves as different by wearing physical signs of their belief like hijabs, yarmulkes, even large crucifixes.
Why is this a problem? French citizenship is predicated on a lack of difference. The rationale is that true equality is attainable if everyone performs citizenship in the same way, and the state ignores the categories which divide people. You can’t take off skin color, but the state doesn’t track population numbers based on race, religion, or ethnic background. According to such logic, religious symbols, particularly ones that are worn on the body, are visible instantiations of difference that divide people, and might influence other citizens away from the core of ideal of secular republicanism. This ideology is not uncontested, but it is pervasive.
European political discourse presents this as a very recent issue – of the last generation or two – that could be solved by education. In other words, new immigrants need to be taught how to be modern, secular, republican citizens. But this isn’t actually a new problem. It has its roots in the nineteenth-century culture wars, in which newly-formed republics negotiated the role that religion would play in daily life.
The battles in nineteenth century France were chiefly about removing the influence of the Church because popes and priests – and God himself – were alternative poles of loyalty which crossed state boundaries and distracted citizens from their civic duties. In this conception, the Church (or clergymen) held particular sway over the poor and over women. Scholars have treated this topic primarily as a political problem – different understandings of the role of religion in public life – and as a gender issue – attempting to regulate how women thought and conducted themselves. It was also a means by which the state could integrate linguistic and cultural minorities, like the Basques and Bretons, whose attachment to the Church combined with linguistic difference and some nationalism to make them perceived threats to national unity. However, this wasn’t just an internal issue. The culture wars of the nineteenth century were directly related to fears about immigration and difference, in the context of rapid French imperial expansion. The secularist camp in the culture wars articulated individual subjectivity for those who belonged to the nation; influence from the Church would undermine individual autonomy.
In contemporary politics, proponents of secularism with a Christian heritage tend to focus precisely on this personal autonomy: they find it in those who belong, and note its absence in those who do not. They then deploy that lack of autonomy as justification for exclusion. We see this most vividly in legislation around religious symbols. Even when the state couches that legislation in terms of a blanket ban on face coverings, or “overt” religious symbols in public spaces, much of the rhetoric belies those claims; it becomes a question of protecting Muslim and Jewish women’s rights, securing the ability of women to choose not to cover themselves, based on a belief that they are coerced by a man or their religion. Yet ultimately, as Joan Scott has pointed out, mandating uncovering simply replaces the abstract husband or father with the patriarchal control of the state; it’s actually undermining the very autonomy that it seeks to ensure, repeating the idea that the religiously-inclined cannot exist as individuals, and that their ethno-religious communities are not those of the nation state.
Historically, the agents of French empire in Asia engaged in a kind of expansionism that relied on constructions of likeness and alterity among potential imperial subjects. It’s important to recognize that the relationship between France and China was fundamentally different than the relationships that the French nation had with other territories in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas. So there are some potential pitfalls in making direct comparisons. However, the French relationship with China did engage the questions of how to make willing subjects and citizens around the contours of religiosity, education, and cultural competence. The multiplicity of answers to these thorny questions might help to reveal how categories of belonging are culturally constructed and continuously renegotiated.
From the 1840s on, a number of European nations and the United States established relationships with China that contained many of the elements of imperialism, but without outright military conquest and administration. They did use military force to extract privileges from the Chinese court, including the right to free trade, extraterritoriality, and territorial concessions in which Europeans and Americans could live and worship freely. The literary scholar Shu-mei Shih calls this semicoloniality. While it offered Euro-Americans a supposed position of dominance, their presence in China also relied on partnerships with Chinese individuals and communities. Domestic rebellions within China also led to international displacement. Large numbers of Chinese migrants streamed into neighboring territories that were fully-administered colonies, like British Malaya and the French Indochinese Union. Some of those refugees were indigent, but many were able to use family connections to gain access to long-standing merchant networks across the South China Sea and became a sort of intermediary class between indigenous colonized peoples and white European élites.
