Butchery And Havoc In The Abused Name Of Civilization (Boxers, May 15, 1900-June 15, 1900)

June 23, 2009, 8:12 am

Things began to heat up in China in late May, early June. What had been hints and ominous intimations were now transformed into a full-blown crisis. The “Boxers”–in earlier stories surrounded by quotes and explanation–became over the course of the month simply the Boxers, a name every reader should have, by then, known. Thus, on May 25th, the Times wrote “The United States Government has taken a hand in the suppression of the “Boxers,” the famous Chinese secret society which is engaged in the massacre of native Christians in China, and to which is attributed numberless outrages upon the foreign missionaries.” By June 6, the Times wrote “The murder of Mr. Norman, the missionary, was undoubtedly due to the complicity of the Chinese Government in the disturbances caused by the Boxers.” The Boxers had become part of the common parlance of educated readers and no longer required explanation.

Both China and the Boxers became front-page news in those late spring weeks. And now, they were threatening not merely missionaries or native Christians, but Beijing itself. The Chinese Army was helpless to deal with them:

The rebellion continues to grow in intensity, and the gravest fears are entertained of its ultimate extent. The foreign envoys at Peking, fearing a massacre within the capital, have decided to bring up the guards of the legations. The rebels are now massing outside of Peking, and their numbers are reported to be constantly augmenting. Fresh contingents of armed malcontents are coming up almost hourly from the north. The imperial troops who were sent to disperse the rebels found themselves hopelessly outnumbered. Several hundreds were killed, and two guns and many rifles were captured, after which the greater part of the remaining troops went over to the rebels. They are now marching side by side [1]

By nearing Beijing, of course, the Boxers neared the representatives of the foreign nations, the correspondents reporting on China, and the telegraph lines that connected China to the outside world. The threat, thus, became much more immediate and personalized for each country and the delay in reporting events dropped as well. The number of articles concerning China more than doubled in the month compared to the previous month’s total.

Who was responsible for the crisis? There seemed a notable reluctance simply to believe that this was a popular uprising. Someone more important had to be at fault. The most obvious guilty party was the Imperial Throne. If they could not control the Boxers immediately, then the Chinese government had little claim to be such: “A Government which cannot protect foreigners at its own capital, when these foreigners are there by its invitation or its permission, is not a Government which it is any longer possible for its foreign friends to uphold.” [2]

Or could it be that the government was actually supporting the Boxers? The Times found that idea plausible as well. The actions taken by the throne to deal with the movement were fake. They were “pretended mission[s]” deceptions intended to fool the western powers. The tortured logic of the paper was that the throne must have the power to suppress the Boxers. That the Dowager Empress did not was thus a sign that she, in fact, supported them: “the throne and Government have been actuated by secret sympathy with the Boxer movement, which the Government has ample power to suppress if it so desires.” [3]

But were the Chinese really daring enough to stand against the imperial powers, alone? Surely not:

In the first place, no matter how ignorant and stubborn the Empress Dowager may be, it is altogether nonsense to say that she has independently determined to stand against all powers, agitating, as has been said, the Boxers instead of suppressing them. She must be backed by some power. in other words, the fundamental cause which made the Boxers rise seems to be that vary power. Ever since the Chino-Japanese war, Russia, with her treacherous diplomacy, has increased her influence upon the Empress Dowager, and, in consequence, upon the courtiers and statesmen of China. This can be proved by many facts. Russia has obtained Port Arthur, notwithstanding she protested, under the Russo-German-French triple alliance, against Japan’s occupying that territory after the Shimonoseki negotiation, with the pretext that it would be an obstacle to peace in the Far East. She has also been permitted by the Chinese Government to extend the Siberian Hallway throughout Manchuria. Thus her thirst has been quenched by degrees, but is ever increasing, encroaching upon any fruitful territory that she can secure. [4]

race-hierarchy-1904.jpgThere seemed two ideas at war here. One was the vision of the Chinese as decadent schemers, Fu Manchus carrying out twisty plots behind the scenes while good, straightforward Westerners stood by, confused. The other vision was the (racial) vision of China as primitives, still without the benefits of western civilization or, as the Social Darwinists would have it, of western evolution. The latter would not be capable of such intricate trickery, so there must be a civilized power behind them.

The former conviction was on display further in a strange editorial that actually came out and lauded the Boxers. They were the “New Men” of China, passionate, full of conviction, and only waiting to be filled with the correct attitudes:

It must be owned that the illumination we get from China on the actual details of the troubles there does not amount to much. So far as it goes it seems, as we have before intimated, to go to show that the Boxers are the most respectable people in the Chinese Empire, as being the only ones who are willing to risk their lives for an idea, even a, silly one, like the keeping of modern progress out of China. Enlighten the convictions of such men as these, and you have a very valuable class of citizens. But not all the eloquence and wit of the present Minister from China in this country could make us overlook the fact that the saving element in China, whencesoever else it may come, will not come from the official class. [5]

The Boxers might have been crazy savages, the Times seemed to be saying, but, by God, they’re willing to die for their crazed savagery.

Goldwin Smith

The rush of events did have one merciful effect. They muted to an extent in the Times reporting the racist and Darwinian puffery of the last several months, in which speculation about Chinese racial characteristics, the decadence of Chinese society, and the inevitable triumph of western progress and religion, filled in for the absence of news. As the crisis developed, the reporting became more the play-by-play of events, rather than commentary to fill the quietness of inaction. Even where the commentary did appear, now the situation was important enough that the newspaper looked for actual experts on the situation. In this case, Professor Goldwin Smith, the historian, who gave his name to both a bench and a building at Cornell University. Here, he gave only a quote: “If any people in the world have a right to a country,” said Prof. Smith, “the Chinese surely have a right to the country which they are believed to have inhabited for 4,000 years. It is too probable that China will be the next scene of butchery and havoc in the abused name of civilization.” [7] As it turns out, he was right.

[1] June 1, 1900.
[2] May 29, 1900.
[3] June 10, 1900.
[4] June 8, 1900.
[5] June 9, 1900.
[6] June 13, 1900.
[7] June 13, 1900.

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