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Children Aloft On Their Spears [Boxers, July 20-21 1900]

July 21, 2009, 2:22 pm

times20July.jpgFurther information on the (mythical) slaughter of the westerners in Beijing appeared in the New York Times of July 20th. The news was carried, according to the Times by a Chinese merchant lately arrived in Shanghai, who was interviewed by a reporter from the London Daily Express. The details were gruesome:

A Chinese merchant who has just arrived from Peking gives horrible details of the massacre. He says he saw European women hauled into the street by shrieking Boxers, who stripped them and hacked them to pieces. Their dissevered limbs were tossed to the crowd and carried off with howls of triumph. Some were already dead when the massacre began, having been shot by foreign civilians. The merchant says he saw Chinese soldiers carrying the bodies of white children aloft on their spears, while their companions shot at the bodies. He gives other details too horrible to be particularized here. It seems that the Boxer leaders had organized a plan, including the offering of rewards and rich loot, for the annihilation of Europeans throughout China, and that Prince Tuan’s Generals have been emphasizing the opportunity the soldiers have of seizing the bodies of white women. According to The Daily Telegraph’s St. Petersburg correspondent, the Russian Government is in possession of definite news that all the foreigners in Peking were massacred on July 15. [1]

There are a number of fascinating elements to all this. First, a similar article published the next day on a massacre of missionaries and Chinese Christians and also reported through Shanghai was notable for being much less detailed than any of the stories on the purported slaughter at Beijing It was notable as well, however, for actually having been true.[2] The oddity of the event with more detail being the fake one is striking. Second, the Times was again putting in sentences of confirmation, as it had in its previous reports. This time it was the St. Petersburg correspondent of the Daily Express who confirmed that the Russian government had “definite news” about the massacre.

FWWatrocities3.jpgAlso fascinating are the themes at work here. The idea of white women’s bodies being the object of desire by lesser races is, of course, a long-standing one in American and western mythos and was again in play here. The hints of the last stand re-emerged in the idea that some of the women were killed not by the Chinese but, it was implied, by their husbands or other men to spare them the indignities of a fate worse than death.

Finally, the mistreatment of the babies has also been a reoccurring idea, most notably in the wave of reports in 1914 of German soldiers bayoneting Belgian babies in revenge for civilian resistance to the German invasion. This idea became an enduring propaganda legend throughout the war. But the mistreatment of babies has a modern history as well, as in the 1990 story of Kuwaiti babies being spilled from their incubators by the Iraqi invaders that was peddled to a credulous Congress by a member of the Kuwaiti royal family.

The imagery of children really suffering is compelling and often becomes iconic, as a photograph in China illustrates:

Shanghai, 1937


Or one taken in Vietnam:

Vietnam, 1972

In fact, building a faked narrative, such as the stories of a slaughter in Beijing, seemed only to require referencing a set catalog of such compelling myths: women’s bodies in danger, children being mutilated, last stands, the perversity of the subhuman enemy, and so on. The outline was written. Only the details needed changing.

[1] July 20, 1900
[2] July 21, 1900

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