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“I Kneel Only To God And Woman”

July 2024
15min read

For centuries the world’s envoys kowtowed to China’s proud rulers. Then along came a crusty American with a stubborn pride of his own

It was midsummer, and by the calendar of the Foreign Dogs of the West, the year 1859. Word came to the royal Chinese officials at Peking that an American barbarian chieftain, John E. Ward, was at the coast awaiting arrangements to proceed to the capital. He bore a letter from his Emperor, James Buchanan, addressed to the Divine Son of Heaven, and he was also ready to exchange ratified copies of the Treaty of Tientsin, signed the year before and since approved by his Senate. He desired that the agreement, respecting trade at various ports, be put into effect.

But a barbarian chieftain representing the Country of the Flowery Flag had never before been permitted in Peking, within whose confines was the walled and moated Forbidden City itself, site of the Dragon’s Throne. Therefore, extreme care needed to be taken to impress the barbarian with his country’s inferior status compared with that of the great Empire of China. Was not China the center of the world, the Middle Kingdom? And was not America just a sparsely settled, barbarian state far to the west? Ambitious, to be sure, but if it wished to draw near the center of civilization, its representative had to conduct himself with proper deference toward the Throne and in line with the prescribed rites.

Still, the royal officials reasoned, let the arrangements for Ward’s journey go forward. The occasion could serve to demonstrate anew to the populace their country’s exalted position compared with that of a vassal state. With this worthy object in view, the first thing to be considered was the mode of transporting Ward and his party 125 miles inland to Peking from their ship, the steamer-frigate Powhatan, anchored near Pehtang. It developed that during a stopover in Shanghai, the barbarian had on his own initiative picked up two sedan chairs, one green, the other blue, and had requested sixteen bearers so that he and another leader in his party could travel in style and comfort during the overland part of the trip. But was there not some way to prevail upon him to ride in the rough carts traditionally assigned to tribute-bearing envoys? This would serve to notify the people en route of his country’s lowly status. If he refused, perhaps he would be permitted to ride in the chairs part of the way, but certainly not into Peking itself.

The barbarian’s mode of transportation, however, was of far less importance than the form of the Ta-li, or Great Rite--the ceremony he would be required to perform at his audience with the Emperor. From time immemorial, of course, all who entered the Great Interior to behold the Dragon’s Face were required to kowtow. The entire ceremony consisted of kneeling three times and knocking the forehead on the ground three times at each kneeling. Whether Ward might have reservations about kowtowing was unknown, but if so, perhaps the required number of prostrations could be reduced. This would be a matter for the most careful negotiation.

For his part, the U.S. Minister was anxious to get on with the business at hand. He had been sent out by the President to perform this specific mission, and he had come north from Shanghai at the invitation of two Chinese Imperial Commissioners charged with arranging for the exchange of the ratified treaties. The Chinese also had planned to exchange similar treaties with the British and French, but their envoys had insisted on bringing warships up the Pei-ho River in a show of force and had had to be repulsed by Chinese forts guarding the river mouth. Ward, on the other hand, was willing to come with a small, unarmed party of only twenty men. He was in a hurry, however; stormy seas were expected, and in any event the Powhatan could not remain off the coast indefinitely: its supply of fresh water for the boilers was limited and could not be replenished there.

When word finally came from Peking that the party could get under way, Ward was told that bearers for his sedan chairs weren’t available and that, besides, representatives of countries coming to Peking had never ridden in chairs. Ward argued that practically the only emissaries who had been to Peking in recent years were from countries under Chinese sovereignty, while the United States was on equal footing. The Chinese replied that his country was in the same category as Russia, which now had a representative in Peking who always rode in a cart, never in a chair; the rule must apply to Ward too.

Ward didn’t know, of course, that Peking authorities were willing to let him use the chairs as far as the gates of the city, and in his anxiety to get the business over with, he assented to the carts. It was a mistake. In an argument with people who practically invented the status symbol and to whom face meant everything, he had lost the first round.

The carts turned out to be high, unpainted, box-like affairs with no springs or seats and only a couple of cushions to ease the jolts of the rough ride. A little yellow pennant floating over the vehicles identified the group for the curious throngs along the way as “Tribute bearers from the United States.”

Eight days on the dusty road and on junks towed up the river by Chinese laborers, sometimes wading in waist-deep water, brought the party to the Morning Sun Gate at Peking. Hundreds of thousands watched silently as the first American representatives ever to set foot in China’s ancient capital moved through the streets to their assigned quarters, a nineteen-room, one-story house in a residential neighborhood.

Ward’s first act was to request a staff from which to fly his country’s flag. It was promised but never erected; word was passed to him that the Russians had none. He hung the flag on a wall in the main reception room.

