THE BOXER STORY is rich in personal accounts and reminiscences, particularly on the Western side. Many of the foreigners kept detailed diaries, wrote copious letters, or subsequently published books. I was intrigued by the extent to which the writers were influenced by such factors as background, nationality, and reasons for being in China. Another issue was how far their own prejudices and preconceptions, and their view of those of their readers, show through in what they wrote.
It was also interesting to look at their motivation for wanting to record their experiences. Were they writing for themselves, perhaps as a kind of catharsis, enabling them to express privately fears and anxieties they could not share in public? Was it a release valve in a besieged community where people under stress were packed closely together? Were they writing for friends and family, to comfort and to reassure? If so, did this produce a nonchalance of style like the "stiffening of the lip" of British officers who underplayed their experiences in letters home? Were they writing to tell the world what had happened to them, like some families who wrote farewell letters and locked them in the safe of the British legation in case they were killed? Were they writing with a view to publication? Were they writing to justify their own actions, or perhaps to criticize and denigrate the actions or behavior of others? I realized that criticisms in some private accounts had to be treated with as much caution as praise in some of the works written specifically for publication. I was struck, too, by the difference between those who were recording events as they happened when they did not know the outcome -- like Oscar Upham -- and those who were writing after the event, with all the benefits and comforts of hindsight.
Whatever the case, I asked myself whether the writers could really have known as much about what happened, and why, as they claimed. Most were, after all, only eyewitnesses to a part of the events they recorded. They had to rely on others to fill in the wider picture. The "fog of war" effect was particularly true where writers with the relief force spoke of what happened in the siege of the legations, but also where those actually in the legations were writing about events in other parts of the compound. Similarly, what was really going on in the Imperial Court could only be guessed at by Westerners, who often recorded rumors as fact. There were also considerable differences among the writers in their level of understanding of China and her customs. I found it surprising how relatively few