- 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
It was midsummer, and by the calendar of the Foreign Dogs of the West, the year 1859. Word came to the royal Chinese officials at Peking that an American barbarian chieftain, John E. Ward, was at the coast awaiting arrangements to proceed to the capital. He bore a letter from his Emperor, James Buchanan, addressed to the Divine Son of Heaven, and he was also ready to exchange ratified copies of the Treaty of Tientsin, signed the year before and since approved by his Senate. He desired that the agreement, respecting trade at various ports, be put into effect.
But a barbarian chieftain representing the Country of the Flowery Flag had never before been permitted in Peking, within whose confines was the walled and moated Forbidden City itself, site of the Dragon’s Throne. Therefore, extreme care needed to be taken to impress the barbarian with his country’s inferior status compared with that of the great Empire of China. Was not China the center of the world, the Middle Kingdom? And was not America just a sparsely settled, barbarian state far to the west? Ambitious, to be sure, but if it wished to draw near the center of civilization, its representative had to conduct himself with proper deference toward the Throne and in line with the prescribed rites.
Still, the royal officials reasoned, let the arrangements for Ward’s journey go forward. The occasion could serve to demonstrate anew to the populace their country’s exalted position compared with that of a vassal state. With this worthy object in view, the first thing to be considered was the mode of transporting Ward and his party 125 miles inland to Peking from their ship, the steamer-frigate Powhatan, anchored near Pehtang. It developed that during a stopover in Shanghai, the barbarian had on his own initiative picked up two sedan chairs, one green, the other blue, and had requested sixteen bearers so that he and another leader in his party could travel in style and comfort during the overland part of the trip. But was there not some way to prevail upon him to ride in the rough carts traditionally assigned to tribute-bearing envoys? This would serve to notify the people en route of his country’s lowly status. If he refused, perhaps he would be permitted to ride in the chairs part of the way, but certainly not into Peking itself.
The barbarian’s mode of transportation, however, was of far less importance than the form of the Ta-li, or Great Rite--the ceremony he would be required to perform at his audience with the Emperor. From time immemorial, of course, all who entered the Great Interior to behold the Dragon’s Face were required to kowtow. The entire ceremony consisted of kneeling three times and knocking the forehead on the ground three times at each kneeling. Whether Ward might have reservations about kowtowing was unknown, but if so, perhaps the required number of prostrations could be reduced. This would be a matter for the most careful negotiation.
For his part, the U.S. Minister was anxious to get on with the business at hand. He had been sent out by the President to perform this specific mission, and he had come north from Shanghai at the invitation of two Chinese Imperial Commissioners charged with arranging for the exchange of the ratified treaties. The Chinese also had planned to exchange similar treaties with the British and French, but their envoys had insisted on bringing warships up the Pei-ho River in a show of force and had had to be repulsed by Chinese forts guarding the river mouth. Ward, on the other hand, was willing to come with a small, unarmed party of only twenty men. He was in a hurry, however; stormy seas were expected, and in any event the Powhatan could not remain off the coast indefinitely: its supply of fresh water for the boilers was limited and could not be replenished there.
When word finally came from Peking that the party could get under way, Ward was told that bearers for his sedan chairs weren’t available and that, besides, representatives of countries coming to Peking had never ridden in chairs. Ward argued that practically the only emissaries who had been to Peking in recent years were from countries under Chinese sovereignty, while the United States was on equal footing. The Chinese replied that his country was in the same category as Russia, which now had a representative in Peking who always rode in a cart, never in a chair; the rule must apply to Ward too.
Ward didn’t know, of course, that Peking authorities were willing to let him use the chairs as far as the gates of the city, and in his anxiety to get the business over with, he assented to the carts. It was a mistake. In an argument with people who practically invented the status symbol and to whom face meant everything, he had lost the first round.
The carts turned out to be high, unpainted, box-like affairs with no springs or seats and only a couple of cushions to ease the jolts of the rough ride. A little yellow pennant floating over the vehicles identified the group for the curious throngs along the way as “Tribute bearers from the United States.”
Eight days on the dusty road and on junks towed up the river by Chinese laborers, sometimes wading in waist-deep water, brought the party to the Morning Sun Gate at Peking. Hundreds of thousands watched silently as the first American representatives ever to set foot in China’s ancient capital moved through the streets to their assigned quarters, a nineteen-room, one-story house in a residential neighborhood.