The Boxer Uprising in China

From the lecture series: The Fall and Rise of China

By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

The society of ‘Righteous and Harmonious Fists’, called ‘Boxers’ for short, was a secret society. They collaborated with Empress Cixi’s imperial officers to launch an attack on foreign legations in Beijing, which came to be known as the Boxer Uprising. Read about the Boxer’s rise and fall, and the aftermath of their decline.

British and Japanese soldiers shown fighting with the Boxers.
The Boxers loathed all foreigners, and in the late 1890s, they decreed that all foreigners must be exterminated. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

In the aftermath of Empress Cixi’s coup, the Manchu regime took on an ever-stronger tone of atavism, arrogance, and anti-foreignism. Xenophobia and nativist superstition now flourished under the reactionary reign of the dowager empress.

Boxers: The Secret Society

By the turn of the new century, a variety of secret societies had become active in China.

One such secret society, known as Yihe Quan, or the society of ‘Righteous and Harmonious Fists’, called ‘Boxers’ for short, had been in existence for almost a century. The Boxers loathed all foreigners, whom they referred to colloquially as the ‘hairy ones’.

Originally anti-Manchu in orientation, the Boxers soon found themselves being courted by Cixi and her followers, who shared their antipathy to the ‘hairy ones’.

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Rising Tide of Anti-foreignism

The rising tide of anti-foreignism in China broke into the open in 1899, in a north Chinese village near the seaside city of Qingdao, in Shandong Province. The local villagers became incensed when their ancestral temple was seized by German missionaries for use as a church. Spurred into action by the Boxers, the villagers attacked the church.

In the spring of 1900, the Boxers, now numbering in the tens of thousands, went on a rampage in Tianjin, southeast of Beijing. They burned churches and shops that sold foreign goods, and they randomly killed Chinese Christians.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Boxers’ Attack in Beijing

On June 13, 1900, a force of over 10,000 Boxers headed for Beijing. En route, they brutally assaulted all visible bearers and symbols of Western influence.

When they reached Beijing, their first target was the German legation, killing the German minister.

Image shows the attack on Beijing castle during the Boxer Rebellion.
The Boxers had all the foreign legations in Beijing under siege. (Image: Torajirō Kasai/Pubic domain)

Sensing that a decisive blow was about to be inflicted on the foreigners, Cixi now declared war on all foreigners and ordered her imperial officers to collaborate openly with the Boxers.

Soon, all the foreign legations in Beijing were under siege, with the imperial court offering a reward of 50 silver taels for each foreign male captured alive.

Trapped Inhabitants of Foreign Legations

Trapped within the foreign legations were some 475 Western civilians (including at least 10 foreign ministers of state), along with 450 armed guards, several hundred Chinese servants, and over 2,300 Chinese Christians who had sought refuge from the fanatical Boxers.

Facing near-certain annihilation by the Boxers and their Manchu patrons, the 4,000 besieged inhabitants of the foreign legations held out for 55 days. Ultimately they were saved by a reform-minded Manchu military officer named Ronglu, who refused to order his troops to use their weapons against the foreigners.

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Allied International Military Force

To lift the siege, an international military force was mobilized in Tianjin. The force took a month to assemble and, when finally assembled, consisted of 18,000 troops, with the largest contingent being Japanese (8,000), followed by Russians (5,000), British (3,000), Americans (2,000), French (800), and a few dozen Austrians and Italians.

Group photo of soldiers from various countries that together formed the allied force.
With superior numbers and overwhelming firepower, the international military force quickly overwhelmed the attacking Boxers. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Setting out for Beijing on August 4, 1900, this allied force reached the beleaguered legations of Beijing 10 days later.

With superior numbers and overwhelming firepower, they quickly overwhelmed the attacking Boxers. By the time the dust settled, 231 foreigners had been killed, along with a substantially larger number of Chinese Christian converts. But Boxer deaths were more by far, numbering well over 10,000.

Western Troops Go on a Rampage

During the entire six-month duration of the Boxer Uprising, an estimated 18,000 Chinese Catholics were killed along with 182 Protestant missionaries.

With the breaking of the siege in Beijing, Western troops throughout north China now went on a rampage of their own in retaliation.

Altogether, an estimated 50,000 suspected Boxers were killed by foreign troops.

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The Boxer Protocol

The peace settlement that followed in 1901, known as the Boxer Protocol, was harsh and vindictive.

A dozen high court officials who had carried out Cixi’s policies of assisting the Boxers were either executed or ordered to commit suicide. A few had their sentences commuted, while a number of lesser officials were banished to the outer regions of empire in far off Xinjiang.

Additionally, the foreign powers greatly increased their political and military presence in Beijing.

Establishing permanent diplomatic missions in the Chinese capital, the foreigners created what was in effect a ‘shadow government’ that existed alongside the deeply wounded Manchu court.

War Reparations Post Boxer Uprising

Finally, adding insult to injury, war reparations totaling 450 million taels of silver (worth approximately $330 million in the U.S.’s current exchange rate) were extracted from the Manchu court by the various foreign powers, to be paid out over a period of 40 years.

Curiously enough, before the reparations could be paid out, the money first had to be borrowed from those very same governments. This was because the imperial Chinese treasury was empty, and the Manchus were forced to borrow the Boxer indemnity money as bonded national debt.

However, much of the bonded indebtedness was never repaid. A substantial portion of the Boxer funds were later reduced or cancelled outright by the foreign powers.

In this connection, the United States, which played a relatively minor role in suppressing the Boxer Uprising, used a substantial portion of its $24 million share of the Boxer funds to underwrite American-style educational programs and reforms in China and endow scholarships for talented Chinese students.

The ‘Open Door’ Pledge

As a condition of receiving their share of Boxer indemnity funds, all foreign governments, at the insistence of the United States, signed an ‘Open Door’ pledge in which they renounced any colonial designs on China and pledged to respect Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity.

This was the famous open-door policy of President William McKinley.

All in all, the Boxer Rebellion was one more inglorious chapter in the century-long humiliation and decline of the Middle Kingdom.

Common Questions about the Boxer Uprising in China

Q: What happened in the aftermath of Cixi’s palace coup?

In the aftermath of Cixi’s palace coup, the Manchu regime took on an ever-stronger tone of atavism, arrogance, and anti-foreignism, and xenophobia and nativist superstition flourished.

Q: Who were trapped within the foreign legations following the Boxers’ attack on Beijing?

Trapped within the foreign legations were some 475 Western civilians, along with 450 armed guards, several hundred Chinese servants, and over 2,300 Chinese Christians who had sought refuge from the fanatical Boxers.

Q: Which countries were part of the international military force that had assembled to lift the siege in Beijing?

The international military force assembled to lift the siege in Beijing included Japanese (8,000), Russian (5,000), British (3,000), American (2,000), French (800), and a few dozen Austrian and Italian troops.

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