In his contemporary biography of Thomas Nast, Albert Bigelow Paine describes Anson Burlingame, seen seated right behind Columbia, as “one of America’s noblest diplomats” who served the U.S. as Minister to China. In the late 1860s, Burlingame, at the behest of Prince Kung of China, undertook a role as special ambassador charged with the mission to introduce China to other nations of the world.
At the conclusion of the Civil War, the United States had its eye on technological and manufacturing advancements and territorial expansion. New York, as a major port city, would soon become an economic and cultural center.
As John Kuo Wei Tchen explains, the Chinese were forced by the Opium Wars to accept certain international markets, and “sought to gain reciprocal rights for the Chinese in the United States” (168). The result was a diplomatic envoy led by a New England lawyer, Anson Burlingame, who ultimately negotiated the treaty named in his honor, The Burlingame Treaty in 1868.
In Nast’s highly detailed wood engraving, Ambassador Anson Burlingame, assumes a modest role, content to allow Columbia to offer the international introductions. A photograph of the meeting served as a resource for Nast’s first depiction of the Chinese diplomat. The diplomat would become prototype for Nast’s symbol of China, as Columbia was for America. “John Chinaman” or “John Confucius” subsequently appears in many future cartoons. In this depiction, he shares the stage and equal ground with Columbia.
Columbia extends an affectionate gesture, and touches the Chinese man on the shoulder. It is reminiscent of her poignant request of the American people during Reconstruction to consider the African American Civil War veteran into the American community – an image Nast drew three years earlier.
As a whole, world leaders approach the Chinese guest with respect. Victoria and Albert, representing Great Britain, are in the back of the group, on the right and in the shadows. They appear apprehensive. A fearful looking pontiff represents the Vatican. He is shocked by the heathen’s presentation to civilized society. The Pope hides behind a giant column.
As the voice of America, Columbia steps up to remind the assemblage that China is an ancient and civilized nation worthy and entitled to full respect. Columbia is the bridge across fear, the agent of cultural exchange as she declares, “Brothers and Sisters, I am happy to present to you the oldest member of the Family, who desires our better acquaintance.”
The “Family” includes other European leaders. In addition to England and the Vatican, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and a representative from the Ottoman Empire, suggested by the Fez, step up and approach the Chinese diplomat. They extend all due diplomatic courtesies. The Chinese man wears a hat of the Manchu court, a skull cap with a wide, upturned brim and a mandarin-styled tunic with a large crest or seal. In his left hand he carries a partially opened fan. His right hand grips Columbia’s right hand. A star-like halo glimmers atop Columbia’s tiara. She is the enlightened one in the room.
Out of respect, almost everyone has removed their head coverings, with the exception of the Catholic pontiff, Queen Victoria and a Turk or Muslim at rear, left – all of whom have yet to emerge from the back of the group for a closer look. An Irishman can be seen far right, his top hat placed upon his chest. His smile is pleasant. Everyone else basks in the novelty and significance of the event, albeit with mixed looks of curiosity and anticipation.
In Harper’s a brief editorial ran with the illustration. The editor acknowledged the perception of China as a backward country, yet felt China deserved of all the rights extended to other nations,
It is, as our picture in this issue shows, the youngest nation introducing the oldest to the friendship of Christendom. It is, indeed, strange to hear a Yankee speaking for China, and claiming for her that kind of regard and respect which the world has not been accustomed to feel for the old empire.
Despite all that we hear and know of its ancient and elaborate civilization, there is still the feeling that it is the most grotesque of barbarous nations, and that there is wholly wanting that plane of common interest and knowledge and sympathy upon which the nations of Christendom are accustomed to meet. The popular image of China is an enormous country surrounded by a high wall, probably with broken bottles strewn along the top, where the people wear their hair in a long tail, squeeze the feet of the women into deformity, cultivate tea, and eat rats and dogs. The world at large has much the same feeling toward China that the genuine cockney John Bull of eighty years ago had toward France. It was a country in which the people spoke a vile lingo that nobody could understand, wore wooden shoes, and ate frogs.
This introduction of the Chinese to the world’s civilized nations served as a respectful way to introduce China to Harper’s Weekly’s readers. The magazine attempted to counter some misconceptions and feelings of “otherness” which swirled around American perceptions of Chinese people. Nast and Harper’s Weekly made an effort to show America that China while different, possessed a history and tradition that afforded China with recognition as “most favored nation” status expressed in the Burlingame Treaty of 1868.