The Boxer War 1900-1901
In the broad history of foreign imperialism and internal social unrest in China, the Boxer War was very brief but of tremendous importance. The origins of the boxers can, and have, been traced back to the early part of the nineteenth century.1. The war, meaning direct contact between Chinese and foreign military men, occurred only in the latter half of 1900 with punitive expeditions reaching into 1901. In any analysis of such a war, lack of sources is a problem. In this case, the nature of the war accentuates this problem. Western sources from the siege of the legations, such as Indiscreet Letters from Peking, by B.L.Putnam Weale and Behind the Scenes at Peking by Mary Hooker, can only tell us about the part of the overall war in which they took part, and only from a very limited viewpoint. Furthermore, boxer sources are scarce and the variety of events happening simultaneously during the war period makes it all the more confusing. As a result, both western and Chinese historians have varied in their opinions of the significance of the war, its reasons, conduct and its results. Jerome Chen in ‘The Nature and Characteristics of the Boxer Movement,’ states that the ‘Battle of the Concessions provoked the Chinese gentry to risk a palace revolution. And the peasantry to plunge itself into an anti-foreign campaign,’ while also quoting Yun Yu-ting’s claim that the Boxer uprising and war was ‘the most important religious uprising in the world as a whole to take place in the present century.’ This view is in sharp contrast to the pervading contemporary western view of the war, blamed on the Chinese for ‘crimes unparalleled in the history of mankind.’2. The war was a passionate affair where emotions and cultures clashed as well as weapons.
While short-term reasons for the war are quite specific, the longer-term crisis in the Chinese countryside was caused by a combination of socio-economic disaster, governmental weakness and unwanted foreign intervention through missionaries and trade. The drought, famine and flooding in the Northern plain coincided with the tax crisis brought on by China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese war in 1897, leaving large tracts of the population desperate. Such fear was harnessed by boxer groups into a hatred for foreigners and their religion. This hatred was exacerbated by the often confrontational behaviour of missionaries and Chinese converts to Christianity. It was also allowed to grow because of divisions within the court over appropriate action. The rapid events of 1900 occurred within an environment of increased animosity towards foreign Christians and their native counterparts. By May this had reached a high level shown in the killing of 4 French and Belgian railway engineers fleeing from Baoding to Tianjin on May 31, and of 2 missionaries on June 1.3. A crucial event happened on May 31, when the court gave orders to annihilate the boxers. This order was completely reversed after the legation guards were summoned by the foreign powers, thus strengthening the position of pro boxers within the court. Purcell also adds that bringing up the guards made ‘despatch of reinforcements (the Seymour expedition,) necessary and to secure their retreat the Dagu forts had to be taken, which in its turn led to war.’4. Whether true or not, the Qing government remained indecisive until June 10 when Admiral Seymour left Tianjin with about 2000 men without Chinese authorisation. By June 18, he was still bogged down half way to the capital and decided to return to Tianjin, finally arriving on June 26th. Meanwhile, large numbers of Boxers were heading into the capital. On June 13, the Southern Cathedral was burned with Chinese Christians inside. Tension reached a head after June 16 when the Empress Dowager held conferences moving towards war and on June 21st she issued the ‘declaration of War’, renaming the Boxers ‘yimin’ or ‘righteous people’ and putting them under the control of Prince Zhuang.5.
The ‘boxer war’ that followed has been portrayed, particularly by popular Chinese historians after 1949, as a war of nationalism against an unwanted foreign invasion.6. However, immediately after June 21st, the declaration was renounced by several regional leaders including Li Hung-Chang at Canton, Liu K’un-I at Nanking and Yuan Shih-Kai in Shandong. It was, according to them, ‘luan-ming,’ illegal since it hadn’t come from the throne, and separate treaties were agreed in these regions. This seems to imply that the Chinese did not unanimously support the boxer war. Yet, there are some aspects of the boxer cause that could be called nationalistic, not least the simple desire to ‘expel the foreigners,’ and we must consider how these are shown in areas of the war itself. Similarly, from the western side, the aim of the war has often been seen as an effort simply to stop the persecution of foreign diplomats. Sabine Dabringhaus described the war as when ‘a modern, industrialised power fought against a popular protest movement, not against another state and not for domination, but for the restoration of the status quo ante.’7. A question also worth considering is to what extent the war, from the western side, was indeed a ‘war of pacification,’ whether there were other motives behind the multi-national expedition to the east, and how all these motives were manifested in warfare.
