The Boxer Rebellion
By 1900, most of the globe had fallen under the sway of imperialist powers, both old and new, and few regions were left untouched. China was forced into a series of concessions by foreign powers, but there was still plenty left to plunder. The empires of the world sought to carve out a bigger piece of China for themselves while preventing their rivals from doing the same. China was officially co-ruled by the Empress Dowager Cixi and her nephew the Guangxu Emperor, but in reality, the Empress held the power. Cixi was a woman of considerable talent and intelligence but was caught between the Qing’s dire need for dramatic reform and restoring power. Efforts to modernize China faltered as they were undermined by the failure to reform the government.
China’s population exploded from about 150 million in 1700 to over 450 million by 1900. Agricultural output had not developed in step with this growth in population, leaving food supplies vulnerable. A flood in 1898 in the Shandong province was followed by droughts in the following years, devastating the region. Such a huge labor pool in the country also slowed efforts toward industrialization. With so many able bodies, there was less need to harness the power of machines and any efforts to do so would put millions out of work. As foreign companies competed to build railways in China, the livelihoods of a vast number of laborers were rendered obsolete.
The anger locals felt toward railways was matched by the disdain felt towards Christianity. This wasn’t so much an ideological stance, as much as it was hatred for the privileges Chinese Christians enjoyed over non-Christian locals. For instance, with conversion to Christianity came legal support from the foreign missionaries present in China. Locals resented the cynical practice of criminals converting and then enlisting the legal clout of the missionaries. By the turn of the 20th century, vast swathes of the Chinese population were angry, hungry, and poor—conditions which would lead to catastrophe.
A group known as the Righteous Fists of Harmony, better known as the Boxers, rose at this time. They were a loose confederation of groups without leaders rather than a centralized organization. The Boxers had a simple ideology which can be boiled down to two key tenets. The first was the practice of displays of martial arts and religious rituals, which supposedly granted them “invulnerability” toward gunshots and knife attacks. The second was the slogan aimed at the source of China’s ills.
“Support the Qing, exterminate the foreigners.”
Violence against Christians escalated from angry rhetoric to the killing of a missionary at the turn of 1900. Local magistrates were soon losing control of the situation, and by May of 1900, the unrest was present in Beijing. Foreign officials in China’s capital grew nervous at the sight of the Boxers, identifiable by red sashes, and requested soldiers to secure the embassies.
On June 1st, two American missionaries were captured and killed by the Boxers. This was followed by attacks on foreign businesses, which sparked outrage from the international community and demands for retribution. The Qing response to the Boxers was not entirely clear to the locals, leading to suspicions that Cixi supported them. Cixi’s true feelings on the matter were never clear, as her opinion seemed to shift as the situation changed.
The crisis continued to escalate, as a Japanese official was killed on June 11th and sporadic bouts of violence between the Boxers and foreign troops broke out. The Empress Dowager called for foreigners to leave the city on June 19th. A German minister, Baron von Ketteler, left with armed escorts, hoping for a safe passage the next day. Ketteler was killed when he and his men encountered Chinese troops. The exact details of what transpired remain murky.
Ketteler’s death prompted retaliation from the German troops, who then shot and killed 10 locals suspected of being Boxers. The remaining delegates refused to leave the compound, and the soldiers dug in to protect them from the crowd outside. They were left with little choice but to fortify the embassies and hope for rescue.
News of the besieged embassies reached the port city of Tianjin, and the British admiral Edward Seymour decided to gather an expeditionary force to relieve them. Thinking it was nothing more than a local revolt, Seymour made few preparations for the journey. The expedition left by rail but soon ran into difficulties when they found the tracks broken up. They were soon attacked by the Boxers who were armed with whatever they could find. The Boxers showed no fear, but courage alone could not overcome the mismatch in firepower. The expedition was left shaken by the suicidal bravery of the Boxers. A second attack killed a group of Italians separated from the army and only the timely intervention of a machine gun prevented the expedition from being overwhelmed.
As Seymour’s expedition was beginning to run into difficulties, the remaining soldiers in Tianjin went to capture the coastal forts in nearby Dagu. The forts were extremely important for allowing the free passage of troops and supplies and represented a huge strategic threat if they fell into hostile hands. It should be noted here that the state of China was not actually at war yet, so the troops sent an ultimatum to the fort garrisons to vacate immediately. Sometime before the deadline, fighting broke out and the Japanese claimed the first of the forts.
