A Tale of Two Summers

By Jeffrey WasserstromSeptember 10, 2014

A Tale of Two Summers

The century’s sun has set in blooded clouds.

            — Rabindranath Tagore, “Sunset of the Century,” December 31, 1900

[Today’s situation] is historically unprecedented, in the sense that simultaneously huge swaths of global territory are dominated by populist unrest, anger, and effective loss of state control.

            — Zbigniew Brzezinski, in an interview with Foreign Policy, July 21, 2014

To follow the news that summer was to be reminded continually of how violent a place the world had become. On some days, brutal clashes taking place in totally different regions made headlines simultaneously. To follow the news during that distressing season was also to be reminded of how technological breakthroughs had shrunk the planet and made different countries more tightly entwined. Both information and new and old kinds of weapons moved across the globe over distances and at speeds that not long before would have seemed possible only via magic. Befitting a confusing and globally minded time, people trying to understand, defend or decry things happening in one locale alluded not just to events that had occurred there before but also sought parallels and connections to past and present tragedies associated with far away parts of the world.

IT IS EASY to imagine these sentences being written at some point in the future about the summer that is coming to an end. It has been a season of so many overlapping tragedies that Laila Lalami, a novelist and commentator on cultural and political affairs, was moved to compose this poignant tweet on August 3: “These days, you have to have a heart of steel to get through the front page of the newspaper.” In dealing with gut-wrenching reports from around the world, those interested in comparisons and connections have looked in many directions. The general situation in the Middle East now, for example, has inspired allusions to the Thirty Years’ War (including by Brzezinski, in the same interview quoted above), while specific actions by ISIS have been compared to the 9/11 terror attacks. Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent riots in Ferguson led some to recall Selma or Watts in the 1960s, while others, noting the common use of tear gas, compared the situations in Missouri and Gaza.

What intrigues me about the paragraph in italics, though, is that it applies equally well to the summer of 1900. That, too, was a time of overlapping crises. It was these that were on Tagore’s mind when he wrote the poem “Sunset of the Century,” which talks of “the mad music of death” being in the air that year. And 1900’s violence has been on mine lately, as I work on a book about the single biggest international news story of that eventful summer: China’s Boxer Crisis.

For a quick sense of how familiar some aspects of that long-ago summer now seem, consider how a “heart of steel” might have helped a reader make it through the issue of The New York Times published 114 years ago. The August 3, 1900, edition included several stories on China, one of which bore the headline “CHINESE TROOPS MASSACRE 10,000.” Three other China articles dealt with the early stage of an international effort, which ultimately succeeded, to lift the siege that the anti-Christian Boxer militants had laid to Beijing’s diplomatic quarter. One of these described US soldiers stationed in Cuba being redeployed to China. A second reported that a French battleship had set off from Cherbourg to support the international campaign against the Boxers. A third focused on a speech, described as “bellicose” in tone, that Kaiser Wilhelm, a vociferous promoter of “Yellow Peril” fears of the time, gave to German troops heading to China. Other August 3 stories dealt with an ongoing famine in India and battles between British and Ashanti forces in Africa. A letter to the editor, titled “CARNAGE IN THE PHILIPPINES,” denounced US troops for killing large groups of Filipinos to avenge incidents in which several American soldiers or even just a single one had been slain. And last but far from least, when it comes to contemporary resonances, the domestic news reports for that day included one headlined “RACE WAR IN WEST VIRGINIA,” which focused on the anger caused by a black youth being killed by a white policeman.

The parallel between 1900 and 2014 also emerges from looking at the issue of The Literary Digest, a magazine devoted largely to international news, published exactly 114 years before Foreign Policy’s interview with Brzezinski. The lead article in the July 21, 1900 edition of the Digest provided an update on the crisis in China, where the Boxers had recently gained the backing of the Qing Dynasty. Next came an examination of the difficulty Britain, then still the world’s leading military power, was having defeating Boer “guerilla” bands in the ongoing South African War. The issue also included an article, “Guarding the Cross with Krupps Guns,” that told of American military actions in the Philippines dividing Christian commentators into “two antagonistic camps”: anti-imperialists (who made statements such as “Blood and slaughter make no converts”) and defenders of President McKinley’s forceful actions (who said that the American leader might not “fit the clothes of the old prophets,” but was furthering God’s cause by battling Filipino insurgents).