Negotiations looking toward exchange of the treaties got under way three days later. Representing the Chinese were the two Imperial Commissioners, Kweiliang and Hwashana, and also a Shanghai judge named Sieh. Besides Ward the Americans included two legation secretaries, Ward’s brother, W. Wallace Ward, and Dr. S. Wells Williams, who also was chief interpreter; and W. A. P. Martin, assistant interpreter. Dr. Williams, who had acted in a similar capacity on Commodore Perry’s historic mission to Japan in 1853 and 1854, had been a missionary in China for many years and was later to become professor of Chinese languages and literature at Yale. He kept a detailed journal of Ward’s negotiations. Martin also wrote about them. (Later he would spend some forty years in Peking as a missionary and adviser to the Chinese government.) Ward’s reports to the State Department and Chinese documents reveal other details of the mission.

As diplomatic etiquette dictated, the American Minister opened the conversation with polite inquiries about the health of his hosts, then spent a few moments discussing recent British activities in China and his own trip from Pehtang. But as quickly as might be, he got to the point. He wished to conclude his business as soon as possible, he said, because of the expected rough weather and his ship’s limited water supply.

“Before the treaty is exchanged,” Kweiliang observed, “it will be necessary to have an audience with His Majesty, who desires to evince his friendliness … We must consult together beforehand upon the manner of presentation at court, and it will be proper for you to practice the ceremonies used at an audience before the day appointed.”

Dr. Williams had warned Ward that the matter of the audience would be brought up, for Judge Sieh had mentioned it to him in a brief visit to the legation the day before. And the ceremony was well known, as was the fact that the Chinese required that it be rehearsed several days beforehand. Ward replied:

In reference to an audience with His Majesty, I think it is highly important that I see him, not only on account of the respect shown thereby to my country, but the manner of my reception will do much to exhibit to the world the policy of the Chinese Government and enable the world to judge whether the proceedings of the English are right or not. [This was a reference to the British attempt to bring warships up the river.] I wish, too, to honor the Emperor and show him the same respect that I show to the President, which I have been instructed to do. In approaching him, therefore, I will observe such ceremonies and forms of obeisance as he may prescribe, except that I will not kneel or knock my head on the ground before him, for those attitudes are confined with us to religion and are not used in coming before the President or before the ruler of any other country. In other respects I will accord with Chinese etiquette.

The issue thus joined had been a historic bone of contention between East and West almost since the dawn of civilization. The free and democratic citizens of ancient Athens once condemned to death one of their number, Timagoras, for disgracing the city by kowtowing before the King of Persia.

The West’s dispute with China dated from the eighth century A.D. The first Arabian envoys to Peking almost lost their heads for protesting the ceremony; they got off with a severe reprimand after agreeing to perform it. The Caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Raschid, hero of the Arabian Nights, also sent emissaries who at first objected but ended up complying. In 1656 members of a Dutch mission submitted to the requirement, and in 1720 a Russian named Ismailoff followed suit. So did a Portuguese envoy, Metello, seven years later.

The first British emissary to China, the Earl of Macartney, was ready with a novel counterproposal when he arrived in Peking in 1793. He had brought along a picture of King George III all dressed in his ceremonial robes, and the Earl agreed to kowtow to the Chinese ruler provided an official of equal rank kowtowed before the likeness of the British monarch. The Chinese ignored the proposal and got the Britisher’s agreement to go down on one knee. They waived the head knocking. After the audience took place, the Chinese announced he had performed the complete kowtow, and the Russians in Peking, who had access to inside information at the court, confirmed the report. It raised a storm in England.

Another British mission headed by Lord Amherst (nephew of the hero of the French and Indian War) arrived in Peking in 1816. He also offered to go down on one knee and, in addition, to make nine “profound” bows in lieu of the nine head knockings. He and the Chinese argued for nearly a month, but his offer was finally rejected and Amherst left the city without completing his mission.

For their part, the Chinese saw their request for a sign of obeisance as a perfectly natural thing. Had not Heaven delegated all power over men to one person, and from the beginning of time had not that person been the Emperor of China? Were not the Chinese the custodians of civilization, possessing a superior way of life to which all men aspired? And were not all foreigners treacherous barbarians who harbored secret, covetous desires toward the Middle Kingdom and who had to be kept in their place?

Besides, the kowtow was simply compliance with the rigid body of ritual law which governed the social relationships between all people, from the lowest peasant to the Emperor, who himself performed the kowtow many times when he made sacrifices to Heaven or worshipped the Goddess of the Silkworms. Did this American barbarian now in Peking consider himself equal to the Son of Heaven?

The question probably never entered the mind of John Elliott Ward. He was, however, no less proud than the titled nobility representing other Western countries who had preceded him to Peking in years past. A native of Georgia, descended from the Scottish Highlanders who settled in the state in Oglethorpe’s time, Ward had been a reform mayor of Savannah and later president of the Democratic National Convention which nominated Buchanan for President.

