The history of the opium trade in coastal Fujian shows how discrete physical spaces unfold into “space as process.” Discrete physical spaces and locales constitute, transform, break down, and reconstitute distinct spatialities through the movements, actions, and decisions of people.
The Jardine-Matheson Company’s global network was a collection of ports and sailboats between Great Britain, India, and China. The geospatial location of the ports can be mapped with numerical precision, lending these ports the aura of transcendental place. The assumption of the absolute-ness of location shapes how we see the visual media that represent these sailboats: not as wayfaring vessels seeking out moving locales in the shifting media of the ocean (wind, waves, etc.) (Peters 2015) but as objects in transit between two fixed points in the network. But the points were not so fixed as we might assume. The meaning, function, and distance between—and therefore, the location of—the Jardine-Matheson company's network of ports and sailboats between India and China changed appreciably over the course of the early nineteenth century. Clipper ships like the Red Rover fundamentally changed the nature of the spatialities of profit and information management for Jardine-Matheson. The actions of people like William Jardine, James Matheson, and their partners and employees transformed the possibilities of the technology into new patterns of trade, investment, and profit. The island of Lintin did not move locations, and neither did the ground upon which people built the cities of Singapore and Calcutta. But the work that these ports did to generate profits for Jardine-Matheson, and the distance between them, changed, bringing Lintin, Singapore, and Calcutta closer to each other and closer to London. These efforts worked in parallel with the efforts of the British Empire to produce new geopolitical frameworks for profit. The Treaty of Nanjing (1843), which concluded the Opium War, further changed the place of ports in the Jardine-Matheson network. Lintin lost its significance, replaced (in part) with the new British colony of Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the opening of two treaty ports in Fujian (Xiamen and Fuzhou) meant that people living in the coastal hinterland in places like Shenhu Bay had to create ways of trading, investing, and profiting from opium.
Space as process reveals the dynamic nature of narratives of place and personhood. The evolving commercial network between people like Shi Hou and John Rees precipitated the emergence of shadow or echo spatialities within the politics and worldviews of Qing administrators and patriotic Han Chinese onlookers from outside of the region. Coastal Fujian had long possessed the reputation of a place with outsized (and dangerous) lineages, along with illegal (and dangerous) commercial and migratory connections to various parts of Southeast Asia. But beginning in the 1830s, the connotations of coastal Fujian's connections and interactions with the outside world began to change. The actions of these people and the networks they operated came to represent the core essence of treason as China entered the modern era. Coastal Fujianese opium traders like Shi Hou came to personify treason during the rise of modern Chinese nationalism. The sources of the documents in this module underscore this. I found Shi Hou in a Chinese archive devoted to Qing history—an example of many legal cases the Qing administration brought against coastal residents who participated in the opium trade. In contrast, John and Thomas Rees and the Jardine-Matheson Company live on in modern glory—a dedicated archive at one of the world’s most prestigious universities, named buildings that continue to mark the coastline of the People’s Republic of China and Wales, and dozens of monographs devoted to understanding and analyzing their empire.