The Boxer Rebellion
China History

Research Report
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China never wanted foreigners any more than foreigners wanted Chinamen, and on this question I am with the Boxers every time.  The Boxer is a patriot.  He loves his country better than he does countries of other people.  I wish him success.
-Mark Twain, Berkeley Lyceum, New York, November 23, 1900

     The Boxer Rebellion was a movement at the turn of the century driven by a secret society determined to drive out the foreigners they believed to be destroying their nation.  Despite the eventual backing of the Chinese government, the movement was failure.  The combined international response that it drew served only to emphasize China's weakness and contributed to the downfall of the imperial government.

Historical Background

       China holds a long tradition of being suspicious of "foreign barbarians".  Their fear and suspicion of outsiders was only increased by the events of the Opium War in 1840 and the Arrow War of 1856.  The underlying purpose of both these conflicts was to change the manner in which China carried on foreign trade.  In both cases, China was forced to submit to the will of the militarily superior foreign nations.
        However, the foreign powers were not content to increase merely their commercial claims in China.  Their imperialist desires led them to claim many of China's colonies as their own.  Concerned with this trend, the Chinese government attempted to strengthen the country in order to counteract the increase in Western influence.  The failure of these efforts became painfully obvious when China suffered defeat at the hands of Japan in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895.  This demonstration of Chinese weakness left Western nations eager to stake their claim in China.  Russia, Germany, and Great Britain all claimed Chinese ports as their own.  Italy, France, and Austria also controlled Chinese territory.  The United States, whose presence in Asia was cemented by its control of the Philippines, was so concerned about this unchecked claiming of ports that they issued the Open Door Policy, an effort to protect their access to Chinese markets.  As these nations fought to establish the upper hand in China, China's empress dowager, Tsu Hsi, was searching for ways to close China to foreigners.  She issued this statement to the Chinese provinces:

The present situation is becoming... more difficult.  The various Powers cast upon us
looks of tiger-like voracity, hustling each other to be first to seize our innermost
territories... we have no alternative but to rely upon the justice of our cause... what is there
to fear from any invader?  Let us not think about making peace.
Research Report

   While the empress dowager was concerned about foreign encroachment, Chinese peasants were more concerned with the drought, famine, and  unemployment sweeping the nation.  Many of these peasants turned to secret societies that preached hatred of foreigners.  In the northern Shangdong province, membership in a secret society known as the I Ho Ch'uan, translated into English as "Fists of Righteous Harmony" was growing.  Members of this group were referred to as “Boxers” by foreigners.  They practiced an animistic magic that they believed made them impervious to pain.  This leaders of this group attracted followers by demonstrating their “magical powers”.  They would stage elaborate ceremonies in which they appeared to be invested with supernatural powers of invulnerability. They believed that China could start a new golden age if it rid itself of foreigners.  They were passionate, confident, and full of violent emotion.  By January of 1900, the entire Western community in China was aware of the Boxers, who boldly stated their intentions on posted placards reading "Protect the Empire: Exterminate Foreigners".
       The Chinese imperial leadership was initially opposed to the Boxers, and went so far as to promise foreigners ministers that they would act against them.  However the empress dowager saw an opportunity to use the group against the foreigners.  She used her ministers to influence the Boxers, eventually supporting their actions with provincial troops.  As the year 1900 dawned, Boxers roamed wild through the countryside, launching attacks on foreigners.  They specifically targeted missionaries and their Chinese converts, obvious examples of foreign influence, viciously slaughtering them.  The Boxers then turned their focus to cities, their numbers growing.  Nervous foreign diplomats asked the Chinese government for help, but all they received in return were empty promises. In the spring of 1900, Boxers killed seventy Chinese Christians.  On May 29, they killed a British missionary.  Foreign ministers threatened to call up troops if the Chinese did not put a stop to the rebellion.

