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Boxers: The Name of George Washington

February 25, 2009, 11:32 am

More news from China over the ten days from February 15 to February 25, 1900. The most aggressive German missionary to China, Bishop Johnan von Anzer, returned to Europe to meet with the heads of state, including the Pope. His aim, as the Times explained, was to “induce all the European Governments interested to join in an attempt to convince the Peking Government of the necessity of suppressing all combinations and demonstrations against foreigners, and, if necessary to enforce this jointly….” At the end of the article came a brief line that illustrated the closeness between missionary activities and state imperialism, as well as serving as a nifty shot across the bow of the Catholic Church. “Emperor William,” the Times intoned (Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany), “attaches great importance to Bishop von Anzer’s counsels.” [1]

Meanwhile, the Times did not mention the Boxers. Other secret societies, however, were causing a ruckus, one which the British Navy had to deal with: “In the early part of last month, the crew of a steam launch from the British gunboat Tweed…had a lively fight with pirates, who are known as the ‘Order of the Red Flag.’” [2] And here I thought piracy was a modern problem? The Times did pause to print a sociological explanation of Chinese Secret Societies, however. Such societies, the Times announced, were similar to American unions or clubs.

bruce lee, enter the dragon
Member of Secret Society
After Fight

“Many are trade unions as simple as those which prevail in this country.” The Times continued “in their origins, these societies were laudable…and then their degeneration–inevitable in any country, but how much more so in China?–set in.” The story warned, darkly, that “wherever the Chinese go they take their secret societies with them. And it may be taken as a rule that every Chinaman belongs to one of them. The most innocent and well-meaning may be a member of one of the most criminal.” More, those secret societies and their members indulge in mysterious and violent practices: “Sometimes these societies get up fights, when at the signal–the beating of a gong in a special manner–peaceful citizens will be seen to rush from their shops, armed with murderous-looking tridents, swords, spears…and other instruments of offense that one might never have suspected they possessed.”[3]

Finally, Wu Tingfang’s public relations tour of the United States continued apace.As I discussed in the last post, the Minister from China seemed to be intent on wooing his American hosts socially as well as diplomatically. Another week and another gala event showcased that approach. This time, it was the celebration of George Washington’s birthday at the University of Pennsylvania, highlighted by the dedication of a new law school building.

University of Pennsylvania Law School
Penn Law School

Minister Wu was the “principal guest of honor and orator of the day.” He was “enthusiastically received by the large audience, and the university men greeted him with their well-known college yell,” the chanting of “Rowbottom” over and over again.

Wu’s speech picked up the theme of Washington’s birthday. “The name of George Washington,” he said, “is by no means unknown in China. To every Chinese student of modern history his life and achievements are familiar….It might seem at first sight paradoxical to say that we Chinese hold Washington in higher estimation for what he did not do than for what he actually did for his country. History has given us innumerable examples of great warriors, eminent statesmen, devoted patriots, who we regard with wonder and respect. Such are Caesar, Cromwell, and Napoleon…But where can we find another instance of entire subordination of personal ambition to the public welfare? The love of power which is innate to every man seems to have been controlled by a higher sense of public duty….The only historical characters I can think of who resemble Washington are Yao and Shun. These two great monarchs reigned in China…”

Cincinnatus, Rome, Civic Virtue
Cincinnatus

Note the subtlety of Wu’s speech. He applauds Washington for his civic virtue as compared to (European) strong-men. Who does Washington resemble most in this? Not the figure who has become the canonical example of this–Cincinnatus of Rome–but two Chinese statesmen. The U.S. and China resemble each other in the probity of their historical leaders while Europe is prey to men overwhelmed by their “love of power.” Wu then went on to discuss America’s position in Asia. “This Republic is young, and this is the first time she has acquired colonies 10,000 miles away.” Where to look for inspiration on how to handle America’s new position in the western Pacific? Washington’s farewell address! “I have recently read Washington’s farewell address and what struck me most was the foresight and transcendent wisdom exhibited….” And then came the pivot. For what Wu was interested in putting forward was not a Washingtonian foreign policy in Asia,, but a Monrovian one. “Twenty-seven years afterward, President Monroe issued his caveat against foreign aggressions against foreign aggressions on the American continent…It was not entirely a new doctrine, but a liberal interpretation of the sound principles laid down by Washington….The question now arises whether it is apt time for this country to extend the Monroe Doctrine to Asia.” [4] In essence, Wu wanted the United States to treat the western Pacific as it did the Caribbean, and bar other foreign powers from the exploitation of that arena.

In a succession of speeches, Wu had affirmed the links between the U.S. and China, noted the common mercantile interests, admonished the Americans to be polite, and then followed it up by flattering the nation’s founder and suggesting a course of action likely dear to the heart of a newly imperial power. It was a performance of skill and delicacy, albeit in service of an idea that was insanely impossible. That China could make no other suggestion in the spring of 1900 suggests just how weak she was.

[1] 20 Feb 1900.
[2] 18 Feb 1900.
[3] 25 Feb 1900.
[4] 23 Feb 1900.

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