Unexpected Encounters with the Past

Unexpected Encounters with the Past

A couple of weeks ago, late one Friday evening, I was perusing the shelves in SOAS Library when I made an unexpected find of a book with a personal family connection. I was there searching out some books for an essay I’m currently writing on China’s Boxer Uprising of 1900. Having found the specific titles I was looking for, my eye was scanning along the book spines to see if there might be any other titles of interest, when my attention was caught by the faded lettering on a slender spine sandwiched between two heftier tomes, the book was: China and the Boxers by the Rev. Z. Chas. Beals (1901).

It looked like an old binding, which is probably what really drew the book to my attention rather than its rather nondescript title. The essay I'm writing is a study of diaries kept by members of the diplomatic corps who were trapped inside the foreign Legations during the Boxer siege of Peking (Beijing) from June to August 1900, consequently, I’ve been keenly hunting down as many primary accounts as I can find (SOAS Library is a gold mine for original copies of texts by old ‘China Hands’). I took the book down from the shelf, and, finding it was in a rather fragile state, I carefully opened its cover to take a look at its contents page when instead my eyes fell on this:

My happy find wasn’t so much that the book had been inscribed by the author, but rather the couple to whom he had inscribed it: "Mr & Mrs Paul King." Collateral relations of mine, whom I’ve written about on this blog before (see here). On his retirement, after a career of almost 50 years, Paul Henry King had been a senior member of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service – he and his wife, Veronica, were also both well-known writers on China in their time. This particular copy of Beals' book was evidently a gift from one 'China-Hand' to another.

But this wasn’t the only find – opposite the author’s dedication, on the inside of the hardboard cover was this bookplate:

There are a couple of date stamp tabs glued into the book and the oldest of these seems to indicate that the book was donated to SOAS sometime before the end of 1947. Nearly half a century after the events it describes. In light of this unexpected discovery I now can’t help looking at the many bookstacks in SOAS Library devoted to China and wonder if any of the other books shelved there might also have been donated by the Kings?

Paul and Veronica King were both present in China during the Boxer Uprising. Paul King was appointed Commissioner of Customs at Canton in April 1900. The Boxer troubles had slowly been fermenting over the previous couple of years, and the touch-paper was lit some two months later, culminating in an all-out assault on the foreign communities in China. The conflagration was brought about because of a complex number of reasons, as Beals rather bluntly recounts in his book: 

“The Boxer movement has unquestionably had as its chief reason the hatred and contempt of the foreigner. As such it received the smiles of the dominant party in Peking; on such it based its hopes of success. I think we may be safe in giving besides the first or great central cause five others which helped to bring to an issue the present state of things in China. We will give them in order, as follows:
            First, or great central cause, contempt and hatred of foreigners. The reason for this hatred was brought about, first, by abuse from foreigners themselves. Second, political ‘land grabbing.’ Third, oppression and lawsuits by the natives who entered the church (especially Roman Catholic) for that purpose. Fourth, Boxer superstition. Fifth, inability of our Consuls and Ministers to deal with Chinese officials as they should have been dealt with.”

A curious mix of Western 'mea culpa' allied with an unapologetic reassertion of the colonialist's raison d'être.

The Reverend Z. Chas. Beals, an American Pastor of Grace Church, Wuhu and Han Shan Hsien (also Editor of the ‘China Messenger’), was writing immediately after the event – his book was published in 1901 (which also suggests it may have been in the King’s possession some forty-odd years or so before it was donated to SOAS Library). The Boxer movement – a loose association (or succession) of secret societies practicing ritualised martial arts, combined with beliefs in their own magical abilities which supposedly fortified them and made them invulnerable to bullets, arrows, and swords, etc. – drew on the largely uneducated and restive peasant class, possibly further stirred by the hardships brought on from an extended period of drought. Discontent at what they perceived to be the ineffective way in which the Qing Dynasty was handling the increasingly aggressive infringement of China's sovereignty by the various Western Powers, they rallied under one banner with the motto: “Restore the Qing, Destroy the Foreigner.” 

Initially their ire seemed to be focussed and directed at the Chinese converts of the Western missionaries, who, protected under the provisions of Western ‘extraterritoriality’, were popularly perceived to be given preferential treatment over ordinary, orthodox Chinese subjects – particularly when it came to matters concerning the native Courts of Law, from which the converts were exempted, as well as their gaining other entitlements denied to their non-converted compatriots. The Qing authorities at first attempted to suppress the movement, arresting the local leaders and disbursing their groups, but in time, and with the restoration of the Empress Dowager Tz'u-hsi (Cixi) as the highest authority in the Manchu Court, the Boxers were eventually ‘co-opted’ into what some contemporary Westerners referred to as the ‘Boxer War,’ in which the Boxers were joined by certain anti-foreign factions of the Chinese Imperial Army and together they waged all-out attacks on the foreign communities in Chinese cities and towns across north eastern China throughout the scorchingly hot summer of 1900. Eventually an international military force - made up of troops from Britain, America, Russia, Austria-Hungary, France, Italy, and Japan - was sent to relieve the besieged foreigners and a hefty indemnity was demanded from China, which only deepened the discontent and disadvantage the Chinese Empire faced under the existing system of ‘extraterritoriality’ – the system by which China was effectively colonised by stealth, a system which has since been described as one of ‘informal empire.’

