Book Review (French): Guangzhouwan, The Secret Colony—The French Leased Territory in Southern China

Reviewed by Claire Hennessy


We have a telling title here: Antoine Vannière unveils the clandestine nature of France’s oversea colony called “Kouang-Tchéou-Wan,” which later came to be known as Guangzhouwan(广州湾). Located in today's Guangdong Province, this colony was a small enclave on the Southern coast of China, with a total land area of 1,300 square kilometers (500 sq mi). The typonomy of “Kouang-Tchéou” is a transliteration from “Canton” (as in “Cantonese”, a southern dialect still spoken by people of Guangdong and Hong Kong areas), and hence “Kouang-Tchéou-Wan” means “Canton Bay”.


Guangzhouwan was ceded by the last feudalist regime of China, Qing Dynasty to France as a lease and administered as a constituent territory of French Indochina. Back to the year 1898, when France invaded the area, it met strong resistance from the local population. In November 1899, one year after France’s invasion, France tried to force the Qing government to sign a lease of Guangzhouwan. The Qing government refused to sign it, but France enforced the lease anyway and set about to rule the area for 99 years. The French governance of the area ended in February 1943 when Japan occupied the territory. The French briefly took it back in 1945 before returning it to China in 1946.

In his book, Vanniére brings attention to a long-overlooked dimension in post-colonial studies, namely, the discourse over Western colonization of China beginning in the mid 19th century, regardless of the fact that China was one of the largest and the most demarcated territory since Western imperial expansion dominated the leitmotif of modernity. Along the Anglophone and Francophone lines of inquiry specifically, the application of post-colonial theory seldom goes beyond the geopolitical circumference of Indochina, not to mention that “Indochina” remains a tacky and hypothetical term.

In the beginning, "Indochina" has been used to designate an ambitious blueprint of an Indochinese Union that would oversee and preside over the entire Southeast Asia, especially China, no matter how much this egoistic plan failed later. With time, the term "Indochina" has been used to mask what the author calls a “clandestine colony” of Guangzhouwan, occupied by the Third Republic of France from 1898 to 1946. It is from this point of departure that Antoine Vanniére’s 2020 book reveals such an unquestioned paradox within the semantically blurry connotation of “colony.” The book provides archival analysis from a historian’s perspective on why France attempted to conceal a colony that was meant to “radiate its colonial luster,” so to speak.

Arguments, method and significance

According to the author, Kouang-Tchéou-Wan was one of the smallest colonial possessions France ever owned— a mere speck on France's vast map. Counterintuitive is Kouang-Tchéou-Wan 's unfit condition for a colony: there is neither raw materials to exploit, nor enough local population to cosume imports from the Hexagon (referring to France). Disinterested in learning about its toponymic origin, the French colonial were further "perfunctory" in applying a legal status for its adoptee: Kouang-Tchéou-Wan was addressed as a "leased territory" of 99 years, a literal rental from China's Qing Dynasty.

The author highlights a chain of the historical and ideological forces that have shaped Guangzhouwa's secret identity, an identity even unheard of in France till this day. First of all, Guangzhouwan was a possession that reflects a knock-on-the-knee response among Western powers at the time when the feudalist Chinese empire began to crumble. In other words, France felt the need to possess its own share of the cake when China was parceled out by other Western powers. Second, even though Guangzhouwan was originally designated as a naval station with a coal depot to guarantee French navy’s independence over fuel supply, it did not meet its original purpose as a military outpost. Rather, it was turned into a strategic beachhead to invade additional Chinese provinces to the north such as Yunnan and Sichuan, since the Indochinese colony had long been coveting China’s southern provinces. And finally, when the focus of Guangzhouwan shifted towards economic development, its economy became distorted due to the notorious opium trade conducted there. According to Vannière, opium brought the colony vast amount of revenue, and Guangzhouwan was ultimately turned into the financial engine of Indochina. Another purpose of colonizing Guangzhouwan was to use it to spy on British Hongkong when the Franco-British rivalry was in full swing, evidenced by the resounding Fashoda crisis in Sudan in a few months to come.

The book demonstrates a conscious choice of limiting the research within the framework of French colonization history in East Asia and its expansion policy in East Asia during the first half of the twentieth century. In doing so, it offers a prism of the French gaze over the lifestyle and discourse of the colonized. The author additionally addresses the ambiguous legal status of Guangzhouwan, which allows for the opportunity to probe into “the nature of the French colonial project and its ambitions in this part of the world, given that the French colonials had treated these two expressions as one and the same” (Vannière, 7, my translation).

