In the face of foreign aggression and natural disaster, masses of Chinese people turn to traditional folk religion and martial arts to attempt to throw out the imperialists.
A couple sources for reading more, and which I used in preparing this episode:
Joseph Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising
Paul Cohen, History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth
Some names from this episode:
Wang Lun, leader of White Lotus rebellion in the 18th century
Empress Dowager Cixi, ruler of China during this period
Kang Youwei, Confucian advocate of liberal modernization and focus of last episode
Emperor Guangxu, Emperor of China who was put under house arrest by Cixi after attempting to assert his power during the Hundred Days Reform (last episode)
Alphonse Favier, Roman Catholic bishop in Beijing who engaged in looting when the Eight-Nation Army occupied Beijing and crushed the Boxers
Welcome to episode nine of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast!
This episode, we’re going to talk about the Boxer Uprising, which happened in the year 1900. The Boxer Uprising, or the Yi He Quan Movement, was a very strange social movement from a Western perspective, and so it’s going to take some explaining to get at just what was going on with it. If I had to explain it in just a sentence, I’d call it a mystical martial arts based mass movement against Christianity and foreign aggression in China. But how millions of people, mostly peasants, came to join this movement is a really remarkable thing historically, and it has both deeper roots in China’s past, and even has repercussions today.
Mystical Mass Movements
There is a long history in China of secret or semi-secret religious societies based on folk-Buddhism and Daoism. And at times, when these societies have decided to rebel, they have shown remarkable power in mobilizing large numbers of people very quickly. Back at the end of the 18th Century one of the big early rebellions against Qing rule was launched by the White Lotus Society, led by Wang Lun, a martial arts and herbal-healing expert. It was a tax rebellion on the one hand, but it was also a rebellion in the name of the “Eternal Venerable Mother goddess.” The White Lotus rebels believed, in the words of their leader, that “If I call on Heaven, Heaven will assist me; if I call on Earth, Earth will give me magical strength. Their guns will not fire. What men will dare impede me?”
The belief in a mystical mission bound up with a Chinese nationalist urge to expel the Manchu Qing, continued to have a powerful influence and to continually influence the way rebels articulated their opposition to the Manchu empire. After the White Lotus rebels were defeated, which took about thirty years, another rebel group formed which was called the Nian. The Nian rebellion reached its height around the same time as the Taiping revolution which we discussed in episodes three and four, and was based further to the north of the Taiping, and sometimes united with and worked with the Taiping. So these mystical rebels were a regular thorn in the side of the Qing Empire, and the ideas which sustained them kept being propagated by religious societies and teachers.
This is, by the way, the heritage of groups like Falun Gong in China today, and that’s one of the reasons why the People’s Republic of China cracks down so hard on the Falun Gong. There is a whole history of sudden, massive rebellions launched by these Daoist and folk-Buddhist societies, and so while in the West they appear to be harmless societies focused on breathing exercises and martial arts, in the West we are not used to thinking about the idea systems bound up with martial arts systems. If you take a martial arts class in the United States, you will learn the physical discipline, and maybe some mental techniques, especially for concentration or calming the mind. But in China, the religious idea systems connected with martial arts are taken much more seriously, and are more central to how the arts are usually taught. So when a group like Falun Gong suddenly becomes very large and generates a huge following to do things like have a surprise protest in Beijing, that is something the Chinese state takes very seriously, because of the whole history of massive rebellions generated by groups like that.
So, the Boxers United in Righteousness, which is the full name for the movement that rose up in the Boxer uprising, drew on this whole long history. (Yi He Quan can also be translated as Righteous and Harmonious Fists, which might be a better translation, although it is less common, since ‘boxer’ gives a kind of inaccurate idea of the type of martial arts which they practiced.) The Boxers originated in western Shandong province, not far from the area that the Germans had carved out as their colony in Jiaozhou Bay, and this was a core area for the White Lotus Rebellion of the late 1700s, the Nian Rebellion of the 19th century, and so the sort of popular religion that infused those movements was part of the popular culture of the region. It was also an area known for the martial character of the people. It was a favored recruiting area for the imperial army, and also an area known for all kinds of bandit gangs, so martial arts teachers of various disciplines could be found all over the place.
The Emergence of the Boxers
The Boxers had their origins due to the coming together of a variety of factors. A lot of people might be tempted to say, “what’s so hard to explain, it was an anti-foreign uprising because China was being exploited by foreigners and so the people rebelled.” And on one level, say you had to describe the origins of the Boxers in one sentence, that would be true. But the actual historical causation of the Boxer movement is really pretty complex, which makes sense when you think about it, because if it was simply the case that the Chinese people would rise up against foreign exploitation, then there already would have been other large scale anti-foreign (or anti-imperialist, if you will) rebellions. And really there hadn’t been, yet. The Boxers were the first.