In his book ‘History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth,’ Cohen divides up the complicated proceedings of war into a series of different sections. These divisions are very useful in an examination of western and Chinese behaviour during the war. Yet both the Seymour expedition and the taking of the Dagu forts served more as reasons for war rather than acts of war in themselves. As has already been mentioned, Purcell calls these acts instrumental in the decision to go to war. They also steeled the Qing court out of their indecision into action against the western powers. The first major confrontations between Chinese and foreign militants occurred in the Capital and in Tianjin. In the latter, Chinese attacks on foreign settlements had begun on June 17 1900. The situation remained particularly precarious until the arrival of a relief force on June 26th. Although this force, some 5-6,000 strong, was not able to enter the town immediately, the siege ended on July 13th, dealing a large blow to the boxers in that area. This episode of the war can, on the one side, be seen as aggression towards foreign presence, and on the other as a war of survival before the relief force arrives. In terms of warfare, it follows a relatively conventional pattern of siege and relief. Yet, it is important to remember that such aggression was not necessarily borne out of mass nationalism. Mass hysteria during this period blamed foreign presence for ecological disasters, and consequently, the belief that conditions would improve with the extermination of foreigners was rife. This might, in part, explain the cruelty and viciousness with which captured foreigners and Chinese Christians were treated. This behaviour was not exclusive to Tianjin; Olivia Ogren, writing about Yongning, tells of a local clerical worker in a mission who ‘had been caught by the Boxers, dragged from prison, where the official had sought to protect him, and beheaded. His head was nailed to the city wall, until his widow was released from prison when she took it down.’8. While I hasten to add that it were not only the Boxers to blame for appalling ‘war crimes,’ as shall be seen, such cruelty was rife and an infamous phenomenon of the boxer war.
Perhaps the best known aspect of the boxer war is the ‘Siege of the Legations.’ While Tianjin, the attack on the Forts, and Seymour’s expedition were militarily conventional, proceedings in Beijing were extraordinary and unpredictable. After the declaration of war on 21st June, over 3,000 Catholics, along with 43 Italian and French marines, blockaded themselves inside the Northern Cathedral in fear of their lives. The Cathedral was then besieged by over ten thousand Boxers under the command of Prince Duan. They used all means available, mines, rifles, cannon and fire to force entry but were unable. Interestingly, this gave rise to a myth that those inside the Cathedral possessed magical powers, a psychological blow to the Boxer cause, so reliant on spiritual beliefs. Elsewhere in the capital, following the murder of Baron von Ketteler; shot dead on the way to the Zongli Yamen, missionaries and diplomats fled to, and found themselves trapped in, the legation quarters. Defended by around four hundred soldiers and over 100 volunteers, several thousand civilians were besieged from June 20th to August 14th. This ferocity of the siege, well documented by westerners in diaries and letters from within the legations, continued almost unabated with only a brief lull in the fighting in July. Furthermore, The besieged were faced by, at least relatively, organised Qing troops as opposed to a disorganised boxer rabble.9. On the surface, this part of the conflict, too, seems like a simple act of Chinese aggression against foreign presence and a war of survival for those inside the legations waiting relief. We see, during this period, further examples of boxer violence and brutality, yet significantly we see similar brutality displayed by foreign military men. An example of this can be seen in the diary of the contemporary Lancelot Giles,
‘Last night twenty Chinese were captured. Three were shot; but the French corporal said it would not do to waste so many precious rounds, he killed fifteen with his bayonet. Two were kept to be examined.’10.
