French Concession

French ConcessionWith Britain, France was the first of the nations to establish a concession in Tianjin. On the signing of the Treaty of Beijing in 1860 by the defeated Qing government the 2nd Opium War came to an end, and the French concession in Tianjin (Tien-Tsin) was established.  Its location was settled by French minister Bourboulon in 1861, and its boundary stones were set out by a navy officer, Lieutenant Trèves (who acted as a temporary consul under Bourboulon), with the help of military engineers in March 1861. Even at the time, reports differed as to the size of the concession, but rivalry with Britain certainly played a part in these disputes, with French officials claiming they had managed to obtain more acreage than Britain in the negotiations.

During the first decade of its existence, the French concession was mainly a missionary settlement. In 1870 however, rumours which had been circulating in Tianjin about the activities of missionaries, in particular the number of child deaths occurring in French-run orphanages, escalated out of all control. Angry crowds rioted, and in the ensuing chaos the French consul and his assistant were killed, catholic institutions were attacked and burned, and a number of priests, nuns and local coverts were massacred. A rather hysterical report in The Pall Mall Gazette tells us,

"A vast horde of China’s lowest scum surrounded the French Consulate, hurled stones at the gates, windows and doors. (…) M. Fontanier was cut down, his head severed, his body mutilated. The mob forced their way into the gardens of the Consulate, and there massacred M. Simon and Mme. Thomassin (…) Fathers Chevrier and Ou, the latter a native priest, hastened to meet the rioters in the hope of being in time to administer the last rites of their Church to the French Consul and his friends. They were at once surrounded and murdered, their bodies ripped open their entire length and afterward thrown in the river. The maddened mob made their way to the convent gate. Here Sister Monguet awaited them. A cut from a two-handed sabre severed her skull; her body was shamefully mutilated. Sister Adreoni was the next to fall by a blow with a hatchet; she was impaled, and her body carried high over the heads of the rioters. Sister Clavelin met her murderers at the southeast angle of the convent. She was dragged to the pharmacy, and while still alive her eyes and her heart were torn out; her shrieks rose high above the yells and execrations of her assassins…"

The following image depicts ‘Les Filles de la Charité martyrisées à Tientsin’ : The Sisters of Charity massacred at Tianjin.

Les Filles de la Charité martyrisées à Tientsin: The Sisters of Charity massacred at TianjinThe concession experienced a period of intense modernisation between 1870-95,

The Monument to Victory in the French Gardens of TianjinBut the main period of growth in the French concession dates from the turn of the century. Once the Boxer Uprising had been repressed in 1900, there occurred what Rasmussen has referred to as a ‘grab-game’(221), and a number of concessions extended their territory.

A 1935 census shows that of the 41,000 inhabitants only 190 were French nationals. There were almost as many Russians (178) and Japanese (164), but all European nationalities were vastly outnumbered by the Chinese population (40,000).

Paul Claudel (1868-1955) was perhaps the French concession’s most famous resident. After domestic irregularities and indiscretions elsewhere in China had come to the notice of Paris, Claudel was redeployed to Tianjin as Consul in 1906 where he remained until 1909. It was in Tianjin that Claudel and Victor Segalen first met, though these two major hommes de lettres of the epoch scarcely agreed in their views on China.

As it did throughout its vast Empire, France undertook a significant building programme in Tianjin. Many of the public edifices from this period are still standing, including the French Consulate, the Catholic Cathedral and the Garden pictured above. The French Club was popular with many of the other nationalities residing in Tianjin, but on the outbreak of the First World War tensions became manifest, with the French issuing the informal edict that ‘A partir de maintenant, tout le monde reste chez soi!’/’From now on, everyone should stay in their own quarter’.

It was the Second World War however, which put an end to the French concession in Tianjin. The outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 saw Tianjin encircled by the Japanese Army, although the various concession were initially respected. A formal end to the French concession came in 1946.