Boxer fighters captured near Tientsin (Tianjin), photographed by James Ricalton

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Li_Hongzhang#mediaviewer/File:Li_Hung_Chang_in_1896.jpgThe period of the Boxer Uprising, however, brought Paul King to the notice of one of the most revered and respected statesmen in China’s history – Li Hung-chang (Li Hong-zhang). When all means of communication with the Legations in Peking were lost in July 1900, as the Boxers and Imperial troops laid siege, the worst was feared for those trapped within. It was generally assumed that a massacre had taken place. An obituary for Sir Robert Hart, the chief of the Maritime Customs Service, even appeared in the newspapers back in London.

Writing of the time in his autobiography, Paul King records how on:

“July 3rd, at 10:30 am, I received the Chefoo Commissioner’s telegrams confirming the miserable news of poor Von Kettler’s murder, and stating that all the Peking foreign residents were in the British Legation, and in great straits. I took the telegrams at once to the Viceroy [Li Hung-chang]. He was much upset, especially as he had evidently received some confirmation, and did not hold out great hopes of safety for the unfortunates in the Legation. I told him I had wired three times to inquire about the Inspector General [Sir Robert Hart], but Chefoo did not appear to have any news. Li threw up his hand, a gesture he often used if deeply moved, and said: ‘Who can know what has become of him?’ I naturally asked if I could be of any help, little thinking of what his answer would be. He put his hand on my shoulder and said: ‘You as Canton Commissioner must superintend’ (or take charge of – the expression used was ‘Tsungli’ [ 综理 zòng lǐ  = administer, direct control] ) ‘all the Customs Offices in the Two Kwang until we hear again from the Inspector General.’ He spoke kindly but solemnly. I accepted this mandate and told him I would do my best to keep things going until better days should dawn.”

It later turned out that the obituary was somewhat premature as Sir Robert Hart, the Inspector General of the Chinese Customs Service, did indeed survive the siege of Peking; and it seems he didn’t appreciate Paul King’s having stepped into the breach. Indeed, Paul King lists a fair few grumbles about “the I.G’s” character in the ‘pen portrait’ he gives of Hart in his autobiography:

“I remember at a ceremonious dinner at his [Sir Robert Hart’s] house the conversation was on investments. He looked over my way and said: ‘And pray, how do you invest your money?’ No doubt, I should have smiled and said something different, but I was smarting under deferred promotion and many transfers, and even a worm will turn when trodden upon, so I blurted out: ‘In boots and shoes for my family, Sir Robert.’ A roar of laughter followed, for the size of my small, large family was well known, but the great man was not amused. His mouth turned down ominously, and promotion came to me afterwards even slower than before.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Thomas_Stead#mediaviewer/File:William_Thomas_Stead.jpgLi Hung-chang died in 1901, not long after he had represented the Imperial Chinese Government and overseen their part in the Boxer Peace Settlement; yet, curiously enough, he makes a second – somewhat supernatural – appearance in Paul King’s memoir in the year 1910. Paul and Veronica King were in London, on home leave at the time, attending one of W. T. Stead’s “Julia” séances.

William Thomas Stead was one of the foremost journalists of his day. He is credited with revolutionising investigative journalism – a dedicated social reformer, he used his journalistic influence to campaign on issues of child welfare and to reform the criminal justice system. It was the kind of journalism which, it has been claimed, paved the way for today’s shock and shame “tabloid” Press. Stead was also strongly drawn to spiritualism (some would say, rather too credulously). He founded a quarterly magazine on spiritualism and supported various kinds of psychical studies, including telepathy, séances, and automatic writing. Paul King doesn’t give any background as to how he came to know Stead, but he does describe attending some of Stead’s séance sessions, and gives the following rather remarkable account of one such occasion:

