Also posted at Edge of the American West
For an explanation of the following, see this.
In the New York Times in early January 1900, China appeared several times, in a number of roles. There was China, the state, much fought over by the imperial powers of the world, ancient, decayed, helpless to resist, and ripe for exploitation. There was China, the nation, a subject of fascination and dismay, whose people lived lives of squalor amid the elegant splendor of thousands of years of history. There was the actual China, in some ways the least interesting of all from the Times’ perspective, where real things happened to real people.
The Chinese state emerged as a helpless pawn which the western powers moved back and forth to suit. China itself became a stage in which plays not of its writing were acted out. Thus on January 13, 1900, an article appeared talking of war between Russia and Japan over Russian influence in northern China and Korea. Japan, the Times confidently asserted, have “recently given an order in England for 100,000 suits of warm Winter clothing for Japanese soldiers in preparation for a campaign” to prevent “Russian ascendancy in Northern China.” China’s wishes were simply irrelevant and beyond consideration or mention.
And yet China was of great interest as a nation. The same paper that ignored China altogether in its consideration of international actors had published a week earlier a laudatory review of a book about Chinese society, Village Life in China. “That wonderful people…this great race” was how the Times referred to the Chinese, with their “numerous admirable qualities.” China as a nation was portrayed not only as worthy of study but simply too big and complex to be comprehensible. There are several interesting tensions in the article. China’s complexity and history was held in explicit counterpoise to its current degraded condition. China, the article made clear, may have had a deeper history (deeper implicitly than America’s) but its people lived in poverty. Chinese society had “many disabilities” which “retard [its] advancement in modern civilization.” The book suggested that only “Christianity in its best form is the only agency which will cure the defects which exist,” though the review article, interestingly, is quick to disavow (at least partially) that conclusion by saying that “the reader must not imagine that this volume is a missionary report.”
The only article with specific people was the shortest. “Missionary Murdered in China,” announced a Times story of January 5th. “The Rev. Mr. Brooks of the Church Missionary Society…was captured…and murdered Dec. 3 by members of a seditious society called ‘Boxers,’ who have been active lately, destroying many villages and killing native Christians. The Governor of the province had dispatched a force of cavalry to the scene of the disturbances, but the soldiers arrived too late to save Mr. Brooks’s life.”
The article was spare, with no details about the killing except the date. It assumed that the reader would have no idea who the Boxers were, introducing them in quick detail and positioning them as anti-Christian. The Chinese government was portrayed as friendly, if ineffectual, and there was little in the way of positioning the situation, with no real emphasis even on the obvious storyline of a “seditious” group moving from attacking “native” Christians to a western one. Someone had been murdered in a far-off place: important enough to mention in the paper, but not important enough for much elaboration or emphasis.