The Boxer Rebellion of 1899
Name of Event: The Boxer Rebellion
Date of Event: 2 November 1899 – 7 September 1901 (One Year, Ten Months, and Five Days)
Location: Northern China
Outcome: Allied Victory
Participants: British Empire; France; Russia; Germany; Japan; United States; Italy; Austria-Hungary; Netherlands; Belgium; Spain; Qing Dynasty; Boxers
On 2 November 1899, an anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, and anti-Christian movement known as the “Boxer Rebellion” took place in northern China during the waning years of the Qing Dynasty. Motivated by nationalist sentiments, and opposed to Western ideals of colonialism and Christianity, the Boxer movement, which was initiated by the “Militia United in Righteousness” (or “Boxers” in English, due to their practice of Chinese martial arts) rose up against China’s foreign occupiers in the midst of famine and drought that had been caused by regional divisions devised by the European powers. Backed by the Imperial Army of China, on 2 November 1899 the Boxers declared war on foreign civilians and Christians in an attempt to regain control of their country. In response to the uprising, European and American forces established an “Eight-Nation Alliance” that sought to bring back stability to China through the implementation of 20,000 troops. The effects of the Boxer Rebellion, in turn, would have dramatic consequences for China in the years and decades that followed.
Background and Origins of the Boxers
The Boxers developed as an organized response to foreign pressure within China. The term “Boxers” was given to the group originally known as the Yihequan (“Righteous and Harmonious Fists”) who practiced Chinese martial arts. The group was believed to have been a division of the “Eight Trigrams Society” (or Baguajiao) which had waged war against the Qing Dynasty during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, respectively.
As foreign exploitation of China resulted in economic depravity, and natural disasters such as famine and drought only brought additional woe to the Chinese countryside, the Boxer movement began to re-establish itself as a power in northern China. Advocating the complete destruction of the Qing Dynasty along with the expulsion of foreign powers within China, the Boxers gained unprecedented support amongst the Chinese countryside as anti-Western sentiment grew with each passing day of drought and famine.
The Boxers were further agitated by the presence of western missionaries, whom the movement viewed as destroyers of their people and culture. By 1899, resentment and anger turned into full-fledge rebellion, as Boxers across Northern China openly engaged western Christians, diplomats, and soldiers in an attempt to push all foreign influence out of China once and for all.
By May of 1900, the Rebellion had reached the outskirts of the Chinese capital in Beijing, forcing an international force of 2,100 men to be dispatched from the port at Tianjin to Beijing. By 13 June, however, the relief force was halted by the Imperial Army, who blocked all roads into Beijing, forcing the task force to retreat back to the port. Now backed by the Army, the Boxers proceeded into Beijing with ease, and began a systematic purging of churches and foreign-based homes, killing all suspected foreigners (or foreign sympathizers) on sight. On 18 June, the Boxers, under the direction of the empress dowager, expanded their murderous rampage to include foreign ministers and their families who resided in the capital. Facing certain death at the hands of the Boxers, foreign Christians and government workers took up residence in the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Beijing as the rebellion continued to grow unabated.
In response to news of the uprising, as well as the deaths of Christians and foreign ministers, an international task force was rapidly assembled from Russia and Japan, as well as the United States, France, Austria-Hungary, Britain, and Italy. Forming an Eight-Nation Alliance, the international force quickly regained control of Beijing by 14 August 1900, relieving the numerous foreigners and Christians that had taken refuge in the Cathedral.
Outmanned and outmaneuvered, the Boxers along with the empress dowager retreated towards the West in an attempt to regroup near the Shaanxi province. After lengthy discussions with the Eight-Nation Alliance, the Boxers finally agreed to the signing of a protocol in September of 1901, nearly a year after the task force arrived, ending hostilities and providing tremendous reparations to each of the foreign powers that were involved in suppressing the uprising.
Following the arrival of the international alliance, Beijing and several other cities of Northern China remained under occupation for more than a year under the command of German officer, Alfred Graf von Waldersee. Atrocities were all too common under the occupation forces, as the western powers sought to avenge the loss of Christians and foreign civilians that had been slaughtered during the uprising. In the anti-Boxer campaign that followed the capture of Beijing in August 1900, General Yuan Shikai of the Chinese and the Eight-Nation Alliance killed tens of thousands of suspected Boxers across the northern Chinese countryside.
German, Japanese, and Russian forces were among the worst offenders during the occupation, as they quickly garnered a reputation for ruthlessness in their pursuit of Boxers; often executing Chinese citizens from all backgrounds, and destroying entire villages to set examples to anyone who might dare oppose the foreign occupation. Although Germany entered the conflict shortly after the defeat of the Boxers at Beijing, German troops, eager to take part in some form of fighting, often engaged in punitive operations that were described by observers as “an orgy of looting” (Wikipedia.org).
The international occupation force also engaged in widespread looting of Chinese goods and materials stolen from villages and individuals across the countryside, filling entire boxcars with freight to be delivered abroad.
“When the foreign barbarians preach their religion, they say they are urging men to do good, but in fact, they are disrupting our government, creating turmoil in our system, destroying our customs, and deceiving our people – that is to say, they want to turn the people of China into barbarians.”— Liu Dapeng
Long-term Consequences of the Boxer Rebellion
After hostilities ceased between the western powers and the Boxer Movement, the European powers determined that the best way to control China was through the manipulation of the ruling dynasty. As colonial ventures in China came to an end during the aftermath of the uprising, however, European dominance over China dwindled substantially in the years that followed. With the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, and the domination of Asian affairs by the Japanese Empire following their seizure of Manchuria in 1905, China slipped closer and closer to civil war with the development of the Nationalist movement in 1911.
As the Qing Dynasty began its rapid collapse, China also devolved into a chaotic period known as the “warlord era” in which powerful warlords of the north seized control of vast expanses of the Chinese interior for themselves, plunging China into political and military chaos. Scenes, such as this, only opened the door for further disarray as the First and Second World Wars created an environment ripe for Communist takeover in the wake of World War Two by Mao Zedong.
Before reading this article, were you aware that an uprising known as the "Boxer Rebellion" had occurred in China?
In closing, the Boxer Rebellion represented a pinnacle turning point in Chinese history as the uprising spelled certain doom for the Qing Dynasty. With nearly 100,000 people killed during the conflict (mostly Chinese Christians and civilians), along with 200-250 foreign nationals and approximately 3,000 foreign military personnel, the conflict is one that will long be remembered by historians and scholars, alike. While the Boxers failed in their attempt to seize power within China, their efforts eventually proved successful in the long term, given the withdrawal of western powers from the region. However, the withdrawal also spelled political, social, and economic chaos for China, as the country became embroiled in civil war during the warlord era following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty.
Wikipedia contributors, "Boxer Rebellion," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Boxer_Rebellion&oldid=891889214 (accessed April 17, 2019).
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© 2019 Larry Slawson