Rebels: The Boxer Rebellion

The Hundred Days’ Reform also coincided with an upsurge of anti-Western sentiment in the north of China directed, in part, at the growth of missionary settlements. Every major Christian denomination established a range of educational and church-affiliated institutions across the country after the Treaty of Nanking in 1842.

Beginning in the French and German Catholic missionary communities in Shandong, local Chinese felt the Western missionaries protected only the local Christian converts. When legal decisions needed to be made or family disputes arose, Western missionaries could bypass local authorities since they were exempt from various laws, which only compounded the animosity. The resentment was further deepened when the region experienced severe droughts, followed by disastrous floods and economic strife. With the building of railroads by Western investors, and other aspects of imperialism, the anger grew. This despair created the foundation for another civil rebellion composed largely of unemployed peasants and farmers, anti-foreign in belief and violent in action. They were called the Boxers by foreigners because of the martial arts many of the rebels practiced.

The beginning of the Boxer Rebellion can be traced to the 1899 killing of two priests by two Boxer members visiting a German missionary in Juye County, China. In response, Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German leader at the time, dispatched German troops to the scene of the crime, which further angered the rebels. The ongoing presence of foreign military to intimidate and attempt to control the local population ignited a spark of rebellion. By late October they occupied a Catholic church that had once been a temple to the Jade emperor and continued on their path of violence. “Support the Qing, destroy the foreigners” became their slogan as they continued to resist foreign military control.

Feng Jinyu and Li Mingde were interviewed in 1966 about their activities with the Boxers in their youth. They recall:

Girls who joined the Boxers were called “Shining Red Lanterns” as they dressed all in red, held a little red lantern in one hand and in the other a red fan. All of them were unmarried girls about eigh- teen or nineteen years old. In every village there were girls who joined the Shining Red Lanterns but they did not want others to see their rituals so they would practice only at night when it was dark. There was a song then that went:

Learn to be a Boxer, Study Red Lantern.

Kill all the foreign devils and make churches burn.1

As the Chinese aversion and anger to foreigners escalated, their safety became increasingly precarious as the Boxers’ armed struggle continued. One British newspaper gave the following account:

Peking, May 20 [1900.] From all parts of the surrounding coun- try news is constantly arriving of fresh atrocities committed by the “Boxers.” On the 20th inst., at Shan-lai-ying, sixty miles from Peking three Christian families were murdered, only two persons escaping. . . .

Besides this, much of the rolling stock was burned or otherwise damaged by the rioters, and some large godowns [warehouses] full of valuable merchandise were burned after their contents had been looted. The total amount of the damage is roughly estimated at half a million taels [a weight measurement in China.] Among the rolling stock destroyed was the Imperial Palace car, which alone cost 1,700 taels. . . .

I am informed that the attack on the place was made by villagers living in the neighborhood, led by some of the “Boxers.” This gives the affair an even more serious complexion, as it shows that the movement is more widespread than had been imagined.2 

Initially Qing troops suppressed the Boxers, but in January 1900 the dynasty ordered that the Boxers should not be considered bandits. When the Boxer Rebellion reached Beijing’s (Peking’s) foreign legations (embassies) in the spring of 1900, more violence was unleashed against foreigners.3 They burned Christian churches, killed Chinese Christians, and violently intimidated any Chinese official who attempted to suppress their revolt. The violence continued to escalate into what is known today as the “siege of the legations,” or the occupation of foreign embassies. The empress dowager implored all foreigners to leave the city immediately, and when many remained barricaded out of fear for their lives, she declared war on all foreigners and allied herself with the Boxers. In response, the Eight-Nation Alliance (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) sent their own military forces to end the siege. The Boxers were overwhelmed. Fearing for her safety, the empress fled to Xi’an, a safe location at the time, with her high-ranking Qing officials and remained there until a final peace agreement, the Boxer Protocol, was signed in 1901.4

The empress dowager and the Qing court had suffered another humiliating defeat. For the past 60 years, Western powers had slowly eroded Chinese sovereignty and undermined Qing legitimacy and power. By the turn of the twentieth century new leaders of resistance movements, such as the Boxers, introduced the possibility for their nation to be strong once again.

Troops of the Eight Nations Alliance, left to right: Britain, United States, Australian Colonial, British India, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Italy, Japan.

A Boxer Solidier waving a flag, 1900.



Connection Questions

  1. How do you explain the violence against foreigners during the Boxer rebellion? What might it suggest about the way many Chinese felt about the direction their country was taking?

  2. How did the Boxer Rebellion differ from the earlier Taiping Rebellion? What developments in China can you reference that may have contributed to these differences?

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