“Never Was History So Interesting”

Reading, Writing, and Confinement in 1900

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Ah! The Siege of Pekin! What oceans of ink! What acres of copying ribbon have been expended by reason of you!

Edwin L. Sabin, “The Siege of Pekin,” Puck, February 6, 1901

People of many nationalities were living in confinement. As weeks of uncertainty passed, they recorded their experiences. They did this to pass the time and for posterity’s sake. For they had a sense that this year—a Metal Rat Year according to the Chinese numerological scheme that pairs each year with one of the animals of the Zodiac and one of the five natural elements—would be remembered as being of historical significance. Some felt that the crisis they were living through was completely novel. Others insisted it was a repetition with variations on an event that had occurred decades before. It was clear early on that many books would be written about this headline-grabbing crisis, and the first instant history of it appeared while the confinement was still underway.

No, I am not thinking about the current Metal Rat Year, 2020, but an earlier one that fell in the same place in the 60-year cycles so important to traditional Chinese numerology. I have in mind the 1900 crisis that began, not with the spread of a virus, but with an uprising by anti-Christian militants who referred to themselves as the “Righteous and Harmonious Militia” or the “Fists of Righteous Harmony” and whom Westerners dubbed the “Boxers.” Unlike the current pandemic, this crisis had international dimensions but played itself out exclusively in China. The many nationalities living in confinement included diplomats and other foreigners trapped in two sieges that year: the still-famous 55-day siege of Beijing and a less frequently remembered shorter one of nearby Tianjin.

In that earlier Metal Rat Year, as in this one, many people turned to historical analogies to make sense of events that were in some ways unprecedented. In the United States, some likened the Boxers to Native American participants in the 1890 Ghost Dance rising, because members of both groups believed they could call spirit soldiers down to fight beside them and make their bodies invulnerable to bullets. In China, the leading newspaper, Shen Bao (Shanghai Reports), was filled with articles about how the Boxers were like participants in Chinese religious uprisings of the past. The White Lotus Rebellion of the late 18th century was one common referent point.

For the sieges then, however, as for the pandemic now (with its comparisons to the 1918-19 flu), one analogy became especially widespread in the West. In 1900, references to the 1857 siege of the British Residency in the Indian city of Lucknow showed up often in newspaper reports, especially those published across the British Empire. In that siege, too, Britons had been imperiled by participants in an uprising. And in Beijing, as Robert Bickers notes in his introduction to The Boxers, China, and the World (2007), the captives of the 1900 siege not only read histories of the Lucknow siege and talked about it, they also put on a play about it. And a diarist described a friend declaiming lines from the poem “The Defence of Lucknow,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, while the two were among the more than 1,000 foreigners confined in the Legation Quarter of China’s capital. As Mary Gamewell, quoted in Susanna Hoe’s Women at the Siege, Peking 1900, put it, “Never was history so interesting.”

The sieges of Beijing and Tianjin were laid jointly by two groups. One contingent was the Boxers: poor villagers who were convinced that their local gods, displeased by the polluting presence of Protestants and Catholics on the land, had withheld the rain and caused a devastating drought. The other contingent consisted of troops of the Qing Dynasty. This Manchu ruling family, which took control of the empire in 1644, initially viewed the Boxers as troublemakers to be suppressed. Late in the spring of 1900, though, the family made the fateful decision to switch to backing this group. They treated the Boxers as a renegade loyalist militia that could push back against foreign powers who for decades had beaten the Qing in wars and then taken pieces of the empire as victor’s prizes.

An Allied Army of soldiers from Japan, Britain, the United States, and five other countries lifted the sieges. This international force took control of Tianjin in July and Beijing in mid-August, driving the Qing rulers out of their palaces and into exile in the far western city of Xi’an. After the sieges were over, foreign soldiers and civilians looted the imperial palaces and in the following months contingents of the Allied Army carried out brutal retaliatory raids across the countryside near Beijing, killing many thousands of people. The capital and other parts of North China remained under military control until 1901 when, in order to be allowed to return to their palaces, the Qing agreed to pay an enormous indemnity to a host of foreign powers for loss of life and property.

The sieges were the most important episodes in what is now remembered in the West as the Boxer Rebellion—a misleading term, since rebels and rulers tend to oppose each other, but the Qing and the Boxers worked together. In China, the crisis is known by many names, including “Chaos of the Metal Rat Year.” To associate the crisis with a year rather than a rebellion suggests the difference in how China and the West saw it. The term Boxer Rebellion suggests that the crisis ended in August, when Beijing fell and foreign lives were no longer in danger, whereas referring to the Metal Rat Year also flags the harsh military occupation that followed.

