The Boxer Rebellion

September 8, 2014 | | 18 Comments

The Boxer Rebellion took place in China in the summer of 1900, during the last breath of the last dynasty of China. Empress Dowager Tsu Hsi was in charge, and had to protect her dynasty from forces without and within. Japan, Great Britain, Russia, and others wanted to exploit China for its trade routes and merchandise. Christian missionaries wanted to convert China, and essentially demolish the Confucian and Buddhist traditions that had been going on for centuries. But it took a lot more than this for The Boxer Rebellion to come into being.

After losing two opium wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860), and the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, China was prompted to befriend Russia, who promised to protect them from other nations. But, Russia had more in mind than just helping an ally or standing up to enemies. They took the friendship to their advantage and built a railroad, allowing easier trade between China and Russia.

Due to war debts and corruption, China faced an economic crisis in 1897. Severe unrest followed, in which German missionaries were killed by Chinese civilians. Germany demanded reparations and seized Kiaochow. Russia, seeing that someone else had made the first move, used the trade route they had established to take Port Arthur and Dairen. Soon, nearly all the powers of the world, save for Italy and the United States, were scrambling to get hold of parts of China.

The ruler during all this was Kwang Hsu. He had been doing some much-needed modernization of the Chinese military, economy, and government. He did this by changing the civil service examination system (among other things), thus changing what kind of people could take office. The mandarin class, the highest class in Chinese society at the time, did not like these changes because it went against their conservative agenda. The Mandarins got Dowager (Kwang Hsu’s aunt) to imprison him and take power. The advancements that Kwang Hsu had been making came to a halt.

By this time the people of China had had enough. Even though some citizens still awed at the technology of the west or listened to the Christian missionaries, many were suspicious of the foreigners and directed their anger at them. They created the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, or the Boxers, as the west dubbed them after seeing their advanced martial arts skills. The Boxers destroyed western symbols, such as railroads and missionaries. Everyone was outraged at the property destroyed and people killed, and implored Empress Dowager to act. At first, she said she would squash the rebellion. Soon, though, she and the rest of the Chinese government decided that the unrest was a good tool to convince other nations to get out of China. So, they allowed the rebellion to expand.

The leaders of the Boxer movement convinced poor, uneducated people that joining them and practicing their martial arts would make them impervious to bullets. To demonstrate, they would shoot a gun with only powder in it at each other, wowing the poor, uneducated people, giving them hope, and convincing them to join. Another way the Boxers expanded their message was to put banners written in Chinese around. These were effective because most of the foreigners could not read Chinese, and thus would not know to tear them down. These banners often said ridiculous things, for example, that the missionaries were murdering children, The uneducated Boxers would instantly take this as fact and commit horrendous acts of violence against the people mentioned.

It was not strictly the foreigners that suffered under the Boxers, though, The converts the missionaries had won came to be known as “secondary devils.” They were almost considered worse than the “primary devils,” since they had succumbed to the influences of the foreigners. Also, great anger was harbored against the western machines and the people who installed them. These machines, such as steamships, made it possible to do more work with fewer people, leaving huge numbers of unemployed. These unemployed were easy recruits for the Boxers, as were those who had  lost their farms due to a recent drought.

As the rebellion continued to expand, there began to be government officials that supported the Boxers, such as Yu Hsien. Even the Chinese Imperial Army, at the urging of Empress Dowager, began to assist the Boxers. Not long after this, the Empress fully allied herself and her dynasty with the Boxers.

The rebellion ended with the coming of the China Relief Expedition, headed by the Americans. But it was not an easy ending. But he Americans were able to cooperate with the Chinese and other foreigners. Troops marched into Peking, quieting the rebellion in a bloody manner finale.  After this, the last dynasty of China ended, and the United States began to rise as a major world military power.


Leonhard, Robert R., Ph.D. The Chinese Relief Expedition; Joint Coalition 
     Warfare in China Summer 1900. Laurel: Johns Hopkins University Applied 
     Physics Laboratory, 2014. PDF file. 


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