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“I Kneel Only To God And Woman”
For centuries the world’s envoys kowtowed to China’s proud rulers. Then along came a crusty American with a stubborn pride of his own
December 1961 | Volume 13, Issue 1
Ward’s first act was to request a staff from which to fly his country’s flag. It was promised but never erected; word was passed to him that the Russians had none. He hung the flag on a wall in the main reception room.
Negotiations looking toward exchange of the treaties got under way three days later. Representing the Chinese were the two Imperial Commissioners, Kweiliang and Hwashana, and also a Shanghai judge named Sieh. Besides Ward the Americans included two legation secretaries, Ward’s brother, W. Wallace Ward, and Dr. S. Wells Williams, who also was chief interpreter; and W. A. P. Martin, assistant interpreter. Dr. Williams, who had acted in a similar capacity on Commodore Perry’s historic mission to Japan in 1853 and 1854, had been a missionary in China for many years and was later to become professor of Chinese languages and literature at Yale. He kept a detailed journal of Ward’s negotiations. Martin also wrote about them. (Later he would spend some forty years in Peking as a missionary and adviser to the Chinese government.) Ward’s reports to the State Department and Chinese documents reveal other details of the mission.
As diplomatic etiquette dictated, the American Minister opened the conversation with polite inquiries about the health of his hosts, then spent a few moments discussing recent British activities in China and his own trip from Pehtang. But as quickly as might be, he got to the point. He wished to conclude his business as soon as possible, he said, because of the expected rough weather and his ship’s limited water supply.
“Before the treaty is exchanged,” Kweiliang observed, “it will be necessary to have an audience with His Majesty, who desires to evince his friendliness … We must consult together beforehand upon the manner of presentation at court, and it will be proper for you to practice the ceremonies used at an audience before the day appointed.”
Dr. Williams had warned Ward that the matter of the audience would be brought up, for Judge Sieh had mentioned it to him in a brief visit to the legation the day before. And the ceremony was well known, as was the fact that the Chinese required that it be rehearsed several days beforehand. Ward replied:
In reference to an audience with His Majesty, I think it is highly important that I see him, not only on account of the respect shown thereby to my country, but the manner of my reception will do much to exhibit to the world the policy of the Chinese Government and enable the world to judge whether the proceedings of the English are right or not. [This was a reference to the British attempt to bring warships up the river.] I wish, too, to honor the Emperor and show him the same respect that I show to the President, which I have been instructed to do. In approaching him, therefore, I will observe such ceremonies and forms of obeisance as he may prescribe, except that I will not kneel or knock my head on the ground before him, for those attitudes are confined with us to religion and are not used in coming before the President or before the ruler of any other country. In other respects I will accord with Chinese etiquette.
The issue thus joined had been a historic bone of contention between East and West almost since the dawn of civilization. The free and democratic citizens of ancient Athens once condemned to death one of their number, Timagoras, for disgracing the city by kowtowing before the King of Persia.
The West’s dispute with China dated from the eighth century A.D. The first Arabian envoys to Peking almost lost their heads for protesting the ceremony; they got off with a severe reprimand after agreeing to perform it. The Caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Raschid, hero of the Arabian Nights, also sent emissaries who at first objected but ended up complying. In 1656 members of a Dutch mission submitted to the requirement, and in 1720 a Russian named Ismailoff followed suit. So did a Portuguese envoy, Metello, seven years later.
The first British emissary to China, the Earl of Macartney, was ready with a novel counterproposal when he arrived in Peking in 1793. He had brought along a picture of King George III all dressed in his ceremonial robes, and the Earl agreed to kowtow to the Chinese ruler provided an official of equal rank kowtowed before the likeness of the British monarch. The Chinese ignored the proposal and got the Britisher’s agreement to go down on one knee. They waived the head knocking. After the audience took place, the Chinese announced he had performed the complete kowtow, and the Russians in Peking, who had access to inside information at the court, confirmed the report. It raised a storm in England.
Another British mission headed by Lord Amherst (nephew of the hero of the French and Indian War) arrived in Peking in 1816. He also offered to go down on one knee and, in addition, to make nine “profound” bows in lieu of the nine head knockings. He and the Chinese argued for nearly a month, but his offer was finally rejected and Amherst left the city without completing his mission.