The Boxer Rebellion by Diana Preston

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.

Boxer Rebellion

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.

For the international community in Peking, the Boxers sounded alarming. But they also sounded like things they had heard before. “Herbert Hoover described the Boxers as ‘one of those emotional movements not unusual in Asia.'” (p. 24) Furthermore, “Anti-Christian violence was nothing new.” (p. 25) Preston notes riots against missionaries and converts in the 1860s and 1870s, and she notes a particularly grisly massacre of nuns in Tientsin in 1870. Preston further sketches incidents in the 1890s, things that would surely have been known to the internationals in Peking. From late 1899 and into early 1900, the danger from the Boxers looked to be increasing.

What to do? Some people with long experience in the country said it would all blow over, that worries about a widespread rising in the north against foreigners were an exaggerated reaction. Others believed that Chinese authorities would suppress the Boxers, and that protests to the Tsungli Yamen, the closest thing that China had to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs, would lead to satisfactory response. Others thought that if the Empress Dowager was not somehow behind the Boxers then she was at least willing to tolerate them as a useful lever against the foreigners, and that therefore the wisest course was to prepare for the worst. Still others maintained that preparing a military response would provoke exactly the anti-foreign sentiment that it was meant to forestall. In short, a disparate collection of people were trying to make life-or-death decisions within an unknown time frame and with very little reliable information.

The worriers turned out to be right. By late May, Boxers had destroyed railway lines and stations not far from Peking. An armed rescue party from the capital saved the group of Belgian engineers who had been based at one station; another group was not so lucky. Imperial troops were seen taking part in the looting. The international diplomats finally decided to send for troops to reinforce the small guard forces that normally sufficed for the legations. Mixed signals continued from the Chinese side: Nobody hindered about 400 soldiers belonging to eight different nationalities traveling by train from the coast to the capital. Officials shuttled back and forth, seeking clarification of the Chinese government’s true views, and what actions it proposed to take.

Preston gives a blow by blow account of how the foreigners’ predicament dawned on them. By the time their leaders were anywhere close to consensus on sending for a larger relief force, it was too late. Chinese actions were far from unified. The Boxers were many, but diffuse. Some in the imperial court wanted to suppress them, worried that street-level power could turn against the dynasty. Others in the court wanted to unleash them on the foreigners, thinking that would draw popular ire away from the dynasty. Generals in and around the capital operated with wide degrees of autonomy, and some were virulently anti-foreigner, while others were not keen to test their troops against European weapons. (The limited writ of imperial authority is a background topic throughout the book. Governors and other powers in the south of China apparently did a better job of keeping a lid on the Boxer movement; at any rate, Preston concentrates on the foreigners’ quarter in Peking.)

On June 11, troops allied with the Boxers “disemboweled and cut to pieces” the chancellor of the Japanese Legation. On the night of June 13, Boxers attacked and set on fire two of the three main Catholic churches in Peking. Foreigners and Chinese Christians increasingly crowded into the presumed safety of the Legation Quarter. On June 17, the imperial court gave the foreign delegations 24 hours to depart the city. Some diplomats still thought it prudent to comply; others argued that leaving their compounds would amount to handing themselves over to be massacred. Eventually, they decided to play for time, agreeing in principle to depart but pressing for details about travel and protection. They also sought meetings with princes of the court, at least some of whom might still be friendly to them and hostile to the Boxers. When no answer came from the Tsungli Yamen, the German minister to China, Baron von Ketteler, lost patience and decided to seek an answer in person. He never made it. He was shot in his sedan chair and died at the scene; his interpreter was also shot but made it back to the British Legation to report the news.

With that, the siege was well and truly on. There was no more talk about leaving. The question was when an expected relief force would arrive. “There were some 4,000 people from eighteen nations within the legation lines. The foreign community consisted of 473 civilians and just over 400 military personnel. Precise estimates of the number of Chinese converts vary but there were at least 3,000, probably more.” (p. 84) After describing frantic efforts to gather supplies into protected compounds, Preston adds, “It would have disturbed them to know that the rescuers they were so anxiously awaiting were in grave need of rescue themselves.” (p. 86)

Preston devotes the bulk of The Boxer Rebellion to depicting the siege. She draws on the letters and diaries that the besieged wrote, as well as first-hand sources compiled after the siege was eventually lifted. Her writing is clear and gripping; she captures the anxiety of the siege, the fear of attack, the great uncertainty of whether they will be relieved or overrun. She shows some of the absurdities as well as the variety of human reactions to such a situation, from heroism to venality, and one or two who were truly mad. She writes from the perspective of the internationals who are trapped in the Legation Quarter. Chinese reasoning, the ebb and flow of influence at court as well as any plans within the Boxers, are nearly as opaque to Preston as it was to the people in the legations. It is clear to her, as it was to them, that a concentrated effort by all of the troops at imperial disposal would have overwhelmed the defenders. It is equally clear that no such all-out effort was made, but whether that was by design or default remains unknown. I don’t know whether that uncertainty results from Preston’s inability to consult Chinese sources when she was writing in the late 1990s (the book was first published in 1999), or whether there are no sources that could settle the question.

After her account of the siege of the Legation Quarter, she adds chapters on the course of the Boxer uprising more generally, the harrowing tale of the siege of Peitang Catholic Church, and a consideration (her Part V, “Another Country?”) of China in the wake of the Boxer rebellion. Preston’s book is terrific, vivid and yet considered, capturing the emotions at the scene while setting that scene in a larger context. She centers the foreigners’ experiences but makes Chinese motivations understandable and captures some of the conflicting currents in both court and society.

Imperial China lasted barely a decade after the rebellion. Its successors have praised the Boxers to varying degrees. Republicans lauded them for standing up to the dynasty and preventing China’s dismemberment by foreign powers. Communists “depicted the Boxers as anti-imperialist patriots.” (p. 347) In 1989, both protesters and regime justified their actions partly in terms of values propounded by the Boxers. The siege of the Legation Quarter has long since been raised, but the questions that the rebellion raised are far from permanently answered.

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