The Big Idea: David J. Silbey
The famous maxim says that history is written by the winners. But happens when the other side not only doesn’t write a history, but can’t? This was the challenge that Cornell historian David J. Silbey faced when writing The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China — The Boxers, mostly Chinese peasants, were ill-equipped to tell and pass along their side of this important historical event. So what is a conscientious historian to do? Here’s Silbey’s solution.
DAVID J. SILBEY:
Historians are responsible to the past. We have a duty to that past, and a duty to all the people of the present whose history we explore. The glory of that responsibility is the telling of the real stories, the real events, and the real people. The glory is the telling of the stories that created our world. The demand of that responsibility is to get the past right, or get it as right as we can. There is no freedom to fictionalize or to invent things. Instead, there is the iron straitjacket of what has already happened.
So what should I do when the past left nothing behind? What should I do when large numbers of mostly illiterate Chinese peasants, as part of a mystical martial secret society, the “Righteous Fists of Harmony” (soon, thankfully, shortened to “Boxers” by observers) rose up in revolt in 1900, swept across northern China, and then mostly disappeared before the summer had ended?
The Boxers left behind little if anything in the way of records. This was before email, the web, Facebook, and Twitter, before the era of over-sharing. When those ordinary Chinese appeared in writing, it was usually by those who disliked them: the western soldiers who fought them, the Chinese bureaucrats who tried to control them, or the missionaries who proselytized without really understanding them. How could I uphold my historian’s responsibility if the past I had to get right did not even seem to exist?
I decided that if I could not know them, individually, I could know their world. The Boxer movement started in Shandong Province, south of Beijing. It was a famously pugnacious province, home to the legendary bandits of Mt. Liang, China’s version of Robin Hood, and a place where the Chinese army recruited heavily. It was home to hardworking peasant farmers who weren’t averse to a spot of banditry in the winter seasons. It was a poor province, with a limited land owner class, and a population just scraping by even in the best years. It was the birthplace of Confucius. It was a province that, like it or not, was playing a leading role in the Great Game of imperialism, with a particularly aggressive set of German and American missionaries and a German naval base. It was a province with life structured much as it was elsewhere in China: grinding labor relieved sometimes only by the theatricals put on during market days, seats in the audience carefully reserved for the local gods. It was a province through which the Grand Canal, the marvel of engineering that connected northern and southern China flowed. Or had flowed: a shifting of the Yellow River in 1855 had blocked the waterway. It was a province that had suffered numerous floods during the 19th century, but in 1900 was in the second year of a punishing drought.
This was the world in which my peasant Boxers lived. Understanding that, I think I was able to glimpse them, at least partially. Poor already, they had been pushed to the edge of starvation by the drought and the intrusion of modern industry. The drought, a slow motion natural catastrophe, gave them time to think about their plight. The representatives of western imperialism gave them a rich collection of foreigners as a target. They were not the kind of people to take their situation easily or without response. Being a Boxer and rising in revolt, I thought, offered a way to control (at least a little bit) the world around them and a chance to punish those they thought responsible for their plight. In its spiritual mysticism and invocation of physical discipline, the movement, it came to seem to me, offered them a return to traditional China, and a retreat from the modern world.
I don’t know the Boxers as individuals. I will never know them through their own words. I came to believe, however, that I understood them enough. The past unveiled itself, not easily or completely, but sufficiently, and so I wrote a book. Did I do my duty as a historian? I think so. I hope my readers will agree. The Boxers are long dead and cannot speak, but I dream that they will rest easier, story told.
Read an interview of Silbey on the Boxer Rebellion from Military History magazine.