WIKIMEDIA COMMONS The signing of the Boxer Protocol, September 1901.

A Tale of Two Photos

In China, a Viral Set of Images Signals a Shift in International Relations

In April 1990, nearly a year after the Chinese government had quashed the protests in Tiananmen Square, sparking international outrage, recently retired leader Deng Xiaoping gave a speech in which he alluded to the crackdown and its aftermath, making a telling historical comparison in the process. “I am familiar with the history of foreign aggression against China,” he said. “When I heard that seven Western countries . . . had decided to impose sanctions on China, my immediate association was to 1900, when the allied forces of the eight powers invaded China.” Deng was referring to the Boxer Crisis, which began in 1899 with members of a rural religious sect attacking Chinese Catholics and Protestants; peaked with a mid-1900 siege of Beijing’s legations quarter that endangered the lives of hundreds of foreigners, including diplomats and their families; and ended in 1901 when the Qing dynasty, which had supported the anti-Christian agitation, agreed to pay a large indemnity to a consortium of foreign powers to compensate them for losses of life and property.

The actions of the anti-Christian Boxers and the Eight Nation Allied Army that invaded China to battle them have been and remain common and often highly charged points of reference in contemporary China. Today, as The New York Times and other publications have noted, many in China have taken a renewed interest in the Boxer Crisis, as evidenced by a pair of juxtaposed photographs—one taken more than a century ago, the other snapped earlier this month—that have gone viral on Chinese social media platforms.


One of the images shows a group of American and Chinese officials arrayed around a table in Washington during a recent meeting. The other depicts a similar-looking international gathering held in Beijing in 1901. It was taken during the negotiation of what Westerners called the “Boxer Protocol,” one of the most infamous of the unequal treaties imposed on a weak China between the Opium War (1839–42) and World War II, a period known in the

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