This week in 1900 — What the Boxers can tell us about our world today

Society & Culture

This Week in China’s History is a recurring column on SupChina: Each week, James Carter, Professor of History at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, will look back to one event from China’s past. Last week: The Time Jesus’s Younger Brother Led A Revolution In China.

“The foreigners have been aggressive toward us, infringed upon our territorial integrity….. The common people suffer greatly at their hands, and each one of them is vengeful.” 

In this declaration, from June 21, 1900, Qing China declared war on the eight foreign powers — the United States, Japan, and six European states — and supporting the so-called Boxers that had been carrying out a xenophobic — or was it patriotic?— insurrection in north China for more than a year. Given their name by Western observers who believed that their ritual movements were martial in origin, the Boxers were in reality a variety of groups that had coalesced amid economic depression, ecological catastrophe, and foreign encroachment to “revive the Qing and destroy the foreign” (扶清滅洋 fúqīng mièyáng).

The day before, Qing troops and civilian followers of the Boxers opened fire on foreign embassies and consulates in Beijing, as well as the Catholic North Cathedral, where many Chinese and foreign Christians had sought refuge from the violence engulfing the capital. The siege would last (imperfectly) until August 14: 55 days, made famous by the 1963 Hollywood film starring Charlton Heston.

The movie contributes to the Boxer rising being one of the most recognized events of China’s history in the West. The story’s appeal is not surprising. Western readers, receiving news reports by telegraph — the Boxers were one of the first stories to be reported globally in real time — read of mysterious Boxer rituals that rendered their practitioners invulnerable to machine-gun fire. Newspapers told of a “Yellow Peril” that was destroying churches and murdering missionaries. These depictions even made it into the new medium of cinema, where audiences watched an exotic and disturbing (staged) depictions of what was taking place across the world.

The Boxer uprising was brutal. (Historians have come to reject the more familiar label “Boxer Rebellion” because the movement was, from its inception, in support of the ruling Qing dynasty, not rebelling against it.) The Boxers perpetrated atrocities — violence against Western missionaries gained special attention in Europe and America, but most victims were Chinese Christians. In one infamous example, dozens of people were slaughtered in the Shanxi capital of Taiyuan after being invited there for protection by the province’s Manchu governor. (The governor, Yù Xián 毓贤, was at the time labeled “the butcher of Shanxi” for intentionally luring and then massacring the Christians, and he was executed for this crime in 1901. Later scholarship questions Yuxian’s role and tends to blame mob violence.) 

Often doing Christian mission or educational work in China, many of the Western missionaries or educators killed by the Boxers took on a status as martyrs: plaques honoring alumni who perished during the movement can be found at many colleges — the monument at Oberlin College is the most well known, but memorials and plaques can be found on many campuses. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church have both canonized martyrs from this era, and many Protestant denominations have unofficial lists of “martyrs,” both Chinese and Western. Some 200 Westerners died in the summer of 1900, but more than 30,000 Chinese Christians were killed. Total casualties in the war exceeded 100,000 and nearly all of them were Qing subjects.

The attacks on Christians and the exotic descriptions of the Boxers as “superstitious savages” reinforced the idea that this was a clash of civilizations. Heston’s movie (also starring David Niven and Ava Gardner) resembles nothing so much as a Hollywood Western, with the besieged Americans and Europeans playing the role of settlers, surrounded by Boxer “Indians,” waiting for the cavalry of Western armies to ride to the rescue. This view of civilized Euro-Americans under siege by savage Orientals has framed the American attitude toward China ever since. It also distorts the Boxer movement badly.

We’ve already discussed  that the victims of the Boxer war were overwhelmingly Chinese. In addition, the “civilization vs savagery” label is simplistic and, at times, exactly backwards.

Even as newspapers in Europe and America were describing the civilizing mission of their troops in China, some questioned that framing. The army sent by Britain to quell the rising and rescue their citizens included troops from colonial India. One, named Gadhadar Singh, wrote of his experiences in north China and placed blame on the Europeans for turning rivers into a “cocktail of blood, flesh, bones, and fat.” Singh saw European soldiers murdering and raping, even torturing Chinese for amusement, leading him to wryly observe that “all of these ‘sportsmen’ belonged to what were called ‘civilized nations.’”

Finally, in terms of dissembling myths, the idea that the Boxers were delusionally backwards peasants who turned to magic against the forces of modernity ignores the context that sparked the movement. In his definitive study, Joseph Esherick analyzed the origins of the Boxers, showing that although contemporary foreign observers fixed on the unusual practices of the Boxers, their roots were more mundane. North China’s economy had been knocked off its moorings by its sudden integration to a world economy. Shandong cotton farmers, for instance, found themselves competing with growers in India, Egypt, and the American South. Local textile mills were frequently undercut by the price of industrially milled cloth imported from abroad, as well as new, often foreign-owned, industrial mills within China (especially Shanghai). By the 1890s — fifty years after trade on European terms had been opened — rural economies were grappling with the effects of these changes, especially rural unemployment.

Like so-called “free trade” that undermined local business, Christianity was another European value that many Chinese saw as exploitative. European governments took Chinese Christians under their protection, drawing resentment when some used this opportunity as a means to avoid the Chinese legal system. This scheme became increasingly popular in hard times — like those of the 1890s. In some cases, bandits robbed public grain reserves and then fled to Christian churches, declaring their faith to receive protection from the law. 

Add a few years of drought and flood that decimated harvests, and conditions were ripe for unrest, not because of superstition or sorcery, but because of economic desperation. Targeting Europeans may have been xenophobic, but the idea that foreign institutions — economic, religious, and military — had frayed that fabric of China’s countryside could not have been more rational.

The similarities between 1900 and today are unsettling. Historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom, who is now writing a book on the Boxers and their global context, sees disquieting echoes in 2020: a time when new technologies were shrinking the world, when xenophobia and fear were driving politics, when unheeded protests against racism and oppression led to violence, and when tensions across between China and the West were climbing, apparently unhindered. Comparing then and now, Wasserstrom sees a Janus-faced argument about the past: that we have been global for much longer than many think (many in Europe opened their morning newspapers in 1900 and looked for news from China, just as we might today scroll Twitter); yet, we have never been truly global, and still are not. We bring to the events we see our own experiences and context. All news, no matter its source, becomes local.

Just a few months ago, the idea of a 55-day isolation was unimaginable to most of us. Now, nearly all parts of the world have endured even longer lockdowns. The similarities don’t end there, and they are not perfect, but perhaps that is enough to open a window onto how a bizarre and unique event was not so strange at all.


This Week in China’s History is a weekly column. Last week:

The time Jesus’s younger brother led a revolution in China