Boxers on trial before the High Court, China.

The Boxer Rebellion of 1899–1900 was a bloody uprising against Western imperialism in north China. The Boxers, a group known for their expertise in the martial arts, targeted both foreigners and Chinese Christians. Foreign troops were sent in to put down the rebellion, resulting eventually in even more foreign control over the Chinese government.

The Boxer Rebellion broke out in Shandong Province in 1899 and spread across much of north China before it ended in 1900, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of foreign missionaries and thousands of Chinese. In its aftermath foreign powers greatly increased their control over the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) court, and the partitioning of China seemed a real possibility.

The rebellion began in western Shandong among secret societies. As elsewhere in China commoners in Shandong often looked to secret societies and sectarian groups for mutual aid, religious and magical services, and martial arts training, the latter causing these groups to be labeled “Boxers.” The Boxers most prominent in the rebellion were the Boxers United in Righteousness (Yihetuan), who drew members from various groups, including the Small Sword Society (known for its invulnerability magic—the belief that potions, charms, and martial-arts rituals would protect them against bullets), and the Spirit Boxers, who provided techniques for mass spirit possession. The rebellion grew rapidly in part because of local unhappiness with the increasing power of Christian missionaries, especially German Catholics in Shandong, but above all because of the drought, floods, and growing famine in north China. As the rebellion spread it became increasingly violent and led to a number of attacks against Christian missionaries and Chinese Christians. Traditional policy for dealing with peasant rebellions called for executing the leaders and encouraging the followers to return home. In this case the policy merely encouraged the spread of the rebellion and made it more diffuse. By late 1899 the rebellion was spreading rapidly. The court was divided on the issue of the Boxers, with some officials favoring support because the Boxers’ slogan, “Support the Qing, destroy the foreign,” suggested that the Boxers’ popular antiforeignism could be used for the court’s benefit.

Foreign Guards Sent In

As the situation became increasingly chaotic, foreign countries sent guards to their legations in Beijing. In June 1900 the Boxers cut the railway line between Tianjin and Beijing, and a force of 2,100 foreign troops was sent from Tianjin to protect the legations in Beijing. This expedition was turned back by the Boxers, convincing some officials at the court, including the empress dowager, Cixi (1835–1908), that the Boxers could in fact defeat foreign troops. Although the empress dowager apparently did not believe in the invulnerability magic that the Boxers claimed to have, she was impressed with their ability to rally mass support. On 21 June the court declared war on all Western powers, seeing the movement as a way to retaliate against increasing foreign Imperialism. This official Qing backing led the rebellion to spread rapidly across north China, but many provincial officials remained skeptical of the Boxers, and most of them made no effort to attack foreigners or to encourage the rebellion. Many foreigners and thousands of Chinese Christians were killed during the summer, mostly in Shanxi, Zhili, and Inner Mongolia.

On 4 August twenty thousand foreign troops, including British, French, American, Russian, and German, and with more than half of them from Japan, began marching toward Beijing. They had already taken the city of Tianjin back from the Boxers and Qing troops after heavy fighting, and they drove quickly toward the capital, where the foreign legations had been under siege since June. Foreign troops entered Beijing on 14 August, and members of the court fled disguised as commoners. The Boxers in the countryside dispersed rapidly, in part because the rebellion had been defeated and in part because the drought had ended. The foreign troops looted the city and launched a series of punitive expeditions into the countryside. The German troops, whose minister had been killed, were particularly interested in extracting revenge and teaching the Chinese a lesson—the two main purposes of the punitive expeditions.

In the aftermath of the rebellion the Chinese were forced to agree to the Boxer Protocols. These required China to pay the Western powers affected by the uprising an indemnity of 450 million taels of silver (although some governments later refunded some of the money), to destroy all the forts between Beijing and the sea, to allow the stationing of foreign troops along the route to the capital, and to agree to the creation of a permanent legation guard. A number of officials were to be punished, including Prince Zhuang, who was ordered to commit suicide. The civil service exams were to be suspended for five years in forty-five cities where the Boxers had been active. These provisions were important steps toward foreign control over China. The indemnity, plus interest, was a huge drain on the government, making it even more dependent on foreign loans. The demands for the punishment of officials and the suspension of exams were more intrusive involvement in the government of China than foreigners had ever demanded before, and after the rebellion foreign consuls exerted even more control over the Chinese government. The Russians had taken advantage of the rebellion to move into Manchuria, and although pressure from the other powers eventually forced Russia to leave after the rebellion, the partitioning of China—or “carving the melon,” as Chinese nationalists called it—seemed a real possibility.

Boxer Influence

The Boxers influenced China and its relationship with the outside world long after they had been dispersed. Foreigners continued to refer to the danger of “boxerism” (wild, irrational violence) as a justification for foreign power inside China. Chinese views of the rebellion were more mixed, with the anti-imperialist May Fourth reformers seeing the Boxers as an example of the feudal backwardness that was weakening China, and the Communists seeing the Boxers as an example of the power of the aroused masses and proof of the Chinese peasantry’s innate hatred of imperialism.

Further Reading

Bickers, R., & Tiedermann, R. G. (Eds.). (2007). The Boxers, China and the world. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Brandt, N. (1994). Massacre in Shansi. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Cohen, P. A. (1997). History in three keys: The Boxers as event, experience and myth. New York: Columbia University Press.

Esherick, J. (1987). The origins of the Boxer uprising. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Source: Baumler, Alan. (2009). Boxer Rebellion. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 197–199. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Firing a volley from shelter of bank—Chinese soldiers at Tien-Tsin, China. STEREOGRAPHIC PRINT, C. 1900 BY B. L. SINGLEY.

Company of Boxers, Tien-Tsin, China. STEREOGRAPHIC PRINT, C. 1901 BY B. L. SINGLEY.

Boxer Rebellion (Yìhétuán Yùndòng ?????)|Yìhétuán Yùndòng ????? (Boxer Rebellion)

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