Domestic Origins of the Boxer Uprising: Natural disaster and government Influence

This article will consider the relative importance of events in the area of Shandong on the eventual Boxer uprising, concentrating on the natural disasters that occurred on the North China Plains and the local and national governments role. It will analyse how important their influence was on creating an aura of fear, anxiety and hatred of the foreigners, and whether or not it explains the change from Boxer practising to the Boxer uprising. Both of these issues can be regarded as vital factors in the uprising, the harsh conditions created by the floods and drought caused economic hardship and therefore provoked disturbances. The government, both regional and central had a confused attitude to the movement that ultimately encouraged the Boxers to become more violent. Which of these factors had the most important influence on the Boxers and can the uprising be solely attributed to either or both of these causes?

As the Boxers were a local phenomenon rather than national it is important to consider the very particular circumstances of Shandong and Zhili areas of the North China Plain. First then an understanding of the regions geography, political economy and social structure is needed. Contemporary Western descriptions of the area noted its flat land, cereal agriculture, high population and impoverished villages. "The plain was entirely free from any tree or shrub, every available inch of ground being taken up by the cultivation of cereals" with "nothing but dirty, mud-dried brick houses falling to decay everywhere". These quotes suggest a region whose agriculture was the most important employer and source of income and indeed ninety to ninety-five percent of the population were peasants. However considering that the crops had to feed a very concentrated mass of people it had an unfortunate climate and many geographical problems. The weather was diverse, freezing in the winter with cold winds and then hot and humid in the summer months, added to which rain fell mainly in only two months, July and August. The area experienced drainage problems and natural disasters due to the temperamental weather conditions often producing a very low agricultural yield. This region therefore had a high population density but only a low rural commercialisation and so peasants existed on a subsistence lifestyle where there was very a rarely a surplus. Trade in North China was fairly primitive, with a poor and underdeveloped communications system.

"The Spirit Boxers were here already before the flood. But they only practised: it wasn’t until after the flood that they became active". This quote sums up very well what the following paragraphs aims to demonstrate, that the natural disasters that plagued the North China plain saw the beginning of a more violent and popular Boxer movement. The Shandong area throughout its history was prone to flooding and draught, and traditionally after such a disaster peasant rebellion threatening the established order would take place. The natural disasters of the period of around 1900 then would naturally have an effect on the Boxers. The disorder started in 1896 with a tidal wave and heavy rains that caused coastal destruction, flooding across the plains and causing general destruction throughout the province. In North Jiangsu the damaged crops caused an increase in food prices accompanied by a rise in the number of outlaws and "an alarming increase of highway and village robbery". In 1898 the situation deteriorated even further with the Yellow River flood beginning on the 8th August which was described as "more appalling and more disastrous than any other within living memory". Large areas of Shandong were ruined, over thirty-four counties and thousands of villages affected. Those who survived then faced a life of disease and famine, scavenging for anything that could be eaten, "The elm trees were stripped of their bark, the lower leaves of the willows stripped of their leaves, and caterpillars and snails were eaten when they could be gotton". Often people were forced to migrate, beg or steal. In the winter of 1898/1899 Northwest Shandong became the home of refugees escaping the ravages of the Yellow River. Other areas faced equal destruction, in Zhili the flooding left the land waterlogged and useless for crop planting. The hard rains caused flooding elsewhere as well, the Hutuo River affected Shenzhou, Raoyang, Anping, Xian and Dacheng. This flooding added to the problems that excess rain had caused during the 1890’s, agriculture that depended on the right conditions could not provide anything like the amount of food needed to sustain the populous area. Famine was the problem that then faced the inhabitants of the region and for many in an unpredictable situation joining groups like the boxers was a way of escaping the harsh reality that surrounded them.

