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Jeffrey Wasserstrom Leverhulme Lecture - The Boxer Rebellion in the American Imagination: Facts, Fictions, Fantasies

Venue: Birkbeck Clore Management Centre

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1900 was an eventful year: wars raged in South Africa and the Philippines, famine caused terrible suffering in India, and the last World's Fair of the nineteenth century opened in Paris. In the middle months of that year, though, the biggest international story of all for a time was the crisis in China. Both information and misleading rumours about it circled the planet at an amazing speed, thanks to the recent spread of overland telegraph lines and undersea telegraph cables. The most famous episodes of the crisis included a fifty-five day siege of Beijing's diplomatic quarter, a similarly suspenseful siege of Tianjin, and battles that pitted an Allied Army marching behind the flags of eight foreign nations and empires against joint forces made up of anti-Christian militants (the self-named "Fists
of Righteous Harmony"; the "Boxers", in Western terminology) and Qing Dynasty soldiers.

This illustrated presentation, which introduces material and ideas from a book Professor Wasserstrom is currently completing, will focus on the very different ways that the laying and lifting of these dramatic sieges were understood and represented in the United States as they took place, and have been understood and represented there since that time. A wide range of responses – from staged reenactments of battles put on by Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1901 to the Hollywood spectacle "Fifty-Five Days at Peking" – will be discussed, as well as writings on the Boxers by famous Americans ranging from Mark Twain to Pearl Buck to First Lady Lou Henry Hoover (the last of these, along with her husband, was a survivor of the siege of Tianjin). The talk will explore – at a moment of high China-US-tensions – the long, complex shadow that the conflict of 1900 has cast over China's relations with the United States, due in part to stark differences in the way key events in the crisis were understood and since remembered (or forgotten) on opposite sides of the Pacific.

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