Friend or Foe?  
The Boxers and Their Unsuccessful Rebellion
China History

Research Report
Web Resources


    “For the past thirty years the foreigners have taken advantage of our country's benevolence and generosity as well as our wholehearted conciliation to give free reign to their unscrupulous ambitions.  They have oppressed our state, encroached upon our territory, trampled upon our people, and exacted our wealth.  Every concession made by the Court has caused them day-by-day to rely more upon violence until they shrink from nothing. In small matters they oppress peaceful people; in large matters they insult what is divine and holy. All the people of our community are so full of anger and grievances that every one desires to take vengeance”  
 -- Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi (
Photo attributed to Princess Der Ling:  Empress Dowager Tz'u-hsi, 1903.  
The Empress Dowager poses in a scene that portrays her as a Buddhist 
Goddess of Mercy.  Li Lien-ying, the chief  eunuch is to her right.

Around 1900, after many years of succumbing to the superior military of the West, the Chinese stood up for their country. China was a weak country, exploited by the West. The Chinese felt that they could counter the foreign domination, but reforms had proven ineffective.  They needed something to build confidence -- to spark a belief in themselves that they could  conquer the foreign powers. This spark was the Society of Harmonious Fists, commonly known as "Boxers."  Members of this Soceity, combined with general discontent among the people and new weapons technology, emboldened the Chinese to rebel against the foreign powers.

Historical Background

At the end of the nineteenth century, the xenophobic movement in China was strengthening. Many issues led to this anti-foreign attitude. The dividing of China’s best ports and cities into "Spheres of Influence" controlled by Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and Japan were an element to the Boxer’s rebellion. American Secretary of State, John Hays “Open Door” policy that divided the economic privileges of the Chinese among other world powers, also caused the hatred of foreign nations. The increasing efforts of the Christian missionaries in China to convert the population, who were open in their disgust for the Chinese customs, caused much anger and violence. China was being suffocated by stronger imperialistic nations. Thus as 1900 dawned, China was swept by a terrorist movement known as the Boxer Rebellion. 

Photographer Unknown:  Ruins of Peking, 1900.  Boxer rebels and imperial troops attacked the section of Peking in which Western merchants and diplomats lived.

Research Report

The Boxers were a secret Chinese society bent on driving the "foreign devils" out once and for all. No one seems to know the exact origin of the Boxers (I Ho Ch'uan, which means Righteous Harmonious Fists); the translation by Americans came to be known as the "boxers" (  They may have originated in the 1700s, because Jesuit missionaries were expelled in 1747 due to Boxer influence. Why the Boxers in 1900 were able to garner so much influence has never been answered.

The rise in Boxer support could be attributed to the amount of imperial support for the movement. Most notably, support came from Prince Tuan and to a certain extent, the Dowager Empress, Tzu Hsi. This "unofficial" imperial support of the Boxer society was not the only contribution. China had recently suffered natural disasters as well as military, political, and economic sanctions placed on them by the Western powers. China was defeated in 1894-1895 by Japan, with Japan emerging as the most powerful of the Asian powers.

The Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1900 is tied into a complex system of conflicts between China and the outer world, between the central government and the regions, between the peasants and elite. All of these conflicts compounded each other, even though the Boxer Rebellion started in Shangdong as a movement against foreigners and foreign influence in China, especially against the presence of Christian missionaries. In the late 1850s missionaries were rather free in their activities inside China, but conflicts arose in Shandong when in 1897 two missionaries were killed, and the German government in turn used this as an excuse to occupy the Kiaochow Bay in order to build a German city there (Purcell, 67-81). Russia demanded and subsequently received a lease on the ports of Port Arthur and Darien, Britain obtained Wei-Hai-Wei, and France seized Kwangchowwan. Additionally, the completion of the Tientsin-Peking railroad put thousands of Chinese workers out of work.  The subsequent removal of Chinese territories in the hands of foreigners, the degredation they felt over the slights imposed by the foreign class, as well as the drastically increasing influence of foreign powers in Chinese culture sparked the way for a rebellion to be accepted by the people of China.