However in 1899 the problem of excess water reversed as a drought fell over the area. This was to be the ruin of millions of farmers and their families and for those who remembered the horrors of a similar experience in the 1870’s it was a very frightening experience and one that caused much anxiety. Droughts as argued by Paul Cohen are much more traumatic than floods, unattached to a river draughts have the potential to hit a much wider area and inflict more harm. Unlike with a flood where people are usually able to return home, repair the damage and return to their previous existence a drought is very different. "The major difficulty in preparing a quantitative definition of drought stems from drought being a ‘non-event’ as opposed to such a distinct event as a flood". Drought is unpredictable and therefore very difficult to prepare for, and the suffering caused by it happens on a long-term basis rather than being immediate. A drought unlike a flood can not be partially blamed on human failing and is therefore interpreted as super natural intention. This theory fitted well into the Boxer ideology, the drought could be explained as the Gods wrath for the imperialistic aggression and the harm they were inflicting on China. Railways had damaged the "dragons vein" and the building of mines in the mountains had let out the "precious breath", foreigners had destroyed the tranquillity of the land, interfered with the natural working of "wind and water", consequently affecting the harmony between man and nature.

The drought and the proceeding famine it caused began to concern even central government as the increased restlessness and violence was beyond the forces that the government could provide. People were becoming increasingly desperate, anxious and panic-stricken and their anger was expressed in movements such as the Boxers. Its almost inevitable that the peasant’s would react violently especially against the foreigners as they were a convenient scapegoat for China’s problems and violence was the only way in which a majority of uneducated peasants knew how to react. A pressured budget meant that there was no money to spare for a relief fund and local officials had no other sources for extra income. Not only did the "organisation of the Boxer societies spread rapidly throughout the Province when so many were idle because of the drought" but they attracted people who were desperate for food. The Boxers often provided food for its members that had been stolen from the farms. Hunger anxiety can also explain people’s enthusiasm for movements like the Boxers, people fearing their present and future situation would be more willing to involve themselves in dangerous activities. Therefore it does seem as if "from the time of the first outbreak of the Big Sword society right up to the high tide of the Boxer movement, a sizeable number of the peasants were prompted to take part in these movements mainly by the weather"

Having established a background on Shandong considering its economical and geographical problems, it’s important to turn to Shandongs and China’s general political situation. On a national level there had been instability within the government since 1898 and a coup d’etat that had put reformers in charge of the government who were more willing to appease the imperialists. Here we see the beginning of a very split government over the issue of how to deal with the foreigners as conservative men like Jung-lu, Yu-lu, Ch’I-hsiu and Kang-I advocated hard resistance with no concessions. In the mean time Kang Yu-wei, a young reformer was recommending that the emperor adopt a program of reform that would reconstruct the government in order to stop if from falling apart. Thus from June the 11th to September 21st 1898 what was known as the "Hundred Days Reform" was carried out, with policies on all parts of Chinese society and government. However the Empress Dowager retaliated with a coup d’etat of here own on the 21st of September and retook control, beginning her third regency with the status quo maintained. The consequences of such factions and inward fighting within central government was at that a vital point in Chinese history when they were particularly vulnerable from both the imperialists and the violence, the government were unable to put all their efforts into solving such problems and guarantee China a stable future. In particular they would have been unaware of the exact goings on in Shandong and therefore when it became more urgent they had little idea of exactly how to deal with it.

Events in Shandong were a little different, reform in this region was still a far off dream, completely unconsidered by the local officials. Instead the traditional problems of finances, taxes, natural disasters, rising banditry and ever intruding foreigners continued to occupy the government. In particular the economic problems of national and thus local government can be considered as factors in the de-stabilisation of the region, which created a situation suitable for the growth of the Boxers. Shandong had always been a useful province for the collection of taxes and revenue because its expenditure was less than its product, except in times of natural disaster. However the Sino-Japanese war of 1894 changed this situation dramatically, money had to be spent on the employment of extra troops to defend the region and its coast. Although this war was several years before the Boxer event of 1900, the Shandong government had been forced to keep on many of the extra troops to keep an eye on the Japanese, Russians and Germans within the locality. This extra expense made the local officials claim fiscal insolvency thus demanding that they be let of some of their repayments to central government. However the government elite were still forced to increase local taxes in order to meet the demands. Money was now taken based on a household’s landholdings a pressure increased by the rising salt tax. For the peasants this was devastating news, after the bad harvests many could not afford to pay the extra leaving a "state of insubordination". As described by one Linquing correspondent "[An] insurrectionary spirit [is] manifest everywhere… It shows in miniature what is to be the result if the central government attempts to pay its war debt by laying heavier burdens upon the people". The increased taxes was accompanied by a decrease in the value silver which saw a rise in government corruption as the official sought to maintain their families previous lifestyle by skimming money of the increased tax revenue.

