The Boxer Catastrophe for China




The greatest concentration of white settlers lived around the city of Peking, where they could interact more freely with the great population there as well as with the imperial government. Apart from traders and missionaries, Peking was also home to the diplomats of foreign powers. These government representatives lived together in a single area of the city where their legations were located. There were eleven such legations: British, American, Japanese, German, French, Austrian, Russian, Spanish, Belgian, Dutch and Italian. The ministers, their official staff and all of their families felt increasingly threatened by the Boxers, and this fear was communicated to the outside world. The fanatical cult that had originated in Shantung had spread slowly over the months from village to village until it had reached the province of Chihli, at the centre of which was Peking. By the last week of May in 1900, the Fists of Righteous Harmony had reached the many gates of the imperial city.

The empress dowager’s foreign office, the Tsungli Yamen, did little to protect the legations from danger, promising armed guards but not providing them in adequate numbers. Rather than have to depend on unreliable Chinese protection, the foreign powers began building up a small garrison of soldiers, much to the displeasure of the anti-foreign faction of the Chinese government. In addition, the allied naval fleet that was anchored at the mouth of the Pei Ho River in the Gulf of Chihli decided, after some prevarication, to send reinforcements to Peking. This 2,000-strong expedition was commanded by Admiral Seymour, and it Left on 10 June by train. The first leg of the journey took it to the port of Tientsin, and .is it rolled further north it had to garrison stations and settlements so as not to have its line of retreat cut off. But at Tang T’su, on the way to the capital, this was exactly what happened. Boxers made several fanatical attacks on the trains and succeeded in isolating the expedition by destroying rails, bridges and water-tanks. During their attacks the Boxers cut the throats of their wounded, hoping to deny the allies any prisoners. What had set off as a relief force now found itself faced with the prospect of having to fight its way back to Tientsin through Boxer-infested country. It eventually retreated southwards along the Pei Ho River and reached Tientsin by 26 June. During the desperate retreat of the expedition, the allied fleet at the Taku Bar at the mouth of the river moved to attack the imposing Taku forts which guarded access to the river and could prevent the fleet moving upstream to Tientsin. Nine ships of the fleet approached the forts and, when their ultimatum to the Taku forts to surrender had almost expired, came under fire. Landing parties were able to take the Taku forts by 17 June, but the empress had managed to learn of the fighting there and mistakenly assumed that the victory was a Chinese one. Flushed with false success, she declared the whole of China at war with the foreign powers and summoned the Chinese army to join with the Boxers. China’s Grand Army of the North was ordered to enter the legation area of Peking and slaughter every European it found, but the tough defenders were able to put up stout resistance.

Peking was experiencing panic: there were lootings, fires and other disturbances, murders were carried out on the streets, and several times guards from the barricaded legation quarter entered the streets to rescue endangered Christians. On 20 June the German minister, Klemens Graf von Kettler, was murdered on the streets of the imperial capital by a Chinese army corporal. Soon after this disturbing event, a mob of Boxer fanatics attacked the Austrian legation, but they were driven back by machine-gun fire. Trenches were hastily dug and barricades were built; the legation was now under siege. The tiny allied force within the confines of the legation area was hard-pressed, and it used ingenuity and skill in defending the other Europeans. Peking was now totally isolated from the rest of China, the allied fleet, the Seymour expedition and the allied garrison at Tientsin, which itself had come under attack from Boxer cult members. Everywhere Europeans and Christians were being attacked by the cult and now also by the Chinese army.

The foreigners at the port of Tientsin had to defend a five-mile perimeter from the massed attacks of the fanatics and the soldiers. All kinds of merchandise were employed as material for barricades, including expensive bales of silk! A courageous mining engineer called Herbert Hoover was able to help in the construction of Tientsin’s defences; this man would later become president of the United States. Being so close to the fleet off Taku, those besieged at Tientsin were the first to be relieved by the timely arrival of an allied army on 23 July. Once Tientsin had been secured, more troops were assembled in the shattered city for a second attempt to reach Peking and the foreign legations, from where no word had come since the beginning of June. No one knew whether the besieged were dead or still struggling valiantly against the Boxers. When the multinational force had collected, it began the journey to Peking on 4 August. Following the line of the river and the railway inland, it encountered pockets of Chinese resistance, usually from rogue elements of the army, since the Boxer cult members were now becoming a rarity. Either they were low in numbers from their fanatical attacks on allied positions or they were abandoning their cause to fade back into the population. From the start of August, the Boxers no longer feature in the uprising as a credible military force, but only as lone murderers and criminals to be hunted down.

