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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
Now Ward had said he would bow as low as the Emperor wished. And the one he had performed for them was indeed a very low bow. But he’d said nothing about touching the ground.
Judge Sieh burst out, “It is only three inches more!”
Only three inches . Ward discussed it with his staff.
“Only three inches!” Judge Sieh cried. “What does that signify to make so much discussion!” And he advanced what he considered the clinching argument: Ward could tell the President anything he liked about the kind of ceremony he performed.
Yes, Ward said drily, that might do, for it was done all the time in China. But, he added, Americans observed a different code of conduct. And as for touching the ground with his fingers, though it was but three inches more, he would not do it.
When Judge Sieh walked out of that house “wearied and disappointed” at 4 P.M. on August 5, 1859, eleven hundred years of history came to a close. During that time the Chinese had brought to their knees the Arabs, the Dutch, the Russians, the Portuguese, and the British. But they had never met a free, independent American from the proud state of Georgia.
After John E. Ward had refused to kowtow or kneel or even to go those last three inches and touch his fingers to the ground, an audience with the Emperor was out of the question. But the Chinese never again made such a demand of a Western envoy. The next time the question came up, in 1873, the Ministers of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and the Netherlands came before the Emperor bowing low once on entering the throne room and then three times before retiring backwards.
As for President Buchanan’s letter, Ward delivered it to Kweiliang in a simple ceremony the day before leaving Peking August 11. He exchanged the treaty with a minor official at the port of Pehtang just before boarding the Powhatan. The fierce independence he had demonstrated at Peking was deeply ingrained in his character: when he got back to the United States he bitterly denounced his native state’s secession from the Union and refused to participate in the Civil War. After it was over he moved to New York City, where he practiced law until 1902, only returning home--in the fall of that year--to die.