We live in a time of rumours. Often these rumors have little impact on our behavior, and at most can serve to relieve or exacerbate our indignation or dismissal of something in the news. However, we all know the potentially poisonous consequences of rumours and, even worse, deliberate misinformation, for the body politic. Elsewhere, as we see regularly in China today, the punishment for “spreading rumours” is at the heart of preserving authoritarian order. Truth value aside, in a moment of crisis, a rumour may be the only thing to latch onto when there is widespread distrust (justified or not) of alternative sources of information. If critical decisions hang in the balance, with little time for the luxury of further research or confirmation, whether to believe or disbelieve a rumor can mean a saved life, or the contribution to a dangerous panic, or sometimes both at once.
We come across this all the time in historical sources, especially those of a personal nature, in diaries, letters, and oral histories. One person who took a moment out of the chaos to reflect on the power of rumours in her own adventures is Elsie Laura Beckingsale (1886-1983), who traveled to Wuhan in February 1911 as part of the London Missionary Society. Her letters have been published thanks to Tony Beckingsale in Letters from Hankow: The Chinese Revolution of 1911: The Eye-Witness Account of Laura Beckingsale. She was serving as a teacher at Wuchang Girls’ Boarding School when revolution hit the city in October of that year and her letters offer us a fascinating perspective of one foreign woman’s experiences in the tri-city of Wuhan (Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang) from her arrival and into 1912.
By 12 October, 1911 the second full day of the uprising in Wuchang, Laura was on her way to the foreign concessions in Hankou on the other side of the Yangzi river. In her 12 October letter, broken up into several pieces by time, she records the entry, “8:50 pm “Well, I am a ‘refugee’ and I do feel distinctly ‘refugeeish'” (p48). In her newly vulnerable position, still privileged in a whole range of ways compared to the average Chinese resident of Wuhan, she has one of her first encounters with a rumour that relates to a question of critical importance to a refugee: which direction offers more safety? On her way to Hankou, she meets others coming in the opposite direction who claim that Wuchang is safer than Hankou. Ultimately, she continues on to Hankou, but we can imagine the anxiety of the moment. Only the very next evening, she seems much recovered from the madness of the initial chaos and is enjoying the safety of the British concession, “13 October 10.30 pm – A very quiet day. It has been such a treat to walk along the Bund in the sunshine. To-night bands of the Sikh police are patrolling the streets headed by missionaries – to prevent looting and firing.”
Soon, however, the battle for Wuhan will heat up just north of the concession of Hankou, and in later entries she speaks in occasionally vague terms of the horrors she witnesses from beyond the edges of the concessions.1 In the days that follow, Laura Beckingsale keeps track of some of the rumours that fly back and forth around her and records a collection of them from a single in one of her letters (p52-3) dated 18 October:
9.00 – a battle has begun.
9.30 – Everything is quite quiet.
10.00 – The imperialists have been badly beaten.
10.30 – The revolutionaries are in full retreat.
11.00 – the battle is not on land, it’s the gund-boats firing.
11.30 – The Consul orders immediate evacuation of every foreign house.”
12.00 – The Consul “strongly advises women and children to leave.”
12.30 – The Imperialists are preparing to bombard Wuchang.
1.00 – There are 6,000 Imperialist troops on the Wuchang side of the river.
1.30 – All the Imperialists are behind Hankow – none have crossed.
2.00 – The Revolutionaries hold the railway line.
2.30 – The Imperialists hold the railway line.
3.00 – Another battle has begun.
3.30 – Everything has been quiet all day, why not return to Wuchang?
4.00 – The Imperialists have won and the Revolutionaries stand no chance.
4.30 – Visa-versa.
5.00 – The Consul orders immediate evacuation.
5.30 – He doesn’t.
6.00 – The battle is still going on.
6.30 – All women and children to leave.
7.00 – The Imperialist Admiral has gone over to the enemy.
8.00 – He hasn’t.
9.00 – Fire in the German Concession – probably the Post Office
9.10 – No, in the Japanese Concession.
9.20 – No, in the native city, probably shops for loot.
9.40 – No, it’s the railway station.
9.50 – No, it’s the British Concession – will it reach us?
10.00 – Anyway, it’s out!
The experience seems to have inspired her to write a poem about rumours which was published in the English language Central China Post on 21 October, 1911, included in the book with her letters (my thanks to Tony Beckingsale for permission to share it in full):
Everyone guesses and nobody knows.
“They say” – “I heard,” – “Perhaps,” and “Suppose.”
This is the way that rumour grows.
A. hears some news and confines it to B.,
Who tells it at once (with additions) to C.,
And that’s contradicted next minute by D.
E. brings a statement that “really is true.”
F. doesn’t find that it’s his point of view.
G. proves them both wrong with something quite new.
“They say” that the Rebels have gone up the Han.
“They say” that on Wednesday they captured Siaokan.
Six thousand Imperialists killed to a man.
In the Battle of the Oil Tanks, fought yesterday,
“I hear” that the Rebels turned tail, ran away!
And “I heard” that they won, at least, that’s what they say!
The Consul has “strongly advised” us to go.
But that’s what “We’re told” every three hours or so.
We never intend to obey him, you know.
“Perhaps” we may have to run off in the night.
“Perhaps” we should be an extraordinary sight!
Well, there is one comfort, – our luggage is light!
“Suppose” all the gunboats desert and “P’ao”!2
“Suppose” all the armies surround us just now!!
“Suppose” – nothing happens at all in Hankow!!!
So everyone guesses and nobody knows.
“They say”, – “I heard,” – “Perhaps”, and “Suppose”,
That is the way that a rumour grows.
– A Lady, who stayed “at her own risk”.
For a diary that has much more to say on the horrors of the same days in Wuhan, including of the massacres of Manchus, of surrendered soldiers, and of the casualties of war, see for example, Like Lions after Slumber: A Personal Account of the Chinese Revolution of 1911 The Diary of Bernard Upward of Hankow ↩
I’m guessing this is 跑, that is, run away ↩
This really can be fascinating to look at, and the internet has not, as some of us hoped, obviated this question in the postmodern.
I love assigning Paul Cohen’s chapter on rumors in Three Keys and Kuhn’s Soulstealers and having students think about how information and technology and social networks interact.
Thanks! I also love assigning Cohen’s Three Keys in particular, in my modern China module. Such a great book.