Use these biographies to discover more about key individuals in China's history. Click on each separating letter to jump back to the alphabetical navigation.


Aglen, (Sir) Francis (1869-1932)

Third Inspector General of the Chinese Customs Service Francis Aglen was born in Scarborough on 17 October 1869. He was educated at Marlborough College and joined the Customs Service in December 1888 as a Fourth Assistant B. Aglen speedily moved up through the Customs ranks and in 1897 was promoted to Commissioner.

During the Boxer War in 1901, when Hart was under siege in the Peking foreign legation, Aglen was appointed officiating Inspector General jointly with F.E. Taylor, but declined the post. Between 1903 and 1904 Aglen worked as Chief Secretary at the Inspectorate General in Peking. He married Senga Marion Balfour in 1906. In 1910 he was appointed officiating Inspector General and in 1911 became Inspector General.

During the Xinhai Revolution of 1911-12 Aglen ordered that the Foreign Inspectorate assume direct control of the collection and banking of the customs revenues for the first time (previously this task had been performed by Chinese Superintendents), a move which prompted fierce criticism of the Foreign Inspectorate from anti-imperialist campaigners in the 1920s. He was appointed KBE in 1918.

In January 1927 Aglen was dismissed by the Peking government for refusing to carry out instructions to collect a surcharge on foreign trade. In the same year he was made GCMG. He died in Meigle, Perthshire, on 26 May 1932.


Barrow, Sir John (1764-1848)

Born in Lancashire and educated at the local grammar school, Barrow earned a living as a teacher until he became “comptroller of household” for the Macartney embassy to China in 1792. He became the Cape Colony auditor general in 1798 and married Anna Maria Trüter the following year. He was a member of the Royal Society, serving on the council from 1815, and friend of Sir Joseph Banks. He was also a founding member of the Royal Geographical Society. Barrow was instrumental in sending the Amherst embassy to China in 1815. He wrote Mutiny on the Bounty (1831), and was well known for his travel writing. His contribution to science and literature earned him a baronetcy in 1835.


Chen Duxiu (1879-1942)

Co-founder and first secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Chen Duxiu was born to a wealthy family in Anhui in 1879. In 1897 he failed the imperial examination and went on to study in Japan. After becoming a faculty member of Beijing University in 1915 Chen founded and edited New Youth, an influential journal in the May Fourth movement, and was a prominent figure in the New Culture Movement of 1915-27.

After 1919 Chen became increasingly interested in Marxism and in 1920 he helped to found the CCP, becoming the party’s first secretary-general in 1921. He retained this position until 1927. In 1929 Chen became enamoured with Trotskyism and in 1931 he and other Trotskyites in the Communist Party organised the CCP Left Wing Opposition in Shanghai. Chen was arrested by the Nationalist government in 1932 and was imprisoned until 1937. He left the CCP in 1938 after becoming disillusioned with factional struggle within the party and the principle of proletarian dictatorship. He died on 27 May 1942 in Baisha, Sichuan province.


Ding Ling (1904-86)

Writer and activist Ding Ling, neé Jiang Biangzi or Jiang Wei and known by various pseudonyms including Bin Zhi, Cong Xuan, Xiao Han, and Man Jia, was born into a prosperous and influential gentry family in Woshaoxi, Linli county, Hunan province, on 12 October 1904. At the age of 15 Ding Ling became involved in the May Fourth student political and intellectual movement, taking part in lectures and demonstrations in her home province of Hunan. In 1921 Ding Ling broke off an arranged marriage and travelled to Shanghai where she studied at Shanghai University and became involved in left-wing and radical politics. Ding Ling’s literary career was launched in 1927 with the publication of a short story, ‘Mengke’. Later in 1927 the publication of another short story, ‘Miss Sophie’s Diary,’ which frankly portrayed a young woman’s sexuality, earned Ding Ling fame and notoriety.

In 1931 Ding Ling’s lover and father of her infant son, the left-wing poet Hu Yepin, was arrested and executed by the Guomindang. This tragedy hastened Ding Ling’s political radicalisation and she assumed the editorship of the left-wing literary journal the Big Dipper, which published a serialised version of her novella, Flood, hailed by the CCP as quintessential example of the genre of proletarian fiction. In 1933 Ding Ling was arrested by the GMD and placed under house arrest, although she managed to escape her captors with the help of the CCP in 1936. Throughout the 1940s she continued to publish essays and stories and in 1946 published her only completed novel, The Sun Shines on the Sanggan River.

After the formation of the PRC in 1949 Ding Ling assumed an influential role in shaping cultural policy and bureaucracy. In 1954, however, she herself became a target of criticism and was branded a rightist and exiled with her husband to a state farm in Heilongjiang province for 13 years. After being arrested in 1970 she was imprisoned and kept in solitary confinement for another five years. Her rightist label was officially removed in 1978 and she then resumed her writing career. In 1980 Ding Ling’s party membership and official position were restored, and in 1984 her reputation was fully rehabilitated by the Party. Ding Ling died on 4 March 1986.


Giquel, Prosper Marie (1835-1885)

A graduate of the French naval academy, Giquel first travelled to Canton in 1857 to take part in the Anglo-French assault on China known as the Arrow War (or Second Opium War). When the conflict was over Giquel was offered a position in the Imperial Maritime Customs Service by then-Inspector General Horatio Nelson Lay. He accepted and took up the post of Ningbo Commissioner in 1861. After the Taipings captured Ningbo in December that year Giquel left the city to co-ordinate the Anglo-French campaign against the rebels at Shanghai, later returning to Ningbo to organise the force which would eventually become the Ever-Triumphant Army. Giquel resigned from his position in the Customs in November 1866 and went on to occupy several important positions as adviser to the Chinese state. Between 1867 and 1874, for example, he served as European director of the Fuzhou Shipyard project under the imperial commissioner, Shen Pao-chen. From the mid 1870s Giquel became increasingly involved in international diplomacy, serving as adviser during the ‘Taiwan crisis’ in 1874 and during the ‘Ili crisis’ in 1881. He ended his China career by helping to attempt to bring an end the Sino-French war in Indochina, 1883-85.


Jardine, William (1784-1843)

Merchant William Jardine was born on 24 February 1784 near Lochmaben, Dumfriesshire. He studied medicine at Edinburgh University, graduating from the Edinburgh Royal College of Surgeons in 1802. In the same year Jardine joined the East India Company as a ship surgeon and travelled to India. Whilst employed by the East India Company Jardine engaged in some private trade and in 1817 he resigned from the Company and began a full time career as a ‘country trader’ engaged in the triangular trade between China, India and Britain.

Jardine resided in Canton between 1820 and 1839. Here he became a successful agent for opium merchants in India, leading to his becoming a partner in Magniac & Co. in 1925. James Matheson, who Jardine had met in Bombay in 1920, soon joined him in the firm and in 1932 it was reconstituted as Jardine, Matheson & Co. Jardine, Matheson & Co. soon became the most successful and influential foreign trading firm in Canton, profiting in particular from the illegal up-country opium trade in China. Jardine left Canton for London in 1939 just before the outbreak of the Opium War. In London he lobbied Palmerston for intervention on behalf of foreign opium merchants in China.

During the war Jardine also joined the London banking firm of Magniac, Smith & Co., which handled London business for foreign merchants in China, and he was elected to parliament as the Whig candidate for Ashburton, Devon. In 1841 he purchased the estate of Lanrick in Perthshire. He died in London on 27 February 1843 after a long illness. The firm of Jardine’s still operates in China today.