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Monday, 8 February 2016

The Boxer Rebellion, 1898-1900



The Boxer Rebellion at the end of 19th century was a revolt against both the Chinese monarchy and Western imperialism, although Cixi, the wily Empress Dowager, used it to further her own ends.

Western Imperialism in China

The last years of imperial rule in China were marked by increasing weakness on the part of the Manchu Qing emperors and increasing dominance by foreign countries. After China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War of 1895 the carve-up of China began in earnest, as it was seen by the Western powers as another vast area of the world, after Africa, to be exploited for its wealth and divided up into “spheres of influence”. The United States, which had largely missed the boat in terms of territorial gains in China, proposed an “Open Door” policy to allow even more exploitation of China’s riches.

However, the encroachment of the “foreign devils” was not welcomed by many of the Chinese people, and the Boxer Rebellion was one step on the road towards the ending of weak government and incipient colonialism, leading eventually to the Chinese Republic.

The Boxers

The Boxers were a secret society whose name translates as “The Society of Right and Harmonious Fists”. They practised a variety of martial arts and calisthenics, which became a mixture of military training and semi-religious rituals. Many of the Society members came to believe that they were immune to injury from swords and bullets, thus giving them considerable courage. Parallels could be made with the Samurai of Japan in some of these respects. The Society dated back to before 1700, and had been active in opposing Western influence in the past.

The term “Boxer” was a nickname given to them by their Western opponents, for whom martial arts meant the gentlemanly sport of boxing.

One factor behind the 1898-1900 rebellion was economic distress caused by a succession of poor harvests, made worse by sanctions imposed after the 1895 war. The original aim of the Boxers had been to overthrow the government of the Qing dynasty as well as to expel the foreigners.

Empress Cixi and the rebellion

The most powerful member of the Qing dynasty was the Dowager Empress Cixi (otherwise transliterated as Tzu Hsi) who had risen from concubine to empress and now controlled the actions of the nominal emperor, her nephew Guangxu. She was a particularly devious and clever woman who saw a way to use the rebellion to her own advantage, as she was also in favour of the Boxers’ policy of ridding China of foreign influence.

The first actions of the Boxers took place in March 1898, in a dispute over the ownership of a building that was either a temple or a Catholic church (the facts are disputed), and which came under attack from the rebels. Anti-Christian activities were a pronounced feature of the rebellion, and many Chinese converts became its victims, given that Christianity was regarded as a constituent feature of Western colonialism.

Shortly after this incident, Guangxu attempted to reform the government of China along more liberal lines, including introducing elements of democracy and reforming the educational and economic systems of the country. Cixi was totally opposed to such moves and engineered a virtual coup d’etat, which resulted, in September 1898, in Guangxu being placed in virtual exile within the Forbidden City, and the real power moving decisively Cixi’s way.

For the Boxers, the proposed reforms smacked of giving in to Western influences. However, their opposition was seen as being to the official government, and in October they were soundly beaten by troops loyal to Guangxu. Empress Cixi, however, was keen to exploit the power that the Boxers wielded and began supporting their campaign, at first covertly but later more openly.

Despite her dominance of the imperial court, Cixi’s rule did not extend in practice across the whole of China, and local provincial governors were in general more inclined to accept the presence of foreign traders and missionaries in their territories, and therefore to oppose the Boxers and ignore the instructions of the Empress Dowager. The governors were not necessarily any more welcoming of “foreign devils” than the Boxers, but they could foresee the dangers of encouraging military intervention by the Western powers, and they were to be proved correct in exercising such caution.

Western governments become involved

The Boxers therefore concentrated their attentions on Beijing, beginning in early 1900 with massacres of Chinese Christians and destruction of foreign-owned property. The Western delegations in Beijing could see what was likely to happen and called in military backing from the troops they maintained at bases on the Chinese coast. However, only a small force had arrived by the time the Boxers sealed off the city and laid siege to the diplomatic quarter, to which a large number of Chinese Christians and westerners had retreated to seek refuge.

So began the “55 days in Peking” of the 1963 film title, a time of great suffering, punctuated with incidents of cruelty and courage. Among the victims were 66 children who died in an attack on the Cathedral, where they were being cared for by a group of nuns.

The relief of Beijing in August 1900 was effected by an eight-nation force that was hampered by its constituent parts trying to outdo each other and claim credit for breaking the siege. They did succeed eventually and the power of the Boxers was broken, although not without minor resistance in various places over the next few months.

The aftermath of the rebellion

For many of the rebels, the rebellion had a disastrous outcome, with thousands being rounded up, briefly tried (if at all) and condemned, and brutally executed. There are photographs of public beheadings and corpses butchered in the street. It is highly likely that many victims of these executions were innocent bystanders who were unfortunate enough to be caught up in the general bloodletting.

The net result for China was further humiliation in the form of demands for reparations, especially as it was very clear that the Boxers had not acted alone in their attacks on Western property and personnel, including the murders of a number of diplomats. China’s mineral wealth was now virtually at the disposal of the West, and the Qing dynasty entered its final phase.

Empress Cixi lived on for another eight years, dying only one day after Guangxu in 1908, and having installed the boy emperor Puyi who was to be “The Last Emperor”, to quote the title of another celebrated film.  In 1912 the Chinese Republic was declared, and 2,000 years of Empire came to a close.


© John Welford