The Boxers believed that they had been made invulnerable by sorcery and incantation, and they began to win recruits late in 1899. Their beliefs of resisting Europeanization to preserve the purity of the soul of China was soon translated into a message of death to the "foreign devils" and their collaborators.  As Chinese people began to turn to these secret societies, which had always preached hatred of the western foreigners, the Boxers began to emerge between 1898 and 1899 from the underground and to preach in the open. The Chinese government’s stance was initially anti-Boxer, but eventually officials openly supported the movement. Military commanders and governors who were anti-Boxer were removed from command and replaced with pro-Boxers.  Without restraining leadership or organization, in early 1900 the Boxer’s began to raid outposts and symbols of western influence, including missions. The attacks were gruesome. Men and women were hacked to death with swords, burned alive in their compounds.  Sometimes they were dragged and tortured through howling mobs before their execution, after which their severed heads were displayed in cages on village gates. Between 1898 and 1899, the Boxers focused on attacking Chinese Christians, but on December 30, 1899, they killed a British missionary (Esherick, 269-270). The British and German governments immediately issued strong protests, resulting in the execution of two Boxers and the imprisonment of a third. The situation continued to worsen in early 1900, until the Dowager Empress released an imperial edict which stated that secret societies were part of Chinese culture and, therefore, were not criminal.

In the spring of 1900, the Boxers were out of control killing seventy Chinese Christians and inciting riots throughout Peking. On May 29, 1900, two British missionaries were attacked and one was killed (Sharf and Harrington, 25-30). The foreign ministers in Peking issued strong protests, and the British diplomats informed the Chinese that they had twenty-four hours to put down the Boxers or troops from the coast would be called in to quell the rioting. Foreign governments immediately demanded that the Empress Tz’u-hsi gain control over this murderous society. But the imperial court was dominated by anti-foreign attitudes that wished to throw off the imperialistic Western powers that, in their opinion, threatened the Chinese way of life.  This attitude dominated the government, the Boxers were not outlawed; rather the society launched further attacks with government approval. Churches were burned, offices destroyed, and diplomatic officials murdered. By mid-June, foreigners and Chinese Christian converts were held in a small quarter of Peking, while the countryside was at the mercy of the Boxers as they slaughtered any suspected Christians. Before the Chinese government could reply, the diplomats learned that the telegraph line between Peking and Pao Ting Fu had been cut. The foreign diplomats ordered troops up from the coast, but the efforts were halted by the Chinese. On May 31, the troops were allowed to advance into Peking. Three hundred and forty troops arrived in Peking that night, followed by another ninety troops four days later.

(British Legation Quarters in Peking 1901)

On June 9, 1900, the first of many Boxer attacks occurred against foreign property in Peking: the racecourse was burned down. Sir Claude MacDonald, the British minister to Peking along with many other foreign ministers wasting no time in lodging a protest with the Chinese government. Sir Claude also wired Admiral Seymour at the coast to begin moving a sizeable relief expedition up to Peking. By June 10th it was quite clear to the foreign citizens in the Legation Quarter that
they would be the next targets of the Boxers. The Boxers cut the telegraph line to Tientsin, stopped the mail service, collaborated with Chinese Imperial Troops, and mounted artillery on the city walls that faced the Legation Quarter. Additionally, Prince Tuan the new head of the Tsungli Yamen (Chinese Foreign Office) was announced on June 10th was a noted Boxer supporter (Sharf, 25-30).

The situation worsened the next day, when the Japanese minister was murdered while he was on his way to greet the expected Seymour relief column. The foreign ministers protested to the Chinese government, but the Chinese said that it was the work of bandits and ruffians. The foreign citizens and Chinese converts now fled to the two remaining centers of Western control in Peking, the Legation Quarter and Pei T'ang Cathedral. The foreign ministers had been unable to convince Bishop Favier, head of the Pei T'ang Catherdral, to leave and come to the Legation Quarter.  However, they did send 43 French and Italian sailors to defend the Cathedral.

By June 16th, Westerners and Chinese converts were in either the Legation Quarter or the Pei T'ang Cathedral.  On this day the Boxers set fire to a large area of Peking. After the fire had been put out, there were two very tense but uneventful days. Then on June 19th, the Chinese Foreign Office sent an ultimatum to the Legations. The ultimatum stated that the foreigners should evacuate Peking within twenty-four hours because the Chinese government could no longer guarantee their safety. They offered the foreigners safe conduct to Tientsin on the morning of June 20th (  All of the foreign ministers agreed that they should not move, and they decided to buy some time by requesting an audience with the Chinese Foreign Minister. They received no reply from the Foreign Office and the German minister, Baron von Ketteler, decided to seek the minister in person. He left the Legations in two sedan chairs accompanied by an interpreter. Not far from the Legations an imperial soldier stepped in Ketteler's path and killed him, and the interpreter fled and spread the news of his death. 

