The Boxer revolt was a Chinese nationalist insurrection led by the sect of Boxers (or Boxers) against foreign legations and Catholic missions in Beijing in 1900. Occurring in reaction to the dismantling of China by the Western powers, this revolt was aimed at their expulsion from country. From June 20, 1900, Beijing resounded with cries of hatred from thousands of people against foreigners. German Ambassador Clemens von Ketteler has just been assassinated, foreign legations will undergo a 55-day siege.
Origins of the Boxer Rebellion
The economic and political exploitation of China by the Western powers and Japan, since the humiliating defeats inflicted by the United Kingdom in the Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860) and by Japan during the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), was the main cause of Chinese resentment, accentuated by the economic crisis. Turn-of-the-century China, ruled by the Manchu (Qing) dynasty, has long fallen prey to foreign powers, foremost among them the UK, Japan, Russia, France, and Germany.
The latter have imposed, often by armed force, a whole series of humiliating treaties forcing the opening of the Chinese market to foreign influence. Culturally, the country must face the activism of Christian missionaries and a deep questioning of the old imperial system. The emergence of a bourgeois, liberal but also nationalist elite is agitating the big cities.
The government of Empress Dowager Cixi took refuge in a cautious conservatism, and played with the growing frustration and xenophobia of the Chinese to ensure the power it had brutally obtained (coup d'état of March 1898) . The authorities in Beijing give their support in particular to a secret society, the Militia of justice and concord, whose members practicing martial arts are nicknamed "Boxers" by the West. The Boxers are the heirs of a long tradition of occult and armed fraternities. Fiercely nationalist, they first, like their predecessors, condemned the Manchu dynasty as a foreigner before rallying to face the common enemy: the colonial powers and their missionaries.
The Boxers recruit their members from the popular classes and are organized in a military manner. As a result, they were formed into a militia by the Cixi government. From June 1900, officially under the command of the court, they will commit a whole series of murders and abuses against foreigners. They have no other choice but to take refuge in the legation quarters.
The events of June will push foreign powers to intervene militarily in China. It is as much about saving civilians trapped in besieged legations as it is about exerting overwhelming pressure on the imperial regime. An alliance of eight states (Japan, United Kingdom, United States, Italy, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary) known as the “Alliance of Eight Nations” was formed with the aim of constituting an expeditionary force. This will reach a strength of 100,000 men at its peak. Releasing the Beijing legations on August 14, foreign soldiers experience a spectacle of horror. Civilians captured by Boxers were often excruciatingly tortured, as were Chinese Christians. The rivers are filled with corpses, there are pyramids of severed heads in various places, even stuffed bodies in various places of the city etc.
The revenge of the colonial powers is going to be terrible. As Kaiser Wilhelm II asked his troops, it is about terrorizing the Chinese people. Summary executions, murders and rapes will follow one another for months. The height of humiliation for the Chinese is that foreign soldiers have their photos taken in the Forbidden City. In occupied Beijing, the troops engaged in abuses and pursued a policy of repression.
Consequences of the Boxer War
The Empress who fled to Xi’an eventually disassociated himself from the Boxers. Abandoned by the imperial army, they nevertheless continue to resist foreigners. Chinese troops will have to join the eight nations (further humiliation) for them to be all removed. When the conflict ended on September 7, 1901 with the Treaty of Xinchou, more than 50,000 Chinese (civilians and Boxers) lost their lives. China is forced to pay large indemnities (while the state of finances is catastrophic), to constitute two "missions of repentance".
The treaty also provided for trade concessions, as well as a right to station troops, to protect Beijing's legations and provide them with a safe corridor to the coast. Despite the American efforts to prevent further territorial interference, Russia took advantage of the revolt to extend its influence to Manchuria. The direct consequence of this policy was the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).
The Qing dynasty has just suffered one of the worst in a long series of humiliation that marked its last century. She will survive there only ten years, ten years during which many reforms will prepare the emergence of a republican and modern China (1912). The Boxer Rebellion is currently seen in China as one of the struggles against the imperialism of the great powers.
- The Boxer War (1900-1901) by Raymond Bourgerie. Economica, 1998.
- The Red Summer of Beijing: The Boxer Revolt, by Jean Mabire. Editions du Rocher, 2006.
- The 55 Days of Beijing, by Nicholas Ray. Fiction, DVD, 2008.