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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
For their part, the Chinese saw their request for a sign of obeisance as a perfectly natural thing. Had not Heaven delegated all power over men to one person, and from the beginning of time had not that person been the Emperor of China? Were not the Chinese the custodians of civilization, possessing a superior way of life to which all men aspired? And were not all foreigners treacherous barbarians who harbored secret, covetous desires toward the Middle Kingdom and who had to be kept in their place?
Besides, the kowtow was simply compliance with the rigid body of ritual law which governed the social relationships between all people, from the lowest peasant to the Emperor, who himself performed the kowtow many times when he made sacrifices to Heaven or worshipped the Goddess of the Silkworms. Did this American barbarian now in Peking consider himself equal to the Son of Heaven?
The question probably never entered the mind of John Elliott Ward. He was, however, no less proud than the titled nobility representing other Western countries who had preceded him to Peking in years past. A native of Georgia, descended from the Scottish Highlanders who settled in the state in Oglethorpe’s time, Ward had been a reform mayor of Savannah and later president of the Democratic National Convention which nominated Buchanan for President.
The Chinese negotiators who heard his stand on the presentation ceremony probably were not too surprised; they knew the West’s centuries-old attitude toward it, and they were prepared to negotiate. Commissioner Hwashana, described by Dr. Williams as a man of few words but those very much to the point, replied to Ward’s objections: “Our rulers are equal, and so are we as their Ministers. Now, as we kneel before the Throne, if you do not, we become unequal, for you are raised above us.”
“Not exactly so,” Ward replied. “I represent a ruler equal in all respects to His Majesty the Emperor, and when I come before [the Emperor], I can do nothing which my ruler would not himself do. You are the officers and subjects of the Emperor and must obey his orders if you serve him … I cannot degrade my country by taking such a posture.”
“I admit,” said Hwashana, “that you are not the subject of His Majesty, but you are a Minister which is less than the Throne. If I were accredited at Washington I would unhesitatingly comply with all that should be required of me at an audience.”
Ward acknowledged that he was inferior to the Throne. But he asked Hwashana and his colleagues whether, if they were in Washington, they would willingly do anything that would degrade China or its sovereign, or do anything that would violate the teachings of conscience. “Would you yourselves render religious worship to the President?”
Kweiliang took up the argument. “If I were in the United States I would offer incense before the President if required to do so, or sacrifice; and on the same principle you ought to conform to the usages at our Court. The envoys from Burma, Ryukyu, Korea, Annam, Siam and other tributary states kneel thrice and knock the head nine times, but they are inferior; your nation is equal and you need kneel only once and knock the head thrice.”
Ward told him he’d just as soon kneel a hundred times as once. But he emphasized that his refusal to do so did not indicate any lack of respect for the Emperor, and he reminded the negotiators that the true test of respect lay in whether the homage was voluntary or compulsory. The Chinese argued that in Britain men knelt when they came before Queen Victoria to be knighted. Ward admitted that in some European courts ministers and subjects knelt before their own rulers, but when sent as their representatives to other countries, they never did and it was not required.
At this point, Dr. Williams’ journal reveals, Hwashana asked Ward just what kind of ceremony he was willing to perform. The same thing he would do before a European sovereign, Ward answered: he would stand during the audience, covered or uncovered as the Emperor desired, though the latter indicated more respect; would bow as low as His Majesty required; would not sit unless asked to, and would never turn his face from the Emperor. But he stressed again that he could not observe rites reserved for religion.
“I kneel only to God and woman,” he said firmly.
About this bowing, the Chinese wanted to know: just how low did he intend to go? Ward stood up. He bowed. It was a very low bow. But Judge Sieh spoke up: “If we don’t prostrate ourselves before the Emperor we treat him disrespectfully; it is that or nothing in our view.”
Kweiliang, however, soft pedaled this view and suggested that the negotiations be continued another day in the hopes that a compromise could be worked out. The Americans were quick to second the motion. The day was blistering hot, and the parley had lasted eight solid hours, the Americans sweltering in wool suits, the Chinese comparatively cool in their loose-fitting silk robes.
The discussion of the Great Rite was resumed two days later. Kweiliang began by stating that the Emperor would consider himself as having failed to show respect to the United States if he did not see its representative on his first visit to the capital. And he felt that since Ward was a plenipotentiary, he had the power to comply with what was simply a ceremony.
“I am not invested with powers sufficient to enable me to change the laws and usages of my country,” Ward replied, “and can do nothing to degrade it.”