- Historic Sites
“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
At this point, he reminded the Chinese that he had come to Peking at their invitation, that when he had talked to them in Shanghai nothing had been said of having an audience with the Emperor, that the treaty didn’t mention it and he had not asked for it. He called their attention to the fact that the Russian envoy then in Peking had not been presented at court, yet his treaty had been exchanged. Ward also said that he had trusted in the good faith of the Chinese, had brought no troops, and wished only to finish his business and return to his ship.
The Chinese were unwilling for things to reach an impasse. Kweiliang asked Ward to describe in writing the ceremony he was willing to perform, and the conversations were suspended for a few minutes while he and his translators prepared the paper. Dr. Williams’ journal reports that Ward began by expressing his deep regret that the observances required of him at an audience with the Emperor were such that he could not comply with them, for he could not kneel or kowtow. But if His Majesty granted him an audience without requiring these formalities, the United States would regard it as an evidence of friendship, and Ward himself would count it a most distinguished honor.
I would enter the presence of His Majesty, [Ward wrote] with head uncovered, and bowing low; I would stand and not sit; I would not speak unless addressed and would retire by walking backwards, never turning my back until out of his presence. No American Minister has ever kneeled or made the kowtow before any sovereign and would be repudiated by his government if he should do so; no American ever performs either before his own ruler. I am anxious to manifest the utmost respect for His Majesty in every form consistent with the obligations I owe to my own government.
The Chinese considered it. But they had a change to suggest. In place of the sentence beginning “I would enter the presence …” they wanted to substitute, “On coming into His Majesty’s presence, I will bend the body and slightly crook the right knee still standing.”
Ward consulted his interpreters. Dr. Williams said that the term used by the Chinese for “crook the right knee” was almost equivalent to kneeling, and later might be construed to mean that. The substitution was refused, and with that, the Commissioners brought the five-hour session to a close. “We cannot come to any agreement,” they announced, “and we must report to His Majesty that the customs of the two countries are so unlike that no audience can take place.”
They did not, however, make that report. Instead, they worked out a compromise they thought would be acceptable to the court, and two days later Judge Sieh returned alone to present the plan to Ward. It went like this: Ward would enter the throne room bowing as low as he had shown them he would. Between him and the Emperor would stand a table covered by a long cloth that reached the floor. As he approached it carrying President Buchanan’s letter, two court chamberlains would rush up to him on either side, seize him by the arms and plead, “ Pu kwe! pu kwe! ” (“Don’t kneel! Don’t kneel!”) And they would raise him up, or pretend to do so. The Minister would then place the letter on the table. A court official would take it and, kneeling, place it in the hands of the Emperor.
Dr. Williams commented in his journal: “The cunning design of this table with an apron on it was to hide the republican knees of the Envoy from the Emperor, who might think he went to the ground if he liked.”
Ward considered the proposal. Would it, he asked, be clearly understood that he had no intentions of going down on his knees in the first place?
Judge Sieh agreed to that understanding. “Nothing is required of you,” he said slyly, “but when you see the Emperor you will be so overcome with awe that you will fall down of your own accord.”
Members of Ward’s staff became suspicious that the two chamberlains would throw him to the floor, but the Minister thought he could keep his feet, and he accepted the plan. The Judge beamed. Then it would be arranged. Except for a specific date, Ward could consider the audience all set.
But at 2 P.M. the next day the Judge was back, “dispirited and weary,” Dr. Williams wrote. He and the two Commissioners had thought they could get their plan approved by the Board of Rites, which had the final say in such matters, but they had been outvoted. Still, the Emperor was concerned, Judge Sieh reported once more, lest President Buchanan feel insulted if his envoys weren’t received. Therefore, would Ward not reconsider, meet them half way, and bow just barely low enough to touch one knee to the ground, at which time the chamberlains would instantly approach and raise him up?
Ward replied firmly that he would rather lose his head than kneel.
The Judge confessed he wasn’t surprised at the refusal. But, he announced, to show the Emperor’s magnanimity and his truly earnest desire to establish everlasting bonds of friendship with the United States, the Chinese now were ready to dispense completely with the requirement to kneel. He emphasized that never before had they condescended so far for a foreign envoy. All the American Minister had to do was bow low enough to touch his fingers to the ground . So that settled that, the judge assumed. The audience would be arranged.