Boxers: Such is China.

April 26, 2009, 5:23 am

S.M.W. Brooks in
upper right hand corner

The month of April, 1900, started off on a hopeful note. “The Chinese Government,” the Times announced, “has settled the controversy arising out of the murder, December 31 last, of the Rev. Mr. Brooks of the Church Missionary Society on the following terms: Two of the murderers will be beheaded, one imprisoned for life, one for ten years, another for two years, a memorial chapel will be built upon the site of the murder, and a tablet will be placed in Canterbury, England, at the expense of the Chinese Government.” The murder, the Times reminded its readers, had been committed by “the seditious society known as ‘Boxers,’ who had been very active in destroying villages and slaughtering native Christians.” [1] The Great Powers were applying pressure to the Chinese directly:

The American, British, German, and French Ministers have sent a joint note to the Chinese Foreign Office demanding the total suppression of the Society of Boxers within two months, and announcing that, otherwise, the powers mentioned ‘will land troops and march into the interior northern provinces, Shan-Tung and Chi-Li, in order to secure the safety of foreigners. [2]

At the same time, the situation remained puzzling. There were complaints on April 5th that the Zongli Yamen (the offices designated to deal directly with foreigners) were being recalcitrant, and there was an outbreak of journalistic anthropologizing, a common reaction in these situations. The Times, looking for answers, found them in its analysis of Chinese society. There was “thick description” that would have done Clifford Geertz proud:

The audience of foreign ministers by the Chinese Minister, the Empress Dowager, and the heir apparent, on March 5, was a disgraceful farce. According to a Peking dispatch the Ministers were shabbily treated and given to understand they were not wanted. The Emperor spoke but one word. That was when he drew out of his sleeve the reply to the Ministers con- gratulations and handed it to Prince Cheng. He appeared stooping and feeble, glancing furtively along the line of visitors as if sadly hoping to see the face of some friend. His aunt, the Dowager Empress, observed every movement through cautiously lifted curtains. The audience was over in ten minutes, when, amid the usual celestial prayer, the. Ambassadors and Ministers were escorted to their chairs. Several of those dignitaries knew too little of palace etiquette to refrain from turning their backs upon the Emperor. The Emperor looked very pale, and is believed to be slowly dying, of poison. Reports say the coronation robes for the new Emperor have been ordered, and that Kwang Hsu’s coffin has been sent for as is customary when an Emperor reaches the age of thirty years. [3]

Like a lot of amateur anthropologizing, the details overwhelm the narrative. The Emperor is being poisoned! His coffin has been sent for! But that’s customary when an Emperor turns thirty! The contradictory flow gives one the sense of a reporter piling things up in his article haphazardly in hopes that a structure will emerge.

The micro-anthropology was supplemented by macro-anthropology as well. China, the Times gravely intoned, could well do without the entirety of the modern world.

Nothing would please the bulk of the mandarin class better than that foreign nations should go away and leave China alone. She has done without railways, and steam cotton mills, and mines where 1,000 tons of coal a day are raised by steam instead of 20 tons, dragged out by coolies, and she can do without them now.[4]

terrorized.jpgThen, on April 15th, a lengthy article appeared by a “Foreign Correspondent” in Tianjin, south of Beijing. Entitled “NORTH CHINA TERRORIZED” and subtitled “Bands Organized to Destroy the Homes of Christian Converts. Work of Pillage and Murder by Boxers. Would Drive Out Foreigners. Suspicion of Government Connivance,” the article is interestingly different than previous ones. It starts by avowing that “I have gathered all the information possible from various sources, both native and foreign, but as it is important that only facts should be presented, I will make only such statements as are amply proved.” The implication that other stories did not stick to facts “amply proved” is obvious, but so is the rhetorical ploy that reassured the reader that here was a serious work. Nonetheless, the article, though couched in highly charged language, actually proved to be a reasonable summation of the situation. The author outlined the recent development of the Boxers (though without any sense of their motivation or viewpoints) the attacks on the missionaries and Chinese Christians, and the difficulties of the Chinese governments, both local and national, in dealing with them. The latter was treated as evidence of the corruption and ineffectiveness of said government without any realization of the difficulties of rulers facing a popular mass uprising. “Such is Chinese duplicity,” the article says near the end. “Such is China.” There is the sense here, much more than in the other Times’ articles, of an actual, genuine society being described, rather than the Hollywood-ish dramatizations of the article about the Emperor. [5]*