The first time we know of a group using the name Boxers United in Righteousness, it was in a town called Liyuantun in the Shandong-Zhili (today Hebei) border region. There was a conflict in this town, as there was in many towns and villages across the region, between Christians and non-Christians. In this town, as a result of the aggressive Christian proselytizing in the region, the local temple to the Jade Emperor, a top god in popular Daoist and Buddhist religion, was given over to the town’s Christians, and this made a lot of the town’s non-Christians upset.
You might be wondering, how could the Christians just come in and take over someone else’s temple. This was a direct result of the power that the powerful industrializing western countries brought to bear on the Qing Empire, forcing China to accommodate Christian missionaries. And this area in particular, in and around Shandong, was an area where German-backed Catholic missionaries had been particularly aggressive, as we talked about in our last episode.
Now, as I mentioned a minute ago, this was a region, as many border regions in China were, where there were a lot of bandits. And so there were self-protection societies based on martials arts in the area. And some of these societies got involved in the protest activities against the Christian appropriation of the Jade Emperor’s temple in Liyuantun. Some came from a group called the Plum Flower Boxers, some came from the Red Boxers. In April 1897, these Boxers held a three-day boxing exhibition in Liyuantun. It wasn’t formally an anti-Christian event, but it seems to have been meant to intimidate local Christians, and in the course of the event tempers got heated and the Boxers ended up chasing the Christians out of the Jade Emperor’s temple and reclaiming it for the Jade Emperor. That seemed to have settled things in Liyuantun, but if you’ll recall the events from the last episode, in November 1897 the Juye Incident occurred, where two German missionaries were killed and then Germany came in and took over part of Shandong. When that happened, the momentum swung back in favor of the Christians, who had the force of the nearby Germany colonial occupation behind them, and the Jade Emperor temple was given back to the Christians.
This both inflamed local opinion, leading to more anti-Christian activities, but also forced the Qing state to crack down on anti-Christian groups in the region in order to appease the Germans and other foreigners. Now, the Plum Blossom Boxers and Red Boxers both had their origins as organizations that had come together to protect property from bandits, and so they had a number of more moderate members who didn’t want to have the Qing state crack down on them, so those Boxers who wanted to keep on with their anti-Christian activities then adopted the name Boxers United in Righteousness. That’s the first time this name was used, probably starting in early 1898.
Now the Boxers spread out in the region and began clashing not only with Christians, but also with Qing troops. The Boxers called upon the Qing to join them and drive the Christians out, putting forward the slogan “Support the Qing, Destroy the Foreign.” But the Qing didn’t agree and by the end of 1898 the Boxers United in Righteousness were put down militarily in the southwest Shandong region.
But now, in Spring 1899, another group of martial artists, the Spirit Boxers, in northwest Shandong province began using the name Boxers United in Righteousness and advancing the slogan “Support the Qing, Destroy the Foreign.” The Spirit Boxers emerged in the mid-1890s and were at first mainly a religious group. They would call upon the gods to possess them so that they could practice spiritual healing. But something changed in spring 1899. The region, already very poor, experienced a major flood in 1898 when dykes along the Yellow River broke. This spread millions of refugees across the region, adding to existing numbers of refugees from smaller floods over the previous few years. And following the flood, a drought settled on the region. The Spirit Boxers all of a sudden got involved in anti-Christian activities at this time, and began using the name Boxers United in Righteousness. Now they called on the gods to possess them not to heal, but to give them invulnerability so that they could go into battle.
Over the Spring and Summer of 1899 the Spirit Boxers spread north into Zhili province and engaged in attacks on Christians. This culminated in two pitched battles with Qing forces in October 1899. Repression caused a temporary ebb in Boxer activity. The leaders of the Spirit Boxers were arrested and executed, and there was some loss of Boxer support in the areas where the battles took place as some followers lost faith in Boxer claims of invincibility. But then, over the course of the winter of 1899 to 1900, the Boxer movement suddenly and swiftly grew exponentially as it spread across the North China plain.