On June 21st, with news of the hostilities at Dagu and the Seymour expedition running into problems, Cixi decided to cast her lot with the Boxers and declared war. The tantalizing prospect of running the hated foreign element out of China was sorely tempting, and the attacks on Dagu strengthened the arguments of those supporting the war. The army nearly caught the retreating Seymour expedition on June 22nd.
Mustering an army proved quite difficult for the non-Chinese allies. The Americans and British were already engaged in difficult wars in the Philippines and South Africa. A detachment of US troops was pulled from service in the Philippines while the British dispatched whatever forces could be spared, a sizable portion of which came from India. Russia and Japan had a military presence in the area and committed the largest number of troops to the effort. Germany sent a little over 1,300 troops, while the remaining powers of France, Italy, and Austria-Hungary sent very few.
The next question was who would lead the combined army when it was fully assembled. The Japanese and Russians were bitter rivals and would not tolerate the other taking command. The United States didn’t have enough troops present to make a serious case, and France, Italy, and Austria-Hungary had even less to work with. That left Britain and Germany and neither were terribly popular with the others. Though Russia did not particularly like Germany, they backed them anyway, eager to get one over Britain.
The chosen commander was Baron Alfred von Waldersee, who was still in Berlin. The allied forces moved quickly to secure Tianjin after the declaration of war by Cixi. The city had a sizable presence of foreign officials and businessmen which included the future president Herbert Hoover. On July 13th, the Allies attacked without success, but a night raid by the Japanese turned the tide and Tianjin was secured the following day. The coalition forces ruthlessly ransacked the city in the aftermath of the battle.
Unwilling to wait on von Waldersee and let the Germans get credit, the British officer Alfred Gaselee, with American support, compelled the others to launch a second expedition to relieve Beijing. A total of 19,000 men left Tianjin. Two battles were fought en route to Beijing on August 5th and 6th, which were won fairly easily by the allies. The troops struggled under the intense heat and discipline began to break down. The allied column grew ragged as the army moved as separate nations rather than one cohesive force. Despite this, they made it to Beijing unscathed, as resistance had all but disappeared.
The Boxers vanished after the second battle. There are a few explanations, but the simplest one is the end of the drought. With the coming rains, the Boxers rushed home to attend the fields. Just as no authority had compelled them to assemble, no leader could force them to stay. The Qing’s resolve weakened and some provisional governors simply refused to send help. Cixi and her court fled Beijing ahead of the approaching allies.
The attack on Beijing began on August 14th when the Russian and Japanese forces stole out in front to take the city walls first. The attack is best understood as several individual efforts rather than one combined assault. Each member of the alliance tried to outdo the other by being the first over the walls. An American colonel thought his men had won the prize only to learn that the Welsh and Indian troops of the British Empire had beaten his men to it. The imperial city was taken the following day and though pockets of Chinese troops fought to the very end, the attackers were stunned at how lightly the city had been defended.
Just as with Tianjin, victory gave way to looting with the soldiers and officers alike helping themselves to the riches of the Qing dynasty. The shameless thievery by the so-called “forces of civilization” caused a minor scandal in the international press. With the capital taken, there was little to do but occupy the city and begin peace negotiations. Alfred von Waldersee finally arrived in Beijing in October 1900; the commander of a war already won.
Peace negotiations were drawn out as the Qing attempted to make the best of a dire situation. The old strategy of playing foreign powers off against each other was hardly going to work here. The main points of the treaty were the provision of financial reparations, further concessions to the embassies in Beijing, and the destruction of coastal forts. A further humiliation came in the form of the Ketteler memorial; the Chinese were compelled to build a memorial gate for the slain German official.
Most of the outcomes were short-lived; the Russo-Japanese war broke soon after and all of the alliance would soon fight in World War One. Cixi died in 1908 and the Qing dynasty fell soon after in 1911.
Okay, before we go, let’s quickly recap what we’ve discussed. In 1900, in what became known as the Boxer Rebellion, a secretive organization called the Boxers led an uprising in northern China against the spread of Christianity and Japanese culture. This group was called the Boxers because of their physical rituals that resembled boxing, which they performed to make themselves invulnerable. The Boxers killed foreigners and Chinese Christians, while destroying foreign property. The Boxers then besieged Beijing until an international force subdued the uprising. Unable to recover from the war, the Qing dynasty soon collapsed.
That’s all for this review! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!