   Military Escalation

On June 9, 1900, the British Minister in Peking sent a telegram to British Admiral Sir Edward Seymour and the British Consul at Tientsin urgently requesting that additional troops be sent to protect the British legation in the city.  The next day, an international force of over 1, 500 men under Seymour's command was dispatched by train from Tientsin.  This force encountered hostile Boxers several times during its push towards Peking.  Eventually the expedition had to turn back, due to the fact that Boxers had torn up the rail tracks.  Seymour's force also ran into troops from the Chinese army that had been dispatched to assist the Boxers.  As word of troops' movement towards Peking spread, riots broke out across the country.  The Chinese government readied itself for war, viewing the additional troops as unnecessary, that foreign troops already in Peking could provide adequate protection for the British legation.  The empress dowager called on provincial leaders to send troops to Peking, preparing to counter foreign hostility.
       At this time the Chinese government did not intend to start a war, only to protect China from foreign aggression and to use the Boxers in that defense.  However at the same time that Seymour's troops were making their unsuccessful movement towards Peking, the Allied navies in the Gulf of Pechilhi demanded that China surrender control of the Taku forts, which were of strategic importance.  To the Allies' surprise, the Chinese opened fire.  An Allied landing force quickly took control of the forts, but this incident made it clear to all involved that the Allies, displeased with the Chinese government, planned to mount a massive military campaign against the Boxers.

  Under Siege

        As the Allied forces made their move, the situation grew increasingly worse for foreigners already in China.  On June 17th the Boxers attacked the area of Tientsin inhabited by foreigners.  Last minute fortifications installed by the foreigners were the only things that saved their lives.  All lines of communication had been cut off, but a few brave men from the military forces stationed in the city to protect the foreign legations risked their lives riding their the Boxer lines to get help from the forces landing at the Taku forts.  This siege lasted for 27 days.  Finally, on July 14 the Allies gathered a strong enough force to defeat the Boxer forces and secure their base in Tientsin.
      In Peking, the capital, the foreigners gathered at the British legation and fortified it for defense.  With the assistance of soldiers and marines stationed there for their protection, the foreigners were able to hold off attacks from a combined force of Boxers and the Imperial army.  Maintaining the perimeter proved to be difficult as the Chinese army brought in artillery to shell the legation.  The situation seemed so dire to outsiders that many outside of China believed that everyone in the legation had been killed, and doubted the need for a "rescue" mission.  But the legation's defenses held, and on August 14 they were liberated by Allied
     The Allies split Peking into eight regions, each governed by a different nation.  Soldiers and diplomats alike looted the city.  Troop build up continued, and the forces occupied themselves and fulfilled their desire for revenge by eradicating every last trace of the Boxers they could find.  Anyone suspected of being a Boxer or sympathetic to the Boxer cause was executed.
      The foreign powers forced the imperial government to agree to the terms of the Boxer Protocol in September of 1901.  This agreement was a slap in the face for China, as it required the stationing of foreign troops in the capital.  It also suspended the Chinese civil service exam, ended arms imports, and demanded a huge indemnity.  This humiliating agreement sent China on its way to radical reforms.

Historical Significance

    While the Boxer Rebellion was an important demonstration of Chinese nationalism, it also provided the nation with a crucial wake up call.  It resulted in a decline in Chinese status in the world and was detrimental to the status of the imperial government.  China was forced to face the fact that its previous attempts at self strengthening had failed.  After the Boxer Rebellion and the display of foreign dominance over China, the nation had no choice but to examine its traditional views and make an effort to regain its status as a force to be reckoned with in Asia.  The humiliation suffered by the imperial government revealed its weakness and lessened its credibility amongst the Chinese citizenry.  It demonstrated the government's ignorance and inability to control events within their own borders.  This incident was another in a long string of events that forced upon China the reality of their situation.  They discovered that they must modernize, in effect Westernize, in order to contend as a world power.


Buck, David D.  Recent Chinese Studies of the Boxer Movement; .  M.E. Sharpe Inc,NY.  1987
Ching-shan.  The Diary of His Excellency Ching-shan.  University Publications Of America, Inc, Arlington, VA. 1976.
Mackerras, Colin.  China in Transformation 1900-1949.  Addison Wesley Longman Limited, London. 1998.
Sharf, Frederic A. and Peter Harrington.  China 1900: The Eyewitnesses Speak. Greenhill Books, London.  2000.
Sharf, Frederic A. and Peter Harrington.  The Boxer Rebellion, China 1900.  Greenhill Books, London. 2000.
Tan, Chester C. The Boxer Catastrophe.  Columbia University Press, NY.  1955

Web Resources  A Chinese Christian's account   Military Action   Summary of Qing Dynasty and Boxer Rebellion   Summary of Events   Summary of Events and Military Action   Summary of Events