At times during the four slow-moving months, however, the situation became, as I shall endeavor to show, complicated in every way. The escape of the foreigners was made absolutely impossible by the fact that the whole of the roads, even those over the rough mountains leading south, were blocked successfully by the rebelling forces, and, when the deep gloom settled finally over the city, the fate of the Westerners seemed sealed and their future hopeless. All round the foreigners’ houses the people, infected with that strange, unaccountable, national hysteria, so terrible in the Chinese temperament, rose up to burn and kill. Mayhap it means little to the man who reads. Massacres have always been common enough in China, he will say; and there are thousands of people in Europe to-day who know no more about China than what the telegrams of massacres of European missionaries have told them. Years ago one almost expected this sort of thing; but at the present day, when China is popularly supposed to be working honestly to gain for herself an honorable place among the nations, it is surely not to be expected in the ordinary run of things in days of peace.
But we know that such visions are common to every European in Inland China, and even at the coast men talk continually of and believe that riots are going to happen in the near future. Merchant, missionary, traveler and official all agree that there is yet more trouble ahead before the West will be won into the confidence of China and vice versa. The people who are studying the Reform Movement of the Young China, however, and who stolidly refuse to study with it the general attitude of the common people, laugh and dismiss with contempt the subject of the possibility of further outbreaks of Boxerism in the outlying parts of the Empire. But they should not laugh. The European cannot afford to laugh, and, if he be a sensible fellow, knows that he cannot afford to treat with contempt the opinions of the people who know. The more we understand the vast interior of China and the conservatism and peculiarities of character of the people of that interior, the less disposed shall we be to jest, the less disposed to ridicule, what I would characterize as the strongest and most deadly of the hidden menaces of the Celestial Empire.
One does not wish to be pessimistic, but it is foolish to close one’s eyes to bare fact.
At the moment I am writing, in the middle of China, I know that I am safe enough here, but I do not disguise from myself that the wildest reports are still current within a quarter of a mile from me about me and my own kind in this peaceful city of Tong-ch’uan-fu. And it takes very little to light the fuse and to cause a terrible explosion here, in common with other places in this province. A man might be quite safe one day and lose his head the next if he did not, at times when the rebellious element is apparent, conform strictly to the general wishes and accepted customs of the people among whom he is living.