On the United Nations’ International Day of Tolerance, November 16, the City of Burlingame, California, south of San Francisco, celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Burlingame Treaty of 1868.

Presided over by Mayor Michael Brownrigg, a bust of Anson Burlingame was unveiled at the historic library building of the city that is his namesake.

Attending the ceremony was an audience of more than a hundred including local luminaries and residents, some Burlingame descendants, including some who flew across the US to attend, and a number of Chinese-Americans activists living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In paying his tribute, Mayor Brownrigg said, “What stands out most about Burlingame was his courage – to say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done, no matter the consequences.”

What drew local Chinese-Americans to this event was the unique and critical role Burlingame played in the history of US-China relations.

Michael Brownrigg
Mayor Michael Brownrigg. Photo: Courtesy of George Koo

Burlingame shared the anti-slavery position of Abraham Lincoln and energetically campaigned to help elect Lincoln as president of the United States. He worked so hard on Lincoln’s election that Burlingame lost his own re-election bit as congressman from Massachusetts.

Thereupon, Lincoln appointed him US ambassador to the Manchu imperial court in Beijing. With his handsome bearing and easy affable personality, the diplomatic community in Beijing welcomed Anson Burlingame as one of their own.

‘Not here to carve up China’

However, Burlingame quickly made it clear that he represented a United States that stood for recognizing the sovereignty of China, that a country with such a long and illustrious history and culture was not to be carved up by the Western powers.

As Brownrigg noted, “Burlingame was brave enough to stand for what is fair, to defend the defenseless, and to stay on the moral side of history at whatever cost.”

Prince Gong, the regent for the child emperor, took notice of Burlingame’s conduct and went to see him when he was at the end of his tour of duty and ready to return to the US.

The prince said to Burlingame that he had assembled a team of officials to send to the West and renegotiate the terms of various unequal treaties forced on China, fallout from losing the Opium Wars.

The team lacked a person of stature and experience to deal with the Western governments. “Would you, Mr Burlingame, consider leading our group as the head of our delegation?”

Burlingame immediately dispatched a letter of resignation to secretary of state William H Seward informing him that he was resigning as US ambassador and coming back as head of the delegation from China.

Burlingame thus is the only round-trip ambassador in history, in his case representing the US and then China.

Burlingame Treaty of 1868

The treaty he negotiated with Seward became popularly known as the Burlingame Treaty of 1868. The principles of the treaty emphasized the mutual recognition of sovereignty and reciprocity.

Sadly, Burlingame was not successful in concluding similar agreements with other Western powers. He was in St Petersburg when he died of pneumonia in February 1870.

The Manchu court recognized that he died in the service of China and posthumously honored him as a first-rank court official, equivalent to being a member of the royal family, along with substantial monetary compensation.

Thus the United States became the first Western country to treat China with mutual respect as a peer nation, just as China was entering its century of shame at the hands of Western imperialist powers.

Even though the spirit of this treaty was soon overwhelmed by xenophobia and erased by the Exclusion Act of 1882, the United States won a kinship with the Chinese that has not been forgotten.

The treaty gave the Manchu court sufficient reassurance that they allowed the formation of the Chinese Education Mission to send 120 young boys to be educated in the US.

The first batch of 30 boys, aged 11 to 13, came in 1871 and rode the just-completed transcontinental railroad from San Francisco to New England, where they lived with missionaries and Christian families.

These boys grew up in the US, attended such universities as Yale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia, and some went on to play major roles in helping China transform into a republican government and lay the foundation for a modern China.

Original instigators

The idea for this celebration came from a pair of old friends, David Chai and the writer of this article, who about 10 years ago had separately heard the story of Burlingame.

They would meet periodically to discuss and scheme as to how to celebrate Burlingame’s life as a way to promote the idea of positive relations between China and the US.

Chai’s son lives in Burlingame, and through this connection Chai met up with Mayor Brownrigg and told him the story. The mayor was quickly taken with the story and the idea of a celebration.

This writer in the meantime had met with Zhou Limin, a documentary producer by occupation and an artist by training. Zhou was visiting California to research and plan for a documentary on the Chinese contribution to the transcontinental railroad. I related the story of the round-trip ambassador to Zhou.

When he went home, Zhou was so deeply moved by what he found out about Burlingame (蒲安臣) in Beijing archives that he sculptured a bust and surprised me by informing me that he wished to donate his creation to the city that is his namesake.

George Koo et al
David Chai, Zhou Limin and George Koo stand in front of the bust of Anson Burlingame. Photo: Courtesy of George Koo

Walter Christman, president of the Burlingame Foundation, summarized the celebration by remarking that the principles pursued by Burlingame (peace, equality and love of humankind) must live on in the 21st century, and an annual Burlingame Prize given to persons who contribute most to positive US-China bilateral relations would be an appropriate celebratory culmination.

George Koo is chairman of the Burlingame Foundation, co-founded with Walter Christman. This article first appeared on Koo’s blog, and can be read here.