The Chinese negotiators who heard his stand on the presentation ceremony probably were not too surprised; they knew the West’s centuries-old attitude toward it, and they were prepared to negotiate. Commissioner Hwashana, described by Dr. Williams as a man of few words but those very much to the point, replied to Ward’s objections: “Our rulers are equal, and so are we as their Ministers. Now, as we kneel before the Throne, if you do not, we become unequal, for you are raised above us.”

“Not exactly so,” Ward replied. “I represent a ruler equal in all respects to His Majesty the Emperor, and when I come before [the Emperor], I can do nothing which my ruler would not himself do. You are the officers and subjects of the Emperor and must obey his orders if you serve him … I cannot degrade my country by taking such a posture.”

“I admit,” said Hwashana, “that you are not the subject of His Majesty, but you are a Minister which is less than the Throne. If I were accredited at Washington I would unhesitatingly comply with all that should be required of me at an audience.”

Ward acknowledged that he was inferior to the Throne. But he asked Hwashana and his colleagues whether, if they were in Washington, they would willingly do anything that would degrade China or its sovereign, or do anything that would violate the teachings of conscience. “Would you yourselves render religious worship to the President?”

Kweiliang took up the argument. “If I were in the United States I would offer incense before the President if required to do so, or sacrifice; and on the same principle you ought to conform to the usages at our Court. The envoys from Burma, Ryukyu, Korea, Annam, Siam and other tributary states kneel thrice and knock the head nine times, but they are inferior; your nation is equal and you need kneel only once and knock the head thrice.”

Ward told him he’d just as soon kneel a hundred times as once. But he emphasized that his refusal to do so did not indicate any lack of respect for the Emperor, and he reminded the negotiators that the true test of respect lay in whether the homage was voluntary or compulsory. The Chinese argued that in Britain men knelt when they came before Queen Victoria to be knighted. Ward admitted that in some European courts ministers and subjects knelt before their own rulers, but when sent as their representatives to other countries, they never did and it was not required.

At this point, Dr. Williams’ journal reveals, Hwashana asked Ward just what kind of ceremony he was willing to perform. The same thing he would do before a European sovereign, Ward answered: he would stand during the audience, covered or uncovered as the Emperor desired, though the latter indicated more respect; would bow as low as His Majesty required; would not sit unless asked to, and would never turn his face from the Emperor. But he stressed again that he could not observe rites reserved for religion.

“I kneel only to God and woman,” he said firmly.

About this bowing, the Chinese wanted to know: just how low did he intend to go? Ward stood up. He bowed. It was a very low bow. But Judge Sieh spoke up: “If we don’t prostrate ourselves before the Emperor we treat him disrespectfully; it is that or nothing in our view.”

Kweiliang, however, soft pedaled this view and suggested that the negotiations be continued another day in the hopes that a compromise could be worked out. The Americans were quick to second the motion. The day was blistering hot, and the parley had lasted eight solid hours, the Americans sweltering in wool suits, the Chinese comparatively cool in their loose-fitting silk robes.

The discussion of the Great Rite was resumed two days later. Kweiliang began by stating that the Emperor would consider himself as having failed to show respect to the United States if he did not see its representative on his first visit to the capital. And he felt that since Ward was a plenipotentiary, he had the power to comply with what was simply a ceremony.

“I am not invested with powers sufficient to enable me to change the laws and usages of my country,” Ward replied, “and can do nothing to degrade it.”

At this point, he reminded the Chinese that he had come to Peking at their invitation, that when he had talked to them in Shanghai nothing had been said of having an audience with the Emperor, that the treaty didn’t mention it and he had not asked for it. He called their attention to the fact that the Russian envoy then in Peking had not been presented at court, yet his treaty had been exchanged. Ward also said that he had trusted in the good faith of the Chinese, had brought no troops, and wished only to finish his business and return to his ship.

The Chinese were unwilling for things to reach an impasse. Kweiliang asked Ward to describe in writing the ceremony he was willing to perform, and the conversations were suspended for a few minutes while he and his translators prepared the paper. Dr. Williams’ journal reports that Ward began by expressing his deep regret that the observances required of him at an audience with the Emperor were such that he could not comply with them, for he could not kneel or kowtow. But if His Majesty granted him an audience without requiring these formalities, the United States would regard it as an evidence of friendship, and Ward himself would count it a most distinguished honor.

I would enter the presence of His Majesty, [Ward wrote] with head uncovered, and bowing low; I would stand and not sit; I would not speak unless addressed and would retire by walking backwards, never turning my back until out of his presence. No American Minister has ever kneeled or made the kowtow before any sovereign and would be repudiated by his government if he should do so; no American ever performs either before his own ruler. I am anxious to manifest the utmost respect for His Majesty in every form consistent with the obligations I owe to my own government.

