I’ve been doing a little research on the Arrow War. Never heard of it? Not too surprising. It took place in China from 1856 to 1860. Historically, it is important because it ended up with an Anglo-French army capturing Beijing (Peking, in those days) and the burning of the Summer Palace, facts the Chinese have never forgotten.
The “Arrow” in question, was the Arrow, a small ship with a Chinese owner who lived in Hong Kong and registered her there with the British authorities, making her a British flag ship. She was peacefully anchored under that flag in Canton in 1856 when a boatload of Manchu troops sailed up, removed her Chinese crew as possible pirates, and, most importantly, took down her British flag.
There was a treaty between Great Britain and the Chinese Empire that required that suspected criminals on a British ship be arrested by the British consul, examined by him, and only then turned over to the Chinese authorities. Having this little fact pointed out to him, the local Chinese Imperial Commissioner blandly dismissed the problem of the treaty.
His name was Ye, and he was an intelligent, cruel, and xenophobic Mandarin. A civil servant who had attained his position owing to his superior skill in murdering rebels, he was perhaps the last person on earth to admit that the “Foreign Devils” had any rights that anyone needed to pay attention to.
For millennia, the Chinese had been the supreme culture in the world they knew. Barbarian kingdoms and tribes had acknowledged that transcendence, sending tribute gifts and scholars to learn the Chinese ways. By the time they encountered western traders, the Chinese were literally incapable of imagining any other relationship. The world consisted of the Central Kingdom and the barbarians. Period.
Fairly soon the China trade grew large enough that western governments wanted to establish normal diplomatic relations with the Chinese Empire. No problem, said the Chinese, as they firmly led the western representatives through the rituals reserved for tribute states. Of course, you can only trade at one port, can’t actually reside on Chinese soil, and cannot establish any kind of regular diplomatic contacts. (Whatever for?) And, before anyone really important receives you, you must learn some proper etiquette. You must learn to bow down with your head to the ground and knock your head against it nine times.
For some reason, the barbarians had a problem with that last one. They flatly refused to knock their head on the ground (called the kou tou, from which we get our word kowtow). Equally naturally, they were never received by the emperor and were rather summarily sent home.
I think this was nothing less than a religious conflict, but of an unusual kind. The religion in question had nothing to with Anglicanism versus Confucianism or Christianity versus Buddhism. Instead, it was the faith held by virtually everyone, high and low, in their Celestial Empire: a complete and unquestioning belief in the innate superiority of the Chinese over everybody else.
Why do I call this a religious problem? Some folks who have studied such things maintain there is in humankind something called the “Religious Reflex.” It is most often triggered by religious matters, but other things can do it as well. You can tell when it has kicked in by the way people act.
The Chinese culture had raised their superiority to the status of a state religion, headed and symbolized by the person of the Emperor. Confronted with the reality of western nations who were demonstrably ahead of China in many ways, they displayed a typical “Religious Reflex” reaction: an incomprehension so total that it could not be bridged without some kind of major psychic trauma.
This mental block met its first test in the Opium Wars. British ships blew the Imperial war junks out of the water and British troops rather casually triumphed over a vastly superior number of Manchu warriors. Did this convince the Chinese that perhaps their world view needed a teeny bit of updating?
True faith is not so easily shaken.
Instead, the Chinese negotiated a treaty that conceded as little as they could, made a number of promises they had no intention of keeping, and turned their backs, firmly believing nothing had really changed, or could.
It was that faith, as much as his innate piggishness, that led Commissioner Ye to act as he did a few years later about the Arrow. It was the same faith that led the Imperial bureaucracy to approve his actions. And it was the sheer frustration at that blind, unchangeable faith that led the British and French to bring their ships and guns and troops up into the river that led to Beijing. They were going to bloody well force the Chinese to realize that times had changed and they had to conform to the standard rules of international trade and diplomacy.
To the allies, the paramount issue had become that of having permanent ambassadors in Beijing. The British and the French believed that if they could station ambassadors in Beijing the Chinese would have to deal with them as equals and all this other nonsense would simply fade away.
In a way, the Chinese agreed. To place ambassadors in Beijing would indeed mean that they would be acknowledging that the other sovereigns stood on an equal footing with the Celestial Emperor. Problem was, the Emperor had to stand alone, above all else, supreme and unique. His position virtually defined China and its uniquely superior culture. To have him seem to have a peer would be to challenge the very definition of China itself.
And that could not happen.
Still, there were all those ships and guns and soldiers working their way up the river to Beijing. As each battle was lost, another set of Imperial negotiators would appear, desperately trying to keep the westerners away without conceding an impossible equality with them.
Finally, of course, the westerners appeared outside Beijing, which no longer had an army to keep them out. Discovering that the Chinese had tortured some British and French prisoners to death, the outraged westerners burned the Summer Palace to the ground.
Faced with the not too subtle implication that the same thing could happen to Beijing itself, the negotiators finally agreed to allow ambassadors to live in Beijing, to set up a real Foreign Affairs Department instead of a Barbarian Tributary Office, and to enter into normal diplomatic relations with all the western states.
Of course, they didn’t mean it. They couldn’t. They never accepted the idea of equality between nations. Forty years later, in the Boxer Rebellion, they were still so true in their sino-centric faith that they tried to use the Boxers to get those pesky ambassadors driven out of Beijing, where they so clearly didn’t belong.
What is the point of all this?
Just this: We human beings have a natural reflex about religion. For us, a religion can be whatever thing that defines our basic identity. It can blind us to unpleasant truths, can make the clearly irrational seem like cold logic, can justify just about any level of brutality as “defensive,” and has a persistence that is measured in generations.
And now we are entering the world of Islam, the Umma.
In the world of Islam, certain things are known. God first sent the truth to the Jews, then to the Christians. Each proved unworthy of it and even perverted it. Finally it was sent in its most perfect and final form to Mohammed. It is beyond change and beyond question. This knowledge is held by virtually everyone, high and low, in the single, unified world of the faithful, the Umma. We have to understand that, for the faithful, this world consists of the Umma and the barbarians. Period.
We seem to expect Islam to change their world view to suit our new reality. I suggest they simply can’t. And if they are unable to change their world view, then we had better not hold one of our own that expects them to.