“I had brought a high Chinese official with me, referred to in the dialogue as His Excellency. I must compress what followed, but the original detailed notes of the various conversations are in my possession.* [see footnote below]
            The Psychic said: ‘I see a tall, thin figure, dressed in a Chinese costume. There is an air of dignity about him. I don’t know who he is. The figure comes and stands between Mr King and His Excellency.’
            The Psychic then said: ‘I see General Gordon. He stands behind His Excellency and says he knew him many, many years ago.**
            Question by Paul King to His Excellency: ‘Did you know General Gordon?’
            His Excellency: ‘I met him in Hong Kong.’
            The Psychic: ‘General Gordon says, ‘It was at an official reception of some sort. I forget the exact details.’
            His Excellency: ‘I remember he spoke to me at an official reception.’
            General Gordon: ‘I’m trying to throw my memory back. Yes, I remember. Is there anything he would like to ask me?’
            His Excellency: ‘Have you seen Li Hung-chang, our old friend, on the other side?’
            General Gordon: ‘Yes, often, often, often. He will be with us presently.’
            Gordon then said that Li had a difficulty in communicating with us, although he was actually present with him. The Psychic continued to speak and was apparently now in touch with Li.
            Li said to His Excellency: ‘Go to Peking in July. Prepare, do not force things.’
            Later on the Psychic said: ‘Li Hung-chang is speaking to Mr Paul King. ‘You know I thoroughly trust and rely upon you. Fail me not when I desire to use you for the good of my race. You are English. Fail me not.’
             His Excellency asked Li: ‘Do you think Prince Ch’ing will be in power long?’
            Answer: ‘No, he will not.’
            His Excellency: ‘Who will succeed him?’
            Answer: ‘That for the moment I cannot tell you. I hope in the confusion that will result at that time we shall have the opportunity of pressing forward those schemes we desire should be accomplished.’
            His Excellency said: ‘I am returning to China. I wish you well, Li Hung-chang. I hope you will help us.’
            Li: ‘I will. I still live for my country.’

Reading this one can’t help wondering whether or not “Li Hung-chang” spoke through the Spirit Medium in English or Chinese, this detail isn’t given – but King goes on to relate how Stead would write to him whenever Li appeared to Stead at subsequent séances held privately by him and his daughter, Estelle. All of his utterances appear to relate to the apparent premonition of the revolution of 1911-1912 hinted at in the quote given above. King gives no real comment or reflection on what he made of these ‘appearances’ or of the messages and the advice they seem to impart, but he does offer this memorial comment upon the great journalist, Stead, who passed away not so very long afterwards:

“It was in Stead’s mind to visit China and take a hand in reform matters there, and he had been urged to do so by influential men in the new régime. He might have been an evangel of great good; but Fate ruled otherwise, and we may borrow for him the words Tennyson wrote for another. He “passes on his happier voyage now,” leaving a wonderful memory behind in the hearts of those who were privileged to know him – a memory of a sympathy that never failed any human creature, and a courage that would face the last extreme in this or any other life!”

Not so long ago, rather like the chance discovery of Paul and Veronica King's copy of Beals’ book in SOAS Library, I happened to come across this bronze memorial plaque to W. T. Stead on the Victoria Embankment beside the River Thames in London (close to Temple Tube Station). It was erected by his fellow journalists “in recognition of his brilliant gifts, fervent spirit, & untiring devotion to the service of his fellow men.” There is no word, nor hint - save perhaps for a small sailing boat set atop the globe in the figure of “Sympathy’s” hand - as to how Stead departed this life. He was a passenger on board the RMS Titanic which sank in the freezing water of the mid-Atlantic on April 15th 1912 after colliding with an iceberg on its maiden voyage. An event which some believe he may have unconsciously predicted in one of his earlier writings (in 1886). He was last seen clinging to a raft with John Jacob Astor IV. His body was never recovered. A copy of the London memorial also stands, with a different inscription, in New York’s Central Park.



* Footnote: Unfortunately I have no idea what became of Paul King’s papers, he does mention keeping a diary in his memoir - I expect they’d make for fascinating and insightful reading. If anyone reading this might know anything concerning the whereabouts of Paul or Veronica King’s personal papers, whether or not they might perhaps have been preserved in an archive somewhere, please do let me know – I’d be most grateful to hear from you!

** Footnote: Paul King's uncle (on his mother's side) "Jack", Colonel John Alexander Man Stuart (1841-1908), served in China under General Gordon in the 'Ever Victorious Army' which helped to put an end to the Taiping Rebellion in 1864. Jack Man Stuart was also himself in the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, acting as Private Secretary to both Horatio Nelson Lay and Sir Robert Hart. He later went on to become Commandant of Local Forces in Trinidad and Tobago, possibly also serving for a time as Acting Governor there.


Rev. Z. Chas. Beals, China and the Boxers: A Short History on the Boxer Outbreak, with Two Chapters on the Sufferings of Missionaries and a closing One on the Outlook (New York: M. E. Munson, 1901)

Rev. Z. Chas. Beals & Rev. E. P. Woodward, The Yellow Dragon & The Yellow Peril (Portland, Maine: Safeguard Publishing Co., 1902)

Robert Bickers & R.G. Tiedemann (eds.), The Boxers, China, and the World (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007)

Chan Lau Kit-ching, 'Li Hung-chang and the Boxer Uprising' in Monumenta Serica, Vol. 32 (1976), pp. 55-84

Paul A. Cohen, History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997)

Joseph W. Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987)

Peter Fleming, The Siege at Peking (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2001 [1959])

Paul King, In The Chinese Customs Service: A Personal Record of Forty-Seven Years (London: Heath Cranton, 1930)

Hans van de Ven, 'Robert Hart and Gustav Detring during the Boxer Rebellion' in Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 40, No. 3 (July 2006), pp. 631-662

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