The revolt would not last. An international relief force of some nine thousand soldiers, under the direction of the United States as well as all of the major European powers fought its way inland from the coast. On August 14, 1900, after Empress Tz’u-hsi fled the capital, the siege was lifted. The world cheered as civilization was restored, but it was hardly an enlightened ending. The foreign troops began widespread looting of Peking and the surrounding territories in pursuit of the Boxers ( Many more Chinese civilians died due to the gunfire of both sides. While the number of European and American loses were not small, the number of Chinese Christian converts causalities numbered much higher, at more than 30,000. 

In June 1900, Britain, Russia, Japan, the United States, Germany, France, Italy, and Austria combined forces, and suffered initial defeats. However, a relief expedition consisting of British, French, Japanese, Russian, German, and American troops relieved the besieged quarter and occupied Beijing (Peking) on Aug. 14, 1900. The US suffered 53 dead and 253 wounded in the rebellion. The relief forces retained possession of the city until a peace treaty was signed on September 7th, 1901. The terms of the treaty stated the Chinese were required to pay, over a period of 40 years, an indemnity of $333 million ( Other treaty provisions included commercial concessions and the right to station foreign troops to guard the legations in Peking, as well as maintain a clear corridor from Beijing to the coast. The Middle Kingdom was not under de facto colonial rule. Despite U.S. efforts to stop further territorial encroachment, Russia extended its sphere of influence in Manchuria during the rebellion.

(Foreign Troops relaxing outside their embassy in 1901)

In 1901, China was forced into virtual disarmament and fined 333 million in reparations (which over the next forty years would double with interest) as the official punishment for the rebellion and the loses suffered. The cost of the Boxer rebellion, to the Chinese, was more than monetary; loses included the collateral damage of thousands of innocent lives, territorial loss, loss of national pride, and an even greater loss of control over the country.

In the Boxers’ protocol signed on September 7, 1901 by eleven foreign countries, China had to pay a high price for the 229 foreigners who lost their lives during the rebellion.  The government had to punish the Boxers severely, suppress any signs of militant xenophobia, allow foreign troops to be stationed at every important junction between Peking and Shanghai, and pay the aforementioned reparations. Although in the following decades this sum was never fully paid, an estimated 669 million taels were transferred from China to the foreign countries involved until the late 1930s. Some of the finest libraries and research institutes concentrating on China and Chinese history and Chinese culture were built outside China during these years due to the "Boxer indemnities." 

Historical Significance

For Western and Chinese historians alike the debate about the judgment of the Boxer Rebellion continues: was it a backward movement trying to restore the monarchy, a heroic anti-imperialist uprising betrayed by feudal reactionaries or the continuation of this unending chain of peasant uprisings?  Either way, the uprising had lasting effects that still influence life in China today.  The Peace of Peking thoroughly humiliated the Chinese state, because both existing commercial treaties were amended in favor of the Western powers, and China's coastal defenses were dismantled. This humiliation heightened the population’s rejection of foreigners, pushing greater and greater numbers of the Chinese people into supporting nationalist revolutionary movements. In 1911, the Qing Dynasty collapsed, allowing revolutionaries led by Dr Sun Yat-sen to seize power and ending more than 2,000 years of monarchy (Buck, 124-128).

The Boxer Rebellion served as yet another excuse for the powerful countries of Europe, American and Japan to interfere with the Chinese government and to take partial political and economic control within China. Because China was being fought over by so many powerful countries, no one country could take it over completely. Japan made a good try years later that precipitated World War II. Today, China is its own country, a power in its own right, with a huge say in world affairs. No doubt its experience in the Boxer rebellion as well as the two opium wars kindled its nationalistic feelings and sent it on its long road to independence and power. 


Buck, David D.  Recent Chinese Studies of the Boxer Movement.  New York: M.E. Sharpe Inc, 1987.

Esherick, Joseph W.  The Origins of the Boxer Uprising.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Purcell, Victor.  The Boxer Uprising.  London: Cambridge University Press, 1963.

Sharf, Frederic A. and Peter Harrington.  China 1900: The Eyewitnesses Speak. New York: Greenhill Books, 2000. 

Sharf, Frederic A. and Peter Harrington.  The Boxer Rebellion, China 1900.  New York: Greenhill Books, 2000.

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