Russia, Japan, Germany and England as Shylocks gather round a kneeling China (Antonio) and demand their pounds of flesh for the Boxer Rebellion, while Puck urges the US to step in as Portia and rescue China. by John S. Pughe for Puck Magazine / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection; Subtitle on the cartoon reads:
The Dark Before Dawn
In the year 1900, China, seen as an effete, weak nation, could be bullied into submission. The West, suddenly rich, with wealth from piracy, slavery, sugar, tobacco, gold from America and Australia and Africa was in a position of supreme power.
Ancient civilizations like India and China seemed to be in an interminable grip of the West. In the year 1900, the Chinese kingdom saw its 1857 moment. When the Chinese nation rose as one against the Western powers – under the leadership of Society of Right and Harmonious Fists (- 義和團 I He Tuan or I Ho Ch’uan; Boxers in English).
Empress Cixi, A Manchu Queen, who ruled over Han China.
At the turn of the last century, with the European “Scramble for Africa,” as it was known, only recently completed, three assertive new major powers were fast emerging: Germany, Japan and the United States. Most of the world had already been claimed by more established actors. But decrepit, late Qing Dynasty China, with its hundreds of millions of people, centuries of accumulated wealth and vast territory, loomed as the final big prize on the imperial frontier. The New York Times at the time called China “the greatest potential market of the world,” and circling foreign powers, old and new, were drawn by its weakness and misrule.
The Boxer Rebellion. The war was the last of the West’s repeated armed confrontations with the Qing, but compared with other Chinese conflicts of the era, notably the midcentury, overlapping Taiping Rebellion and Second Opium War, it was a far smaller affair, both in duration and scale, essentially lasting through the long summer of 1900.
The war in a tradition that he says was long familiar to the British but brand-new to the Americans, one where empire is created “on the scene, and to the surprise of the mother county,” by free-lancing representatives of faraway Western capitals. In the case of the Boxer Rebellion, this meant a conflict that pitted the assembled forces of the world’s major powers against China. The unforeseen result, soon after the defeat of the Qing, was the end of thousands of years of dynastic rule and arguably the beginning of the end of the imperial age itself.
The Boxer Rebellion—its name derives from the uprising’s practitioners of martial arts—had its roots in China’s 19th-century demographic explosion, as well as crop failures and drought, which served as a catalyst for one of the era’s many Chinese peasant uprisings. What was different this time was the target. The Boxers, who arose in Shandong Province, were not mobilized against the Qing state but rather against the large Western presence in the country, especially that of Christian missionaries, who were attacked by the rebels in the summer and fall of 1899.
The Boxers’ problem was not with the Westerners’ religion per se. The rebels were incensed because, in the vacuum left behind by a failing Qing administration, the foreign church-based organizations were becoming local administrators. As such they were direct competition for the Chinese secret societies, like the Boxers, that were also moving to fill the void.
The Boxers were leaderless, largely illiterate peasant militants whose alliance in loose, improvised networks made them hard to stop. The movement quickly gained momentum in 1900, when spring rains failed to arrive: Unable to plant their crops, peasants were idled, frustrated and receptive to the Boxers’ recruiting efforts. In May, rallying under the slogan “Support the Qing. Exterminate the Foreigners,” the Boxers descended on Beijing and laid siege to the foreign quarter. Forced to choose sides, the Empress Dowager Cixi ordered foreign legations to quit the capital.
The war that ensued was fought by an uneasy but eager eight-nation coalition, including Austria-Hungary and Italy, who pushed to reach Beijing from the port of Dagu. Strange pairings were forged between rivals soon to be mortal enemies: the British and Germans, the Japanese and Russians, each eager to outdo the other.
China’s defeat—the country was forced to pay onerous reparations—marked the end of “a disastrous two years, part of a disastrous decade, [and] the end of a disastrous century,” Mr. Silbey writes. But the defeat also marked a turning point. British India, which had sent many troops to suppress the Boxers, was soon gripped by its own revolutionary movement. The Japanese learned from the war that “they held the whip hand in Asia” and would soon defeat Russia and later take over China.
Putting down the Boxer Rebellion had been a successful, coordinated display of imperial power—and a last hurrah. The new century had other plans for the victors.
From America’s recent, brief moment of unipolar pre-eminence, we have suddenly stepped into a new and uncertain age, with big, fast-growing new actors, China and India chief among them, rising to claim a place on the world stage. (via Book Review: The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China – WSJ.com; Links supplied).
Boxer rebels, 1900 photograph. From Tōgō Shrine and Tōgō Association (東郷神社・東郷会), Togo Heihachiro in images, illustrated Meiji Navy (図説東郷平八郎、目で見る明治の海軍), (Japanese), | Source Wikipedia. Click for image.
Soon after the Boxer War, China’s ruling dynasty, the Qing fell in 1911.
Civil war followed.
This civil war lasted until Communist forces under Mao Zedong’s gained control over China in 1949.
Looking for a pattern.
There are a few things in common between War of 1857 and the Boxer War of 1900 in China.
One – No Leaders They Say
Western historians have a knack of describing all anti-Western uprisings and wars as leaderless. The War of 1857 was Mutiny. The War by the Boxers too was an Rebellion.
Even though the West did not rule over China, yet it was rebellion. Even though the War of 1857 saw major engagements across India, over 18 months, it was a Sepoy Mutiny.
Killing Over Spoils
Just 15 years after this China’s Boxer War, the same 8 nations that had made an unholy alliance to subjugate China, were at each others throats.
More than 10 million people died in World War – I.
15 years before China’s Boxer War, billed by the hosts as the Kongokonferenz, or the Berlin Conference (1884-1885) in English, was organized by the Chancellor of a newly formed nation, Germany. Otto von Bismarck, Germany’s Iron Chancellor called for this conference to demarcate Africa between European Powers (plus the Ottoman Empire & USA).
These eight European powers could unite when it came strategy for undermining target-populations – and were equally capable of unprecedented slaughter when it came to sharing the spoils of loot.
A point though mentioned last, as important as any preceding points, is how European residents in China could easily act and call upon their national Governments for aggressive military actions. European Tai-Pans in China or the Company Bahadur in India could easily switch roles from being traders to an extension of the European State.
When you get up again
Looking back over the last 100 years, the most edifying observation that can be made is about India and China.
In 1900, it would have appeared to most that China and India would never recover. Today, both India and China have recovered.
But the real question today is – Will former colonial powers like Spain, Portugal, Britain and France go the way of Rome, Greece and Egypt.
Never to rise again.
A Troublesome Egg to Hatch by J.S. Pughe | 1901 cartoon as Industrial powers’attempt to exploit China. US & Japan look on. Image source & courtesy – historytoday.com | Click for larger image.