Beyond the ‘Shanghailander’: China through the eyes of foreigners in the 1920s and 1930s

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Alex Pan


China, Australia, Republican era China, History, Archival materials


This article explores foreign perspectives and insights into Chinese society during the 1920s and 1930s, by examining two foreigners’ personal accounts of life in China. Adopting a microhistory approach, the paper treats these personal accounts as historically significant sources, despite their inherently limited subject matter. Moreover, as in traditional historical interpretation, the article maintains that such personal accounts can serve as microcosms that reflect and illuminate wider historical trends and perspectives. The accounts of businessman Rex Phillips, read alongside those of travelling salesman Harry Glathe, highlight the diverse perspectives that Westerners had on China. Phillips’s writings illuminate how Westerners may have viewed China as a dangerous, backwards, war-torn nation, either with disdain or relative sympathy. Meanwhile, Glathe’s writings showcase a more Orientalist perspective, viewing China as a quaint, exotic, but developing country. By treating Phillips’s and Glathe’s sources as historical commentaries, further insight is gained into Chinese society at the time. Phillips’s letters and photographs detail his life in cosmopolitan Shanghai, while Glathe’s detailed descriptions and striking photographs of southern China enrich our understandings of the diversity of Chinese social experiences during the Republican period (1912– 1949). Ultimately, these sources enrich our understanding of both China’s social development and the diversity of Western racial and national perspectives during this period.

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