Journals 9.4 – Seward’s Travels Around the World (Part 4)

This is the final part of my article on William H. Seward’s journal.  For the previous parts, please see the entries posted on 2nd, 6th and 11th November 2015.

looting of Yuanmingyuan

The looting of Yuanmingyuan in 1860.

After his negative experience entering Peking, it is not surprising that Seward proceeded to criticise the city when he explored it. His impressions of the city were not helped by the ‘cold, damp and dark’ weather.

After the relation of our experience in entering the city, we need say little of the general aspect of Peking. The population is about one million. Differing from other Chinese cities, its streets are broad enough, but dilapidation and ruin mar the scenes of highest activity, while the roadways are everywhere full of obstructions, always ill-looking, and sometimes nauseous and disgusting. There are no sidewalks — seldom a pavement. “With the exception of an occasional private lantern, there are no lights. Many of the narrow streets are rendered impassable by upright stone posts, set irregularly in the street for the very purpose of preventing intrusion or passage. Except in the imperial grounds, there are no gardens and no fountains, statues, or other monuments — only compact masses of dwellings and shops, low, old, and mean.

However, after exploring the city walls, Seward revised his attitude somewhat. The magnificent walls had stood since the 15th Century, although most of them were subsequently removed in 1965 to make way for the construction of a road, after standing for more than five centuries.

The legation, where we reside, opens on the bank of the now dry moat, which lies at the foot of the wall. The wall is thirty feet high. We have walked several miles on this elevation, looking down from the parapets on the scene around us, and have wondered at the numerous gates, all lofty, massive, and grand; have counted the thousand towers, bastions, and ramparts; surveyed the walls of the outer and inner cities; have contemplated their watch-towers, garrisons, and arsenals; and have shrunk back from an estimate of the number of the gilded palaces and temples. If we remember, we recorded yesterday, before coming up hither, that Peking is a most unsightly and wretched city. It seems to us now, although walled cities are unfamiliar to our experience, that Peking is the only city, we have ever seen, sufficiently majestic to be a seat of empire…

Unhappily, a closer inspection of the wall and its accessories enables us to see that much of its impressive effect is derived from artistic imposture. Arsenals, capacious enough for the ordnance of the Washington Navy-Yard, contain only a few awkwardly-mounted guns. Painted cannons in the embrasures are substituted for real guns.

In an age of empire building, there is a sense that Seward and his group tended to express an attitude of entitlement and at times a lack of respect for the feelings of the local people, perhaps surprisingly for a man such a Seward who was so keen on good relations with Asia. He made several attempts to gain entry to temples, including those that he knew to be considered amongst the most holy in China, despite the fact that he was well aware that outsiders were forbidden to enter. After trying various underhand tactics, Seward himself failed to force his way in to the most important temples, but other members of his party were more successful.

While we have been studying the birds of Peking, some members of our party were making a new advance upon the Temple of Heaven. “What they saw must be recorded, less for the forbidden knowledge which was gained than for the moral reflections which it suggests. Mr. Coles, a pupil in the American legation, conducted a party of four, two of whom were ladies, along the high, paved road in the direction of the temple. At a distance from the gate he left them and threw himself into a mean, closely-covered mule-cart, in which he made his way unsuspected along the base of the wall, until he reached the central gate, from which we had before been repulsed. Emerging from the cart, he rushed into the open gate-way, and planted himself by the side of the stern janitor, who requested the unwelcome visitor to retire, and attempted to close the gate. But the visitor stood firm, all the while beckoning to the distant party to come up. The custodian now betrayed a consciousness that he did “perceive here a divided duty.” In any case it was a duty to save the great altar from profanation by native or foreigner, especially the latter. Secondly, since the Tien-Tsin massacre the Government has strenuously commanded that in no case shall offence be given to Christians. The custodian made the best he could of the dilemma, and yielding to the resistance which he could not overcome without violence, he piteously implored from the intruder a douceur, by way of indemnity for the bastinado which the Government was sure to inflict as a punishment for infidelity at his post. Terms were liberally adjusted, and the party went successfully through the temple, penetrating even the holiest of its holies. The janitor hurried them forward, his fears of the bastinado increasing with every minute of delay. His terror became so great that, when they had completed the examination and returned to the gate, he demanded a larger sum for letting them out than he had before received for letting them in.

To what a humiliating condition has the empire of Kublai-Khan fallen, when its sovereign dare not suffer the foreigner to enter the great national temple, through fear of domestic insurrection, nor to forbid him from entering, through fear of foreign war!

