China news 21st February 2022
The news this week is of a single, enlightened, diplomat who began to understand and admire another (non-Chinese) culture and paid heavily for his frankness. There are many parallels today of those who see the good in other cultures and are criticised as ‘traitors’ by their countrymen.
Guo Songtao, was the ambassador of the Qing Dynasty of China to the United Kingdom. The Dynasty ended in 1912. Guo Songtao established the first Chinese embassy in London. The diplomat (who had helped beat the Taiping Army) did not know at this time that his lifetime honours and eventual disgrace were tied to this trip to Britain.
Before leaving, the Qing court ordered Guo Songtao to send his diary back regularly to the Prime Minister’s office, so that domestic officials could have more understanding of Western society and could easily deal with foreigners. In January 1877, after a long sea voyage, Guo Songtao arrived in London. In his diary, he not only recorded what he saw and heard, but also commented on what he had seen. For example, when he saw hundreds of ships entering and leaving ports in an orderly manner every day, he couldn’t help sighing, “They are so well organized.”
In addition, he praised London’s modern city:
Guo Songtao also paid great attention to the political system, education and science in Britain. He visited schools, museums, libraries, newspapers, and met many foreign experts and scholars. He studied foreign languages at the age of 60 to show friendship.
What Guo Songtao did not expect was that what he wrote down enthusiastically, became evidence of his treason and defection to the enemy. His political enemies used it as a bullet with which to shoot him.
Guo Songtao’s diary, which praised Western democracy and advocated that China should study it, was sent back to China, causing a great uproar in the officialdom of the Qing Dynasty.
Many stubborn old-fashioned officials sneered at the diary and criticized Guo Songtao, saying that as a court official of the Celestial Empire, he openly knelt and licked the feet of the English in his diary. He flattery of the West, was simply unscrupulous. Some people even judged that Guo Songtao had committed treason and defected to the enemy. Guo Songtao was attacked and impeached at home, and his life abroad was not easy.
With the support of some domestic officials, Liu Xihong, deputy foreign envoy, secretly monitored Guo Songtao’s every move abroad and kept making “brief reports” to the Qing government, listing various “crimes” of Guo’s humiliating the Chinese system.
Once when he visited a fort, the weather changed suddenly. An Englishman, who accompanied him, put his coat on Guo Songtao. Guo Songtao calmly accepted it. Liu Xihong thought that “even though it is freezing, it should not be put on”, because it covered his Chinese costume
When the King of Brazil visited Britain, Guo Songtao was invited to attend the tea party held by the Brazilian Embassy. When the King of Brazil entered, Guo Songtao stood up with everyone else. This is the most basic diplomatic etiquette, but Liu Xihong said that this move greatly cost the country, because “the imperial court, cannot pay tribute to the lords of small countries”!
Liu Xihong threatened the embassy, “I definitely can’t tolerate this person who is a traitor to Peking”.
Under these internal and external attacks, Guo Songtao was vilified constantly by the imperial court. If it hadn’t been for the rescue of Li Hongzhang and other foreign affairs officials, he would have been sent to prison for criminal activity.
After being dismissed, Guo Songtao pleaded illness and returned to his hometown, but even before he returned, slogans scolding Guo Songtao for “colluding with foreigners” had long been pasted all over the streets.
On 18 July 1891, Guo Songtao passed away. Before his death, he told his son only to inform his family and his first and second relatives to come to mourn. No other relatives or friends should be informed.
After Guo Songtao’s death, Li Hongzhang routinely requested the National History Museum to reinstate him. The Ministry of Ceremonies gave him a posthumous title. This was traditionally the last comfort to the deceased, but it was rejected by the Qing court.
A few years later, the Boxer Movement arose, and pro-Western officials completely stood aside. Some people even reported that the court opened the coffin and whipped Guo Songtao, the traitor.
The Boxer Regiment was xenophobic, shouting and killing. But the Dowager Empress was not right to receive help from foreign enemies and their soldiers. In the end, it caused the court to lose its capital; they signed unequal treaties, lost money, and ultimately, lost their throne.
I don’t know how Guo Songtao, in his grave, would feel about this result. Is he laughing or crying? Does he feel joy or sadness?
Worked on the article: