Suddenly, after only sporadic mention of the Boxers in previous months (or “Bozers” as one article called them) the last week in March saw the western world–at least as far as the New York Times saw it–awaken, sort of, to the increasing crisis in China. But it was a crisis that the Times did not seem to know how to handle. They could not conceive, I think, of a genuine popular uprising. So it had to be be a plot of the Empress Dowager Cixi, “an old lady not only of singular malignity but of singular power.” [1] She was encouraging it. She was allowing it to happen. She could not “sufficiently reward the officials who exhibit marked hostility to everything not Chinese.” TheTimes continued:

Hen-Tung, probably the most bitterly anti-foreign official of the empire, has been decorated with the three-eyed peacock feather, which had not been conferred for eighty years; the notorious Li-Peng-Hing, who was dismissed from the Governorship of Shan-Tung on German demand, has been advanced to the first rank, and the former Governor Yuh-Sien of Shang-Tung has been appointed Governor of the Shan-Si district, a snub to the powers interested, and likely to prejudice British interests in the province, as the powers believe his maladministration is the cause of the present state of affairs in Shan-Tung.[2]

Any Western actions in China, commercial or political, would have to deal with this “Tammany at Peking.” [3]

USS Wheeling

The American government responded to the situation by sending a warship from the Philippines to the northern coast of China. The gunboat Wheeling (which, at her launch, had been called by the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, “A TRIM CRAFT Is the Dapper Little Gunboat “Wheeling.” AND SHE’S A SAUCY THING TOO, With Her Up-to-Date Armament of Long-Fire Rifle Guns.” [4]) would take up stations off the Dagu forts there. But what could it do?

The State Department is in a quandary to devise means to render effective protection to the American missionaries at Shan-Tung. The difficulty lies in the fact that the missionaries have in most cases gone as far as two hundred miles inland, beyond reach of any aid that can be extended from a warship.

Unfortunately, the Wheeling did not carry any ninjas Iron Fists with flaming hands hands alit with chi’i energy (see comments for nerd orgy of corrections on previous sentence), making her presence not particularly useful except as a gesture of intimidation to the Chinese government (the linked comic is actually set at the Dagu Forts, an odd connection indeed).* And the Wheeling would be it; the State Department went out of its way to deny that any further ships or any troops at all would be sent. That the Times was less than convinced by this was suggested by the passive construction of the article: “There is said to be no fear entertained that any serious danger to American interests is impending.” [5]

This is going to hurt you
more than it hurts me

The Times actually seemed neither convinced nor unconvinced by the denial. They were worried about the situation. On March 25th, the paper printed a long article about the situation, warning of a “such a rising as foreigners had never seen before.” [6] But hoping that it would be resolved. Five days later, the Times trumpeted “Chinese Rebellion Crushed.” The headline was much more optimistic than the story, which only told of “an indecisive but severe fight” between government troops and the Boxers. Interestingly, the March 30th story was the second story about the same battle. An earlier one had appeared on March 27th. The March 27th story was much the same, echoing both the severeness of the battle and its indecisive outcome. But on the 27th, the Times headline was simply “Battle in China.” [7] There is the sense, here, of editorial waffling and uncertainty. There was something going on in China, something serious, but until its progress became clearer, the Times slipped between the traditional tropes of Oriental conspiracy and newer hopes of resolution.

Meanwhile, of course, the Great Game (China version) continued unabated, and to plan:

Germany is to essay what is everywhere recognized as a practical occupation of the Province of Shan-Tung. This is generally credited as being in line with the now accepted plan of foreign encroachment in China. The steps of the process are outlined as follows: First, a railway concession; troops to protect the works; military occupation, and finally complete alienation of the territory. This has been Russia’s course in Manchuria, and it is pointed out that Germany will follow it. [8]

And back in the United States, the Chinese Minister, Wu Tingfang, continued his publicity campaign, writing a newspaper article provocative enough that the Times felt required to respond in an editorial, on the issue of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1880:

Again, though in point of industry and order and obedience to the laws, the Chinese are on the whole superior to the Italians and Hungarians of the lowest grade, yet there is one decided difference in their situation in this country. They do not come to be American citizens, do not wish to be, and, owing to the wide racial, social, and religious distinctions between them and our people, they could not ever be incorporated with us. This is not true in the same way or in the same degree of any European people. Economically we suffer as much as the Chinese laborers from their exclusion. In a sense, the motive of that exclusion is undoubtedly prejudice, but it is a deep and strong prejudice, which it will take a good while to over- come. It is very much the same feeling that controls the Chinese Government in its own policy toward admitting foreigners to trade in the interior of the Celestial Empire. In neither case is the feeling broad or benevolent or very intelligent but for the present it is insuperable. [9]

There’s a certain small comfort in knowing that the Times’ editorials were just as pompous, patronizing, and largely clueless more than a century ago as they are now.

*Yes, this remark is solely so I could use the picture.

[1] 28 March 1900.
[2] 19 March 1900.
[3] 28 March 1900.
[5] 21 March 1900.
[6] 25 March 1900.
[7] 30 March 1900; 27 March 1900.
[8] 19 March 1900.
[9] 31 March 1900.