Chinese Historians Interpretations of the Boxers

Interpretations of past events inevitably reflect the values and concerns of the world around us by choice of subject matter, source selection and the focus through which we examine past events. Chinese historian's interpretations of the Boxer Uprising of 1900 over the past century illustrate this point. The Boxers themselves did not espouse a particular political ideology and their beliefs can best be assessed by what they were against. They were chiefly anti-Christian, but also can be seen as anti-westernisation and anti-modernisation. Some historians have also found aspects of the Boxers, which they have (wrongly) labeled anti-Confucian, anti-Qing and anti-feudalism. This makes the Boxers very easy to work into a modern day philosophy as their ideas were so vague - most modern ideological movements can be related back to the Boxers in some shape or form. The Boxers are for the Chinese a major episode in history and the way that Chinese studies of the Boxers have been affected by the extraordinary political events in China over the last 100 years provides us with an interesting insight into the way that myths are fashioned and beliefs reworked, but most of all how a complex and diverse movement such as the Boxers can be simplified and distorted to serve the needs of the present. This process is not merely unprofessional and morally wrong but also a shame as it is stopping the true voice of the Boxers from speaking and depriving many of the study of a very interesting and historically useful period.

Immediate Opinion; 1901-1920

Immediate opinions on the Boxers were decidedly mixed and interpretations ranged from those who praised the Boxers and identified them with the Chinese people and others who believed the Boxers were backward and uneducated, ultimately embarrassing. There was a period of modernisation that followed the 1911 revolution, which is now labeled the 'new culture movement'. Ideas about "new" China proliferated; and the Boxers were seen as, although having some positive aspects, basically a part of the old and traditional China due to their superstitious beliefs. However it is important to note that, although in this period there was discussion over the Boxers, it was not yet done by historians as such and perceptions were chiefly of a popular nature.

Anti-imperialism; 1920s and 1930s reactions to foreign aggression

These two decades were marked by Chinese conflict with imperialist foreign powers. The Chinese people felt angry over their treatment in issues such as the Treaty of Versailles and the foreigner's continued high-handed actions in events such the May Thirtieth movement of 1925, when student protesters were fired upon by British troops, evoked feelings of patriotism and at times xenophobia. There was much anti-Japanese feeling at the time also. This led to more positive interpretations of the Boxers than had previously been the case. The Boxers, in their role as brave patriots, were evoked in many articles. An example from 1924 shows that Chen Duxiu, who had previously condemned the Boxers as superstitious and old-fashioned, now supporting the Boxer's stance against the Imperialist powers and claiming that they were representative of the Chinese nation. The Chinese Communist Party, in whose best interests it was to rid China of foreign aggressors, enforced this ideology.(1)

Communist interpretations of the Boxers

The Chinese Communist party extensively praised the Boxer uprising, and indeed most other peasant movements in Chinese history. The Communists for three main reasons regarded the Boxers in particular, as positive. Firstly, because of their peasant links. It must be remembered that one of the most influential Communist texts, Lenin and Engel's Communist Party Manifesto, opens with the lines "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle".2. And what part of Chinese history is it easiest to interpret as class struggle? Evidently, the peasant movements as the peasants formed a vast underclass in China Communists regard the pre-1911 China as being feudalistic and therefore peasants who rose up against the system were interpreted as revolutionary heroes, who were participating in a wider class struggle. Evidently for the Communists the concept of peasant rebellion was ideologically sound. However the Boxers suitability as historical role models did not end there. The Boxers were also anti-foreign, which is a very significant aspect in twentieth-century China as this period is characterised by conflict with other states, whether the Western powers, Japan or Russia. Thus the Boxers could be applied to the modern political picture. Thirdly, the Boxers were pro-Chinese and so could be used to evoke nationalistic feeling of pride, presenting a very easy way for any individual hoping to stir patriotic feelings, to do so - they bravely risked life and limb for their country.

So, having established that the Boxers were a relevant topic for Chinese Communists and ideologically suitable, how was historical writing influenced? The Communists had a key role in intellectual thought before they came to power in 1949 and it was their ideas on the subject, which was at the forefront of debate in the 1920s. Obviously though, after they came to power they were able to enforce this much more.

Communists enforce their interpretation; 1949-77

By far the most interesting part of the Chinese interpretation of the Boxers is the period when the Boxers were used to inculcate beliefs into the Chinese people. This was in evidence before the Cultural Revolution which ran from the mid 1960s until the mid 1970, but it was during these years when the mythologisation of the Boxer rebellion was most blatant and forceful.

The Boxers were generally vilified but it can be seen that there were periods when certain aspects of the movement were exaggerated to serve a present purpose. So what was the general view of the Boxers? It was needless to say, positive and highly selective. Mao's view on the subject was stark; the "class struggle of the peasants- the peasant uprisings and peasant wars - alone formed the real motive force of development in China's feudal society"3. Historians followed suit, emphasising the Boxer's "heroic, dare-to-die struggle" without mentioning that this was due to their highly superstitious belief of invulnerability.4. The subtext of these historians work is that the Boxers were ideal Chinese, fearless fighters, with "strict discipline" whose "actions were clearly revolutionary".5.

