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The Boxer Rebellion 1899-1901

Between 1899 and 1901, the Boxer Rebellion engulfed the nation of China. The rebellion was the result of the Chinese people’s resentment of the presence of foreigners and Christian missionaries in their country, as well as the high-handed imperialism of Western nations during the 1800s. Atrocities were committed by both sides during the rebellion which became one of the bloodiest conflicts of the turn of the century.  This event is recorded on the Bible Timeline with World History during that time period.   

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Western Imperialism and Anti-Christian Sentiments in China

The Opium Wars which left China torn and humiliated were over, but so were the glory days of the Qing Dynasty. The imperial court was in disarray after the death of Xianfeng emperor, while Qing soldiers still fought the Taipings. The presence of the hated foreigners in Beijing—a reminder of the state’s weakness—was something the Manchus and the Han Chinese resented most.

With these losses on their minds, the regents of Tongzhi emperor thought it prudent to start a “self-strengthening” program. This included learning from the “barbarians,” as well as the adoption of Western technology. To keep up with the West, Qing authorities allowed the establishment of foreign schools. As per the Treaty of Tianjin (1858), foreign missionaries were allowed inside China where they proselytized freely. Apart from their jobs as missionaries, they also worked as teachers, as well as hospital and orphanage administrators.

Catholic and Protestant missionaries soon gained thousands of converts, but their relationship with the Chinese people (especially the rural elite) was often marred by violence. This violence was fueled by xenophobia and anger at the Western nations’ encroachment of their territories. It didn’t help that some Catholic and Protestant missionaries also used the same strong-arm tactics to gain converts. By then, Christians had a tainted reputation after they were associated with the Taiping Rebellion which had ended in 1864.  

One of the worst anti-missionary incidents occurred in 1870 in Tianjin where a mob massacred the French officials and the missionaries with him inside a church. The mob which killed them believed the missionaries were involved in the kidnapping and killing children. This massacre nearly brought war on Chinese soil once again but was deferred when Qing officials granted new concessions to the French. In addition to the execution and exile of the instigators, China was required to pay a hefty indemnity to France.

The Boxer Uprising

American troops are shown scaling the walls of Beijing.

In Beijing, Qing rule under Empress Cixi was crumbling. Despite the reforms implemented by the imperial court, there was simply no way the ministers could stanch China’s bleeding. It could only get worse. In 1876, a severe famine affected the peasants of the provinces of Zhili and Shandong. Many people died, and this tragedy was followed by severe flooding after the Yellow river swelled in 1898. This heartbreaking tragedy was followed by another drought which left many people dead. Survivors became so poor that many resorted to banditry.

Another incident which contributed to anti-Christian sentiment was the case of the murdered missionaries of Society of the Divine Word. These German missionaries were among the most aggressive in evangelizing in the Shandong area. Two of their missionaries were murdered in 1897 by members of the Big Sword Society, a martial arts group whose primary goal was to defend people from warlords and bandits. The German government then decided to use this incident as a justification to wrest the Jiazhou Bay area from China.

The Big Sword Society eventually gave way to the rise of fellow martial arts practitioners known as the Boxers. This movement had its roots in northwest Shandong which was hard hit by the crises. They engaged in ritual boxing which was said to give them the power to resist the Christians and protect from harm. Spirit possession was an important part of the group’s practices.

In 1899, they named themselves “Boxers United in Righteousness,” and hostilities soon flared out between them and the Christians. Qing authorities tried to stop the violence and maintain peace, but their efforts were in vain. By 1900, the Boxer rebellion had reached Tianjin and Beijing, alarming the Empress Cixi and the imperial court. Foreigners in Beijing were considered prime targets that Britain was compelled to send Vice-Admiral Edward Seymour and his troops to protect them. But the destruction of the Tianjin-Beijing railway line halted their advance, so they were forced to repair the line first. The British troops, however, were ambushed by Chinese troops and militias. They were forced to retreat and await rescue by the allied forces.   

In June 1900, Empress Cixi sided with the Boxers and declared war against the foreign powers. However, the stance of different Qing authorities on the Boxers was conflicting. In Shandong, governor Yuan Shikai fought against and subdued the Boxers. Yuxian, governor of Shanxi, sympathized with the group and ordered the execution of missionaries and their families. Foreign Christian missionaries and thousands of their local converts (including women and children) were murdered by Boxers or Qing troops during this period. The conflict was largely confined to the north and did not spread to some parts of southern China.

Allied forces finally lifted the siege against the Beijing legations on August 14, 1900, and occupied the city. Along with civilians and missionaries, they rampaged all over Beijing. Empress Cixi and the imperial family immediately evacuated and retreated to Xi’an in fear. Foreign troops then marched to Boxer strongholds and exacted harsh retaliation for the murder of Christians. They also committed rape and other atrocities against Chinese civilians in vengeance.

Further Losses and Humiliations

In September 1901, Qing officials and representatives of eleven Western nations signed the Boxer Protocol as a condition for the withdrawal of allied troops from Beijing. In the Boxer Protocol, China agreed to order the execution of ten Qing officials, including Shanxi governor Yuxian. Other Qing officials were exiled. Civil service examinations were suspended in cities that served as Boxer strongholds. The allied troops then destroyed important Qing forts, while the legation quarters of Beijing were expanded and fortified. The Qing were also required to pay 450,000,000 taels as war indemnity. The reparations were to be paid in installments within 39 years. The Western nations knew that Qing treasury was already drained, so they allowed the Chinese authorities to raise import tariffs from 3.18 to 5 percent.


Photo by: H. Charles McBarron, Jr. (description) (image), Public Domain, Link

 Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Fairbank, John King. China: A New History. Cambridge (Mass.): The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994.

Fairbank, John K., ed. The Cambridge History of China. Late Ch’ing 1800–1911. Vol. 10. The Cambridge History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Mowat, C. L., ed. The New Cambridge Modern History. Vol. 12. The New Cambridge Modern History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

Roberts, J.A.G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

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