They were not welcomed in the same way when large numbers of Chinese attempted to migrate into other parts of the world, especially into imperial metropoles like Britain and the United States. In fact, fears of Chinese licentiousness gave rise to the fear of a yellow peril – the notion that Chinese migrants would tear at the fabric of society, so must be barred from entry. Asian exclusion policies were commonplace in Anglo-American territories in the late nineteenth century. France operated a bit differently, however. There were few barriers to Asians settling in France itself during the period of French rule over Indochina and its administration of parts of China, in part because most of those who arrived were students from wealthy, well-connected families. In the French empire, commercial and official imperial agents often sought to hire Chinese workers, in part because they could pay them very little, but also because of some of the same allegedly positive stereotypes still common today: that the Chinese were hard workers, that they were docile, and that they wouldn’t cause trouble. Yet the idea of Asian inferiority was not absent from French thinking, and two fundamentally different narratives about Chinese character emerged from the period of semicoloniality. During the second Opium War and the Sino-French wars of 1860s and 80s, a single newspaper ran pieces that first called for a Chinese defeat to preserve European civilization, and then worried about how to best protect France’s Chinese friends from further tumult. This is what George Steinmetz calls multivocality: myriad perspectives on semicolonial people allowed contradictory ideas to coexist, depending on the circumstance and political imperative.
A number of different European nations established concessions and spheres of influence in China. But the French presence diverged somewhat from the others. The agents responsible for establishing influence in China were trying to differentiate themselves from every other expanding empire, and so they described their mission in terms of partnership. China and France would work together to resist the militaristic expansion of Britain, Russia, and the United States. This wasn’t just a pragmatic choice. Both French and Chinese officials wrote that their imperial cooperation was based on shared spirituality, sentiment, and a sense of obligation to long-term friends and allies; persuasion, rather than subjugation, was important to French national and imperial selfhood in China. But by 1858, the French state allied with the British to secure more privileges for Europeans on Chinese soil, and the conflict culminated in the ransacking of the very sacred Chinese spaces that earlier French diplomats had claimed to protect. The tension between imperialist survival and the special care that French policymakers claimed to show for the Chinese populace is what informed discussions of potential Chinese immigration to France itself, and to French colonies in other parts of the world.
Chinese immigration to France first became a national issue in 1867. There was already a small Chinese community in Paris by then, but the International Exposition (or World’s Fair) of 1867 increased their numbers by several hundred. The fair’s organizers brought in six hundred gardeners and manual laborers to create the grounds; they also acquired two young women in South China to staff a tea kiosk at the center of the Chinese pavilion. The Chinese government refused to participate in the endeavor, given France’s role in the second Opium War, so French organizers created their own vision of China. The gardeners fashioned it, and the girls, whom the press called “tea maidens,” gave it an air of exotic authenticity.
None of these Chinese nationals were willing immigrants. The gardeners were indentured laborers who had previously worked on the Suez Canal, while the tea maidens had been bought from what was effectively a slave market on China’s coast. None were actually in France legally, but one of the organizers had worked with Jules de Lesseps, a high-ranking diplomat, in China. De Lesseps obtained special permission for a shipload of Chinese workers to enter France, and he worked with his brother, Ferdinand, to extend the indentured laborers’ contracts and to ship them from Egypt to France. Their status was ambiguous, as were their future prospects.
Although the gardeners worked at the fair behind the scenes, there was some public outcry after an image of one appeared in the exposition catalogue. Letters to newspaper editors expressed concern that they would remain in Paris, adding to swelling numbers of Poles, Russians, Irish, Italians, Portuguese, and North Africans in the capital. Some writers insisted that if they did stay, they would have to cut their hair and learn French – unlike their predecessors, who lived in small enclaves and never assimilated. Others worried that assimilation would make them even more dangerous – they would be inclined to marry French women, and would be uncomfortably unidentifiable as Chinese with a lack of foreign dress and speech. However, nobody among the organizers seriously considered repatriating the men once the fair had ended. Meanwhile, the tea maidens so enchanted visitors that editorials in Parisian newspapers demanded that they be allowed to live out their days in France. The same public figures who balked at the idea of laborers taking up residence in the French capital clamored for the right of the tea maidens to stay.
