Distinguishing a warning that should be heeded from a host of false positives is a famously hard problem. The foreign community in Peking, as it was then generally called in the West, failed that test in the summer of 1900, costing many hundreds of lives. The Boxer Rebellion concentrates on the defense of the Legation Quarter in Peking from June 20 through August 14 of that year, as the representatives of the foreign powers that had been rivals in squeezing concessions from Manchu China set aside their differences to defend their lives when an uprising took killing all foreigners as its main goal, and the Imperial Chinese authorities were either unwilling or unable to assert their power and bring order to the capital.
Preston sets the stage in the heyday of European imperialism. Queen Victoria reigned over an empire upon which the sun never set; French-ruled territories spanned Africa and reached across significant parts of southeast Asia. Germany, Italy, Spain and Holland were among the other powers who sought territorial or trade concessions within weakly governed China. Japan had emerged from self-imposed isolation in the second half of the nineteenth century and had defeated China in war five years previous. (It would do the same to Russia five years hence.) The Japanese were well represented in the Legation Quarter and the fighting that would take place there, as well as among the international troops that eventually came to the relief of the besieged foreigners. Russia had the longest frontier with Imperial China, and in their long-running rivalry in northeastern Asia Russia had gained much of northern Manchuria from China in 1860.
One of the rights that foreigners gained in China in the late 1800s was the right to send missionaries and to convert Chinese people to Christianity. (The stories of Christians in lands ruled by Chinese emperors are longer and more complex, of course, but the quantitative change in the 1800s was enough to constitute a qualitative change.) Preston cites figures of more than 700,000 Catholic converts and about 85,000 Protestants by the end of the 1800s. (p. 27) Railroads and telegraph lines were visible signs not only of technological progress but also of foreign know-how and dominance. Change brought dislocation and, for some, hardship. “The steamboats and steam launches, plying busily up China’s rivers and canals, had put thousands of bargemen out of work, just as, in other provinces of northern China, railways were destroying the livelihood of camel-men, mule-drivers, chair bearers, and innkeepers.” (p. 24)
Against this background, there arose “an obscure peasant movement spreading across northern China like wildfire. Its members shared the same potent and explosive creed—they were virulently anti-Christian, antimissionary, and antiforeign. Westerners called them simply ‘Boxers’ because of the physical exercises they practiced en masse. But their origins were as complex as their rituals.” (p. 22) Preston traces the rise of the Boxers to two earlier groups in the northern province of Shantung: the Big Sword Society and the Spirit Boxers. Both had links to vigilantism in the countryside, both practiced martial arts, and both believed that their exercises and rituals conveyed invulnerability to harm, particularly to the bullets that European weapons dispersed with such alarming speed. Boxer spectacles were closely aligned with Chinese popular culture. The Boxers also gave people an external focus for their ire: foreigners.