Recent events have shown all too clearly that one form of anti-Americanism, the virulent and apocalyptic version that inspired the terrorists responsible for September 11, can lead to horrors of enormous magnitude. It would be foolish to assume, though, that every time an individual shouts an anti-American slogan or takes part in an anti-American protest he or she is expressing support for these vile acts, or feels the same brand of hatred for everything associated with the U.S. that led to them. Throughout the 1900s, after all, many groups espoused some form of anti-Americanism, yet did not engage in or condone violence of any sort. And within the subset of violent anti-American actions of the past, one finds many examples of demonstrations in which no people were harmed, let alone killed, though a building was defaced or a purely symbolic act of violence was committed, such as the burning of a flag. In addition, many participants in anti-American protests of the last century were motivated by something more specific than a wholesale disdain for all aspects of the culture of the U.S. and contempt for all of its residents. Some objected to particular U.S. economic policies, yet loved Hollywood films. Some were disturbed by what they saw as the McDonaldization of global culture, yet were uninterested in diplomatic issues. Still others were angered by the presence of American troops in their country, but not bothered that U.S. fast-food chains had arrived. And so on. History shows, then, that we should not think of a single unified anti-Americanism but rather think in terms of widely varying anti-Americanisms. These are decidedly plural, differing from place to place as well as from group to group within a given place, and susceptible to change over time. And they vary greatly as well in their levels of intensity. Since the vast literature of the social sciences is filled with works that provide tools to help us distinguish between things that seem similar at first glance, we should be able to find some guidance when trying to come to terms with this variation.

Before focusing in on what this literature has to offer, though, it is important to stress that making sense of anti-Americanism is not simply of historical interest. Why? Because differently inflected manifestations of anti-American sentiment are likely to continue to be part of global politics in the years to come. This seemed a sensible prediction even before September 11, since anti-American strains of a sort had been present in some of the first protests of the twenty-first century, including demonstrations held in conjunction with international summits, such as the G8 meetings convened in Genoa last summer. And in the wake of September 11, anti-American protests have occurred everywhere from Indonesia to Nigeria to Greece. Clearly, then, to prepare for the future as well as to understand the present and the past, we need effective ways to talk about, categorize, and draw distinctions between different sorts of anti-Americanisms.

There is, moreover, good reason to feel that, in the present climate, if we do not try explicitly to reach a fuller understanding of the topic, we will misinterpret events taking place around the world. It may seem common sense to assert that anti-Americanism is bound to continue to take varied forms in the future since this has been the case in the past. Yet, the rise in the political arena of polarizing rhetoric that divides the world into just two camps, those wholeheartedly on the side of and those completely opposed to the U.S.-led coalition, discourages us from looking for and appreciating distinctions among different sorts of anti-Americanism. So, too, does a sound-bite-driven media that can all too easily lull its audience into thinking that emotionally charged sights, such as an image of a burning flag, always signify the exact same thing no matter where they occur.

Where exactly should we look for social scientific insights to help counteract this tendency toward oversimplification? Fifteen years ago, when I began working on the history of Chinese protests of the early-to-mid 1900s, many of which had anti-American dimensions, two works stood out as particularly useful. Each still seemed valuable in 1999, as I struggled to make sense of a new round of anti-American protests that I happened to witness in China firsthand: those that broke out after NATO bombs mistakenly hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three citizens of the PRC. And the two works in question seem useful to me today, as I ponder international manifestations of anti-Americanism in this new century.

The first of the two works is anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures. This book does not focus on protest but it argues powerfully for the use of a method called “thick description” to capture the symbolic meaning of highly charged events such as, most famously, Balinese cockfights.1Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973). Geertz presents this ethnographic approach as predicated on a vision of “man as an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun” (p. 5), a vision that he traces back to Max Weber, one of the founders of the discipline of sociology. Those committed to thick description, a term Geertz attributes to philosopher Gilbert Ryle, take for granted that even the simplest act can mean different things depending on the cultural codes at work. Borrowing an illustration first used by Ryle, Geertz demonstrates what he means via reference to the many things that a person rapidly opening and closing an eye can signify. It can be an involuntary twitch, a conspiratorial wink, or even a parody of such a conspiratorial wink. A “thin description” that just says that an eye opened and closed is not enough; assuming that every twitch is just a twitch will lead us astray in cultural analysis; what we need is a “thick description” that separates twitches from winks and one sort of wink from another.