Although displaying such signs of a lack of respect, Seward was at least disapproving of some of the actions of previous foreign officials in China, such as the destruction of Yuanmingyuan, the old Summer Palace in Peking. Plundered and damaged by French and British troops during the Second Opium War, it was subsequently completely destroyed on the orders of Lord Elgin, the British High Commissioner to China, in retaliation for the imprisonment, torture and murder of 20 members of a delegation.

The destruction of this magnificent palace by the allies presents one of those painful subjects concerning which agreement can never be expected between the generous and the unsympathetic portions of mankind. The allies say that the demolition was a just and even necessary retaliation against the emperor for the cruelty practised by the Chinese Government toward Sir Harry Parkes. The friends of art throughout the world will agree with the Chinese scholars and statesmen, who complain that the destruction of these ancient and ornamental palaces, with the plunder of their stores of art, was useless to the invaders, and therefore indefensible.

Parkes was a British diplomat who was part of the delegation that was imprisoned and tortured. He was not amongst the twenty who were killed, but was instead released from captivity.

On a happier note, Seward was excited to walk along the Great Wall of China, always an important destination for travellers in Asia. Its construction dates back as far as the 7th Century BC, although extensive rebuilding during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) removed nearly all traces of the earlier structure.

We have done it! We have seen the Great Wall. We have scaled its rampart, walked through its gates, examined its bastions, trodden its parapet, looked off from its battlements, and rested under its shade.

Travelling to Canton, Seward had the opportunity to visit a school and investigate how children were educated in China.

We were particularly interested in the school-room, where the boys are educated; the girls are not educated at all. With its arrangement of tables, desks, black-board, books, and slates, the apartment might be mistaken for a school-room at home. All the pupils read the lessons of every sort aloud, and all at once, and commit them to memory. The pedagogue differs but little, except in dress, from the school-master the world over. The master in this present school is an ingenuous as well as a spirited man. The instrument of his discipline laid on his desk, and he did not hesitate to admit that he frequently employs it, believing probably in Solomon’s instruction, “he that spareth his rod, hateth his son.” The Chinese boys have all the natural manner and modesty of well-bred children. One bright-eyed little lad of eight years, with great reverence, asked Mr. Seward’s “honorable age.”

Although the education of girls became more common in the 20th Century, school enrolment of girls continues to lag behind that of boys in China.

Seward was keen to observe the full spectrum of society, even going so far as to visit an opium den. The trade in opium was a significant part of the Chinese economy, and was particularly valuable for Britain, until opium exports to China were banned by a British treaty in 1907.

In returning from the villa, we opened a narrow door and made our way through a dark passage to a suite of small rooms, faintly lighted from the roof. The seclusion, darkness, and silence of the place, indicated that something furtive was going on there. On either side of a long chamber was a dais divided into sections, in each section two men reclining vis-à-vis — between them a miniature table six inches high. We were in an opium-den, and these persons were the victims. Before each of the smokers, on the table, rested a pipe, a tiny opium-pot, and a burning lamp. Here, as in the tea-house, there is no respect of rank or wealth. The poor and the rich lie down together. Each assists the other in the delicate task of igniting the opium, and filling the bowl of the pipe. We spoke to two or three of the smokers, who were only at the beginning of the siesta, and received from them respectful and gentle answers.  We tried in vain to rouse others to consciousness, who were in the stage of blissful reverie, although their eyes were open, and they were sadly smiling. When the smoker recovers from the inebriation, if he has sufficient strength he repairs home; otherwise, he is removed to another apartment, and remains there perhaps twenty-four hours, recovering strength to depart. Was it an imagination of ours that the keeper of this hell wore a base and sinister look as he stood behind his counter in a dark closet, surrounded by packages of the pernicious drug, which he weighed out to his customers a pennyweight of opium against a pennyweight of silver?

Departing from China, Seward travelled next to Vietnam and then to Singapore, but here we leave his journal for another time, as I have reached the end of my intended focus of this article. I set out to explore just the Japanese and Chinese section of the book, to avoid a cursory look at the whole text, and to afford the material the close examination that it deserves. At some point in future I may return to the journal to look at the rest of Seward’s trip, but I do suggest purchasing a copy of the book if possible to read it for yourself. If you are unable to track down an original copy, it can be read online at

William Henry Seward died rather suddenly on October 10th, 1872. His final words were “Love one another.”

There will be some more ‘snippet’ articles to enjoy for the rest of November, and then December on Windows into History will be something a bit different!  Journal articles will resume in the New Year.  Thank you for reading Windows into History!

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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4 Responses to Journals 9.4 – Seward’s Travels Around the World (Part 4)

  1. Coral Waight says:

    Very interesting. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you. I love China, loved living there, regretted deeply that I had not paid attention to Chinese history when I was in school. When I came back, I read everything I could, realizing that through the eyes of earlier travelers I would be able to retrace the road that led China to the place I knew in 1982. This is fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

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