The Boxer Rebellion: China Resists Empire

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The Boxer Rebellion was a violent anti-Christian, anti-imperialist uprising that gripped China in 1899 and 1900. Led by the Yihequan, or ‘Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists’ (better known to the West as the ‘Boxers’), it tried, and ultimately failed, to expel the powerful influence of foreign colonial powers in China and reverse decades of Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912) decline.

Since the turn of the 19th Century, the Qing had struggled to maintain its control. A long period of relative peace and stability had allowed the population to double since 1700, but this meant that by the early 1800s there was insufficient employment and farmland, creating a volatile social situation. Meanwhile, systemic corruption in China’s bureaucratic government significantly drained Qing finances, whilst isolationist policies limited both wealth and innovation.

European powers, by contrast, were at the time experiencing an unprecedented era of growth, modernisation and expansion, fuelled by the successes of the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Moreover, their military technology’s development gave them a tremendous advantage in confrontations with foreign powers, allowing for colonial expansion.

Starting with the First Opium War (1839-1842), China became a victim of this western imperialism. What began as a dispute with the British over free trading rights and the illegal sale of opium exploded into a war which the British, with their superior technology and organisation, won with relative ease. The 1842 Treaty of Nanjing that ended the war forced the Chinese government to cede Hong Kong, pay a war indemnity, and open up five ‘treaty ports’ to international trade. This settlement was the first in a long line of ‘unequal treaties’ imposed on the Chinese by foreign countries.

After the British, other colonial powers, notably Russia, France, Germany and, by 1895, even Japan, scrambled to gain their own concessions from the Qing government, and more military defeats followed. China was forced into a series of humiliating concessions, including: establishing a foreign quarter in the capital, Beijing; allowing Christian missionaries in China; loss of land; and foreign powers establishing ‘spheres of influence’ that amounted to exclusive economic rights.

The ever-increasing foreign influence in China over the course of the 19th Century created a domestic reaction of rising xenophobia and anti-colonialism. In Shandong and Hebei provinces (northern regions directly adjoining the capital Beijing), the secret society called the Boxers emerged, which called for the expulsion of all foreigners and the revitalisation of the Qing. The Boxers were a spiritual group with links to Chinese martial arts (which explains why their Western name was the ‘Boxers’).

Over the course of the 1890s a series of droughts and poor harvests left thousands of young men in the northern countryside without work, and they became a highly receptive audience for the Boxer’s anti-foreign propaganda. Although initially a decentralised movement, towards the end of the 1890s the various Boxer factions became more organised under the Yihequan, or ‘Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists’.

By the late 1890s the Boxers had begun a campaign of harassing and killing missionaries in China, distributing bulletins, placards and flyers denouncing Christianity. Under pressure from the international community, the Qing tried to suppress the Boxers, and the governor of Shandong expelled the rebels from his province. However, their initial actions belied a sympathy for their fundamental cause of ridding China of the ‘foreign devils’. Indeed, the Dowager Empress issued a decree on 11 January 1900 saying that secret societies were woven into Chinese culture and should not be treated as criminals.

The banished fighters moved north into the province of Zhili, gaining thousands of followers as they went. Some began to move towards the treaty port of Tianjin (which had a substantial foreign population), and others to the capital Beijing. The foreign diplomats in Beijing, growing fearful, requested that foreign soldiers come to Beijing to protect the legations, which the Qing government reluctantly allowed.

The requested protection, a multinational force of around 400 naval troops, set out by rail from the treaty port of Dagu to the capital, on 31 May 1900. However, the Boxers soon cut the railway line between Tianjin and Beijing: the legations were now isolated. On 11 June a Japanese diplomat, Sugiyama Akira, was assassinated, and in growing desperation the legations of the eight nations, led by British diplomat Claude Maxwell MacDonald, called for reinforcements. An international force of 2000 men commanded by British Vice-Admiral Edward Seymour landed on the Chinese coast without permission from the Qing government. They moved by rail to Tianjin, but from there they were forced to continue on foot.

This invasion provoked the Qing government, which to that point had been ambivalent towards the Boxers, to formally support the rebels. Seymour’s relief force was met by elements of the imperial Qing army and their new Boxer allies at the Battle of Langfeng on 18 June and was driven back.

Meanwhile, foreign diplomats in Beijing were handed an ultimatum to leave within 24 hours, which the diplomats fatefully refused. In response, on 20 June 1900 the combined Qing and Boxer forces began their 55-day siege of the Legation Quarter of Beijing, which had been hastily fortified with makeshift defences and had only 400 men resisting the attack, protecting the 500 foreign civilians and around 3000 Chinese Christians who took refuge in the Legation Quarter.

Elsewhere, the foreign powers had been mustering their response. Russia invaded Manchuria with 100,000 men to protect their railways from potential attacks, whilst a 20,000 strong international relief force was assembled to march on Beijing. This army was drawn from the ranks of eight nations – Japan, Russia, the British Empire, the United States, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy – leading to it being called the ‘eight-nation alliance’. On 14 July alliance forces landed at Tianjin and recaptured it after a hard-fought battle, and they continued to make steady progress towards Beijing for the next month.

The Japanese, Russian, US and British forces each agreed to attack a different gate of Beijing’s city walls. Their assault commenced on 14 August as a co-ordinated effort, but quickly it descended into a race to reach the besieged legations first, showing how outmatched the Qing forces ultimately were. The British were the first to reach the legations in the early afternoon of the same day. As the Qing and Boxer forces fled from the city, the Dowager Empress and her court escaped to the city of Xi’an in central China. After the fall of the capital, the major fighting of the Boxer rebellion came to an end, and only sporadic resistance continued in the months after.

The allies began a long occupation of Beijing, Tianjin and Zhili province that persisted for over a year. In this time, they negotiated the Boxer Protocol to formally end the conflict, which forced the Qing government to pay an annual indemnity of 450 million taels of silver (more than annual government tax revenue) to the victorious powers for the next 39 years, banned participation in anti-foreign secret societies, and allowed the colonial powers to station troops in yet more extraterritorial zones across China. Additionally, by November, the Russians had completed their conquest of Manchuria, and it continued to be controlled by foreign powers until the end of the Second World War. All of these concessions only reinforced the hatred of the ‘foreign devils’ that had led to rebellion.

Perhaps most consequentially, the failure of the Boxer Rebellion marked the final attempt of the Qing dynasty to resist ‘westernisation’ in the hope of maintaining the traditional Chinese form of government. After the conflict, the Dowager Empress Cixi reluctantly started to implement reforms known as the ‘New Policies’, based on the model of Japan’s constitutional monarchy. However, by then it was too little, too late. The Chinese people’s hatred of foreigners had grown to include anger at the Qing government too weak to resist them. There was already a burgeoning republican movement calling for the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty entirely, and piecemeal reform was ultimately insufficient to prevent the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, which ended two millennia of imperial rule in China.

Fairbank, J.K., Reischauer, E.O., 1989. China: Tradition and Transformation. Allen & Unwin.

Harrington, P., 2013. Peking 1900: The Boxer Rebellion. Bloomsbury Publishing.