Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Re-presenting the Boxer War, 1900/01

Imperialist Intervention in China as a Transnational Media Event

Dr. Thoralf Klein


In this project I examine media discourses on the Boxer War, focusing on press releases from five of the allied states involved in the military intervention (the German Empire, France, Great Britain, Austria-Hungary and the USA) and from China including the Chinese diaspora. I explore how different media producers made sense out of the bellicose events in China. In applying a transnational perspective, I wish to shed light on the constructions of identity underlying different interpretations.

In the framework of the project, the term „media event“ takes on two different meanings. First, it points to the fact that medial re-presentation of human action, regardless of the ontological quality of the latter, construes a reality of its own that has a specific social relevance. This reality cannot be conceived of as independent from the reported action, but neither is it merely a reflection of the latter. Second, I start from the assumption that an event always contains an element of surprise and that its outcome is undetermined. Accordingly, media narratives are open-ended and, as they constantly process new information, steadily in flux. Hence, the dimension of time bears immediately on the analysis, as the course of the war and its perception shaped the ways in which the media construed events as meaningful.

Methologically, the project owes a great deal to the concept of discourse analysis. However, it aims at linking media discourses with social categories in two ways. First, on the basis of recent approaches to the theory of media, the material aspects of media are to be taken seriously. These encompass the technological standards, which, from the late 19th century onwards, made worldwide communication possible and also had considerable impact on how reports were transmitted. In addition, it must be taken into account that topicality and periodical appearance are crucial factors in running a newspaper. Technology as well as the practices of publication are results of social activity. Second, I start from the assumption that discourses (and their constant re-articulation) are a means by which social groups imagine (and hence constitute) themselves. Hence, the modern mass media are a stage where various discourses on identity meet and interact in a complex and conflict-ridden manner.

On the basis of these presuppositions, I examine how a media network that processed information over global distances re-presented the Boxer War. With regard to Europe and the U. S. a  number of preliminary studies have already shown how constant references to foreign reporting created a transnational frame of reference for comments on the events in China. (To what extent Chinese newspapers were integrated in this framework or whether there existed a parallel Chinese reference system that included the overseas diaspora remains to be examined.)

Within the said frame of reference, the respective publications positioned themselves vis-à-vis the Boxer War, construing social spaces at different levels and assigning each of these spaces a specific identity while at the same drawing boundaries between these spaces: the “West” versus China, the individual nations, but also ideological, political, professional and social milieus (the Boxers, the military, merchants and entrepreneurs, pacifists, Christian circles, workers, etc.). Different and often conflicting patterns of discourse provided the underpinning for these demarcations: Concerned about the fate of the beleaguered foreigners in China, Western newspapers and periodicals evoked the nightmare of a complete breakdown of the imperial order; at the same time, alleged Chinese disrespect for the norms of international law came to be regarded as the criterion that distinguished the isolated “barbarian” China from the solidarity of the “civilized” world. From the viewpoint of the opponents of the war, the atrocities committed by the allied troops led to a complete reversal of the discourse on barbarians. On the other hand, they brought about a debate about which nation could rightfully claim to be the most civilized; in this debate, nationalist overtones were clearly audible. Missionaries and “capitalism” were held responsible for the outbreak of the war; at the same time, missionaries were the only Western group to express empathy with at least one part of the Chinese population (the Chinese Christians, who like the missionaries were persecuted by the Boxers). A close scrutiny of the relevant material will show to what extent these patterns of discourse promoted or inhibited social integration at the national and transnational levels respectively. On the basis of previous studies, I also intend to examine to what extent contemporary media discourses formed long-term memory of the events both among the allied powers and in China.