Boxers, April 15, 1900-May 15, 1900: The Squeezable Lord Salisbury, The Din of the Hammer and the Axe, and the Hum of Wheels, The Panting Man Falls Into His Grave

May 11, 2009, 5:35 pm

A seemingly slow month in China, at least as the New York Times reported it. Events from China were less compelling to the paper than events at which people spoke about China. The Boxers were still active, attacking Chinese Catholics southwest of Tianjin, and mounting an attack on both British and Russian units during the period. But the Times wasn’t really interested. The first news it related in a brief 71 word story on 23 April, only to retract it on 26 April as “quite erroneous.” Instead, the paper reported “Some Boxers attacked a village occupied bv a number of Catholics, but were driven off.” The lack of interest of “some boxers” is palpable. [1] The attack on the Russians and British were not seen as part of a larger uprising, but official conniving. “The disturbances are due to Chinese officials working on the credulity of the natives.” [2] The Times was curiously disconnected from this as well, giving it 87 words and barely any attention. They paid as much attention to the story of the jailed Chinese man who declared he was the Emperor:


A Chinaman In Prison Declares He Is
Ruler of the Nation.

VICTORIA, B. C, April 15.—The steamer Rio Jun Maru, which arrived here yesterday from the Orient, brings a strangre story of a Chinaman who was arrested at Wuchang. After lying in jail and being beaten he proclaimed himself to be the Emperor. He claimed he had escaped from the palace, where he had been imprisoned by the Empress Dowager, and had since been traveling incognito. He possesses documents purporting to bear the seal of the Court of Peking identifying him as the Emperor. [3]

Note that the story seemed simply to be the excited tale of someone coming off a steamer in Canada, drunk or sober, and yet the newspaper thought it worthy of publication.
But even that “official conniving” was driven largely not by the Chinese themselves, but…wait for it…the Russians. In an odd break from their previous coverage, this month, the Times was sure that the Russians were responsible for China’s behavior. “Russia’s success in forcing an anti-foreign policy upon the Dowager Empress of China…is full of unpleasant suggestiveness, and the powers, who are interested in keeping the “open door,” will have to be very alert, indeed, else in a few years it is plain that Russia will be able to impose her policy upon Peking to an extent that might permanently injure the commercial interests of every other power trading with the Chinese Empire.” [4] The signs of Russian perfidy were everywhere. 100,000 Chinese laborers were shipped to Port Arthur to help the Russians build a railway connection. But was that it? No! The Times intoned. “The fortifications at Port Arthur are progressing rapidly, and the troops, ammunition, and supplies there far exceed the necessities of railway protection.” [5] In previous stories, the newspaper had put such works in the context of rivalry with Japan, but here the Japanese were notably absent.

Squeezable Lord Salisbury

That absence was particularly important because of who the Times would prefer to step up and deal with the Russians. Could the British do it? No: Lord Salisbury, the current British Prime Minister had already shown his “incapacity to resist” the Russians. He was, in fact, labeled as the “squeezable Lord Salisbury,” by the paper. Instead, “the honors are decidedly with the United States, which took a much firmer and more impressive tone” with the Russians. [6]

The contrast was fascinating. At one moment, the unrest in China could be the sign of conniving Chinese officials, eager to drive progressive foreigners out. At the next, it could be the result of the Machiavellian plotting of an aging Dowager Empress, scheming to retain control of her throne. Then, finally, it was evidence of great power politics being played to its full extent, the Great Game in Asia. Like a defense attorney struggling to save a client, the Times offered a range of plausible interpretations; whatever was useful in the moment became the explanation of choice.

ecumenical.jpgWhat did interest the Times more was not events in China, but events about China. The “Ecumenical Conference on Foreign Missions” started its two week meeting in New York in late April, a meeting the Times covered extensively. The conference topics spanned the globe, from suttee in India, to missionary work in South America, to the dangerous chaos in China. The missionaries faced a world that was modernizing and industrializing rapidly. The speed of events was unrelenting. As one missionary said to the conference:

The gigantic engines that are driving forward a material development are being speeded as never before. The din of the hammer and the axe, and the hum of wheels have penetrated the abodes of solitude—the world has now few quiet places. Life is strenuous—the boy is started in his school upon the run, and the pace is not often slackened until the panting man falls into his grave.

But the missionaries would triumph, just as progress was triumphing:

There will be a reconstructed China. All her material conditions will be changed for the better. She will rise in the scale of nationhood; her foreign relations, her financial system, her judicial administration, will be lifted immensely above the level where they now are. New soil is always wonderfully rich. Old people once emancipated from old ideas will growideas with an exuberance unwonted. [7]

And in that newly fertile field, the missionaries would plant the new seed of the one proper religion. There was a certainty here, an innocence of purpose and effort that the modern world finds at best uncomplicated and at worst naive. Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory argued that irony began in the trenches of World War I. That is much too simplistic a statement, but there is the temptation to see that era of pre-irony in the confidence of the missionaries. Even here, however, there was a hint of what is to come in some of the militarized language used by the missionaries. This was not conversion so much as it was war:

Now let us give a cheer that shall cause Jericho’s walls to fall down before the oncoming hosts’ of our Joshua, Jesus. And yet we know we may fail to seize upon some tactics that would aid us in the victory. We know here in this conference that you are, as it were, viewing the battlefield as from a captive balloon, and may well point out methods of attacks. [8]

Even as those words were being written, there were many missionaries on what had suddenly become a battlefield in China. Within fifteen years, Christianity would be viewing a much larger battlefield from something of a captive balloon, despairing to “well point out methods of attack.”

[1] 23, 26 April 1900
[2] 8 May 1900
[3] 16 April 1900
[4] 13 May 1900
[5] 15 May 1900
[6] 16 April 1900
[7] 22, 25 April 1900
[8] 22 April 1900

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