Having said all this, however, the Boxers were not the only chaos threatening in China or Asia at that time. In hindsight, of course, it is easy to pick out these moments out as the beginnings of a much larger uprising of the society. But for the Times, there were other threats. “That there will be war between Russia and Japan in the very near future is being predicted on all sides…[and] events little short of miraculous must occur to avert it.” Such a war, the Times thought, would draw in other European nations, with Germany on the side of Russia, and England aiding Japan. The alliances would make the war global, with the British and Russians fighting in Afghanistan and India. [6]

In addition to all this, the Boxers were not the only movement brewing. In the south, a much larger uprising seemed in the offing, with the southern Viceroys and their armies rebelling against the Imperial Throne over the persecution of reformers. “Great Viceroys Threaten Rebellion Against Empress Dowager—Masses of Chinese Ready to Rise” said the article on April 12.

[The Viceroys] declared unitedly that if the Empress Dowager persists in persecuting the reformers and continuing her reign of terror policy, the Chinese under them will rebel against the Manchus. The Viceroy at Nanking says he has 140,000 Hunanese troops who are anxious to fight the Manchus, and he fears he cannot control them.[7]

A popular uprising, a war between great powers, and a revolt of the governors; by mid-April the catastrophes brewing in China seemed overwhelming. The Times spoke not at all of the “Open Door” in the first half of the month; there seemed simply no room for it. “Such is China” might have been a general reaction to the perception of a society seemingly breaking down.

There is one coda to this. Our old friend, Wu Tingfang, the Chinese Minister to the United States so energetically waging a public relations campaign for his country, was not mentioned in an article this week. But the Times did run an interestingly framed editorial:

The rest of the world has been used to look on China as a worn out land of teeming millions with fixed and unchanging habits, with whom trade might be of large volume but would necessarily be of very limited variety and subject to little change except in amount. Mr. Parson, after traversing the empire for 1,100 miles, in part through tbe most thickly populated portion and also through the portion hitherto the most rigidly guarded from the incursion of foreigners, reports that China is a country of trade opportunities as varied as they are vast, and that in the development of its resources and of the wants of its people it may be accepted as a growing country.

So far, not particularly unusual. Then came this final set of lines:

It is that our trade with China will grow in proportion as we can make and keep it equal and free. The Chinese will buy of us in direct proportion to their increased ability to sell to us and to others. A purely one-sided business will not prosper, and in the ratio that the business is made one-sided it will stagnate or dwindle. [8]

Compare this to Wu’s earlier speech:

In dealing with us study our manners, and be a little civil….If you want to have a share of China’s trade, a good deal depends upon the kind of treatment you extend to my countrymen in this country…I should be sorry to see my efforts offset by an unjust treatment of my countrymen…It will not do for you to expect China to keep her door open all the time if you shut the doors on Chinese merchants who come to your gate.

The Minister would have been proud to have written the editorial himself.

[1] 2 April 1900
[2] 8 April 1900
[3] 8 April 1900
[4] 8 April 1900
[5] 15 April 1900
[6] 12 April 1900
[7] 12 April 1900
[8] 13 April 1900

*I note that the article appeared on the same page as several other articles, including serendipitously the following small nugget:

A. C. Stern, whose suspicions against his wife led to his removal of his child from her care and resulted in her bringing habeas corpus proceedings against him last week, called at THE NEW YORK TIMES office yesterday and said that he wished to make it known that his suspicions had been unfounded. He made the following statement: “I beg to state that the suspicions which I entertained against my wife, which resulted in the recent habeas corpus proceedings, were entirely unfounded, and I take this means of notifying the public that a complete reconciliation has been effecteand that I have done her grievous wrong.”

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