‘When China awakes, the world will tremble.’ This warning, attributed to Napoleon, became a commonplace during the Victorian era. China was a sleeping giant with the potential to regain the pre-eminent place it had once occupied in the world. It was a slumbering dragon which, with a mere flick of the tail during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, threatened to exterminate all the foreign devils in Peking. Writing in that year, Sir Robert Hart, inspector general of the Chinese customs service for over forty years, prophesied that within a century China could become ‘the most powerful empire on earth’.
Julia Boyd begins her absorbing study of the alien community in Peking during the first half of the twentieth century with a dramatic account of the assault by the Boxer rebels on the legation quarter. This was another forbidden city inside the massive red walls of the capital, a privileged