Why does China’s Boxer Rebellion sound Familiar?

Chinese Boxer Rebellion's Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists
China Boxer Rebellion’s Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists

By start of the 1900’s, China had lost a number of humiliating wars with Japan, Russia and other European powers.  It fought to resist foreign armies, but lacked a modern military, and suffered millions of casualties.  China’s Qing Dynasty was forced to accept humiliating foreign control over the Empire’s economy, as well as an influx of Christian missionaries. To make matters worse, by the late 1890s, a series of terrible droughts, famines and floods devastated the northern provinces. Western powers assisted, but only for their own interests, not the general Chinese population.  The starving people became both desperate and angry.  Out of all this chaos, rose a new secret organization, the “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists” or Yihequan.  They began carrying out regular attacks on both foreigners and Chinese Christians.

China’s Qing Dynasty had suffered numerous military defeats in the late 1800’s.  This allowed Western powers to slowly erode Chinese sovereignty and undermined Qing power.  An upsurge of anti-Western sentiment was directed at both the foreign presence in China AND the expansion of missionary settlements. By 1900, every major Christian denomination had established religious institutions across China.  The northern Shandong province was effected the worst by the unrelenting droughts and famine.  The local Chinese felt the missionaries were a threat to Confucianism and Buddhism, angering the gods and stopping the rain.  

One European missionary wrote: “The people are very poor; practically no rain has fallen for over a year, plowing cannot be done, crops have not been planted; the whole country is swarming with hungry, discontented, hopeless peasants, and they are ready to join any solution offered.

In the 1890s, China had been forced to give commercial concessions to several European nations including Britain and France.  Railroads built by Western investors were seen as symbols of ‘European Imperialism and Chinese anger simmered.  All this created the breeding ground for an anti-foreigner rebellion, composed largely of unemployed peasants and drought-stricken farmers.  They blamed their desperate condition on ‘Foreign Demonscolonizing their very own country.

By 1900, leaders of a new resistance spoke out loudly of making their Empire great and strong once again.    

Their aim was to purify China of all foreigners, including their economic, political and religious influence. These rebels wanted to return Chinese culture to its conservative values, including respect for their gods, ancestors, and the Emperor. Girls who joined them were called “Shining Red Lanterns.” They dressed all in red, holding a red lantern in one hand and a red fan in the other. All were unmarried girls in their late teens from most every Shandong village.

These rebels came to be known by Western foreigners as BOXERS, because of the martial arts fighting techniques they employed.  The rebels performed specific martial arts rituals they believed would give them the ability to withstand ALL deadly forms of attack, including bullets. The Western press referred to these marital arts techniques as “Shadow Boxing.”  The Boxers publicly proclaimed spirit possession as they performed these exercises. They pronounced that their spiritual trances rendered them invulnerable.

“We request the gods attach themselves to our bodies, becoming Spirit Warriors, invulnerable to swords and spears, our courage enhanced, and in fighting, unafraid to die, daring to charge ahead!” 


As the Boxers grew in number, a popular song spread from village to village:

“Divinely aided Yihequan, United-in-Righteousness Corps, Arose because the Devils, Fouled the Empire of yore. When at last all the Foreign Devils, are expelled to the very last man, The Great Qing, united, together, will bring peace to this our land.”

In Shandong, they began killing foreigners and Chinese Christians, burning and destroying their property.

These public displays were popular and helped them recruit scores of new members.  The Yihequan Boxers blamed western foreigners, including their religions, for all the ills that plagued China.  One public notice was issued to Chinese Christian converts:

You have abandoned the gods, causing them anger, so the rains do not fall from the sky.  Heavenly soldiers will descend to earth and wage a great battle with the those of your religions. You must mend your ways and join the Yihequan, so that your entire families do not suffer harm.

The rebellion became international in 1898 when a band of Boxers killed 2 German priests at their missionary in Shandong. In response, Kaiser Wilhelm II dispatched the German Navy and troops, which only angered the rebels further. The foreign military was meant to intimidate and control, but was instead the spark that ignited an Empire-wide Rebellion.  From there, the Boxers continued on their path of violence.   “SUPPORT THE QING! DESTROY ALL FOREIGNERS!” was their chant. Their next target was the largest number of Chinese Christian converts (over 100,000) and foreigners, living around Beijing. In January 1900, the Qing Empress Dowager Cixi Tzu’u Hzi formally allied herself with the violent, yet extremely popular, Boxers.

