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Righteous Fists

June 2024
5min read

The Boxer Rebellion casts a harsh and vivid light on America’s long, complex relationship with China

Let us look across the Pacific, where much of America’s future lies, entangled as usual with its past. One of President Clinton’s first post-re-election acts was a trip to Manila for an economic summit with Asian nations. There he trod another measure of a long diplomatic dance with China’s President Jiang Zemin. The United States badly wants to strengthen its commercial ties with a huge, modernizing China. But American public opinion also wishes Clinton to press Beijing toward a better human-rights record, using trade sanctions if need be. These conflicting objectives lead to a curious kind of verbal theater of the absurd in which China is alternately wooed and scolded.

It’s an old story. For more than a century and a half now, the United States has been trying simultaneously to “reform” Chinese society and to profit from China’s huge markets and resources, while successive Chinese governments have yielded or resisted, causing our policymakers to execute more flips than a gymnastics team. Consider only the past seventyfive years. In 1924 Chinese nationals could neither emigrate to nor become citizens of the United States. Yet the American government was committed to protecting China’s sovereignty. It was resolute U.S. opposition to Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s that pointed the way to Pearl Harbor. From 1941 to 1945 American and Chinese troops fought on the same anti-Axis side, but six years later they were killing each other in Korea. China’s post-1949 Communist leaders (whom we had previously helped to resist Japan) became and remained pariahs until Richard Nixon (who had previously railed against the Democrats who “lost” China) reversed course and recognized their government in 1972. That led to the present hot-and-cold relationship.

Forgive me for a momentary but irresistible lapse into personal history. I am an infinitesimal part of the story, having served in Kunming at Rear Echelon Headquarters, U.S. Forces, China Theater, in 1945. What I remember chiefly is the beauty of the Yunnan countryside, the sufferings of the war-ravaged Chinese civilians, and an inspection by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek himself. After a frenzied week of polishing and pressing, we were lined up at attention in our warlike ranks—clerk-typists, photographers, interpreters, radio operators, and the like—while Chiang, a small man in a mustard yellow uniform, walked past and tried to look reassured.

But back to general history. Many episodes could illustrate the fitful currents of U.S.-Chinese relations over the years, but the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 is especially revealing and awful. It was an essentially antiforeign as well as an anti-Christian outburst, perhaps easier for us to understand now than it was in the imperial days of McKinley. Chinese patriots had a full supply of annoyances back then. For some sixty years their emperors had been forced to yield trading rights, development concessions, and naval bases to better-armed powers. More insulting than the economic giveaways were the coerced grants of “extraterritorial” status for foreigners, who were allowed to live in special enclaves, immune from obedience to Chinese laws.

By 1899 China’s best ports and cities lay in “spheres of influence” controlled by Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and Japan. The United States had no such sphere, nor had it ever warred on China. So although it had gained many of the same rights as the other nations, it could claim a certain neutrality.

That year Secretary of State John Hay, fearful that the huge but helpless Chinese nation might one day simply be partitioned like Africa, and the United States shut out, won international acceptance of the Open Door policy. China’s territorial integrity would be respected, but all economic privileges squeezed out of it would be equally shared among the powers. Hay may have seen it as a favor to the Chinese imperial court, but it was hardly the kind to provoke much popular gratitude.

Rankling as badly with many Chinese as these humiliations were the multiplying efforts of the missionaries. With the enforced opening of China in the 1840s, their ranks grew from fewer than five hundred at mid-century to twenty-eight hundred in 1899. Those from the United States were especially zealous, their enterprise having been kindled during great revivals that encouraged ambition on a Yankee scale—nothing less than bringing the entire world to Christ within one or two generations. The missionary impact was visible in thousands of Chinese converts, hundreds of schools, many hospitals and dispensaries, and other training institutions. Yet seeds of discord were planted. Some of the missionaries were open in their disdain for the “heathenish” customs of their Chinese neighbors. It was also clear that wittingly or not, their Victorian gospel of progress linked the worship of Christ with sanitation, steam power, industrialization, and other forces that had less to do with escaping damnation than with developing the huge Chinese market for Western benefit.

To give them their due, the missionaries also found a society cruelly indifferent to the sufferings of the lowly. Missionary good works embraced schooling, health care, and the building of self-respect among outrageously oppressed groups—foot-bound women, to give a single example. In their fashion the evangelists were fighting for “human rights.” Many genuinely loved their converts and chose to die with them rather than flee the storm. (A fine overview of one representative group of such missionaries can be found in a book by a former managing editor of this magazine, Nat Brandt, Massacre in Shansi .)

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.

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