Other Metal Rat Years have often been marked by suffering: 1840, the Metal Rat Year before the time of the Boxers, fell midway through the Opium War, and the Metal Rat Year 1960 fell in the midst of the horrific famine caused by Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward drive. There are myriad differences between the events of this Metal Rat Year and the last two, but to place 1900, 1960, and 2020 side by side is as natural in a Chinese context as it is in a Western one to group together events that took place a century or two apart, such as looking for parallels in how Europe changed in 1789 and 1989.

The earliest historical account of the siege, at least among English language works, seems to be Baltimore Sun reporter Allen Sinclair Will’s World-Crisis in China, 1900. Its preface is dated July 26, 1900, and the first copies of it shipped two weeks later. Thus it reached its first readers right around the time the Allied Army reached Beijing, defeated the combined forces of Boxer and Qing troops, and freed the captives of the sieges, a group that included diplomats from around the world.

It’s not clear when Will began working on his book, but he might well have gotten the idea for it early in 1900, when newspapers outside China first ran articles on the Boxers. Chinese and English language periodicals on the China coast had carried reports about the group killing Chinese Christians months before, but these were treated as events of only regional interest. Things changed when a band of Boxers pulled a young Anglican missionary named Sidney Brooks from atop the donkey he was riding along a North China road, decapitated him, and left his head and body in a ditch.

This gruesome killing took place on either December 30 or 31, 1899—Brooks had been making his way home after spending the Christmas holidays with a sister and her husband. News of the murder soon reached Beijing and then sped around the world via telegraph or undersea cables. By January 6, newspapers from California to Calcutta had carried articles on the young preacher’s death. This coverage started the Boxers on the road to being globally infamous. What completed the process were reports during the next few months of the group carrying out raids on missionary stations and taking more foreign lives.

During the weeks preceding the sieges, events in China garnered headlines, but often fewer than the Second Boer War and the Philippine-American War, both ongoing. When the sieges began, though, the Boxer crisis became the biggest story in the world. The British magazine Black and White published an article on July 21 claiming that “all other interests pale into puny insignificance” compared to the siege in Beijing. When Mark Twain arrived in London for a visit early in August, he wrote to a friend: “It is all China, now.” Henry Adams, living in Paris at the time, later wrote in his autobiography that the “weird doings at Peking” captivated the attention of the public, and readers followed news about the siege “much as though it were a novel of Alexander Dumas.”

The preface of Will’s World-Crisis in China speaks to the intensity of American concern with the siege of Beijing in ways that resonate with the need to keep up with developments in Wuhan during the first stage of this year’s pandemic. “‘What is the news from China?’ is the question that everybody is asking,” Will writes. “The newspapers are full of dispatches telling the story of a startling succession of events that seem destined to shake the world.” The lines foreshadow both the title of a memorable book about East Asia from the 1940s, Jack Belden’s China Shakes the World, and the subtitle of the iconoclastic Marxist Slavoj Zizek’s 2020 book: Pandemic! COVID-19 Shakes the World.

When historical parallels come up in discussions of contemporary crises, people often hope that the past will help them prepare for what will happen next. This rarely works. History simply does not repeat itself in a precise enough manner to give us clear forecasting clues. In the case of Covid-19, so many variables are in play that no single past event can provide us with a blueprint for the future—and the year of the Boxers, so different in so many ways from 2020, definitely cannot do this

But enough parallels in the coverage of the Boxer crisis and the current pandemic exist to warrant speculation: how the sieges of 1900 were written about both as they took place and afterward can help us think about how the quarantines of 2020 are likely to be covered in the future. Looking back two Metal Rat Years into the past with an eye on stories and storytellers suggests that the dramatic occurrences of 2020 and their aftermath will provide future historians with an archive to work with that has at least these three features: comments about the pandemic by many different notable writers; efforts to distribute blame that are problematic; and life stories that take surprising post-pandemic turns.

In 1900 and 1901, everyone from Rabindranath Tagore and Leo Tolstoy to Émile Zola and Banjo Paterson, the Australian poet who wrote the lyrics to “Waltzing Matilda,” wrote about the Boxer crisis. Some did so directly, others obliquely, some in prose, others in verse. The major Western literary figure who had the most to say about the crisis was Mark Twain. He claimed, provocatively, that since the Boxers simply wanted to regain control of their country, he might have been one himself if he had been born Chinese. In many of his commentaries, though, he focused less on the anti-Christian militants than on the foreign actions of the final months of the Metal Rat Year. The last important text he wrote in 1900 was a searing “Salutation from the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth,” in which he described Christendom as carrying out despicable “pirate raids” in not just South Africa and the Philippines but in China as well.