In Peking the different foreign legations had pulled together in this desperate struggle for survival, sharing food and water and combining their tiny troop numbers in an attempt to defend the legation area. The head of the British legation, Sir Claude MacDonald, led the defence of the 3,000 civilians with only 389 men, seventy-five volunteers and twenty officers. By far the greatest military asset the legations possessed was Colonel Goro Shiba. Both the colonel and his twenty-five Japanese soldiers fought valiantly against a far greater number of Boxers and Chinese troops. All knew that a single lapse in the defence would bring about the certain death of everyone within the legation area, and this tense drama was the source of much heroism, tinged as it was by the lack of any information whatsoever about the state of the allies elsewhere. Had they fled China? Was a relief column just outside of the city? Did anyone know they were still alive? The siege of Peking was to last an agonizing fifty-five days.

The empress dowager and her close advisers within the Forbidden City palace complex at the heart of Peking had grown alarmed by the reports of the allied victory at Tientsin and so the Tsungli Yamen reestablished contact with the beleaguered legations. Their tone was now one of desperation, and the legations were repeatedly offered safe passage to Tientsin. Guardedly, they declined to attempt the hazardous journey, fearing a trap. Further half-hearted attempts were made to resolve the awful siege. Flags of truce appeared one day, to enable the Chinese to bury their dead, who littered the streets surrounding the legations. Sir Claude Mai Donald even met with our of the Chinese chiefs during another truce, and Further communications resulted in a cart of fresh fruit being delivered to the thirsty and hungry defenders. But these sporadic overtures often ended as quickly as they had begun, the empress dowager being swayed sometimes by the moderate influence of Prince Ch’ing and at other times by the hardline anti-foreigner Prince Tuan.

One can imagine an old woman who, having placed her faith in the sinister forces of a secret cult, was forced to listen in shocked amazement to reports of the Boxers being cut down by gunfire just as easily as mortal men. Her hopes of expelling the ‘foreign devils’ by supernatural means had been dashed and she was now tentatively looking for some way to resolve the dangerous situation. The international consequences of annihilating the legations were too horrible to contemplate, and with well-trained and well-armed troops on their way to lay siege to Peking, some kind of compromise was necessary. Her army had modern rifles, a stock of machine-guns (which remained in their packing crates) and the massed manpower to easily overcome the legation defences in just a few concerted assaults. But still the siege dragged on.

Following a large battle to the south of Peking with government troops on 5 and 6 August, the international relief force marched on the city. It had already lost considerable numbers of men as battle casualties and, since they were low on water and blistered by heat, the severe hardships of the march had taken their toll. The polyglot army, including Russians, Japanese, French, Americans and British (mainly Indian levies), prepared to attack Peking, relieve the legations (if anyone were left alive there) and depose the empress dowager in the Forbidden City. As the armies assembled for the agreed start of the attack, it soon became clear that the Russians had sent in an advance party that had not only prematurely moved against Peking but also cut diagonally across the battlefield to attack the American objective, one of the massive gates. Whether the Russians had sent just a scouting party or actually desired the glory of breaching Peking’s walls first is not known, but the planned assault on the city was abandoned and all of the armies moved into battle immediately. This combined effort, with each army charged with seizing different objectives, managed to throw back the Chinese defenders, and on the afternoon of 14 August the legations were relieved.

Little more than a mile from the legations stood the imposing edifice of the P’ei Tang Cathedral, which had been under siege for as long as the legations but was somehow overlooked during that first frantic day of liberation . . . and on the second. On 16 August a small force was dispatched to take the cathedral. In the tiny compound were 3,000 Chinese converts in desperate circumstances. They had suffered the horrors of Boxer raids and highly destructive mines that had been exploded underneath the compound. The defenders knew little of what was happening elsewhere, and the brave scouts that the forty French and Italian marines dispatched never returned, their heads and carefully flayed skins being displayed on poles by the Boxers. After an abortive assault on the main gates of the Forbidden City by the American contingent, Pe’i Tang Cathedral was eventually secured.