What are the implications of Geertz’s argument for understanding anti-American protests? Most basically, it suggests that we should never be satisfied with a “thin description” of a demonstration that tells us little more than that crowd in a distant land chanted anti-American slogans and mocked or destroyed symbols associated with the U.S. We need to know many specifics before we can decide what the event means. Were the slogans generic or did they focus on a particular issue? Were the grievances or alleged grievances against the U.S. of recent origin or long-term standing? Was the symbol in question a flag, an effigy of a President, or a dollar bill? Answers to questions such as these can make a world of difference. And we need to remember that individual members of the same crowd can imbue identical acts with somewhat different meanings, while observers can attribute to them ones that are completely different. This matters. After all, the closing and opening of an eye that one person intends as a flirtatious wink can be misunderstood by another as merely an involuntary twitch. And this misunderstanding can make all the difference in their future relationship (or lack thereof).

One question always worth asking of the imagined crowd just described is obvious. Would individual Americans who wandered into its midst be viewed with bemusement or disdain, and if viewed with disdain shunned, cursed at, beaten up or killed? I learned firsthand how complex the answer to this very basic question can be in China in 1999 when I had very different experiences at two anti-American gatherings. The first event I witnessed took place in Beijing on May 9 (roughly 36 hours after the three Chinese had died in Belgrade), the second in Shanghai on May 11. In each case, the crowd had come together due to their outrage at what they termed “U.S.-led NATO Hegemonism.” In other ways, though, the gatherings were very different as even a brief account such as that provided below will show.

In Beijing, the event took the form of evening marches near and a chaotic rally just outside of the American and British embassies. Some members of the crowd looked at me and spit on the ground. And one man yelled out a question from across the street, asking if the small group of Westerners I was part of was made up of Americans. Before we could answer, he said that, if we were from the U.S., he would like to kill us. He then walked away. I did not feel that I was in great danger, even though CNN reports apparently made it seem that all Americans in China were at great risk just then, even if they were far from the site of a rally. One reason I was not very scared was that there were soldiers keeping a watchful eye on things. They were not preventing protesters from throwing paving stones at the embassies, since the protests had the support of the regime. Still, their very presence discouraged anyone from doing something like killing a foreigner that would create an international incident. I sensed a good deal of menace in the crowd, in other words, but felt fairly safe.

At the Shanghai gathering I witnessed two nights later, which took the form of a meeting of some two hundred people in a large classroom on campus, on the other hand, the mood was not menacing at all. This was true even though this time I was the only Westerner in the crowd and everyone knew that I was an American. Throughout the evening, I was treated politely. “We are angry at what your military has done and the policies of your government, not at individual Americans.” This was the main gist of the statements that several people made to me.

Did this difference between my two experiences have to do with the passage of an extra 48 hours since the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade had been hit? Emotions can, after all, grow less intense over time. Or was it my movement to a city that was less politicized and more internationally minded than Beijing? Or was it because Communist Party leaders had made it even more abundantly clear by May 11 than they had by May 9 that, though they supported the protests, they did not want things to get out of hand? It is impossible to choose between these three possible explanations. My sense, though, was that each factor played a role in making the two experiences so different.

In addition to illustrating the varied intensities and differing forms anti-American gatherings can take, even within a single country in a single week, my experiences in 1999 showed how easily an international media driven by sensationalism and sound bites can mislead. I say this because some Western reports dealing with protests such as those I witnessed portrayed them as part of a late-twentieth-century throwback to the Boxerism of 1900.2See, for example, the breathless commentary in “China Stokes Anti-U.S. Fires, Recalling Blunders of the Past,” USA Today, May 11, 1999, p. 14A. There were some reporters, such as John Gittings of the Guardian and Susan Lawrence of the Far Eastern Economic Review, whose coverage was much more nuanced. Still, when I returned to the United States and spoke to people about the sense they had gotten of the protests by following them via television, it seems that the USA Today report was far from atypical. This has always perturbed me since the Boxers had killed a significant number of foreigners (as well many times that number of Chinese converts to Christianity), not just taunted or roughed up a few of them (the case in 1999). The Boxers, moreover, had completely destroyed, not just defaced or thrown rocks at buildings. In addition, while many of the Chinese students who shouted out anti-American slogans in 1999 readily admitted that they found many things about the U.S. attractive, from its rock music to its universities, the Boxers considered everything associated with the West with contempt. To equate the protests of 1999 to Boxerism was a classic example of mistaking a twitch for a wink, to borrow Geertz’s imagery.