A further interesting fact about the siege was the role of the leaders, Dong Fuxiang and Ronglu, in making sure the legations were never taken. It has been argued by various historians that, considering a boxer victory in this part of the conflict a foolish move and one tempting heavy consequences, both leaders made sure never to press the legations into submission. This slightly thwarts the notion of the war being a manifestation of unanimous nationalism in the face of a common enemy.
In a question about mixed motives for the boxer war, arguably the most interesting period to consider is that after mid August and the arrival of the relief force. By this time, the majority of the Boxers had drifted away into obscurity. After initial victories on their way to the capital, the force, some 20,000 men half of whom were Japanese were left to mop up the pieces. This force was joined in late 1900 by further western troops, in order to begin what was to be the last stage of the boxer war, the punitive operations. This was to be performed under the command of Field Marshall Alfred von Waldersee. Several aspects of the foreign action during this period require more explanation than simply saying that it was a mission of pacification, to rid China of the boxer threat. Notably unlike much before, the punitive expeditions met with very little resistance from Chinese militants and clashes with the Qing army were rare. When they did occur, such as near Tianjin on August 20th 1900, the Chinese suffered heavily.11. This brings into question the whole notion that this was still war. Whether it was, or merely punishment and revenge, the level of destruction throughout the North was on a vast scale. The mainly German force drew up a triangle between Beijing, Tianjin and Baoding, the ‘occupied’ zone, and systematically began killing people ‘on mere suspicion of being boxers.’12. In October 1900, 26 villages between Tianjin and Baoding were burned,13. while Waldersee himself estimated that about 300,000 civilians were left homeless after allied advance from the sea to Beijing. Sabine Dabringhaus suggests three reasons for such behaviour. First, the deep misconceptions about the ‘Yellow Peril’ meant hatred for the Chinese lead to excess cruelty. The soldiers themselves, spurred on by the words of Kaiser Wilhelm,14. embarked on what they thought was a war of civilisation shown in the ‘Kolnische Zeitung’ of October 4 1900, which called the boxer expedition a defensive act of the civilised nations against the ‘Asiatic hordes.’15. This period could also be seen as a war of prestige. Waldersee only arrived after the legations had been freed. Keen to show the German army as an efficient fighting unit, their policing role was made on a giant scale. In the words of Dabringhaus, ‘the German war in China was also a war of prestige in the circle of the great powers and for domestic acceptance of a flamboyant type of Weltpolitik.’ Ulterior motives for war are evident. Furthermore, not merely in the ‘occupied zone’ but in the capital as well, plundering on a large scale was performed by everyone. Beijing was literally divided up into zones of plunder. One spectacular example is of Sir Claude Macdonald, a noted British Minister, who supervised the removal of Chinese treasures from the Imperial Palace.16.
It is impossible to describe the boxer war in broad statements due to its different stages and different causes. Nationalism born out of xenophobia and crisis might explain part of it. Religious hysteria might also have been a cause. Governmental weakness and foreign interference certainly were causes. The sieges of Tianjin, the cathedral and of the Legation quarter were all in an effort to o ust unwanted foreigners, while the foreigners themselves were fighting for survival. After the relief of the legations, the war took on a different pattern. Theoretically, a war of ‘pacification,’ motives of prestige and plunder were to be seen. Misconceptions meant many saw it as a mission to ‘civilise’ the backward natives, while others were merely out for vengeance. Significantly, the authority of the Qing government to rule was never threatened throughout the war or after. With the exception of Russia, not one of the western countries fought a war for colonial territory. Russia, on the other hand, took advantage of China’s internal crisis to extend her gains in the west. By July, there was Sino-Russian conflict in the three Manchuria provinces, with Russian armies finally entering Mukden on October 1st. Apart from this, the geography of China remained very much the same. Yet China was irrevocably altered. The Boxer Protocol put a huge and ultimately impossible burden on the Qing government directly leading to its fall a little over a decade later, and the beginning of a new era for China. Furthermore, the ‘ cleansing operations’ of the punitive forces, and the mobilisation of mass support by the boxers bear ominous similarities to far greater conflict later that century, and give rise to the new notion of ‘total warfare.’
