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Quellen zur Geschichte (China) / Historical Sources

Library-History: The Destruction of Chinese Books in The Peking Siege of 1900 - German Sources

(Übersetzt von / Translated by Elisabeth Bluhme) Following the paper by Mr. Davis on the IFLA meeting 1996 concerning the fire at the library of the Hanlin Academy. You may find this article under IFLA Journal vol. 23, No.2, 1997.

I have looked for German sources on this event.

What was the matter? This is a short summary:

At the end of the last century the Chinese empire was in a state of disarray: In two opium wars the Europeans and the Americans had forced the Chinese to open their ports to foreign trade and to concede huge advantages to the Europeans. The Christian missions enjoyed considerable privileges so that many Chinese converted, rather by legal and similar reasons than by inner conviction. This fact and also feelings of hatred against foreigners led to a resurge of popular movements, of which one, called «the boxers for law and unity», became better known.

From June to August 1900 the embassy quarter was beleagered by Chinese troups. A partial cause may have been the behaviour of the German ambassador von Kettler against a presumed boxer, an action which resulted in the death of the boxer. - On 18 June von Kettler was murdered (see note 1). Until 14 August, the day when European troops marched into Peking, the embassy quarter had been largely cut off from the outside world. In the north were the English and the Austrian embassies, on the middle of the embassy lane lay the Russian, the Japanese and the French embassies and in the south near the city walls were the American and the German legations.

At the beginning of the siege a housing block in front of the compound had been burned down by the Chinese. When on 23 June the Hanlin Academy with its valuable library, close to the British legation, went up in flames, the English accused the boxers to have caused the fire. However, there is considerable doubt about it. Mr. Davis and Mr. Cheng have begun to shed some light on this matter. They evaluated English, American and Chinese sources and presented the results at the IFLA meeting in Beijing. In this follow-up I would like to display the texts which I have found in the German sources on the fire of the Hanlin Academy. I may anticipate that the result is meagre (a possible reason see at the end of this article).

Here now follow my own findings in the German language literature:

I had known that the German language newspaper «Ostasiatischer Lloyd/Shanghai» has reported extensively on the boxer uprising. In this newspaper excerpts from the diary of customs inspector Mr. Bismarck were printed, starting from 14 August. Herein the fire has only been mentioned in passing ( see note 1).

The perusal of several dailies (Vossische, Berliner Börsen-Courier, Norddeutsche Zeitung, Hamburger Fremdenblatt, Kölnische Zeitung, Münchner Neueste Nachrichten), brought many reports about the situation in China to light which had mainly used English sources, but only in the Hamburger Fremdenblatt (Tagebuch) and the Kölnische Zeitung (report by Morrison, 15 October 1900 ff., here: 17 October 1900) mention the fire at the Hanlin Academy (see note 2).

According to this report, not so much the library had been burnt down but the other buildings of the Hanlin Academy. The report also supports the view that the library had suffered more damage through pilfering than by fire.

A Berlin journalist pointed out that the English reports had certainly been biased as the English had important interests in China, and that Russian sources would be more reliable. I have not found such reports. However, as the Germans did not have telegraph lines of their own, original reports could hardly be transmitted. Only after the lifting of the siege such reports became available. As such we have the diary mentioned above.

Some newspapers contained articles on the siege of the legations in Beijing (not all have been viewed as yet!) (see note 3). However, here, too, the fire at the Hanlin Library has only rarely been mentioned, as e.g. in the paper «Vom Fels zum Meer» the author (the author and the photographer of the pictures have unfortunately not been named) (see note 3, no. 11).

This article also contains pictures with the following subtitles:

The «Zeit» only mentiones that much looting took place and that the treasures from the confiscated boxes had been sold on the free market in Marseille and Toulon in July (see Asiaticus: note 4, no. 1). Furthermore an announcement from Berlin has been quoted in which art treasures from China have been offered. Books have not been mentioned in any case.

Next I investigated the archives.

The German Foreign Office in Bonn possesses a part of the files in question, the Hauptstaatsarchive at Berlin, Finckensteinallee another part. These are reports from the diplomatic corps, but above all from the troops which took part. Besides a copy of the diary of Mr. Bismarck only the following note was found:

The buildings situated close to the legation have been burnt by the boxers and have then been destroyed by the foreign troops.

This note stems from Mr. Zimmermann, an employee of the embassy, who could leave Beijing on 25 June (Political Archives of the Foreign Office, Bonn. 183, doc.no. 11173). Who, however, were these foreign troops? Probably it is a camouflaged term for the Europeans, as he did not want to contradict the official version of the events.

Then I returned to my own domain, to literature: The search delivered a surprisngly large number of German books on the boxer uprising. The encyclopedias (Meyer, Brockhaus) quote some of them, the others were found in bibliographies and as quotations in the books. Some of the authors confirm the judgement that has been pronounced by Seagrave in his book «Dragon Lady - The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China» (New York: Knopf 1992) on Morrison, the English trade correspondent of the Times, namely that his memories «as a total cannot be regarded as conforming to the truth» (Heinze, p. 21). (see - note 4, no. 6)

I could not find a number of works. (note 5)

As interesting the books may be for the sequence of military actions in the summer of 1900 and the subsequent times (this is not the topic of this paper), they bring little for the fire at the library. The reviews of these books never mention a hint at the fire.

Besides these titles there are many more which, however, only deal with the expeditionary force or the later times.

The question can now be asked why the members of the «civilized nation» of Germany cared so little about the loss of such an important cultural monument. If you look at the plan of the embassy quarter, you will notice that the German embassy was situated at the opposite end, as compared to the British legation. The Germans may have had other worries concerning defence than to worry intensively about the events close to the British embassy, and they had to rely on the description of the English.

An evaluation of the texts clearly shows that the fire has damaged the library but has certainly not destroyed it. Particularly from the contribution no. 4 it becomes evident that the Hanlin Academy did not burn down completely. If the authors report that parts have been saved, they still do not mention what happened later with the remaining books. They did not remain in China, but became the booty of the Europeans and Americans. In 1914 e.g. a volume of the encyclopedia was auctioned off in London (Hamburger Fremdenblatt no. 117, 31/07/1914). During this century some volumes have been found in different countries, and some of them were returned to China.

Addendum 1: Although the German ambassador von Kettler was murdered only on 18 June, a news-agency from Tientsin/Hongkong reported his death on 14 June. Possibly this was a confusion with the chancelor of the Japanese embassy. It is also possible that the Emperor-Wilhelm-like behaviour of the embassador led to the plan to murder him (see e.g. Ostasiatischer Lloyd of 15 June, p. 433; Vossische No. 278 of 17 June and No. 279 of 18 June; Times of 18 June; Reichsanzeiger of 18 June).

Addendum 2: In «Dragon Lady - ...» Seagrave deals with the reporting on the boxer uprising. He demonstrates the reports as a bunch of lies. The book also contains some valuable remarks on the fire in the library (p. 509 - 517) - but these are not German sources.

Addendum 3: I should like to mention some film titles which deal with the period of the boxer uprising