My historical methods course for the Fall will be looking at the Boxers, and I have been reading Jane Elliott’s book on the Boxers.1 It’s a really interesting book, which among other things collects a lot of pictures and cartoons of the Boxers that I had never seen before.
The standard Western image of the Boxers eventually became that they were a gang of colourful, superstitious primitives (just like all non-White people) who had to be put down by the civilized, orderly forces of the West for the good of Civilization and China itself. ((The main book in the class in Cohen’s History in Three Keys, which deals with some of this myth-making and above all how Chinese dealt with this relationship between “Boxerism” Chinese-ness and Anti-foreignism.)) You can see this narrative in the picture below, which is identified as U.S. Marine Corps art, and which I remember from my High School history textbook.2
One of the things that makes Elliot’s book so interesting is that she shows how a less stereotyped narrative was present right from the beginning. She argues that the Qing imperial troops actually did quite well against the foreigners. This makes the Late Qing reforms look better, which fits in with a lot of recent scholarship. She also shows a number of contemporary images, produced for commercial sale in the West, that make the Chinese look more modern, manly, and soldier-like than the standard narrative would suggest.
All these photos of Chinese soldiers as modern people were taken by Americans, or are in American collections, and she argues that the Americans had a much more developed tradition of war photography at this point than anyone else, and that they were less likely to want to see Chinese as something out of The Mikkado than the British. This is something I think I will try to do something with in class, as I am often amazed at how totally dead the old American Anti-imperialist tradition is.