In China itself, major writers also expressed their views on the Boxer crisis. One was Huang Zunxian, a retired Qing diplomat with strongly reformist views. After the end of the siege of Beijing, he wrote a poem that dismissed the “bare-knuckled brawling” of the Boxers out of hand and mocked the cowardice of the Qing forces, saying the Allied Army generals would gain no glory from winning such an easy victory. “Black clouds crush our city,” this poem begins (in J. D. Schmidt’s translation), striking a sorrowful note as he thinks about the capital falling under foreign control, and conjures up the image of a ghastly setting where the air is filled with the hoots of “demonic owls” and a “chorus of loud hisses wells up from the soil.”

Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” turned to poetry, too, when the siege of Beijing ended. She struck a very different tone, though, than Huang, and her views also contrasted dramatically with those of Twain, who was an outlier among Americans in his readiness to see good in the Boxers. Howe’s poem treats the Boxers as a “spirit-band unseen,” who were defeated by brave foreign troops she likened to Moses in that they delivered believers from harm.

The diaries, letters, newspaper and magazine articles, and instant histories of the siege written during it were followed by plays, novels, memoirs, and document collections, with the first contribution to each of these genres appearing before 1900 ended. Several short silent films about the Boxers were shot within months of the Allied Army’s taking of Beijing. And in the spring of 1901, reenactments of Boxer crisis battles were staged at both Earls Court and Madison Square Garden, where Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show had Native American actors who had previously performed as participants in the Ghost Dance rising don Chinese clothing to play Boxers. The next year, the poet Li Baojia finished work on The National Disturbances of the Metal Rat Year, a book-length ballad in Chinese about the crisis.

Although terrible deeds were done and major mistakes made by many groups in 1900, often only some of the deeds and mistakes get attention when the story of the Boxer crisis is told. In the West, the focus has often been solely on the violent actions of the Boxers and the massive mistake that the Qing Dynasty made in backing the group, with little room given to the punitive campaigns during which foreign troops violated most of the rules on civilized warfare that the Hague Convention had come up with just a year earlier. In China, in particular during periods of intense nationalism, such as the present one, the reverse has been true. The emphasis is put on the brutality of the Allied Army, while the murderous raids that the Boxers carried out are downplayed. Too often forgotten is that the Boxer crisis offers plenty of blame to spread around.

What then of post-pandemic surprises? These are sure to take many forms, just as post-Boxer crisis ones did, at the personal, national, and global level. One true story from that time that reads like fiction tells of two children whose families were affected very differently by the Boxer crisis, and who crossed decades later as adults.

There was a girl from America whose idyllic childhood in the Chinese countryside was turned upside down when the Boxers began killing missionary families such as hers. She had been used to playing with Chinese children, but she could no longer do this, and soon she was whisked away to the safety of Shanghai’s international enclaves, which were free from Boxer threats. Her father, who returned to their home after taking the girl, her infant sister, and her mother to Shanghai, was almost killed by the Boxers. When he told her about his experiences preaching the gospel in this dangerous time, he presented the Boxers as fiends.

There was also an infant boy in Beijing, born into a Manchu family. His father worked as a Palace Guard for the Qing. When the Allied Army stormed into the capital to lift the siege, his father was killed in the fighting. He later remarked that when his mother told him fairy tales, she claimed that she did not have to refer to imaginary ogres, for real life monsters had done such terrible things to their family.

It would be easy to imagine the girl growing up to be a woman who hated Chinese people, but she did not. It would be easy to imagine the boy growing up to be a man who hated Westerners, but he did not. They both did grow up to be authors. As a woman, the girl gained fame under the name Pearl Buck, writing books that portrayed ordinary Chinese people in an empathetic way. As a man, Lao She was thought of as one of China’s most cosmopolitan literary figures.

Some people will tell you that Buck criticized a novel called Rickshaw Boy by Lao She that focused on the life of a rickshaw puller. Buck claimed that even though she was an American, she had more of a sense than he did of what a poor Chinese person’s experiences were like, since she had grown up among such people and Lao She did not seem to have done so. In some books, that’s all that is told about the connection between the two.

Buck did indeed make that comment, but there is more to the story. The version of the novel about the rickshaw puller she criticized was a bowdlerized translation that had little to do with the one that Lao She had originally written. When Buck learned this, she worked hard to help him find a better translator and to gain better representation, so that he could get royalties he was owed.

Pearl Buck won a Nobel Prize for Literature. Lao She has been rumored to have just missed becoming the first Chinese writer to be named a Nobel laureate. In the 1940s, the two writers met in America. They became good friends.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and the author, most recently, of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink.


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