This economic crisis manifested itself in other ways, in a need to save money military forces in the area were reduced, this generally took place inland as the coastal forces were less indispensable. This had a destabilising effect, as the Boxer violence was increasing due to peasant agitation the forces to stop them were thinly spread and dispersed, "certain officials attribute these disturbances (Boxer violence) to the insufficiency in the armed forces resulting from too speedy discharges". Law and order became increasingly difficult to maintain and often the men who had lost their jobs worsened the situation by turning to banditry and crime in an attempt to support themselves due to the high unemployment. The lack of a governmental force to put down the disturbances also accounts for he officials interest in using militia groups like the Boxers for protection. This policy was often supported by the conservatives and radicals, both seeing the advantages of maintaining some kind of order very cheaply.

Added to the disturbances that were indirectly caused by government incompetence was the deliberate court patronage of the Boxers. Going back to the time of Li Peng-Heng Shantung governors and officials had shown their support for this movement. The dismissal of Li in 1897 after the deaths of two German officials did not encourage the replacement, Yu-hsien to act any differently. The government are known to have supported the Boxers materially by providing them with silver and helping them to set up training centres. The biggest demonstration of their backing though was their continual ignorance towards the complaints of the missionaries and foreign powers. Yu-hsien’s visit to Peking after his dismissal seems to have created endorsement for the boxers within central government itself and it was recommended that the Boxers should be utilised by the government. Despite shantung’s new governor, Yuan Shih-K’ai, being anti-Boxers the court announced on the 12th of January 1900 "that people drilling themselves for self-defence and for protection of their villages should not be considered bandits". Such a statement was followed on April 17th with the announcement that militia used by peaceful and law-abiding peasants to protect themselves was allowed. Such decrees served to inflame Boxer violence and saw an increase in the burning and destroying of railways and telegraph lines. Eventually the Boxer leaders were summoned to the court to prove their invulnerability, which proved Gods approval, this they did and much praise as heaped upon them. Court attendants and half of the government’s regular troops were ordered to learn Boxing. This Boxer ‘craze’ naturally encouraged not only in the activities they were already involved in but emboldened them to be even more daring. The continued encouragement by local and national government of Boxer activities obviously had a massive impact on the Boxers, helping them to build up support and continue their harassment of the missionaries and this factor should definitely be considered when analysing reasons for the Boxers growth.

To conclude, this article has tried to demonstrate that when considering the causes of the Boxer uprising events within China itself played a vital role. Without the natural disasters and consequent economic hardship and famine people would not have been so willing to join this controversial group. The north China plain was unstable, a situation worsened by the lack of government troops and general government incompetence. Then there is the role of the state in encouraging this group, the Boxers with guaranteed support continued their activities with more and more vigour. Determining which of these factors was more important in the rise of the movement is a difficult issue to conclude upon. Either cause on its own probably would not have created the same fervour, but together combined with the missionary influence and imperialist advance a unique movement formed that would dominate Chinese history at the turn of the century.




Jerome Ch’en, ‘The Origin of the Boxers’, in Jerome Ch’en and Nicholas Tarling (eds), Studies in the Social history of China and South East Asia (Cambridge, 1970),

Paul A. Cohen, History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience and Myth (New York, 1997)

Joseph W. Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (Berkley, 1987)

John K. Fairbank and Edwin O. Reischauer (eds), China: Tradition and Transformation, (1979)

Immanuel Hsu, The Rise of Modern China, 4th Ed (1990)

Chester C. Tan, The Boxer Catastrophe (New York, 1955)

Victor Purcell, The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study (Cambridge, 1963)

Mary Clabaugh Wright, The Rising Tide of Change in China in Revolution