I want to leave Geertz aside now, though, and turn to sociologist Charles Tilly’s From Mobilization to Revolution, the other social science classic I found valuable in the 1980s and still find relevant today.3Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution (New York: Random House, 1978). The book is devoted to distinguishing between various forms of contentious politics. As a result, it provides us with clues that help give us a clearer sense of additional things we might want to know, besides whether Americans were endangered, to ensure that descriptions of anti-American events are thick enough.

One of the most important things Tilly proposes is a tripartite schema that categorizes collective actions on the basis of their goals. There are, he says, “reactive” protests (e.g. rallies to bring a deposed King back to power) that seek to restore a pre-existing status quo. There are “competitive” ones (such as inter-village feuds), in which a group lays claim to the resources of another. And there are “pro-active” struggles (such as strikes for a shorter working day), in which groups demand new rights or resources. Many movements will have a mixture of reactive, competitive, and pro-active elements. Still, his ideal types remain useful in alerting us to things to look out for when trying to make sense of any protest.

The first thing to note about anti-American demonstrations, in respect to Tilly’s categories, is that some of them fall cleanly into one or another pigeon-hole, while others combine reactive, competitive, and pro-active elements in differing proportions. For example, there have been purely “reactive” struggles (associated with the cry “Yankee Go Home”) that were efforts solely to get American troops withdrawn from a country. Often, though, a “competitive” dimension emerges in these struggles, when a political faction uses the issue to score points against a rival group more closely linked to Washington. This seems to be the case presently with some post-September 11 demonstrations. In countries such as Pakistan, anti-American protests seem related to efforts to shift the domestic balance of power.

More than one category also needs to be considered when thinking about protests such as those that occurred last summer in Genoa. Many opponents of demonstrations of this sort have portrayed them as purely “reactive,” backward-looking efforts to stop not just globalization but progress. Yet, the protesters typically insist that they have “pro-active” goals and that they do not want to stand in the way of progress, just shape it. They want to see a future in which decisions about the division of resources are made in a more democratic, transparent, and egalitarian fashion. This can only come about, they claim, if the U.S. role in economic affairs is radically altered.

Tilly’s work suggests that, whenever an anti-American demonstration makes headlines, we should ask whether it has reactive, competitive, or pro-active aspects to it and if more than one element is present how it fits into the overall picture. We also need to know, if we are to have a sufficiently “thick description” at our disposal, whether participants and observers have defined the event in differing ways when it comes to these goals. It is particularly common, for those who are criticized or feel threatened by a protest to insist that it is merely a reactive event, even though the participants make different claims. We need a lot of information to decide which view of the action gets us closer to the truth.

Rather than continue in this abstract vein, the rest of this essay will be devoted to a rapid survey of Chinese protests of the first half of the twentieth century that were targeted, at least in part, at foreigners or foreign governments. My hope is that this will give readers a clearer sense of just how varied anti-American protests have been and are likely to continue to be, as well as of how Geertz and Tilly can help us make sense of this variation. The quick historical survey below will also reinforce other points made above, since each of the events described below, though very different, was dismissed by some opponents of the crowd in the same terms as were the 1999 demonstrations: that is, as nothing more than Boxerism revisited.

The Boxers themselves are the natural place to start. These insurgents were not specifically anti-American, but rather anti-Christian. Still, missionaries and diplomats from the U.S. were among their targets. In a sense, the actions of the Boxers were very close to the ideal type of “reactive” contention that Tilly describes. They wanted to return China to a situation in which it contained no Christians. It is worth noting, however, that recent work on the Boxers has shown that much of their violence took the form of attacks between villagers who had long been competitors for local resources. When members of one of these groups converted to Christianity, foreign missionaries would sometimes intercede on their behalf with Chinese government officials, tipping the balance in local competitions for water rights and things like that in the favor of the converts. Thus anti-Christian violence often came to have a competitive element to it.

The next stop on our whirlwind tour of Chinese history is 1905, when protests that were specifically anti-American took place. The goal this time was to end immigration laws that discriminated against Chinese who wanted to enter the U.S. The movement was unlike the Boxer one in many ways. Most notably, it was non-violent. The protesters went to great lengths to distance themselves from the Boxers, stressing that they wanted to see a policy changed, not people hurt. The main tactic they turned to was an economic boycott. Though they did not use these terms, they were self-consciously rejecting what they saw as purely reactive as well as the violent movement of the past. Their goal was not to return to the past, when China and the West did not interact with one another, they argued, but rather the pro-active one of making relations with the U.S. more equal.