Ironically, during the cathedral’s reconstruction by Chinese labourers following the siege, Bishop Favier was certain that most of the coolies had been active participants in the Boxer cult and were responsible for many of the horrors that he had witnessed during the days of the siege. But the bishop held no grudge. The first the defenders had seen of Boxer cult members was on 15 June, when a party of Boxers, all clad in red, assembled near the Pe’i Tang’s south entrance. With ritual movements and magical signs, they began to advance on the cathedral slowly and ominously, brandishing burning torches and swords. The cultists then knelt to pray and, as they did so, the defenders opened fire on them, forcing them to flee. Nothing could stop the allied armies now from despoiling Peking and taking their revenge on the Chinese who had caused all of them so much suffering. On 28 August the Imperial Palace within the Forbidden City was taken and during the following months the Russians occupied parts of Manchuria in northern China, while the German troops, led by Field-Marshal Waldersee, conducted sadistic and brutal revenge attacks on the peasantry around the capital. The empress dowager herself had fled after the fall of Peking, but she negotiated a surrender from the regional city of Sian on 26 December 1900. There was little that she could do now to prevent the foreign powers from taking whatever they desired and imposing upon the Chinese people and its government any measure, however unfair. In September 1901 the Boxer Protocol was signed, guaranteeing to the foreign powers very substantial reparations for the folly of the empress dowager’s political adventure.

Old and wily, and a survivor until the end, the empress dowager died in mysterious circumstances on 15 November 1908, the day after the death of Emperor Kuang-Hsu himself. These two deaths are still unexplained, and highly suspicious, but they paved the way for the accession to the Manchu throne of the last emperor, two-year-old P’u-i, who reigned as Emperor Hsuan-t’ung until the revolution of 1911 brought to an end over 2,000 years of imperial rule.


In October 1898 a small group of peasants began a movement that would open a violent new phase in China’s confrontation with the West. They were inspired by martial arts and the secret societies that had long existed in their region of eastern Shandong, and they called themselves Yihequan or Fists of United Righteousness. Foreigners called them the Boxers. The group had long been involved in a conflict over rights to a local temple claimed both by Christians and non-Christians in the community. For the Boxers, the troubles of their region—Western incursions, Christian proselytizing, floods, and droughts—all seemed to have one cause: the willingness of Chinese to be overwhelmed by the foreign, and especially by foreign religion, without resistance. They dreamed of creating a China cleansed of the injustice of foreign ways, and they set out to free their region and their country from its humiliation by blood and fire.

The Boxers were a strange sight to Chinese and foreigners alike. Their red turbans and leather boots, their belief in magic, their invocations, shouts, and songs made them stand out even in a restless society where sects and secret societies were popping up all over—mad monks in Sichuan, sisters of Jesus in Guangdong, Ming descendants in Fujian, and Buddhists in Shanxi who believed in a nirvana on earth created by repeating mantras and smoking lots of opium. The Qing had their hands full catching and executing those who went too far in stirring up trouble or challenging authority. But the Boxers were different. In spite of their outlandish and often brutal behavior, they seemed to speak directly to China’s ills and offer the chance for young lower-class Chinese men to show themselves as patriotic and brave. In Shandong, Germans were a growing presence, and they mixed support for missionaries with brutality toward the native people. And so, Cixi and the Qing conservatives at Court hesitated in suppressing the Boxers, at least as long as they professed their loyalty to the state.

The Boxer movement’s attacks on foreigners, Westernized Chinese, and especially on Chinese Christians broke society wide open and unleashed a war that removed the last vestiges of international respectability from the Qing regime. In many parts of China, especially the north, news about the Boxers fed into ongoing conflicts between Chinese with links to the outside world and those who resisted such links. The result was violent confrontations. Western accounts focus on the killing of foreign missionaries and Chinese Christians. But during the three years of the Boxer Rebellion, only about a quarter of the total death toll of more than 120,000 were Christians; 250 were foreigners. The rest were non-Christian Chinese killed by foreign troops or by Chinese troops who joined them. One’s point of view is usually determined by one’s place of view: When in 2000 the Vatican canonized 116 Catholics who were killed by the Boxers, the Chinese Foreign Ministry referred to the very same people as “evil-doing sinners who raped, looted and worked as agents of Western imperialism.” For some, the Christians killed in China were saints; for others they were sinners against the natural order of things—then as now.