1.See Victor Purcell, The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study (Cambridge 1963), and Joseph W. Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (Berkeley 1987)
2.Jerome Chen, ‘The nature and characteristics of the boxer movement: a morphological study’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies v.23 (1960), p287&290, Sabine Dabringhaus, ‘An Army on Vacation? The German War in China, 1900-1901’, Anticipation Total War; The German and American Experiences, 1871-1914 ed. Manfred Boemeke, Roger Chickering & Stig Forster (Cambridge 1999) p468
3.Paul A. Cohen, History in Three Keys: Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth (New York 1997 p47
4.Victor Purcell, The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study (Cambridge 1963) p246 cited in Paul A. Cohen, History in Three Keys: Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth (New York 1997 p49
5. Paul A. Cohen, History in Three Keys: Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth (New York 1997 pp49-52
6.See The Yi Ho Tuan Movement of 1900 (Peking, 1976)
7Sabine Dabringhaus, ‘An Army on Vacation? The German War in China, 1900-1901’, Anticipation Total War; The German and American Experiences, 1871-1914 ed. Manfred Boemeke, Roger Chickering & Stig Forster (Cambridge 1999) p475
8Ogren, ‘Conflict of sufferings,’ p83, cited in Paul A. Cohen, History in Three Keys: Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth (New York 1997 p177
9Paul A. Cohen, History in Three Keys: Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth (New York 1997 p55-60
10L.R.Merchant (ed) The Siege of the Peking Legations, A diary of Lancelot Giles (1970) p148, cited in Colin Mackerras, Western Images of China (Honk Kong, 1989) p70
11 After this skirmish near Tianjin, the Yihetuan left more than 300 dead, while the allied troops suffered only 11 wounded. Kolnische Zeitung, Aug 25 1900 cited in Sabine Dabringhaus, ‘An Army on Vacation? The German War in China, 1900-1901’, Anticipation Total War; The German and American Experiences, 1871-1914 ed. Manfred Boemeke, Roger Chickering & Stig Forster (Cambridge 1999) p465
12Sabine Dabringhaus, ‘An Army on Vacation? The German War in China, 1900-1901’, Anticipation Total War; The German and American Experiences, 1871-1914 ed. Manfred Boemeke, Roger Chickering & Stig Forster (Cambridge 1999) p463
13Li, Lin and Lin, Yihetuan Yundong, p459 cited in Sabine Dabringhaus, ‘An Army on Vacation? The German War in China, 1900-1901’, Anticipation Total War; The German and American Experiences, 1871-1914 ed. Manfred Boemeke, Roger Chickering & Stig Forster (Cambridge 1999) p 464
14For Kaiser Wilhelm’s speeches see Ernst Johann (ed.), Reden des Kaiser: Ansprachen, Predigten und Trinkspruche Wilhelms II (Munich 1996) pp86-88. Translated by Richard S. Levy.
15Kolnische Zeitung, Oct 4 1900. Sabine Dabringhaus, ‘An Army on Vacation? The German War in China, 1900-1901’, Anticipation Total War; The German and American Experiences, 1871-1914 ed. Manfred Boemeke, Roger Chickering & Stig Forster (Cambridge 1999) p471. The Author continues by saying that come Chinese took their own life rather than be subjected to this ‘defensive act’ which included rape, looting and murder.
16Sabine Dabringhaus, ‘An Army on Vacation? The German War in China, 1900-1901’, Anticipation Total War; The German and American Experiences, 1871-1914 ed. Manfred Boemeke, Roger Chickering & Stig Forster (Cambridge 1999) p462