In 1919, a new round of anti-imperialist protests, known as the May 4th Movement, broke out. Once again, it was primarily non-violent and relied on a boycott. There was a difference here with 1905, though, in that it was not American products that were boycotted. In fact, the May 4th Movement of that year was not anti-American at all.

Why not? Because the main grievance was the terms of the Treaty of Versailles that transferred control of Chinese territory formerly held by Germany to Japan, rather than returning it to China, in the wake of World War I. Since President Wilson had called for all nations to be granted a greater degree of self-determination, the United States was seen as one of the more admirable foreign powers of the day. The boycott was directed at Japan alone, though the people the crowds were angriest at were the domestic officials they accused of being corrupt and selling out the country’s interest for personal gain.

The May 4th Movement was a generally pro-active struggle. Nevertheless, as often happens, those who were the target of the protest refused to see it in these terms. Japanese commentators tried to convince people that competition and reaction defined its true nature. They insisted that one Chinese political faction (then out of power) was merely using the Treaty of Versailles as a pretext for trying to embarrass their rivals (the Warlords currently in control of Beijing). They also accused the May 4th activists, many of whom were avid fans of Western political ideas and some of whom were Christians, of being just like the reactive and violent anti-Christian Boxers.

Moving forward in time to the protests that followed World War II, we find a still different mixture of elements. The first major anti-imperialist demonstrations of this period, those that took place in late 1946 and early 1947, had a definite reactive twist to them. This is because the protesters’ main demand was that American servicemen leave China. These protests were triggered by an incident in which two American G.I.’s raped a female Chinese student.

In 1948, a new grievance, American efforts to rebuild Japan, led to a revival of demonstrations against the United States. Some protesters argued then that it was grotesque that the U.S. should be doing so much for the country that they viewed as the arch-villain of World War II.4For more details on the protests discussed here and citations to relevant Chinese and Western language sources on them, see Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China: The View from Shanghai (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991) and idem., “Student Protests in Fin-de-siecle China,” New Left Review, 237 (September/October 1999), pp. 52-76. Once again, though no foreigners were killed and many of the protesters were attracted by Western ideas, some of those criticized muttered that here again was Boxerism.

Even though proponents and opponents of the 1947 and 1948 protests often accepted that they were reactive and just argued over what sort of reactive events the demonstrations were, there were both competitive and pro-active dimensions to these struggles as well. This is because the leading faction of the Nationalist Party was blamed for being too willing to accommodate the Americans. This allowed competitors for power within that party to use the protests to bolster their positions. It also, though, strengthened the position of and was used by the Chinese Communist Party, an opposition group that was trying to push China in a new direction.

My main point throughout this rapid survey has been to reinforce the basic point with which I began: when anti-American protests break out anywhere, we need to ask a wide range of questions about them before we can determine just what sort they are. Some of these questions need to be historical, since every event’s meaning is derived in part by what has happened before, and there were at least slight echoes of all of the collective actions mentioned above in the Chinese demonstrations that occurred in 1999 that I witnessed. Other questions we need to ask have to do with fissures in contemporary political alliances, which can give a competitive dimension to reactive demonstrations and even to proactive ones. And still, other questions should have to do with different things entirely such as whether physical violence, symbolic violence, or no violence at all is involved.

If we fail to ask these questions and demand that journalists on the spot ask them (as they only sometimes do), we will continually mistake twitches for winks and winks for twitches. Especially now, in the wake of September 11, it is important that we have the best tools at our disposal to prevent us from misreading these signs.


Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).
See, for example, the breathless commentary in “China Stokes Anti-U.S. Fires, Recalling Blunders of the Past,” USA Today, May 11, 1999, p. 14A. There were some reporters, such as John Gittings of the Guardian and Susan Lawrence of the Far Eastern Economic Review, whose coverage was much more nuanced. Still, when I returned to the United States and spoke to people about the sense they had gotten of the protests by following them via television, it seems that the USA Today report was far from atypical.
Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution (New York: Random House, 1978).
For more details on the protests discussed here and citations to relevant Chinese and Western language sources on them, see Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China: The View from Shanghai (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991) and idem., “Student Protests in Fin-de-siecle China,” New Left Review, 237 (September/October 1999), pp. 52-76.