Of course, there were significant differences between the gardeners and the tea maidens. The gardeners were men, and Chinese masculinity was a thorn in the side of the French empire. Depending on the moment and the political climate, the French imagined Chinese men as weak and effeminate or excessively combative and hypersexed – in either case, unsuitable for French wives. Girls like the tea maidens were unthreatening, and the story of their acquisition out of extreme poverty fit neatly into ideas about feminine helplessness. Moreover, the Chinese men arrived as a group, dressed alike, and performed manual labor. Commentators tended to group them in the category that many Europeans viewed as expendable workers.
The tea maidens were different. The public knew their origins and their names because their story had appeared in nearly every advertisement and review of the exposition. Rather than diminishing them, this backstory seems to have romanticized the maidens to a French public that had been raised on stories of abandoned Chinese girls rescued by French money. Fair-goers might once have given a penny to the Work of the Holy Child, a Catholic missionary organization that collected change from French children to support orphanages in China. The tea maidens’ very role also paced them in frequent and close proximity with French visitors – pouring and serving drinks that they physically consumed in a room outfitted to look like a boudoir.
There is no record of what happened to the tea maidens after the fair, but the gardeners weren’t simply ejected from French soil. The French diplomats who had arranged for their transport worked with their counterparts from other imperial powers to work around an international law that limited the terms of indenture contracts, and arranged for the gardeners to board ships to colonies in the Caribbean. There, after they had worked for an additional time, they might be permitted to settle in the French territories of Guyane, Martinique, and Guadeloupe. In the vision of the French Foreign Ministry, these men would first cultivate the land, then go on to establish commercial centers. As a people, remarked the head of the Ministry of the Navy, “they could pass for civilized,” and form a buffer class between European planters and indigenous and African workers. So, these Chinese workers could not be French – but they could be useful French imperial subjects.
But what of Christian heritage? Could Chinese converts also gain some measure of acceptance? Given that French missionaries had been working in China for several centuries, and that China was a mission field par excellence, Chinese Christians were, for the most part, evidence of missionary success. Chinese priests drew praise from French seminarians for their devotion and spiritual rigor, and some of the orphan girls raised on French pennies found work in French convents and lay households in China’s foreign concessions. Some of them even returned to France with their employers. And, although it wasn’t by any means encouraged, Chinese Catholics did intermarry with French ones. It was somewhat more common for Chinese and mixed-race women to marry French men, there are several cases of Chinese Christian men marrying working class French women.
One case is particularly complex. In 1872, a woman known as the Demoiselle Liègeois married Ding Dun Ling, a second-generation Christian who had moved from central China to the Portuguese colony of Macao, and then to France. The couple had been wed only a month when the bride learned that her spouse had been previously married. Mr. Ding claimed that his first wife had drowned in a flood many years earlier, but a little research on the part of Miss Liègois found that her predecessor was alive and well. Ding and his first wife, who was a baptized Catholic, had married in a Portuguese church. Given this earlier Catholic marriage, Miss Liègois’s own union was therefore invalid. She petitioned the French Foreign Ministry and consular authorities in Macao to find evidence that would allow her to annul her marriage. At one level, this story evoked a common trope – that Chinese men kept multiple wives and concubines, and that French women who married them would be subject to humiliation. However, the Foreign ministry officials were reluctant to act, in part because whatever they decided would seem to undermine the evangelical mission embedded in French empire.
Ding was not an ideal pillar of Chinese Christianity. But where did his Catholicism end, and his Chineseness begin? Were those two mutually exclusive categories – and if so, what does that say about nationality, religion, and identity? This case raises questions about the potential for, and limits of, intersectionality in race, faith, and belonging. If Ding’s traditionally Chinese marital practices marked him as insufficiently Christian, what other types of cultural practice would also preclude a truly Christian identity? Would that destabilize the entire French project of Christian evangelization?
In spite of secularization, European nation-builders were often concerned with religion; it was part of the ethno-cultural matrix that nationalists envisioned as they attempted to carve nation-states out of monarchies and republics. Thus, a relatively secular French state could promote the interests of missionaries when they worked to cement the French presence in overseas territories. Nonetheless, this became a thorny question in the relationship between Europe and China. When Jesuit priests first took up residence in China, they permitted (sometimes even encouraged) Chinese converts to maintain certain practices, like rituals of respect for ancestors, because they believed that being able to cleave to comforting practices would encourage more people to embrace Christianity, and partly because they could see echoes of the hierarchies of the Church itself within Confucian relationships. The Church hierarchy did not usually see it that way; it doubted the validity of Confucian-inflected Christianity and eventually recalled the Jesuit order from China. Thus, Ding’s case was steeped distrust of Chinese Christianity.