Tagore’s poem does not mention specific trouble spots, but a famous writer based across the planet did just that. In a short piece that first ran in a Minnesota newspaper two days before Tagore wrote of 1900 witnessing a “carnival of violence,” Mark Twain decried “pirate-raids” in South Africa and the Philippines that had “besmirched” and “dishonored” Christendom. He brought China in, too, but not via allusions to places where Boxers slew Christians: he named instead locations where German and Russian troops, respectively, had committed barbaric acts in the name of defending civilization. This links him to a third great writer in a third country. Tolstoy had wondered in an August 1900 article why the kaiser’s calls for vengeance without mercy in China had not earned him a spot in a “lunatic asylum” and castigated the czar for Russian aggression in Manchuria.

In my research into the atrocities many different groups perpetrated during the Boxer Crisis, I have immersed myself deeply in the news from 1900. Because of this, I have found following current events to be not only a depressing experience, but also at times a surreal one. I periodically get a strong sense of déjà vu, as I read a news report about the present that seems eerily like one I have just encountered while time-traveling back to 1900 in the archives.

I have also read letters and diaries from 114 years ago that express the same sense of impending doom. Historian Chris Bayly, in a fascinating contribution to Robert Bickers and R. G. Tiedemann’s valuable volume on The Boxers, China, and the World, notes that due to a wide variety of factors, ranging from violent events in Turkey and Sudan in earlier decades to the coming shift of centuries and the overlapping traumas of the year itself, “millenarian fears” were strong among more than a few Westerners in 1900. Among the works by foreigners living in China at the time that support Bayly’s claim is a letter from a missionary who wrote of feeling “as though these were the last days,” due to the suffering around the world caused by “wars, famines, rumours, persecutions!”

By emphasizing parallels between the horrors and anxieties of the summers of 1900 and 2014, I do not mean to gloss over crucial differences between that earlier era and our own. People living in 1900 may have expressed amazement at the way that, thanks to recently laid undersea cables, they could catch up with developments in distant countries “over the breakfast table” each morning, but the era of telegraphy was not as rushed as that of 24/7 satellite-fed news cycles. Nor did moving images play the same powerful role then that they do now in disseminating horrific visions, even if within months of the lifting of the Beijing siege, silent films were being shot in the West featuring reenactments of that event. There are differences, too, in the ways that steamships and trains, then, versus aircraft carriers and jets, now, move soldiers from place to place, and while the lethalness of Gatling guns seemed startling in 1900, this was a very far cry in terms of the potential for massive destruction from the missiles and bombs of our nuclear age. In addition, without minimizing the enormous death tolls of the droughts of that earlier era, the threat that climate collapse now poses to the species is of a radically different magnitude. Still, despite crucial contrasts such as these, the homologies between the two summers remain striking. Consider, for example, the varied current crises that come to mind when four basic facts related to the Boxer Crisis and how it was discussed in 1900 are listed:

1) There were Westerners who wondered if it might be possible to put someone more to their tastes in power in place of the Empress Dowager, especially after she moved from viewing the anti-Christian Boxers as bandits to be suppressed to treating them as a loyalist militia to be supported.

2) Some commentators mused, as soldiers marching under eight foreign flags gathered to be part of what we now would dub an “International Peacekeeping Force,” that China would likely end up divided into pieces — and feared that one part would surely end up dominated by Russia, its aggressive and expansionist neighbor.

3) There was debate about whether the world’s most powerful country would end up overstretched, due to Britain’s need to keep soldiers in South Africa to fight the Boers while sending troops from there and also from India to fight the Boxers.

4) After the allied forces seized China’s capital, some commentators wondered if the hardest work for the eight countries involved (five European ones, Czarist Russia, the United States, and Japan) might still lie ahead. As The Advocate of Peace put it in October 1900: “The powers have found it much easier to get into Pekin (sic) than to get out.”

It’s also interesting, more generally, to note how international analogies were used, in China and elsewhere, to make sense of the Boxer Crisis and to defend or decry actions taken by different groups. Many Western newspaper articles described the Chinese situation in 1900 as “unprecedented,” the same term Brzezinski employed for the state of the world this summer, and then went on, as Brzezinski did during his Foreign Policy interview, to suggest that analogies from the past could be helpful. Some commentators likened the Boxer threat to Christendom to that Genghis Khan had posed many centuries before. More commonly, British writers would list parallels to 1857’s Indian Mutiny.

Still others presented the Chinese crisis as akin to or connected with more recent events. In late May of 1900, before the Empress Dowager made her about-face on the Boxers, for example, a Chinese diplomat told an American reporter that the group’s attacks on Christians were similar to things “some of your Indians” do “after a ghost dance.” The Qing could be relied upon to keep the Boxers under control, he implied, just as US forces had dealt with the Sioux. It would be wrong, he said, for these “riots” to be “used as a pretense” for an “attack upon […] Chinese sovereignty.” Historian Rebecca Karl notes in Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century that some Chinese writers of the time drew analogies between Boxer actions and those of Filipinos challenging American power and Boers fighting the British. And Bayly notes, in the same chapter alluded to above (that incidentally first alerted me to Tagore’s poem and provides the translation I quote from above), that one Indian newspaper went so far as to assert, completely incorrectly, that the Chinese rising was “probably due to Boer instigation.”

