18 October 2017

Boxer Rebels & British Diplomats - Peking 1900

James Ricalton - Boxers Captured at Tientsin, 1900

Serendipitous family connections to the past are not normally the kind of things which most historians expect to encounter in the course of their research – unless, of course, you happen to be William Dalrymple and have a host of illustrious ancestors! ... But the past is essentially a web of connections and networks which link the lives of individuals to the great events of their day, connecting us and them by the many threads which make up our shared histories. Archival research is the thing which most often makes history directly tangible, but it’s the occasional tangents which one stumbles across in the archive that can spin out into multiple webs which end up netting us the most unexpected stories. If these connected stories link directly to our own lives through family ties it adds an immediacy that certainly makes the past seem much less distant and remote.

Recently I had my second peer reviewed article published in an academic journal (which can be found here). The article is an examination of three British diplomatic diaries which were written during the eight week siege of the foreign legations in Peking in the summer of 1900. One of the diaries was written by the most senior British diplomat there, Sir Claude MacDonald, and the others were written by two of the most junior members of staff, the student interpreters William Meyrick Hewlett and Lancelot Giles – both of whom would later go on to long and successful careers in the China Consular Service. The article focuses upon the marked contrast in cultural perceptions these three men, as agents of British colonialism, held with regard to their Chinese and Japanese contemporaries. Rudyard Kipling famously stated that “East is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet”, but as the siege of the legations demonstrates – notably through the Western eyes which inform these personal diaries – places such as Peking, where the East and the West met, were pivotal because it was here that socio-political forces collided – bringing two opposites together (Britain and Japan) as simultaneously they pushed two others (Britain and China) apart. 

Henri Meyer - An illustration from supplement to Le Petit Journal, 16th January 1898

The Boxer Uprising was the last major internal political upheaval within the old Chinese Empire, occurring shortly before the demise of the Qing Dynasty with the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. In its last few decades the ailing Qing Court was beset with political difficulties both from within and without. Politically weakened by the Opium Wars of the mid-late nineteenth century the combined pressure exerted from the European, American, and Japanese Imperialist nations had forced China into a diplomatically awkward corner. Many people at the time thought China was poised on the very cusp of dissolution. It was merely a matter of waiting. Eventually China would be carved up and colonised by the Imperialist nations who had been gathering in steadily increasing numbers, circling overhead like waiting vultures, simply bidding their time until the ruling Qing finally expired from exhaustion. As such, originally fomented out of extreme social discontent, welling up from within, the Boxer Uprising began as an anti-Qing rebellion which was cleverly (but only very narrowly) subverted into a violent campaign which united Boxer rebels and the Qing military against the foreign communities that were then residing under ‘extra-territorial’ privileges within China’s sovereign borders. The eight week assault upon the foreign legations in Peking during the searing hot summer of 1900 subsequently became the stuff of jingoistic legend. John K. Fairbank statistically sums up the siege as confining: “about 475 foreign civilians, 450 troops of eight nations, and some 3,000 Chinese Christians, also about 150 racing ponies, who provided fresh meat. An international army rescued them, not without bickering, after rumours they had all been killed. The Empress Dowager with the Emperor safely in tow took off for Sian by cart. The allied forces thoroughly looted Peking. Kaiser Wilhelm II sent a field marshal, who terrorized the surrounding towns, where many thousands of Chinese Christians had been slaughtered; 250 foreigners, mainly missionaries, had been killed across North China. Vengeance was in the air.” (John K. Fairbank, “The Great Chinese Revolution, 1800-1985” Harper Perennial, 1987, p. 138).

Felice Beato - The Interior of the North Taku Fort near Tientsin (Tianjin) after the battle with the International Relief Force, 1900

My interest in this incident was kindled for two reasons. Firstly, as a historian, my interest in the British Consular Service in China had already acquainted me in passing with Hewlett and Giles. Hewlett was the consul who later indignantly refused to officiate the marriage of my brother-in-law’s grandparents, which had partly been the focus of my first published peer reviewed paper (see here); and Giles was the son of the famous sinologist, Herbert Allen Giles. Secondly, perhaps because of my original academic grounding in anthropology, I’m very interested in cross-cultural readings of colonialism and cross-cultural relationships in particular – how the ‘West perceived the rest’ and (more difficultly, in terms of the historical record) how non-Western peoples perceived the cultural and political incursions of the Western imperialist Powers. Hence why I chose a module for my MA studies entitled: “Western Images of China and Japan” –the final essay I wrote for this course was later adapted and transformed into my recently published article.

The siege of the Legations lasted from June 20th to August 14th 1900. My writing of this article spanned much the same period of time during the summer of 2014. There were a couple of curious happenings during my research for and writing of the original essay, and also my subsequent preparation of the article for publication, which are not readily visible from reading the paper itself. I’ve already mentioned the family connection to Meyrick Hewlett and my brother-in-law’s grandparents, but there is also a more direct personal connection between me and the man himself, as the Hewlett family home was at Harrow-on-the-Hill. Indeed, for over forty years Hewlett’s grandfather, Thomas Hewlett, was the school surgeon at the famous Harrow School, where Hewlett had once been a pupil – hence this was how his private diary of the Boxer siege, which he’d originally written as an extended letter to his family, was later published by the school. Harrow-on-the-Hill was also were I was born and where I went to Sixth Form College (a different institution to the famous school, I hasten to add). But this means I must have walked passed Hewlett’s family home on many occasions if not every day during my late teens.

