The China on display in late January 1900 had two faces. It was a country wracked by “internal convulsions” and political intrigue, and yet the “greatest potential market of the world.” The New York Times wrote of both Chinas in the ten days to the end of January. To the Times both Chinas were mysterious and unknowable and the paper wrote in a way that made its feeling palpably clear. Stories were full of hedges, that revealed the editorial confusion: it was “almost safe to predict” something about China, or “members of the imperial household…are practically unknown.”[1]

One of the results of this was a certain credulity on the part of the paper, a willingness to accept or write things that were self-evidently silly without thinking through them. Thus, the Times wrote that in 1898 the rumors of the Emperor of China’s death had been proven “unfounded” but immediately the paper wrote that “it has been stated on good authority that [The Emperor] was cruelly used, and even imprisoned and half-starved.” [2] There was no apparent realization of the irony of discounting one (past) rumor while instantaneously propagating another one. Even more egregiously was the article which confidently “reported that a French naval force has already reached Peking.” [3] This would have been an impressive feat, given that Beijing was land-locked. One can only imagine the sight of French battleships puffing smoke over the north China plain.

Much of the reporting focused on the chaotic China. The rumors that the Emperor Guangxu had been deposed or killed took up several stories on January 26th-28th. His reputed successor was the son of Prince Duan, the “head of the great secret societies known as the ‘The Great Sword’ and ‘The Boxers’…which were responsible for the murder of Mr. Brookes, the missionary.” The Times gravely intoned the next day that “extraordinary precautions have been taken…The troops have been served with ball cartridges” against a possible popular uprising. Much to the Times’ apparent dismay, nothing happened, and the next day the paper (somewhat sniffily) announced that “judging from surface indications, it is almost safe to predict that any action she may take will be accepted quietly, not leading to anything in the shape of internal convulsions or outward complications.”[4] The Chinese were seemingly entirely too placid to the machinations of their rulers. Even the supposed popular societies were run from the top.[4]

But at the same time, the peaceful China–China as market and opportunity–was on display. On January 27, the Times ran an article on a speech given in New York by Wu Tingfang, the Chinese minister in the United States. The speech was given at a dinner at the famous New York steakhouse Delmonico’s for the “second annual dinner of the American Asiatic Association” The Minister “wore his brilliant Oriental costume of silk, embroidered with heavy gold braid and decorated with Chinese characters, indicating his distinctions.” The Times printed his words in full, impressive given the speech’s chiding tone:

My country is called the greatest potential market of the world….She wants the wheat of the Platte,, the cotton of the Carolinas, the steel of Pennsylvania and Alabama. She is building railroads, and she must have rails and steel and electric power and hundreds of other things….There is a fine field for you. It is for you to realize it. With your Pacific a fine highway and the Philippines at our door, you have great opportunities. 450px-Wu_Tingfang1.jpg.jpeg If you don’t come up it is your fault. China wants these things. You must go to her. China is like the mountain. She doesn’t go to Mahomet. You must go to the mountain. You must be on the alert. If you don’t look out others will go and you will lose your opportunity. That will not be our fault….In dealing with us study our manners, and be a little civil….If you want to have a share of China’s trade, a good deal depends upon the kind of treatment you extend to my countrymen in this country…I should be sorry to see my efforts offeset by an unjust treatment of my countrymen…It will not do for you to expect China to keep her door open all the time if you shut the doors on Chinese merchants who come to your gate.

Through his words, the Times portrayed a China ripe less for martial conquest than for mercantile exploitation. In both cases, however, the Times reported of a Chinese people stripped of individuality and evaluated only for their mass action, whether of revolution (or lack thereof) or purchasing power.

[1] 29 January 1900; 26 January 1900.
[2] 26 January 1900.
[3] Ibid
[4] 26 Jan 1900; 27 Jan 1900; 26 Jan 1900