Reader Emily writes:
You mentioned that at the time of Li Hung Chang’s visit relations were strained between America and China. Why was that?
Emily, my grasp of Chinese history is shaky at best, but here goes. Speaking in the broadest possible terms, matters of race and immigration were behind the problems. In 1882 Congress passed a notorious bill known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, basically ending mass immigration from China. Why? As I wrote earlier the Gold Rush was long since over by then. Competition for jobs — especially mining jobs —increased and anti-Chinese sentiment was high. The Chinese Exclusion Act was designed to prevent Chinese mine workers from entering the US for a period of ten years, but was renewed again ten years later in 1892.
That was especially poor timing from the Chinese perspective, since conditions were still miserable in China after the devastating Yellow River flood of 1887. One of the worst natural disasters in all of human history, it killed roughly one million people. For very understandable reasons, lots of Chinese people wanted to leave, but America was a closed country for them. Part of Li Hung Chang’s mission was to lobby for an easing of those restrictions as well as to advocate for the rights of Chinese Americans, who were being widely mistreated.
Which is not to say that race relations were all hunky dory across the Pacific either. The economic effects of international trade combined with those of the flood were causing anti-foreigner sentiments in China too. So much so that in 1899 a little thing called the Boxer Rebellion broke out. It occurred when a ragtag group of extremist, mystic martial arts practitioners known as The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists (“boxers” as they became known) perpetrated a series of violent attacks against Westerners, both official and civilian. The violence spread and intensified until finally the Chinese Imperial ruler, the Empress Dowager, threw her support behind the uprising, declaring war on all Western powers. At once.
Well you can imagine how well that went. Initially the Boxers weren’t worried. Possessed by righteous spirits they could not only levitate, they were impervious to the effects of knives, swords, cannons and guns. That turned out not to be the case in reality, which meant they were soon annihilated by a combined force of Brits, French, Austro-Hungarians, Russians, Americans, Germans, Italians and Japanese called the Eight Nation Alliance. Though of course not before they killed hundreds of foreign nationals and thousands of Chinese Christians.
Interestingly, Li Hung Chang himself played a big part in the Western victory over the Boxers. For indeed not all of China, and certainly not its ruling elites, were willing to entrust their fortunes to a peasant band of religious wackos who thought they could fly. As Viceroy, Li had significant control over the Imperial military. When commanded to supply reinforcements to the Boxers, he pretended not to have received the memo. Simultaneously he used his control of the telegraph network to spread inflammatory disinformation to the West in hopes they would send more troops faster, hasten the end of the conflict and restore normal relations and trade.
No wonder then that Li was something of a hero in the Western world around the dawn of the Age of Chinese Food. Pass the chop suey!