A Bavarian in Peking

August 14 2013


“When we were up against the Chinese and our battalion reported to Bremerhaven, I was in the front of the middle unit. We were volunteers, nearly all of us, but I was the only one from Straubing, even though I’d just been engaged to Resi, my dear Therese.

“We were waiting to board ship, the North German Lloyd building at our back and the sun in our eyes. The Kaiser stood on a platform high above us and gave a spirited speech out over our heads. We had these new broad-brimmed hats to keep the sun out. Sou’westers, they were called. We looked real dapper. The Kaiser, though, he wore this special helmet with the eagle shining against a blue background. He talked about solemn duties and the cruel foe. We were all carried away. He said, ‘Keep in mind the moment you land: No mercy shall be shown, no prisoners taken … ’ Then he told the story of King Attila and the Huns. He praised them to the skies even though they wreaked all kinds of havoc. Which is why the Social Democrats later published those shameless Hun letters and made nasty remarks about the Kaiser’s Hun speech. He ended with our orders for China: ‘Open the way to culture now and forever!’ We gave three cheers.

“For someone like me from Lower Bavaria the long sea voyage was hell. When we finally landed in Tientsin they were all there: the British, the Americans, the Russians, even real live Japanese and small troops from minor countries. The British turned out to be Indians. There weren’t many of us to start with, but luckily we had the new five-centimeter rapid-fire cannons, the Krupp ones, and the Americans were trying out their Maxim machine gun, which was one hell of a weapon. So Peking fell in no time. In fact, by the time our company marched in, everything seemed over and done with, which was a pity. Though some of the Boxers were still making trouble. They were called Boxers because they had this secret society they called I Ho Ch’uan or ‘righteous fists’ in our language. That’s why the English – and then everybody else – talked about the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxers hated foreigners because they sold the Chinese all kinds of stuff. The British particularly liked selling opium. That’s why things went the way the Kaiser ordered: there were no prisoners taken.

“For the sake of order the Boxers were rounded up in the square at Tienanmen Gate, right in front of the wall dividing the Manchu city from the ordinary part. Their pigtails were tied one to the other. It looked funny. Then they were either executed in groups or had their heads chopped off one by one. But I didn’t write my fiancée a blessed word about the horrors; I stuck to hundred-year-old eggs and steamed dumplings Chinese style. The British and us Germans we liked using our guns, we wanted to get things over with, while the Japanese followed their time-honored tradition of head chopping. The Boxers liked being shot better because they were afraid of having to run around hell with their heads under their arms. Otherwise they were fearless. I saw somebody licking his chops over a rice cake dipped in syrup just before he was shot.

“There was a wind blowing through Tienanmen Square; it came from the desert, stirring up clouds of yellow dust. Everything was yellow including us. I wrote that to my fiancée and enclosed a little desert sand in the letter. And because the Japanese executioners got a clean cut by chopping the pigtails off the Boxers, who were just young fellows like ourselves, there were lots of little piles of them lying around in the dust, and I picked one up and sent it home as a souvenir. Back in Germany I wore it at Fasching [carnival] and everybody was in stitches until my fiancée threw it in the fire. ‘It could’ve haunted the house,’ Resi said two days before we were married.

“But that’s another story.”


The opening of Günter Grass’s exhilarating My Century (Mein Jahrhundert) (1999), omitting the first few lines. The translation by Michael Henry Heim is idiomatically rather uncertain and not quite up to the voices Grass adopts in these hundred vignettes.

Extract deemed fair use as shorter than an Amazon preview and from front of book: please inform me directly if it infringes copyright and I will remove it.

From review by Michael Scott Moore:

“‘My Century’ tells the saga of German history since 1900 in a noisy fugue of voices, with each brief chapter assigned a single year. The ‘my’ in the title is both personal and paternal. Grass turns up as a character 13 times, but the other voices are his as well, in the sense that Grass regards himself as the voice of Germany. It’s an immodest conceit, but it holds the book together. Soldiers, housewives, cops, journalists, grandparents, activists, a professor, a dirigible pilot, a businesswoman and ravers in the Berlin Love Parade all contribute their little share to a mosaic of the German nation in war and peace. The result is not a novel so much as a scrapbook of commentary […].”

New York Times review by Peter Gay.

In 1895, Kaiser Wilhelm II had commissioned a picture from Hermann Knackfuß showing the Archangel Michael leading the peoples of Europe against an Asiatic threat represented by a golden Buddha and ordered it to be hung in ships of the Hamburg-Amerika and Norddeutscher Lloyd lines. The phrase Yellow Peril, which became popular soon afterwards, may have been coined by MP Shiel.

The Boxer uprising against foreign (especially British, German, Japanese, Russian) domination of China began in 1899. After several months of attacks on foreign and Christian sites in Shandong and the North China plain, Boxer fighters, convinced that they were invulnerable to foreign weapons, converged on Peking in June 1900 with the slogan, “Support the Qing, exterminate the foreigners.” They forced foreigners and Chinese Christians to seek refuge in the Legation Quarter. The Empress Dowager Cixi, urged on by the conservatives of the Imperial Court, decided to support them. Diplomats, foreign civilians and soldiers, and Chinese Christians were under siege by the Imperial Army of China and the Boxers for fifty-five days.

An Eight-Nation Alliance (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom and United States) brought 20,000 armed troops to China, defeated the Imperial Army, and captured Peking on August 14, lifting the siege. Uncontrolled plunder of the capital and the surrounding countryside followed, along with the summary execution of those suspected of being Boxers.

Wilhelm II’s fiery and chauvinistic speech to the departing troops in Bremerhaven on July 27 1900 expressed his vision of German imperial power. He asked them to emulate Attila the Hun. Whence the British term for Germans during the First World War. But the Germans gained little prestige from the expedition. Their troops arrived after British and Japanese forces had taken Peking.

The Boxer Protocol of September 7 1901 provided for the execution of Chinese government officials who had supported the Boxers, the stationing of foreign troops in Peking and a large indemnity to be paid over the course of thirty-nine years to the eight nations.

Beijing still has days which are yellow not from pollution but from sand from the Gobi desert.

The Kaiser addresses the troops, July 27 1900

Ansprache Kaiser Wilhelms II. (die sog. "Hunnenrede") an das nach China sich einschiffende deutsche Expeditionscorps

The Kaiser addresses the troops, July 27 1900

Japanese executes Boxer

Japanese executes Boxer; other troops look on or look away; perhaps a staged picture, because where is the head?

Victory parade, Forbidden City, November 20 1900

Forces of the Eight Nations, victory parade, Forbidden City, November 20 1900

Pictures are at lead-adventure.de. And see Peter Fleming, brother of Ian, The Siege at Peking (1959).

German China (old post).

6 Responses to “A Bavarian in Peking”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    The Japanese had abolished extraterritoriality for foreigners on July 17 1899. Later revolutionaries failed in China as the Boxers had done: the last remnants of it did not disappear for non-diplomatic personnel until 1946.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    BBC piece today about the inventor of the Maxim gun and William Cantelo:


  3. […] A Bavarian in Peking (recent post). […]

  4. […] The square in 1900 (old post). […]

  5. […] The translation by Michael Henry Heim is idiomatically uncertain and not up to the many voices Grass adopts in the hundred vignettes which make up this quasi-novel. I think this is part of the reason many felt this late Grassian tour-de-force did not work. Perhaps it doesn’t work in German. I enjoyed it. I posted the 1900 chapter here. […]

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