The text entitled "Yi Ho Tuan Movement of 1900", which was included in a number of articles translated into English in 1976 from Shanghai University can be regarded as representative of many Communist historian's work on the Boxers during this period. It uses strong language to denounce imperialism and praise the Boxers. Moreover, the historical reality is reworked and distorted to present the Boxers in a more favourable light. The Qing government is depicted as feudal and "at all times hostile to the people" and the Boxers as victims of this who were determined to overcome "official corruption". Boxer magic is totally ignored and Mao and Lenin are heavily quoted 6.

However there were clear periods when the mythologisation of the Boxers had an explicit purpose other than to indoctrinate the masses with general propaganda. There are five main examples of this. They were, to evict the Japanese from China in the 1930s, as propaganda against the UN troops over Korea in 1949, during the split from Russia in 1958-9, the attack on Liu Shaoqi in 1967 and the attack upon Confucianism in 1973. The first three of these all used the Boxers in a similar way - to evoke patriotic and at times xenophobic beliefs into the Chinese population which would help to justify actions against a foreign nation or people. However the attack on Liu Shaoqi, in which the Boxers were used to prove that Liu was traitorous to the Communist cause, and the attack on Confucianism, which focused on the female Red Lantern group of Boxers to prove that the Boxers had been anti-feudalism and therefore progressive, provide interesting examples of a society which has ceased to use the past to construct past events and now raises it as a weapon against anything which is viewed as subversive. Significantly these both occur inside the Cultural Revolution.

Post Mao; Historians interpretation's of the Boxers from 1977

The Cultural Revolution in China came to an end with Mao's death and the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976. What followed was a time of comparative freedom of speech and historians were no longer required to sprinkle their work with obligatory quotations from Mao, Lenin and Marx. Historical thought broadened considerably as we can see from the shifts in the direction of studies of the Boxers and peasant rebellions in general. However the studies of the 1980s are still bound to some extent in the language of the present and are concerned with contemporary issues, which affect their studies of the Boxers.

This is illustrated by an article written by Liao Yizhong upon the Boxers in 1987 entitled "Special Features of the Boxer Movement".7. Liao evidently feels that he can openly refute former Communist interpretations of the Boxers as he points to the feudal nature of the Boxers in two particular areas; their "deep feudal superstitiousness" and their slogan which pronounced "aid the Qing". Liao is evidently aware that he is working in a way different to previous historians in China as he states "I believe that by searching for truth through facts, examining things in depth, and free discussion we can reach conclusions that more truly correspond with reality". Indeed he does aim to do this in several parts of the article - he rejects distinctions between "true" and "false" Boxers as ahistorical. However he remains bound to some extent by Communist ideology as can be seen from the way that he labels certain aspects of the movement, such as their patriotism, bravery and stance against imperialism, as "positive". Likewise he criticises the movement for being "blindly xenophobic", lacking leadership and organisation, and for its religious nature, suggesting that this had the effect of "losing their direction". This is significant because it means that Liao is in effect still judging the Boxers by contemporary standards and is finding them lacking - he explains away these shortfalls as being due to the "strongly isolationist philosophy" and the effects of imperialism. The point that he is missing is that for his work to "more truly correspond with reality" he should not feel the need to judge the Boxers and define their positive and negative aspects - he simply state that this was how they were and go on to discuss this without criticism or praise. The statement that the Boxer's lost their "direction" is telling - the evidence does not suggest that the Boxers were directed by political motive but rather from empty stomachs and anger of missionary intervention in their country on a local scale. By suggesting that the Boxers had a direction and lost it, Liao is viewing the Boxers in a way not dissimilar to that of historians during the Cultural Revolution - as a movement along the lines of Communist revolutions. He is expressing this in a more subtle way and is not blindly following this assumption but the thrust of his work still lacks historical credibility as it is preoccupied by present issues.

Liao's interpretation of the Boxers as "a just, anti-imperialist, patriotic struggle ...(whose) leadership and organization were both primitive" is typical of many historians of this era. However it is important to mark that there was debate and a fresh look at many issues that were considered to be taboo during the Cultural Revolution. Historians began to question views which Mao had enforced - for example there was much debate over what other "motive forces" in history could be with many claiming that peasant rebellions were actually relatively unimportant. This period should perhaps be seen as the beginning of a process, which will hopefully lead to Chinese historians viewing the past in a more objective way.


Varying interpretations throughout Chinese history of the Boxer uprising offer an instructive lesson to anybody who is engaged in reading, or writing, historical work. Every study of the past is to some extent forming a dialogue with the past through the present and is affected by the present. Although Chinese communist's interpretations of the past are an extreme example of this they help us to become more aware of it around us and show exactly how the past can be distorted by oversimplification and selective use of information.

1. Paul A. Cohen, 'The Contested Past; The Boxers as History and Myth', Journal of Asian Studies 51, no. 1 (1992), p.89

2. Lewis S. Feuer, Marx and Engels; Basic Writings (Fontana, 1984), p.48

3. Kwang-ching Liu, 'World View and Peasant Rebellion; Reflections on Post Mao Historiography' Journal of Asian Studies 40, no. 2 (1981), p.303

4. James P. Harrison, The Communists and Chinese peasant rebellions; a study in the rewriting of Chinese history (Victor Gollancz, 1968), p.233

5. The Yi Ho Tuan Movement of 1900 (Peking, 1976) p.36

6. The Yi Ho Tuan Movement of 1900 (Peking, 1976) p.16

7. Liao Yizhong, 'Special Features of the Boxer Movement', in David Buck (ed.) Recent Chinese Studies of the Boxer Movement [Special issue of Chinese Studies in History 20, nos. 3-4 (1987)