The Chinese considered it. But they had a change to suggest. In place of the sentence beginning “I would enter the presence …” they wanted to substitute, “On coming into His Majesty’s presence, I will bend the body and slightly crook the right knee still standing.”

Ward consulted his interpreters. Dr. Williams said that the term used by the Chinese for “crook the right knee” was almost equivalent to kneeling, and later might be construed to mean that. The substitution was refused, and with that, the Commissioners brought the five-hour session to a close. “We cannot come to any agreement,” they announced, “and we must report to His Majesty that the customs of the two countries are so unlike that no audience can take place.”

They did not, however, make that report. Instead, they worked out a compromise they thought would be acceptable to the court, and two days later Judge Sieh returned alone to present the plan to Ward. It went like this: Ward would enter the throne room bowing as low as he had shown them he would. Between him and the Emperor would stand a table covered by a long cloth that reached the floor. As he approached it carrying President Buchanan’s letter, two court chamberlains would rush up to him on either side, seize him by the arms and plead, “ Pu kwe! pu kwe! ” (“Don’t kneel! Don’t kneel!”) And they would raise him up, or pretend to do so. The Minister would then place the letter on the table. A court official would take it and, kneeling, place it in the hands of the Emperor.

Dr. Williams commented in his journal: “The cunning design of this table with an apron on it was to hide the republican knees of the Envoy from the Emperor, who might think he went to the ground if he liked.”

Ward considered the proposal. Would it, he asked, be clearly understood that he had no intentions of going down on his knees in the first place?

Judge Sieh agreed to that understanding. “Nothing is required of you,” he said slyly, “but when you see the Emperor you will be so overcome with awe that you will fall down of your own accord.”

Members of Ward’s staff became suspicious that the two chamberlains would throw him to the floor, but the Minister thought he could keep his feet, and he accepted the plan. The Judge beamed. Then it would be arranged. Except for a specific date, Ward could consider the audience all set.

But at 2 P.M. the next day the Judge was back, “dispirited and weary,” Dr. Williams wrote. He and the two Commissioners had thought they could get their plan approved by the Board of Rites, which had the final say in such matters, but they had been outvoted. Still, the Emperor was concerned, Judge Sieh reported once more, lest President Buchanan feel insulted if his envoys weren’t received. Therefore, would Ward not reconsider, meet them half way, and bow just barely low enough to touch one knee to the ground, at which time the chamberlains would instantly approach and raise him up?

Ward replied firmly that he would rather lose his head than kneel.

The Judge confessed he wasn’t surprised at the refusal. But, he announced, to show the Emperor’s magnanimity and his truly earnest desire to establish everlasting bonds of friendship with the United States, the Chinese now were ready to dispense completely with the requirement to kneel. He emphasized that never before had they condescended so far for a foreign envoy. All the American Minister had to do was bow low enough to touch his fingers to the ground . So that settled that, the judge assumed. The audience would be arranged.

Now Ward had said he would bow as low as the Emperor wished. And the one he had performed for them was indeed a very low bow. But he’d said nothing about touching the ground.

Judge Sieh burst out, “It is only three inches more!”

Only three inches . Ward discussed it with his staff.

“Only three inches!” Judge Sieh cried. “What does that signify to make so much discussion!” And he advanced what he considered the clinching argument: Ward could tell the President anything he liked about the kind of ceremony he performed.

Yes, Ward said drily, that might do, for it was done all the time in China. But, he added, Americans observed a different code of conduct. And as for touching the ground with his fingers, though it was but three inches more, he would not do it.

When Judge Sieh walked out of that house “wearied and disappointed” at 4 P.M. on August 5, 1859, eleven hundred years of history came to a close. During that time the Chinese had brought to their knees the Arabs, the Dutch, the Russians, the Portuguese, and the British. But they had never met a free, independent American from the proud state of Georgia.

After John E. Ward had refused to kowtow or kneel or even to go those last three inches and touch his fingers to the ground, an audience with the Emperor was out of the question. But the Chinese never again made such a demand of a Western envoy. The next time the question came up, in 1873, the Ministers of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and the Netherlands came before the Emperor bowing low once on entering the throne room and then three times before retiring backwards.

As for President Buchanan’s letter, Ward delivered it to Kweiliang in a simple ceremony the day before leaving Peking August 11. He exchanged the treaty with a minor official at the port of Pehtang just before boarding the Powhatan. The fierce independence he had demonstrated at Peking was deeply ingrained in his character: when he got back to the United States he bitterly denounced his native state’s secession from the Union and refused to participate in the Civil War. After it was over he moved to New York City, where he practiced law until 1902, only returning home--in the fall of that year--to die.

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