Rev. Z. Chas. Beals, China and the Boxers: A Short History on the Boxer Outbreak, with Two Chapters on the Sufferings of Missionaries and a closing One on the Outlook (New York: M. E. Munson, 1901)

A further and all the more uncanny family connection to the events examined in this essay oddly enough arose whilst I was browsing the bookstacks of SOAS library in search of books on the Boxers. I chanced upon a first-hand account of the Boxer Uprising by an American missionary. When I opened the book two inscriptions inside the cover showed that this particular copy had originally been gifted by the author to my brother-in-law’s great grandparents, who in turn had themselves later gifted it to one of the colleges of my university. I’ve written in greater detail about this curiously idiosyncratic discovery, with its further tangential links to spiritualist séances and the sinking of the RMS Titanic (see here). Personal connections to the past rarely get more serendipitous than this!

Meyrick Hewlett crops up once again as a person on the periphery of my current PhD research. He was H.M. Consul-General at Chengdu in 1922 when he refused to officiate the marriage of Louis King and Rinchen Lhamo – indignant at the fact that they were a mixed race couple and moreover scandalised that they had already conceived one child out of wedlock and were imminently due the birth of another (see here). Hewlett often appears in the Foreign Office records through which I have trawled – perhaps most unusually when he wrote to report the curious discovery of a rock formation which he and a group of companions found in a cave complex somewhere in West China which resembled a fossilised dragon (very similar in shape and form to those depicted in Chinese paintings or lavishly embroidered into the Emperor’s silk robes). It seems the subterranean find had suitably stunned and impressed the party of Westerners he was with as much as their Chinese friends, and although he dismisses the formation as a natural geological anomaly rather than an actual fossil he conjectures that such oddities might have provided the inspiration for these mythical, serpent-like creatures in the more superstitious mists of the distant past.

I recently bumped into Hewlett again in the 1932 issue of the Journal of the West China Border Research Society, an amateur scientific society run by the missionary scholars of the West China Union University in Chengdu, where the following photograph of a volume of the Yung Lo Ta Tien (Yongle Dadian), which he salvaged from the Hanlin Library during the siege in June 1900, was published. Hewlett donated the volume to the West China Union University Museum, which is now the Sichuan University Museum – it would be interesting to know if they still have it in their collection. Two letters relating to this volume of the Yongle Dadian, one by Herbert Allen Giles (Lancelot Giles’s father) and one by Hewlett, quoting the relevant passages from his diary of the siege, were published alongside the photograph (Graham, D. C., 1932, ‘A Volume from the Hanlin Library in the West China Union University Museum’ in The Journal of the West China Border Research Society, Vol. 5, pp. 150-152). Another photograph can be viewed here, in the Giles-Pickford Collection at the Australian National University.

Pictured on the right: A page from a volume of the Yongle Dadian rescued from the Hanlin Library in Peking which was burnt down during the Boxer Siege of 1900

These days amongst historians there is a lot of discussion about historiographical approaches, with some decrying the recent vogue for ‘micro-histories’, which tend to focus on individual persons or small scale, local events in the historical record, and others who favour a return to the larger canvases and more broad-brush approach of painting ‘grand narratives’ once again. But personally I think there’s more than enough room for both, and certainly if we look at the current trend for ‘global histories’ I feel that micro-histories are an excellent ‘way in’ to examine larger ideas by looking at how such ideas (e.g. – colonialism) affected and were acted out by individuals and how these compare across vastly different domains. In many cases the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, but certain systems, such as colonialism, couldn’t exist if it weren’t for the actions of those individuals making their way in the world of their own time. Essentially it’s people that make history interesting to me. It’s the people that I feel I connect to most, and listening to their voices is what brings history to life. Listening to their stories helps me to try to comprehend what it might have been like had I shared their worldview and lived in their time, facing the challenges they faced, trying to understand and negotiate their world just as they themselves did – for ultimately, in our own lives too, we are all only ever trying to write our own stories in order to understand ourselves and the world which is shaping us day by day. 

E. Flohri - Stepping Stone To China, Judge Magazine, c.1900-1902

In this sense, writing history is also a process of telling stories. To do so without empathy is impossible, but to empathise isn’t necessarily to automatically agree or condone. I have no idea how I would have coped with living my life in a colonial world. Undoubtedly, had I lived then, I’d have had no choice other than to navigate it as best I could. Whilst the colonialist exploits of the imperialist nations from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries undoubtedly shaped the world it would be a disservice to the people of the past not to look for those within its system who sought to temper it or those who even opposed it altogether. As empires were built and fell by the actions of individuals, so too history in its grand narratives is made up of all those micro-histories, the actions of the individuals which personalise the story and if we care to listen to them will help us to make the bigger picture all the more clear and balanced.

Read the full article:

by Tim Chamberlain
Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society China, Vol. 77, No. 1 (2017), pp. 5-28.

And also on Waymarks:


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