Boxers: Paid Her to Subdue Savages, The Stiffening of China’s Backbone, A Nest Upholstered with Bayonets

January 23, 2009, 12:22 pm

In the second ten days of January 1900, the news from China that reached New York was all of matters military and diplomatic. There was no further mention of the Boxers and, in fact, mentions of China occupied themselves almost entirely with the aggressive (if not thuggish) maneuverings of the great powers and China’s shifting ability to resist them. China was not so much being conquered as it was being organized by the western powers, if organized by violence, by intimidation, and by edict. Or, at least, that’s the way the New York Times presented it.

China—to use a technical term—was not even an other. It was a bare playing field on which others warred in sporting matches that went back and forth but were never quite ended.

Thus the Times declared, on January 17, 1900, that “any power which chooses may, according to our contention, maltreat the Chinese as much as it choose and carve up their inheritance to suit itself. All that we ask is that we shall hereafter be permitted to trade there, as now, on the footing of the most favored nations, which is to say, on the same footing as the conquering and partitioning power.” A conquered part of China would simply be a “certain tract” which the European power had the “right to police at its own expense.” In that sense, China seemed property to be mortgaged and owned and tended. The Chinese themselves were not civilized and the model for dealing with them was the British one: “It has paid her to subdue savages in quest of new markets.”

At the same time, China existed as an international actor. The Empress Dowager, the Times gravely noted, had published a “secret decree…in which she speaks of the danger which threatens the empire from foreign aggression” with “‘tiger-like voracity.’” This “stiffening of China’s backbone” could not, for the Times be native to the Chinese. Instead, the paper speculated that the Japanese had reached an “understanding” with the Empress that led to her defiance, a speculation reinforced by another article which pointed out that the Japanese were offering to establish a military academy in Beijing staffed with Japanese instructors to educate Chinese officers.

And yet the Chinese still existed and appeared in the pages of the paper. On 17 January 1900, the Times wrote of Li Hung Chang (Li Hongzhang), a Chinese statesman already well known in the west.
The article was particularly interesting because it was written from the perspective of Li, himself. He had been “withdrawn from the Tsung Li Yamen [Chinese group charged with relations with the foreign powers] in 1898 at the demand of Great Britain but he was not degraded.” He was a “favorite” of the Dowager Empress and was thus given a range of jobs, including a survey of the Yellow River, a “very trying tour” the paper wrote. Following that, the Empress sent him to Canton to be “Viceroy of the Kwantung and Kwangse Provinces.” The tone of the article continued in this personal vein: as Viceroy, “Li has on his hand the vexatious situation due to the aggression of the French…Li Hung Chang, therefore, steps into a next upholstered with bayonets.”

The article finishes with this contemplative, almost familial line: “The Canton Viceroyalty is one of the most lucrative in China, but to contend successful with the Chinese factions, with his enemies at Peking, and with the French will puzzle the old statesman.” The article was remarkable in focusing on a single Chinese, and focusing with great intimacy. It is the foreigners here who were the anonymous others, and Li Hung Chang who was the familiar character. It was the goals, worries, and challenges of Li that dominated the story to the exclusion of all else. A hint of why came in the second paragraph, where the article mentioned that Li was accompanied in his work by “N.J. Pettrick, formerly United States Vice Consul at Tientsin, [Li's] private secretary.” My conclusion is—probably obviously—that Pettrick was either the source or author of the article, and so represented Li’s viewpoints back to the west. In a strange way, thus, China existed as property and playground, as other, and as a real, live person who could be vexed or puzzled or degraded.

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