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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Strategy and Statecraft in Imperial China
Fortifying the Coast: Naval Strategy and Maritime Geography in Late Qing China
Thursday, March 25, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
Columbia University, United States
This paper explores how the late imperial geographical tradition of coastal defense shaped the debates on naval technology and the conceptualization of the maritime frontier in late Qing China. The maritime crises of the mid-nineteenth century inspired a new body of Chinese naval studies, advanced by Wei Yuan and others, which drew upon late imperial scholarship on Chinese coastal geography and new experiences defending against the naval aggression of European powers in China and Southeast Asia. Inheriting a long-standing naval-geographical framework that emphasized the fortification of riverine and coastal geographical features as strategic barriers, late Qing naval theorists, military commanders and reformist officials grappled with issues pertaining to the perceived indefensibility of the open ocean and the practicability of Western naval strategies and technology on Chinese riverine and coastal waters. Prioritizing the security of the coast over the control of the high seas, inherited modes of geographical reasoning continued to inform how late Qing China employed new naval technologies to complement the geographical barriers along its coastline—with profound consequences for how China utilized its new ironclad warships in future conflicts.