The material basis of this research relies largely on but is not limited to the archival resources of the Administration of the General Government of Indochina. As the author points out, even judgments from contemporaries on the value of Guangzhouwan and the actions of France could be quite skewed and therefore should be treated as testimonies that are constituent of the entire colonial representation. Such a rigorous method of investigation allows the author to be able to come to a few trenchant observations, namely that it appears that the general government of Indochina was particularly responsible for silencing about Guangzhouwan, revealing the expansionist aspiration that France held at the turn of the century. The research materials come from three major resources, namely, the ministerial, administrative and private, allowing the author to extend his analyses that have already been conducted on the Doumer period (1897-1902) to the entire first half of the twentieth century. As the author briefly concludes from his archival findings that Guangzhouwan is, in a way, an outlier of an earlier mode of colonial expansion, one that neither France nor its successive general governments of Hanoi were able to develop and keep up with the pace of world politics.

Vannière's work is significant in debunking the obscene underside of colonial enterprise as the colonial assume themselves as fewer administrative responsibilities as possible. Vanniére’s subject of investigation therefore offers complementary insights and criticism to the current post-colonial studies that have dealt directly with issues of formal colonies of the French empire, representative in Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire’s works. On the one hand, the implied status of Guangzhouwan deconstructs the so-called “semi-colonies,” “leased territories,” and "concession," gesturing toward a status worse than legal colonies. On the other hand, and in so doing, Vaniére reveals the absurdity of the so-called legal “colonies,” highlighting a kind of colonial mentality that narcissistically views itself as the patron of the underdeveloped and thereby colonization a magnanimous cause. In other words, these occupied territories jointly manifest a kind of egoistic denial to see oneself as the intruder who has literally broken into someone’s house. Perhaps the author is right: there is no such a thing as a good or bad colony—there are only colonies, which are all bad.

About Its Translation

The author’s work was translated into Mandarin and published in 2016 in Guangzhouwan, nowadays known as the city of Zhanjiang (湛江), as a gesture of commemorization. In the Derridian sense, the Mandarin edition manifests the act of literature by providing a valuable oppotunity to look into the contemporary Chinese discourse on this piece of shared colonial memory.

The Chinese translation is overall rigorous and precise, achieving an almost perfect balance between foreignfication and domestication. However, the essentialist tendency is unavoidable, especially in places where colonial termiologies no longer occupy the same psychological center as their French counterparts. Therefore, readers will find many colonial terms and details omitted in the Mandarin translation. Yet it is understandable that the same shared memories can be rememered differently. The Chinese edition emphasizes more on a nostalgic undertone that retells its uniquely international identity: not as annhilation, but as acceptance; not as the victimized, but as truly who they are. This is reflected, for example, in the translator's prolonged gaze over the French architecture that marks the central stage of their colonized memory.

An English translation would be anticipated to join a multilingual conversation on Guangzhouwan’s forgotten narrative, hopefully, informing different language choices and translating methods as well as offer alternative perspectives of reading this unique colonial history. At stake would be a multilingual translation casting light on different cultural renditions over a chain of key terms such as “concession,” “lease-hold territory,” “colony,” “sub-colony” and “semi-colony.” In the past, these terms have been mixed together and willfully substituted with each other, echoing a classic colonial mentality. At other times, they have jointly become a humanist camouflage of colonization. It is in this way that the translingualism of Guangzhouwan’s colonial narrative is significant to open up new research directions and venues in post-colonial studies.


Antoine Vanniére (1964—) received his Ph.D. degree from Paris-7 University of Paris Diderot in 2004. His specialty is in French colonial history. Since 2012, he has been Professor of History at the Lycée Thiers. Antoine Vanniére’s doctoral thesis completed in 2004 is entitled « Le territoire à bail de Guangzhouwan : Une impasse de la colonisation française en Asie orientale 1898-1946 ». It was published as « Kouang Tchéou-Wan, colonie clandestine : Un territoire à bail français en Chine du Sud 1898-1946», les Indes savantes, 2020. It was translated into Mandarin entitled《广州湾租借地—法国在东亚的殖民困境》上下卷,郭丽娜和王钦峰译,暨南大学出版社,广州,中国,2016.

Claire Hennessy pursued her doctorate in comparative literature at University of Southern California, and is currently a translator and writer.