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The Boxer Rebellion: The West and the Rebels

Updated Thursday, 25th September 2008

Dr Stuart Mitchell explains why the Boxer Rebellion is more than a footnote in Western and Chinese history.

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I am delighted that Timewatch has chosen to include a programme on the ‘Boxer Rebellion’ in its current run. Partly, this is because it is, in Europe at least, generally treated as a footnote in imperial history and for that reason is improperly understood. The programme, however, makes very clear that, for China, it is far more than a footnote. Quite the opposite, in fact. Possibly, it weakened the Qing dynasty beyond any hope of revival; but certainly it helped to define Sino-European relations for half a century afterwards. It does all of us in this country who are interested in history good to step outside of our Euro-centric frame of reference periodically. Secondly, the uprising is featured in two of the Open University’s history courses – Exploring History: Medieval to Modern and our most recent production, Empire 1492-1975 – and the programme gives a flavour of the type of imperial history that the university is developing.

That said, the film does not quite tell the whole story: I suppose no television programme ever can. So this is an attempt to plug one or two of the gaps that it leaves, albeit rather haphazardly. What follows largely switches the focus back to Europe, and in particular Britain and Germany. Events on the ground in Beijing are covered quite extensively in the programme, but how were these incidents apprehended and understood half the world away? To begin with, Chinese developments were practically ignored in Western Europe.

The gaze of the British (and to some extent, the German) press was fastened solidly upon the South African, or ‘Boer’, war for the first four months of 1900. Though in January a Times editorial showed concern about what the Empress Dowager Cixi’s effective assumption of power over her nephew might mean for Europe’s position in China, this was one of the few exceptions. One might imagine that the attacks visited upon Christians, both Chinese and European, would have caused alarm back in Europe: but in reality such attacks had been occurring for the best part of a decade and it was only their frequency that increased in the first part of 1900. Despite a stream of increasingly anxious telegrams from Claude MacDonald to the British government from almost the year’s beginning, it was not until May that the growing force of the so-called ‘Boxers’ became a subject of urgent deliberation in the UK and Germany.

After four months of unconcern, though, both states began to take action. It is interesting to reflect on their underlying reasons for doing so. The Times, on 7th June, claimed “to do nothing… is to jeopardise our vast interests in the Far East”, but, crucially “to allow any other Power to act independently might be worse than doing nothing at all”. The Times was not the government, of course, but it was well reflective of ‘establishment’ viewpoint. In fact, at least in public utterances, throughout the crisis government representatives and MPs barely departed from the line that British military action was purely in the service of her interests. One gets a very different picture when one examines Wilhelm II’s very personal intervention in Germany.

From June onwards, the Kaiser took forensic interest in the preparation of a German expeditionary force to go to China and in doing so gave the world a taste of his explosive character. He personally arranged German military intercession and made several speeches about the crisis, in all of which he made clear that the principal reasons for intervention in China were racial.

The Chinese, without distinction, were consistently referred to as “cunning”, “deceitful” and “cowardly”. Furthermore, he asserted that “Peking [Beijing] must actually be attacked and razed to the ground” and “a path for culture [sic] opened once and for all”. (Though it is curious to note that, in common with Britain, he also insisted that Germany must involve herself to ensure other powers did not gazump her world status.) Even Germany’s Foreign Minister, Bernhard von Bûlow – himself no shrinking violet – thought the Kaiser’s interference damaging and immoderate.

Perhaps this intemperance can be explained by the singular slight the Kaiser believed had been dealt to Germans by the death of von Ketteler, but the balance of evidence is against it. In any case, it was in blunt contrast to the British position – where the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, spoke of the situation (as he did about so many things) with wearisome regret. That is not to whitewash British policy, which was in many ways as underpinned by general notions of racial ascendancy as German – but principally to note the violent nature of Wilhelm II’s personal views and the inability of his governing circle to restrain him. With hindsight, the Boxer crisis may be counted as, if not the most important, at least one of first occasions on which the Kaiser’s international peers were offered an unambiguous glimpse of his mindset.

Still, hindsight is usually an undesirable lens through which to view the past, though perhaps it is always likely that people will use it to scrutinise difficult historical problems. In that respect, it may seem astonishing that – given the events that occurred fourteen years after the ‘Boxer’ war – European powers were so happy to act in concert to suppress the revolt. In particular, it might be surprising that Germany was accepted so readily as a partner. But the truth is that, in 1900, it was not at all obvious to European leaders that Germany might become the chief threat to global peace. True, there had been von Bûlow’s infamous ‘place in the sun’ speech in 1897, calling for the expansion of the German empire. The German Reich had also in effect brusquely annexed the port of Kiaochow (Qingdao) on China’s east coast in 1898.

But all major European powers were engaged in imperial escapades at the turn of the century, not least in China, which had been – in essence – summarily divided up into European spheres of influence after her defeat at Japanese hands in 1895. If German rhetoric had been ratcheted up with the arrival of Wilhelm II, its actions, taken at face value, appeared little different from those of other countries. Instead, it may be that the ‘eight power alliance’ was formed not just because expatriates from every nation were affected by the rebellion, but – as The Times quote above suggests – because this was the most effective way of ensuring that no one benefited disproportionately from the aftermath of victory. Suspicions about all partners were common enough within this coalition of convenience, but if anything they reflected long-established tendencies. For example, British reservations were more severe about Russia than Germany, whilst France’s remained most acute about her eastern neighbour.

If the programme has a weakness, it is that its narrative ends on 14th August, but though on that date the siege of the legations was lifted, that was not the end of the matter. Much of the international expeditionary force arrived in Beijing too late to participate in that action, but – under German command – it nonetheless stayed on in China for almost a year, conducting raids against ‘Boxer outposts’. These attacks were often pursued viciously and although not all the troops involved were German, they contributed to that nation’s growing international reputation for an aggressive foreign policy based on subjugation. The last months of the conflict were conducted by the Boxer resistance as essentially a guerrilla war, much to the frustration of the expeditionary force’s command. As the twentieth century was to prove repeatedly, such warfare was very difficult to pursue for relatively large, static forces used to battlefield engagements. It was, then, hardly surprising when the international force – deprived of a decisive victory – withdrew in mid -1901.

The final act of the conflict was the imposition by the eight-power alliance of the Boxer Protocol on the Chinese government. There had been more ruthless treaties in the past, and there were undoubtedly harsher to come, but given the nature of the conflict, the settlement was unusually unforgiving. Reparations totalling more than £60 million were levied on China, she was to accept the long-term garrison of foreign troops in Beijing, and – in some ways the most humiliating clause – she also had to construct a large memorial to the unpleasant von Ketteler. At the last, it is at least arguable that it was the treaty, more even than the conflict itself, that sounded the death knell for the Qing dynasty and caused the great rise in Chinese nationalism that following years were to see.

In the construction of this article, in addition to standard texts and OU course materials, I have used a number of primary sources. These included The Times from 1900, two parliamentary reports containing correspondence on the ‘Insurrectionary Movement in China’, Hansard, and the Anglo-German Agreement relative to China (October 1900). All Open University students receive, through the Open Library, free access to the full text of the Times digital archive from 1785-1985 and to digitised parliamentary papers.




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