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by Genji Terasaki and Anne Katahira

Walk around the Arch, not through it

Walking through the Memorial Arch in Tappan Square, constructed to honor missionaries killed in the "Boxer Rebellion," has been a traditional part of commencement exercises. But in the 1970s, Asian American students initiated an alternative tradition - that of walking around the Arch . This act not only recognizes the unacknowledged massacre of thousands of Chinese people during the rebellion but protests the narrow perspective of world history that the Arch has come to represent.

The Boxer Rebellion in China, also known as the Yi Ho Tuan (Society of Righteousness and Harmony) Movement, was a peasant rebellion stirred by ripe domestic conditions of unrest coupled with the imposition of Western imperialism. Internal struggle for political and socio-economic instability followed China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894. U.S. and European powers took advantage of China's internal instability to expand their domination of international trade markets. The Boxer Rebellion's violent outcome was thus a result of imperialistic attempts to stifle a people's struggle for self-determination.

Anti-foreigner sentiments in China were intensified with the introduction of Christianity, which posed a powerful threat to firmly entrenched cultural beliefs of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Missionaries, even with their "good intentions," were often tools of, if not, active participants in imperialism. Coercion (economic and political) was used to convert the "primitive masses" of Chinese people to Christianity. The belief that the Chinese people needed to be civilized is an inherently racists and ethnocentric assumption often used to justify imperialism. Furthermore, because the imposition of Christianity was viewed as an attempt to uproot and destroy Chinese culture, missionaries were targeted as primary enemies.

The Memorial Arch in Tappan Square honors 19 Oberlin missionaries and family members who lost their lives during the Yi Ho Tuan Movement. However, the Memorial Arch tells only one side of history. Missionaries were not the only ones killed in the Boxer Rebellion. The one-sidedness of the inscriptions on the Memorial Arch symbolizes a continuing refusal to acknowledge the other "massacre," the loss of thousands of Chinese lives and the subsequent loss of [Chinese] culture and tradition. This practice of representing one perspective of history as the only valid perspective is itself a tool of imperialism and other forms of oppression.

Oberlin's missionary history is symbolized by the Arch, and walking around the Arch is not a call to dismiss that history. Rather, it is an attempt to remember the Chinese people who also lost their lives in the Boxer Rebellion. Moreover, it is important to recognize that the Arch has come to represent history as told by the victor and not by the many subjugated voice - which tell a different story. Walking around the Arch is a symbolic gesture to protest the ongoing silencing of those voices. Walking around the Arch is also a protest against imperialism, which is not simply an historical legacy, but persists in the present. In addition, the roots of imperialist domination are linked to the expansion of capitalism and the perpetuation of racism.

In the past, we have asked students to read the inscriptions and then examine for themselves the history of the Yi Ho Tuan Movement - and to then think about what the Arch symbolizes and reevaluate what it means. Many members of the Class of 1994 voted to donate a plaque acknowledging the deaths of the Chinese in the Yi Ho Tuan Movement. However, many did not vote in favor of the plaque. A plaque at this time seems to be a token concession and an effort to end or at least dissipate the protests. In addition, we feel that the plaque represents a superficial "add and stir" approach to social change.

We believe that walking around the Arch is not only a protest against domination but, moreover, and act to affirm our own histories which have been silenced and misrepresented to us - an act of self-determination. So once again, we ask that if you feel that the Arch misrepresents or tells only one side of the story, think about how you would best express your arguments and counterpoints. Finally, on Commencement Day, walk around the Arch if you support the symbolism of this gesture. Walk around the Arch if you wish to acknowledge the thousands of Chinese who dedicated their lives to self-determination. Walk around the Arch to recognize the struggles which are often obscured by traditional narratives of history.

-Genji Terasaki (OC '95) and Anne Katahira (OC '95)

Copyright © 1997, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 125, Number 25, May 23, 1997

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