A Window to the Past: How A Political Cartoon Can Help Us Understand Asian Xenophobia in Early 20th Century America

Will Foster

In a December 1900 edition of the weekly satirical magazine Judge, US artist Victor Gillam depicted a scene reflective of America’s broader view of China and Chinese people. The image, entitled “Some One Must Back Up,” shows Uncle Sam piloting his “Auto-Truck of Civilization and Trade” across a narrow mountain pathway until he is confronted by a bloody sword wielding Chinese “Boxer” atop a large dragon-like creature. Understanding the historical and political context framing Gillam’s cartoon is crucial in order to understand the American attitude towards China and Chinese people at the beginning of the 20th century. 

Uncle Sam’s Auto-Truck represents civilization through American modernization. It is carrying “Western” objects such as electricity, cotton, steel mills, trains, dry goods, bridges, and education. However, one important aspect of Uncle Sam’s Auto-Truck is the forward-facing ship’s cannon, which bears the inscription “force if necessary.” The slogan is reminiscent of the “gunboat diplomacy” doctrine, epitomized a half-century earlier, when Commodore Mathew Perry threatened violence on the people of Japan if the country did not open up to global trade in 1853. While Uncle Sam may seem to have altruistic intentions, the Chinese Boxer’s bloodied sword suggests that he is less than receptive to US intervention. 

The insistence on US intervention in China depicted in this cartoon could be rooted in various motivations. First, the commitment  to help “civilize” and “modernize” China could be an extension of the Western worldview encapsulated by “The White Man’s Burden,” a poem written by Rudyard Kipling in 1899 describing the necessity for white people to “civilize” the rest of the world. Second, this intervention could be due to America’s desire for continued economic expansion in Asia after their acquisition of The Philippines following the Spanish-American War, which had just concluded two years earlier in 1898. Regardless of intent, America is depicted as a force looking to “civilize” the “400 MILLION BARBARIANS.” According to Gillam, China can either accept that or suffer violent consequences. 

The cartoon also depicts a Chinese man in Qing-dynasty era attire atop a massive dragon-like creature labeled “China.” In contrast to Uncle Sam’s Auto-Truck, the dragon likely represents the US view that China is stuck in the past due to its refusal to modernize according to the Western model, instead opting for reforms like the Self-Strengthening Movement (1861-1895). The movement centered around the adoption of foreign weapons and military strategy while ignoring any and all structural or political change within the Qing government. The Chinese man’s choice of transportation, a mythical dragon, symbolizes how the US viewed China’s perceived strength as fake, much like the dragon, contending that China will ultimately fail when tested against Westernized militaries. 

The flag that reads “400 MILLION BARBARIANS” also has important historical context. Reciprocally, China also viewed Western people as the real barbarians during this era. The Chinese government’s “Tribute System,” a centuries-old foreign policy practice, deemed all non-sinosized peoples barbarians. Both sides saw each other as uncivilized. While this irony was likely unintended, it can prompt a deeper dive into anti-Chinese (and generally anti-Asian) hate-crimes and legislation that occurred during the second half of 19th century in the United States. Gillam’s illustrative tone depicts a straightforward perception of Chinese backwardness. Uncle Sam is plainly presented with no exaggerated attributes, but the same cannot be said for the Chinese side. Gillam depicts the Chinese man in an emotive way that portrays irrationality when juxtaposed with Uncle Sam’s stoicism and simplicity. The stereotypical depiction of the Chinese man was typical for the time and genre; however, the use of symbolism in the flag, bloody sword, and the dragon are what elevate this depiction to the level of absurdity. 

After the gold rush of the mid-19th century, American companies began to bring Chinese workers over to construct the trans-continental railroad. The immigration influx sparked nativist worker groups like the Knights of Labor to advocate for bills like the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), which barred any Chinese person from entering the country for ten years. The signing of this bill was far from the first instance of anti-Asian xenophobia. The Chinese Massacre of 1871 involved the murder of eighteen Chinese people by a mob in Los Angeles. Anti-Chinese sentiment was not only common in America, it was the literal law of the land. The 1875 Page Act prohibited the immigration of “undesirable” laborers, amounting to an effective entry ban on Chinese women, who California propagandists accused of engaging in prostitution en masse. 

The Boxer label on the Chinese person’s shirt is likely referring to the Boxer Rebellion, which is the main event underscoring this political cartoon. The Boxer Rebellion was a massive movement of Chinese peasants to overthrow the Qing dynasty and rid China of Christian and foreign influence using violent means. The rebellion was partially prompted by the forced signing of several unequal treaties at the hands of foreigners such as the US, UK, France, Russia, and Japan. These treaties were often imposed on China with the Qing government having little to no say regarding their contents, following Chinese military defeats in the Opium War(s) and the Sino-Japanese War. China had signed twenty of these unequal treaties prior to the beginning of the Boxer peasant uprising. By 1898, the Boxers had aligned themselves with the Qing government. A coalition force of 2,100 foreign soldiers was assembled to protect Chinese and Western missionaries who were being openly assaulted outside of Beijing. The empress dowager gave the order that all foreigners be killed following the coalition’s capture of Chinese forts at Dagu. After the murder of the German minister and the siege of the Beijing foreign legation quarter which forced foreign officials, their families, and other Christians to take refuge, a coalition force of 19,000 foreign soldiers marched on and later occupied Beijing. The August 1900 coalition consisted of troops from Japan, Russia, the UK, US, France, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. Four months after the foreign conquest of Beijing, this political cartoon depicts the aggressive nature of Chinese people who wanted to murder the “civilized” foreigners, who wanted nothing more than to bring technology and Christianity to China. This background knowledge recontextualizes the sword which the Chinese Boxer is holding as it likely is stained with the blood of foreigners and Christians, and serves as justification for the author to label all 400 million Chinese people as barbarians.

Victor Gillam’s cartoon “Some One Must Back Up” exemplifies the xenophobic worldviews of the United States as it looks to engage in greater amounts of interventionism in China. If China is to modernize and remain relevant on the world stage, it must (quite literally) turn itself around. The cartoon serves as a time capsule of the US attitude towards Asia which, in this particular instance, is an extension of the “White Man’s Burden.” Furthermore, when compared to the American political context of the time, a double standard becomes extremely apparent. The grievances made by foreigners to China, that foreigners had the right to continue living, working, and preaching in the country, can be applied to Chinese people living in the United States at the time. When foreigners were killed or asked to leave China, this was perceived as an inexcusable offense worthy of military intervention. However, when Chinese people living in the United States were killed, denied certain privileges, or barred from entering the country altogether, this was treated as an internal and justifiable matter. Ultimately, it seemed like countries could get away with this kind of discriminatory behavior so long as they were economically and militarily modernized and the affected groups were non-white people, further playing into the racism which permeated every aspect of life back in the 19th century. 

Image: “Some One Must Back Up.” (detail). Victor Gillam, Judge, 8 December 1900

Will Foster is a fourth-year student at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service majoring in regional studies with a concentration in Asia and a minor in Chinese. He has a deep interest in the world of US-Chinese relations. Will has lived in China three times: the first to study Mandarin, the second to work at an international import-export company, and finally to attend New York University in Shanghai. Since transferring to Georgetown University in the fall of 2020, Will has continued developing his knowledge of Chinese language, culture, and politics. On campus, Will is the Captain of the Georgetown University Club Fencing Team as well as the Co-Creative Director for the GUerrilla improvisation comedy group. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s