At the beginning of the twentieth century, Britain, France, Russia, Japan and Germany controlled parts of China. The British had led the way in forcing themselves onto the Chinese, with the others not far behind. Foreign powers controlled much of China's economy. Russia had built railways across Manchuria and had taken possession of what the English called Port Arthur by leasing the peninsula there from the Chinese. China had conceded other "treaty ports" which the foreigners were using as naval stations. The imperial powers had forced China's government to allow people to trade with them and to admit foreign enterprises, including railways and mining companies. China was obliged to accept Christian missionaries – about 2000 of them. China was forced to accept special privileges for Chinese converts to Christianity, and it was forced to accept "extraterritorial" rights for foreigners – in other words, obedience to their own laws rather than to Chinese laws.
Nationalist soldiers: anti-foreign "Boxers"
Common Chinese had been upset with their country's humiliation since it was defeated by the Japanese in 1894 – a war over influence in Korea. The humiliation upset their vision of foreigners as inferior barbarians, including the Japanese, whom they labeled "dwarf pirates."
In 1899 in a few locations across China, groups encouraged by China's Dowager Empress, Cixi, went into the streets displaying slogans such as "protect the country," "justice on behalf of heaven," and "destroy the foreigner." At least half of them were youths. They wore red belts and a red cloth around their head. They were known as Boxers, and among them was the belief that the ruling monarchy had declared war on the foreigners. They had adopted the spirituality that allowed them to believe that they had acquired immunity to the foreigner's bullets. They feared spiritual magic created by Christians, and filled with religious fervor, they began attacking and killing Christian missionaries and Chinese converts to Christianity. They saw Chinese Christians as likely spies, collaborators and traitors and as a danger in time of war. They called on Chinese Christians to renounce their faith.
In early 1900, Westerners and frightened Chinese Christians fled to European legations in China's capital, Beijing. Encouraged by Boxer successes, the uprising spread. On June 5 the Boxers cut the rail line to Beijing. On June 12, Boxers moved to the inner city and burned down church buildings. The German minister, Clemens von Ketteler, ordered German embassy guards to hunt down the trouble-makers. On the 14th he arrested and summarily executed a young boy he suspected of being a Boxer. In response, thousands of Chinese soldiers and Boxers went on a rampage, killing foreigners. They attacked Chinese Christians for collaborating with foreigners who were murdering Chinese, and they assassinated the Japanese chancellor, tearing him apart.
On June 16, Empress Cixi held a council meeting and decided to fully support the Boxers. Three days later her government sent messengers to offer members of foreign legations safe passage out of Beijing, and the messengers were shot dead. Revenge by the Chinese occurred the following day when the German minister, von Ketteler, while accompanied by an armed escort on a street, was shot dead in a firefight. On June 21, Empress Cixi declared war against the foreign powers. People in Manchuria felt free to vent their anger at the Russians. They attacked Russian-controlled railway construction sites and Russian civilians and businesses in general.
On July 13 and 14 at Tianjin (Tientsin), the Chinese and foreigners had been fighting for control of the port city. Around 550 Boxers and 250 foreigners were killed. After defeating the Chinese, foreign troops described as Germans and Russians rampaged through the city, looting, raping and killing civilians, while Japanese and Americans are said to have tried to restrain them.
China's governor to Manchuria joined the Boxer Rebellion by declaring war against Russia's presence in Manchuria. In the Manchurian city of Mukden a Roman Catholic bishop took refuge in a cathedral, and with others he was burned alive.
A force of around 100,000 Russian troops invaded Manchuria in October, and closer to Beijing a substantial number of foreign troops arrived from abroad – a cooperative effort, with no power willing to trust any of the other powers to quell the rising on its own. A force of 5,000 Russians, 10,000 Japanese, 300 British, 2,000 Americans and 800 French freed the people in the legations in Beijing. Filled with vengeful wrath, the next day the troops moved through Beijing, attacking those they believed were Boxers, and they injured and pillaged the property of innocent Chinese.
On August 15, 1900, Cixi, with her nephew, Emperor Guangxu, in tow, dressed as peasants, escaped from the palace in Beijing. They fled to Sian in Shaanxi Province.
For more than a year, the international force occupied Beijing, Tianjin, and other cities in northern China. The Germans pursued punitive expeditions to the countryside against the Boxers and were criticized for their brutality. On behalf of Chinese Catholics, French troops ravaged the countryside around Beijing and collected payments from the Chinese. Russian soldiers were accused of rape and other atrocities in the sector of Beijing they occupied. Japan's military beheaded people suspected of being Boxers.
Many of the Cixi's advisers insisted that their war against the foreign powers continue, arguing that China's interior was impenetrable. The foreign powers wanted the empress to remain in power – as someone they thought they could work with, collecting taxes for indemnity payments. The Dowager Empress thought that the terms of surrender offered by the West were good enough, and on September 7, 1901, she signed an agreement, the Boxer Protocol, which imposed a heavy indemnity on China. It prohibited her government from importing weapons for two years, allowed the stationing of foreign troops in Beijing, and demanded the execution of several high officials who had supported the Boxers. Leaders of the Boxer uprising other than Empress Cixi were condemned to death. Empress Cixi, with her nephew the emperor in tow, returned to her palace in Beijing in January, 1902.
The peace created by Western powers and the Japanese was to prove only temporary. Chinese nationalism would continue to disturb the Western powers in the early decades of the twentieth century. And into the century what would be called the Boxer Rebellion in the West the Chinese would call the "Invasion of the Allied Armies."
Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.