The first Boxer groups began entering Beijing in the spring of 1900. The Qing state had already shown signs of fragmenting on the Boxer issue, just as it had fragmented over reform issues two years earlier. In some regions, officials and military commanders were hunting down Boxer bands or at least trying to keep the peace between Christians and anti-Christians, while helping foreigners evacuate. In other parts, however, commanders and officials were joining with the Boxers, either because they believed in the anti-Christian message or out of fear of the consequences if they confronted a popular movement. By early June, Qing soldiers and militia members in Beijing had joined in attacks against churches, foreign-style schools and hospitals, and the homes of foreign residents. At Court, Cixi was increasingly pro-Boxer, although she did not support the movement publicly until after foreign navy ships had attacked Chinese forts in an attempt to land forces in Tianjin, where the foreign community was also under attack by the Boxers. Cixi issued an edict on 21 June, in the name of the powerless Emperor Guangxu: “Our ancestors have come to Our aid, and the Gods have answered Our call, and never has there been so universal a manifestation of loyalty and patriotism. With tears We have announced the war in the ancestral shrines.”

With China at war, the Court ordered all of its forces to join with the militias and armed groups, including the Boxers, to defend the empire. Many commanders and regional leaders disobeyed. In the south, most promised to protect resident foreigners if foreign forces did not attack. Other long-time Qing advisers, disgusted with the Boxers, withdrew from public life. Most of the core of the army in the north did follow orders, however, and by late June the diplomatic community and other foreigners in Beijing were besieged in the legation quarter in the center of the city. The Cathedral of the Immmaculate Conception had been burned down on 13 June, with great loss of life; in the Northern Cathedral more than 3,000 people held out against sporadic attacks for more than eight weeks. The German ambassador, the arrogant and reckless Prussian officer Baron Clemens von Ketteler, set off to the Zongli Yamen, where he intended to deliver a formal protest, but he was shot and killed as he was carried in his sedan chair through the streets.

By early August 1900 there was fighting in Beijing. The neighborhoods around the legation quarter, including the great imperial library at the Hanlin academy, were burned to the ground. Eighteen thousand foreign troops were making their way from Tianjin to the capital, battling imperial troops and Boxers as they advanced. Towns and villages were torched and tens of thousands of civilians killed. To many of the newly arrived foreign troops, any Chinese, including women and children, could be a Boxer in disguise, and rumors about the horrible ways in which foreign missionaries and their families had been put to death fueled the bloodlust. For foreign leaders, China was the first “failed state,” and the intervention in 1900 was the first “coalition of the willing,” meaning, in this case, an alliance of the main Western countries and Japan directed against Chinese “barbarity” and against the Qing state’s unwillingness to uphold “civilized” norms of government and public behavior.

The allied troops entered Beijing on 14 August with a vengeance. Cixi and the Court fled to Xi’an, and so it was the ordinary people of Beijing who felt the fury of the invasion. Russian and French soldiers massacred Chinese civilians. In one town near Beijing 500 young girls and women committed suicide because they had been raped by foreign soldiers or feared they would be. “There are things that I must not write, and that may not be printed in England, which would seem to show that this Western civilization of ours is merely a veneer over savagery,” noted the British journalist George Lynch, who witnessed the occupation. The Chinese capital, including the imperial palaces, was thoroughly looted. The orders of the commanders of the foreign troops and the behavior of their soldiers caused a scandal in many of the countries that contributed to the allied operation. A major Japanese newspaper lamented that its country’s army “purports to be an army that protects humanity and justice through a discourse of civilization. Our countrymen have been particularly proud of this honor since the war of 1894–95. . . . This looting . . . has resulted in the most outrageous disgrace to the military, the most appalling national disgrace to Japan.”

In spite of the criticism of foreign behavior in China, it was the Boxers and the Qing Court that almost all outsiders (and a fair number of urban Chinese) blamed for the disasters of the summer of 1900. More fully than any event before it, the Boxer war had placed China outside the Western-led international system, a pariah state, the center of a 1900 axis of evil that incorporated resistance against colonial domination everywhere, from Sudan to Afghanistan to Korea. The empress dowager, desperate to cling to power, recalled old Li Hongzhang, for his final bow, to negotiate the survival of the Qing state and her own return to Beijing. The foreign diktat imposed on China, the so-called Boxer Protocols, signed in September 1901, in effect made China a ward of the allied powers that had intervened against her: A strict weapons embargo was put in place, the leading pro-Boxer members of the government exiled or executed. Chinese forts guarding Beijing were razed and foreign troops stationed on the roads between the capital and the sea. All of China’s state income was made to contribute toward paying a massive indemnity to the allied powers, totaling, over a forty-year amortization period, almost four times the Chinese state’s annual income in 1900. The Qing had become hostage to the political and economic interests of the West and Japan.


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