- Historic Sites
The Boxer Rebellion casts a harsh and vivid light on America’s long, complex relationship with China
May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
But however benevolent, the missionaries and Christianity itself became lightning rods for the hostility of all Chinese who resented the blows of outsiders against local traditions, hierarchies, and economies. The resentment turned virulent among members of a semiclandestine group with the name of I Ho Chuan, or Society of Righteous Fists. Their distinctive mark was a set of physical-spiritual exercises in which they fought imaginary demons and fell into trances. The Boxers, as they came to be called, began to win recruits late in 1899. Their message of resisting Europeanization to preserve the purity of China’s soul quickly was translated into one of death to the “foreign devils” and their Chinese collaborators. Without restraining leadership or organization, Boxers began in early 1900 to raid outposts and symbols of Western influence, including missions. Terrible scenes ensued. Men and women were hacked to death with swords, burned alive in their compounds, sometimes tortured and paraded publicly through howling mobs before execution, after which their severed heads were displayed in cages on village gates.
Foreign governments demanded that the dowager empress Tz’u-hsi control these activities, which nowadays would be labeled “terrorism.” But the imperial court was dominated by an anti-foreign bloc of nobles who were ready to get rid of the Western carriers of a “progress” that bore so many threats with it. The Boxers were not outlawed and in fact launched a new series of attacks in Tientsin and Peking (the 1900 spellings) itself with imperial consent. Churches were burned, offices sacked, diplomatic officials murdered, and by mid-June hundreds of foreigners and many more Chinese converts were besieged in the legation quarter of Peking, while the countryside was at the mercy of Boxers slaughtering any suspected Christians.
The revolt could not last, of course—not at that moment in history. Nations that in just fourteen years would be at one another’s throats in the First World War quickly agreed on rescuing the prisoners and rebuking China. An international relief force of some nine thousand men (including about twenty-five hundred Americans), executing the will of the United States and all the major European powers, fought its way inland from the coast, where it had easily landed under naval cover. On August 14, 1900, after Tz’uhsi had fled the capital, the siege was lifted. The international press cheered the restoration of civilization, but the aftermath was hardly enlightened. The foreign troops indulged in widespread looting in Peking itself, and as they fanned out into the surrounding territory in pursuit of Boxers, unreckoned numbers of Chinese civilians fell before the fire of both sides.
In all, the European and American losses were not small. In Peking 56 people perished, while 134 Protestant missionaries and 52 of their children were murdered, as were 47 Catholic missionaries. But the number of Chinese Christians slaughtered by the Boxers was more than 30,000.
The official punishment of China came in 1901; it was forced into virtual disarmament and fined the equivalent of $333 million in reparations, to be paid over forty years with interest, which more than doubled the sum. The United States used its $24 million share to compensate the families of slain Americans but once more got an opportunity to act as China’s “friend” when, discovering an overpayment, it returned about half the money. The grateful Chinese government put the dollars into a fund to send Chinese students to American universities.
The missionaries returned in greater numbers and remained until expelled by the Communists. In the end their educational work had the most lasting impact. Many mission-trained young Chinese became involved in the various revolutions that overthrew the Ch’ing Empire in 1911, consolidated republican China’s nationalism in the ensuing thirty years, and later established both the Taiwan government and the Marxist regime now drifting back toward capitalism. So history works in its convoluted ways. The latest round of debate between Clinton and Jiang is only another twist in the maze.