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Boxers: A Ministerial Speaking Tour

February 13, 2009, 9:45 am

The Chinese minister to Washington, Wu Tingfang, continued on what seems to have been a sustained wooing of the American elites, attempting to make his (and his wife’s) personal charm strengthen China’s international weakness. After his late January appearance at the American Asiatic Association dinner, he appeared again at Delmonico’s steakhouse, but this time for the 28th Anniversary dinner of the 475626. New York Public Library Silk Association. [1]

Then, it was announced in the Times that he and his wife would attend Mardi Gras in New Orleans. “Rooms will be engaged for the party,” the Times announced, “which will consist of the Minister, his wife, and a retinue of thirty servants, at the St. Charles Hotel.” The article then moves from a straightforward account of the Minister’s future plans to a rhapsodic account of his and his wife’s popularity in Washington:

Minister Tingfang, of whom much has been said, is among the foremost of the foreign Minister at the capital, and both he and his wife are great favorites in Washington society. His wife is a representative of the high-class Chinese lady, and is finely educated. Her gowns, which are all of the prevailing Oriental style, are made in China, and have been the cause of much comment when she appeared in public. Both the Minister and his wife speak English fluently, and are entertaining conversationalists.”

The article finished by intimating that the Minister was the “confidential advisor” of a “great Chinese statesman. [2] Tingfang and his wife were, to the Times, exotics on display in normal surroundings, “entertaining conversationalists” dressed in the “prevailing Oriental style.”

Meanwhile, back in China… the Times focused on the Empress Dowager Cixi. Cixi Having ruled China legitimately and semi-legitimately for decades, Cixi was the most powerful woman in China and probably in the world, even including Queen Victoria of Britain. She was not having a particularly good week. First, the Times reported that the Empress Dowager had reconsidered deposing the Emperor. On February 5, the paper said that “the changed attitude of the Empress Dowager and her virtual abandonment of her resolution to depose the Emperor are directly due to the torrent of public remonstrance against her action. For the first time in Chinese history, public opinion has been effective.” [3] Then, the Empress Dowager changed school policy, “commanding a return to the old manner of study, according to the teachings of Confucius, for examinations of official rank.” This “relapse into the ancient conservatism” aimed for the “abolition of the study of the ‘new, depraved, and erroneous subjects of the Western schools.’” [4] Finally, a week later, the Empress Dowager had to back down to public opinion again. This time it was her policy of appointing Manchus rather than Chinese to high position. “She has just learned for the first time,” the Times said, “that deep-seated dissatisfaction exists throughout China regarding her recent policy of transferring all civil and military power to men of Manchu descent. She has summoned Viceroy Lu of Nanking, the most prominent official of Chinese descent in the empire, to tell her how matters actually stand….The Empress denies that she favors Manchus to the detriment of Chinese.” [5]

What seems remarkable here is that the vernacular of the stories is one of American political practice. The language used–’changed attitude’, ‘resolution’, ‘public remonstrance’, ‘manner of study’, ‘just learned’, ‘deep-seated dissatisfaction’, ‘recent policy’, ‘denies’, ‘favors’–is that of political discourse in the United States. The Empress Dowager could be a President, or Governor, or Senator working policy and ideas through in America. In a sense, such language was as anti-Orientalist as the descriptions of Tingfang and his wife were Orientalist: rather than China being written in the language of the strange, it was written in the language of the familiar. The Empress Dowager was fighting political battles alien to the U.S., but the way she was fighting them, at least in the Times’ description, was deeply commonplace.

[1] Times, February 9, 1900.
[2] Times, February 14, 1900.
[3] Times, February 5, 1900
[4] Times, February 9, 1900
[5] Times, February 13, 1900

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