"The Boxer Rebellion"

An excerpt from one of Salon's 10 favorite books of 2000.


Diana Preston
December 18, 2000 10:52PM (UTC)

Lou Hoover volunteered to work in the hospital, which was set up in the elegant Tientsin Club. According to her husband, who now saw little of her, she became adept at cycling close to the walls of buildings to avoid stray bullets and shells, although one day a bullet punctured her tire. It was grueling, at times dispiriting, work. Some days as many as 200 wounded were brought in from the barricades, but everything -- bandages, bedding, dressings, disinfectants -- was in pathetically short supply. Lou improvised and commandeered what she could. She also organized some Chinese women to milk the settlement's herd of cows, describing herself as "Chief Cow-boy and Dairy Maid." The cows had been saved thanks to the resourcefulness of one of Hoover's mining staff, Wilfred Newberry, at the beginning of the siege. Spotting the settlement's dairy herd peacefully grazing about a mile away, he had leaped on a pony and brought it safely back while under enemy fire.

Lou Hoover adapted to the privations of siege life just as she had adapted to China. She and her husband had set sail for China on their wedding day. Herbert Hoover's remit was to prospect for coal and mineral deposits and together they had explored far into Manchuria and Mongolia. They rode shaggy Manchurian ponies, their equipment following behind in carts or on pack mules, with guards riding ahead on the lookout for bandits. At night they lodged in bare native inns, the servants spreading out the bedding and lighting charcoal fires to heat the Chinese brick beds or "kangs." The Hoovers slept on plaited mattresses laid over the kangs, rising at dawn to begin their travels afresh. Amused by how the village children milled about hoping for their first glimpse of a white woman, Lou found it all exciting and stimulating. Now, in addition to her hospital duties, she kept watch at night on the Drews' house and grounds. She had a small rifle that she was proficient in using and used to walk quietly around the garden and the stables in the darkness checking that all was as it should be.

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Meanwhile her husband was cycling around the three-mile defensive perimeter, braving streets that were "canals of moving lead." He checked the barricades, went on foraging raids with his young staff, or crept out with them at night to work the small pumping plant just outside town. This enabled them to purify the polluted river water, which they brought back in municipal street-sprinkling carts. It was dangerous work. As soon as the Chinese heard the plant beginning to chug they opened fire. Nevertheless there was a macabre humor about these nocturnal expeditions. As Hoover later recalled, "the British Tommies who formed our nightly guard, being aware of the corpses floating in the nearby canal, painted large signs on the sides of the water carts 'Boxeril,' being reminiscent of a British beef extract, 'Bovril.'" He appreciated the irony and preferred this to the doom-laden Cassandras, particularly "one dreadful person who periodically wanted to know if I intended to shoot my wife first if they closed in on us."

As the bombardment continued, the civilian community settled into a routine. Frederick Brown wrote that most of the women "bore the trouble well" but that "a few were hysterical and one or two nearly died of heart failure." Mrs. Scott, who had taken refuge in a cellar under Gordon Hall, thought that most people were behaving "splendidly" but found it "horridly trying to be thrown all day and night with a most promiscuous collection of humanity with no privacy and no order, magnitudes of children who are not quiet exactly, and every imaginable rumor flying round." This "promiscuous collection" included a circus company stranded in Tientsin who drank themselves silly every night on looted champagne -- strange company indeed for a British bishop's wife.

Mrs. Scott was not the only one to be shocked by the motley crew. The highly respectable von Hanneker household went to the hall one evening intending to remain, as their house was considered unsafe, but they returned after two or three hours, preferring "to die decently at home if necessary, rather than remain in such a place under such dreadful conditions." Many friendships broke under the strain. Herbert Hoover later wrote: "No one will again dare to organize a dinner party in Tientsin without consulting an inmate of Gordon Hall, for how could Mrs. E. ever sit at meat again with Mrs. F., who slapped Mrs. E.'s Peking pug?"

-- From "The Boxer Rebellion" by Diana Preston. ) 2000 Diana Preston. Used by permission, all rights reserved.

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