Tuesday, June 11, 2024

A Political and Economic History of China, Part 22: The Boxer Rebellion of 1900

Click here to read the original Cautious Optimism Facebook post with comments

6 MIN READ - As part of his continuing history of China series, the Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff discusses a seminal upheaval during the last years of its last dynasty.

Western troops defend Beijing's diplomatic
legations from the Boxer siege
As the turn of the 20th century arrived China’s hopelessly corrupt Qing dynasty, which had ruled the country for 256 years, was in the twilight of its power. China was backwards, its economy, military, and institutions decades behind the western powers and Japan. The country was run by the reactionary, xenophobic, and corrupt Empress Dowager Cixi, and the periphery of the empire had been carved up by the likes of Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan.

Against this backdrop a bizarre and unlikely uprising would make history: the Boxer Rebellion.

Full disclosure: the Economics Correspondent has never been that enamored with the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, but the incident has fascinated historians for over a century and Hollywood even produced a 1963 film about it starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, and David Niven (“55 Days at Peking”). So regardless of the Correspondent’s lukewarm interest in the subject, the Boxer Rebellion is viewed as a major historical event and warrants a column.


Of the many Chinese secret societies that emerged in the 19th century, a peculiar one known as the “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists” would soon gain international notoriety. This society, better known as the Boxers due to their practice of martial arts, was nearly unique in that it was dedicated not to overthrowing the Qing dynasty but instead expelling all foreigners from China.

For decades the “unequal treaties” that had ceded Chinese territory to the western powers and established western trading ports, the growing presence of westerners and their strange clothing and strange culture, legal extraterritoriality for westerners, and in particular the construction of western churches on Chinese soil all became points of resentment among the Chinese population at large. Even as a modest 100,000 Chinese had converted to Christianity, baseless rumors began circulating of Christians kidnapping Chinese babies for sacrifice rituals and even ending their ceremonies by eating the babies themselves.

By 1899 Boxer organizations began agitating for openly attacking westerners and destroying western property with the goal of driving foreigners out of China completely.

The Empress Dowager Cixi, when briefed on the growing numbers and belligerence of Boxers across China, hesitated to either suppress or support them.

Given her initial hands-off policy, Boxer aggressiveness increased and erupted into nationwide violence by 1900. Chinese Christian converts were attacked and killed by the thousands. Churches were burned down and dozens of westerners beheaded. The Boxer slogan justifying it all was “Support the Qing government and exterminate the foreigners!”


Soon the violence spread to the capital city of Beijing. 

Cixi, watching from her balcony in the Forbidden City, could barely contain her pleasure at the sight of smoke billowing from western churches and the sounds of chaos emanating from the surrounding city. Cixi always hated the presence of westerners in China but until now had been powerless to evict them. Seeing the Boxers as a means of finally ridding herself of the westerners she threw her full support behind the rebellion, urging the Boxers to expel the barbarians once and for all and declaring:

”The Boxers… …are men of the people… …When these troubles are over we intend to bestow on them special marks of our favor. Let these people’s soldiers still continue, with united hearts and utmost efforts, to repel aggression and prove their loyalty, without failing, to the end.”

The Boxers also claimed that their martial arts calisthenics made them impervious to western bullets.

To demonstrate their magical powers one of Cixi’s generals lined several Boxers against a wall in the Forbidden City, and when shot with rifles the Boxers predictably crumpled and died. Then, in a fatal application of the no true Scotsman fallacy, the general explained that “they must not have been real Boxers” or “the true Boxers will return from the dead and fight the foreign devils.” 

So the rebellion continued, culminating in a Boxer siege of the Beijing Legation Quarter that housed the diplomatic offices of ten western countries plus Japan.

Meanwhile the western powers, hearing reports of tens of thousands of Chinese Christians, hundreds of westerners, and dozens of priests and nuns being killed in Beijing alone, unified to defeat the Boxers and relieve the Legation Quarter from its siege. Eight nations, some of which were adversaries, joined forces to form the “Eight Nation Alliance” representing Britain, France, the United States, German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia and Japan.

Gathering 54 warships the Alliance landed approximately 19,000 troops in Tianjin who fought their way to Beijing. Killing thousands of Boxers and Qing army regulars along the way, the combined western armies reached the capital a month later to relieve the Legation Quarter which had successfully held out.

With the tide turning against the rebellion Cixi about-faced, declaring the Boxers had risen up without authority and the Qing government had done everything in its powers to protect foreigners. In letters to the governments of France, Germany, and the United States she portrayed herself as a victim of circumstance, opposed to the raucous Boxers whose violence had spread beyond her ability to control:

”We have repeatedly issued edicts to protect the Ministers of the different countries. We have also ordered the missionaries in the various provinces to be protected.”

Then Cixi and the imperial court fled Beijing. As they left the prisoner emperor Guanxgu’s favorite concubine Zhen, who Cixi had always hated, pleaded with her to stay in the capital to help negotiate with the western powers. Enraged, Cixi ordered the palace eunuchs to throw Concubine Zhen down a water well where she drowned. The Correspondent has visited “The Well of Concubine Zhen” in the Forbidden City along with the exhibit telling her tragic tale.

Cixi and her officials retreated deep into the western province of Shaanxi to hide from the allied armies. Only later, when she learned the allied retribution would not fall upon her personally, did Cixi return to the Forbidden City, thanking the western powers for saving both her and China from the unruly Boxers.


As with so many previous western conflicts, the Chinese defeat produced another unequal treaty. However, unlike the others China was not required to cede territory this time (although Russia had used the opportunity to seize the all-weather port of Dalian, know then as Port Arthur) but the Qing government was required to make another huge indemnity payment to all the allied powers.

The United States received a large payment of $30 million, but Secretary of State John Hay argued the reparations were too large. President Theodore Roosevelt, understanding he lacked constitutional authority to forgive debt either for foreign governments or 35-year old college grads with useless degrees, convinced Congress to return $10.8 million to China but, given the Qing government’s reputation for corruption, under the condition the money be spent to found a new, modern learning institution: Qinghua University in Beijing (Wade-Giles: Tsinghua).

Today Qinghua is arguably the most prestigious university in China and accepts only the highest echelon of students.

The Economics Correspondent has wondered if the top young minds of China are even aware that the elite school they attend was financed by the United States’ refusal to accept such a large payment during China's “century of humiliation” at the hands of the West.

Not having visited Qinghua while in Beijing but checking Qinghua’s website, specifically the “About” and “History” pages, there is no mention of American funding on either the English or Chinese language sites, only the following passage:

”Tsinghua University was established in 1911, originally under the name ‘Tsing Hua Imperial College’. The school was renamed ‘Tsing Hua College’ in 1912. The university section was founded in 1925. The name ‘National Tsing Hua University’ was adopted in 1928.”

Omitting any positive role for the United States is consistent with the propaganda strategy the Correspondent mentioned in a previous column on the ruins of Beijing’s Old Summer Palace: the CCP’s primary objective is to maintain as large a popular reservoir of animosity and resentment as possible towards western countries. Disclosing that the United States paid for the founding of China’s most prestigious university, all for the betterment of its younger generation and the nation’s modernization, counteracts that goal so it comes as no surprise that such an essential part of Qinghua’s history has been stricken from the school’s webpage.

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