The Boxer Rebellion reached the capital Beijing in the spring of 1900. 

The Qing Dowager Empress implored all foreigners to leave Beijing immediately.  The Boxers terrorized Christian missionaries, burned churches, dug up up European built railroads and tore down telegraph lines. Some large godowns (warehouses) full of valuable foreign merchandise were looted and burned to the ground. They intimidated or killed any Chinese official who attempted to suppress their revolt. In June 1900, the Yihequan Boxers began a siege of Beijing’s foreign legation district, with the embassies of foreign diplomats.  The next day, the Qing Dowager Empress formally declared war on all foreign nations in China.

As the Chinese anger over foreigners reached fever pitch, the diplomats’ safety became increasingly precarious.  This phase of the Rebellion escalated into what’s known as the “Siege of the Legations,” or the occupation of the Embassy District.  Many foreign diplomats were now trapped, barricaded inside out of fear for their lives.  The siege stretched on for months, as the diplomats, their families and staff suffered through hunger and increasingly degrading conditions, trying to keep the Boxers at bay.  Several hundred foreigners and several thousand Chinese Christians were killed.

Western powers and Japan quickly organized a multinational force to invade and crush the Rebellion. 

In response, an Eight-Nation Alliance consisting of Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Japan, Russia, and the United States sent their own military forces to end the siege.  They arrived at the port of Tanggu in June and marched inland.  The Yihequan Boxers, together with Chinese Imperial Troops, fought against predominantly Russian, Japanese, and British forces.  The Battle of Tientsin (Tianjin) would be the bloodiest of the Boxer Rebellion.  In August 1900, after fighting its way through northern China, the international force of 20,000 troops from 8 nations arrived to take Beijing and rescue their foreigners diplomats.

Foreign troops invade Beijing's Forbidden City
Foreign troops invade Beijing’s Forbidden City

The Boxers were overwhelmed. In August, the Empress Dowager and the royal family fled in fear to Xi’an, with her highest-ranking Qing officials.  She remained there for months until a final peace agreement was signed.  One of her Manchu generals believed fighting 8 foreign armies was futile, and did not throw his full support to the Rebellion.  The Boxers and Chinese troops lost against the far more industrialized armies. Just as during the prior wars, the western forces were victorious.  Thousands of Yihequan Boxers were arrested and Beijing was looted by foreign troops.  In the end, the Rebellion that sought to kick out all foreigners had just the opposite effect.

The foreign victors had the last word with a humiliating treaty in their favor.  The Rebellion formally ended with the signing of the Boxer Protocol in September 1901. By the terms of the agreement, China agreed to pay more than $330 million in reparations to the 8 foreign invaders.  China had to destroy key defensive forts allowing for easier foreign military intervention.  Boxer and Chinese government officials involved in the uprising were to be executed or exiled.  China was prohibited from importing any arms for two years. The treaty enlarged Beijing’s foreign troops, and allowed the permanent presence of Western armies on the Chinese coast.

What were the lasting effects of China’s Boxer Rebellion on the world?  The weakened and disgraced Imperial Family was overthrown ten years later.  Following an uprising in 1911, the Qing Dynasty, established centuries earlier in 1644, came to an end and China became a Republic.  The Boxer Rebellion, though a failure, would have an unforeseen effect on China for decades to come.  It had sowed the seeds of the future Chinese Communist Party, which began in 1921.  A Chinese Civil War broke out in 1931, between Nationalists and Communists that latest 18 long years.  Then after World War II, China became the Communist People’s Republic of China in 1949, under Chairman Mao Zedong.

If all this sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because Rebellions and Revolutions throughout the world, whether due to hunger, anger or discontent, are quite common throughout our long global history.  It’s not so much the [often violent] actions of the disgruntled masses that differ, but rather the response of those in authority, with controlling power, that ultimately defines their course and ultimate outcome.

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Published by andrewspaulw

LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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