A final kind of international analogy is particularly interesting to bring into the picture in light of current events: efforts to associate the Boxer Crisis to major news stories of the 1870s-1890s that had involved extremist Islamic forces threatening or killing Christians. The places mentioned when those analogies were drawn included Sudan, where a violent millenarian rising, led by a man known as “the Mahdi,” had recently been suppressed, and Turkey, where Armenians had been massacred.

A July 16, 1900 article in the Times of India brought up the East African movement, calling for Western armies to deal with the Empress Dowager the way that they recently dealt with Sudan’s famous leader of fanatics, so that the most powerful member of the Qing Dynasty would soon “follow […] the Mahdi […] into oblivion.” More commonly, commentators on the Boxers would bring up the “Turks,” nearly always, at first, to liken heinous acts of anti-Christian violence of the recent past in one setting to those playing out in the present in another. After news spread of foreign “pirate-raids” in China, to borrow Twain’s term, which found Westerners and Japanese looting cities and invading troops killing Chinese civilians and soldiers indiscriminately, the analogy was sometimes used differently. A May 1901 article in Gunton’s Magazine, for example, claimed that, while “a few years ago Europe was agog against the Turk for his massacres in Armenia,” now “Christendom in China rivals the Turk in every atrocity and doubles the number of victims.”

What value is there in highlighting these sorts of homologies between 1900 and the present, as well as the many others that could be mentioned, such as calls by Church leaders for intervention to protect Christians in Iraq now that echo calls to protect missionaries from the Boxers then? The most significant payoff may be these simple ones: to encourage mindfulness of just how long some phenomena that feel distinctively contemporary have been with us, and to encourage us to take seriously the idea, embraced by many historians if often overlooked in some other circles, that globalization needs to be understood as a process that began well before the term gained common currency in the 1960s. A look back to 1900 reminds us, for example, that more than a century before the first tweet, short bursts of communication were helping to generate empathy for the sufferings of people far away, yet also increasing the reach and hold of inaccurate rumors. The Boxers did horrible things, but they did not, as was widely believed for a time, due to erroneous reports circulating by cables in July of 1900, kill all of the foreign men, women, and children in Beijing. And if the mustering of an international force to fight the Boxers seems to give us a foretaste of things to come (Bayly suggests it may have been the first time that the term “The Allies” was used in its modern sense), so too does the speed with which people like Twain began pointing out how “savage” actions taken in the name of defending “civilization” sometimes turned out to be.

A final news story from the August 3, 1900 edition of The New York Times provides a good end point for the essay, since it shows that even UN Security Council stalemates can echo events from the time of Tagore, Twain, and Tolstoy. Headlined “PEACE CONFERENCE DELEGATES AT ODDS,” it describes a Paris meeting convened by a group whose mission was to work to end international conflicts, or at least limit atrocities. The gathering turned rancorous when a French delegate spoke. He began by pointing out that there were “more wars” than ever underway, which seemed a clear sign of the “impotence” of 1899’s Hague Convention, and then asserted that the Boers should be commended for working to end the conflict in South Africa. He was surprised, he said, that “Europe” was not doing more to help them achieve this admirable goal, implying that peace conference should be doing more as well.

An English representative fumed in response that he and others in his delegation would not remain party to any discussion that continued in this vein, since it did a disservice to those in his country who had been working for peace. This created a situation much like those the Security Council faces when representatives are determined to veto any moves to censure either their own country’s actions or an ally’s. The meeting was only able to continue when a quick-thinking moderator used a diversionary tactic. He called for a vote on a rapidly drafted vague motion that reaffirmed the principles of the Hague, while lamenting that wars, alas, continued to rage. It passed unanimously.


Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chair of the History Department at the University of California, Irvine, the author of books such as China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2013), and the co-editor of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (University of California Press, 2012).

LARB Contributor

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020). He is also the author of books such as Eight Juxtapositions: China Through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo (Penguin, 2016), co-author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2018, third edition), and the editor or co-editor of several titles. He is the advising editor on China for LARB, a member of the editorial board of Dissent Magazineand a co-founder of UCI’s Forum for the Academy and Public Life. He has written reviews and commentaries for newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, as well as for a wide range of magazines, journals of opinion, and literary reviews, including TLS and The Atlantic. He is an adviser to the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and has been a featured speaker at Internazionale’s Ferrara Festival. Find him on Twitter at @jwassers.


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