The discussion about Ding’s alleged moral turpitude also invoked the limits of the civilizing mission – an extension of the imperial religious mission. In addition to attempting to convert colonized people to Christianity, people from Europe and the United States descended on colonies in order to offer European-style education, introduce Euro-American habits, and encourage or mandate the desertion of indigenous beliefs and practices. Many white people found this unsettling, and it presented an additional problem for citizenship: could someone who spoke, worshipped, and ate like a French person be one? Emerging racial pseudoscience proposed an answer.
In 1855, Alfred de Gobineau published An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races; a book perhaps best known for influencing white supremacists in the United States and Central Europe. However, French anthropologists (who were often also imperial administrators) were also well aware of its message. Gobineau argued that racial difference was not only inherent, but also a biological marker of position in a hierarchy. Brown and black imperial subjects could not, in other words, become equal to whites through habit and practice. However, in the permutations of Gobinesque ideology disseminated by racial scientists, whites who associated – or procreated – with non-whites could be responsible for diminishing their own race. These ideas appear in some of the discussion about Mr. Ding; Foreign Ministry officials noted that for all of his education and religious belief, he could not stop himself from being Chinese, and his illegitimate marriage to a previously respectable French woman embodied Sinophobic fears based upon ideas of racial degradation.
What is important here is the lack of uniformity in the way in which certain criteria were applied and upheld. The Ding-Liègois case took place right in the middle of a secularization campaign in France. In the early years of the French Third Republic, Catholicism was associated with monarchism, and whatever the political leanings of the Foreign Ministry staff, they were unlikely to publicly flout their administration’s republican stance. So exactly the reason why Ding needed to be Christian in the first place is already ambiguous, except to mark his cultural proximity to a more conservative ideal of Frenchness. Significantly, Mademoiselle Liègeois was not subject to the same level of scrutiny. The diplomats were not concerned with her attendance at Mass or with her general religiosity. Yet Ding’s lack of conformity to more orthodox Christian practices sealed his difference because it supposedly stood out as evidence of overlapping racial and cultural alterity. Ding’s bigamy was treated much differently than a native-born Frenchman’s bigamy would have been. This is the same issue that comes up in recent debates over Europe’s heritage and collective identity. Religion and nationality and race all go hand in hand; we can’t tease them apart, but neither can we use any of these categories to establish a firm rubric for communal adhesion.
The French diplomats did not have easy answers about whether Mr. Ding’s Christianity and marriage made him a French subject, or about whether Chinese laborers could be fashioned into French citizens, even second-class ones. But their attempts to wrestle with such questions indicate that problems of assimilation are not new, nor are they unique to our own time. In the multiplicity of reactions to immigration and proposed ideological solutions to integration, difference is neither immutable nor intractable.
While transnational history can’t undo the violence of imperialism, enable a seamless transition for new immigrants, or create world peace, it does shed light on the persistent, pernicious myths that work to naturalize prejudice and reinforce hierarchies. As we acknowledge more of the common will that creates nations we can perhaps determine which shared ideologies are paramount without resorting to dogma or dog-whistles. When we examine the unconscious negotiation and construction of ethno-national categories, we can acknowledge that they are often arbitrary. History can denaturalize assumptions about what constitutes a French citizen, a European, or a Westerner – and that can allow us to articulate more consciously a capacious vision of who belongs in the West, and to whom the West belongs.
Molly J. Giblin is a social and cultural historian whose research examines empire through the lens of Sino-European interactions. She is currently Lund-Gill Chair and Visiting Assistant Professor of History in the Rosary College of Arts and Sciences at Dominican University. She presented a version of the article as the annual Lund-Gill Public Lecture. Her current research project explores how French imperial agents attempted to revive French global ascendancy through partnership and conquest in China in the mid-nineteenth century. She has lived, worked, and studied in Hong Kong and Beijing.