The Boxer Expansion
The expansion of the Boxers was an example of a phenomenon that we see every so often in history, where a popular movement suddenly expands exponentially in size and spreads out across a wide area. It can seem like magic when it happens, and it’s really hard to say exactly why it happens in some cases and not others. For example, in the case of the Boxers, we can definitely list a number of factors that facilitated this spread: such as the way in which massive numbers of refugees from flooding and then drought were susceptible to believing that foreigners and their religion had disrupted the natural and proper way of things and that, armed with an esoteric religious practice promising invulnerability from bullets, they could bring back prosperity by running the foreigners and those Chinese who had adopted the Christian religion out of the country. It is no secret that desperate people will sometimes embrace ideas that promise a magical form of release from pain and suffering. And after all, the foreigners had been oppressing China and causing many of its problems, there is no question about it, so it’s not like the Boxers’ identification of the root of their problems was totally off.
But while this can explain why the Boxer movement spread so quickly, it’s frustrating as an explanation because there are so many instances where similar levels of oppression and desperation do not lead to mass movements spreading like the Boxers did, so on some level, I think, it is impossible to predict exactly why or how or whether any movement of rebellion or protest will go viral, the way the Boxers did. But sometimes they do, and the Boxer Rebellion is definitely one of those cases where all of a sudden, a local outburst of rebellion spread over a vast territory, with people taking up the cause and mobilizing themselves to attack foreigners and Chinese Christians.
To give you a sense of the Boxer’s belief system, what they thought that they were fighting for and against, I want to read you a piece of propaganda that the Boxers produced. These would be posted up as wall posters in Beijing and Tianjin by the Boxers in order to spread their message, and it took the form of a doggerel verse poem. This one was translated by Joseph Esherick in a way that maintains a rhyming scheme when translated into English. I’m not sure how much liberty he took in the translation to make that happen, but he’s a very careful and reliable historian, so I have complete confidence that this piece of poetry/propaganda conveys accurately the spirit and intention of its original authors:
[Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, 299-300]
Some themes that we can identify here are:
Defense of the Qing Empire, which had been “messed up” by the foreign devils.
The monotheism of Christianity, which leads to a lack of consideration for other gods, supernatural spirits, and ancestors.
There is some speculation about the strange practices of these foreigners, and of course we can see the term ‘blue-eyed devil’ here in China pre-dating its use in the US by the Nation of Islam, which is kind of cool. I guess the term ‘blue-eyed devil’ just has a sort of universal appeal.
Then there is the notion that the drought had been caused by the church-building of the Christians. This reflects both the belief that the feng shui of the land, the geomantic energies inherent in the earth, had been disrupted by the building of churches, telegraph lines and railroads. And also the idea of divine displeasure at the abandonment of traditional religion, and the consequent punishment by drought.
Then, there are a few verses focused on how the Way was being taught by angry spirits in order to fight the Christians, and reference to the use of charms which granted invulnerability to help with the fighting, and the idea of spirit possession to teach martial arts skills.
And then it ends with the idea that the victorious Boxers will kick out the foreigners and restore the Qing Empire to greatness.
This idea of restoring the Qing, rather than rebelling against them, is why it makes more sense to call this the Boxer Uprising rather than the Boxer Rebellion. The uprising is directed against foreigners and Chinese Christians, not against the Qing government, even though the Boxers initially clashed with the Qing forces which were trying to restore order and protect the Christians and foreigners.
But over the winter of 1899-1900, the Boxers spread so fast that it was impossible for the Qing to suppress them.
The overall trend was for the Boxers to emerge in a locality as a group focused on anti-Christian activism, but then, as the movement grew over the first half of 1900, for different local units of the Boxers to come together for major anti-foreign assaults.
This culminated in the early summer of 1900 in Boxer assaults on the foreign quarters of Tianjin and Beijing, both of which cities had been basically occupied by the Boxers.
As you can imagine, there were some officials within the Qing government who were sympathetic to the Boxers. And by mid-June, there were government troops who started to join in with the Boxers in attacking foreigners, and on June 21 the Empress Dowager Cixi took the side of the Boxers and issued a declaration of war against the foreign powers. The Empress Dowager and the pro-Boxer officials hoped that the Boxers could succeed where Qing military forces had always failed. And, in any case, they feared that if they didn’t support the Boxers, they might be overthrown by them, since the Boxers controlled Beijing’s streets for all intents and purposes.
The Qing officials ruling the Yangzi River provinces, however, were firmly opposed to the Boxers and determined to stop the spread of the Boxers to the south, even guaranteeing the security of the foreigners in the region while the Qing went to war with them in the north.
Most foreigners in Beijing and Tianjin managed to barricade themselves against Boxer attacks, but missionaries in the countryside were very vulnerable, and by the end of the uprising over 200 foreigners had been killed. The majority of them were missionaries, although some French and Belgian railway engineers were killed and some diplomats were also killed, such as Germany’s ambassador and the secretary of the Japanese legation. Thousands of Chinese Christians were killed.
But as is usually the case, the number of Chinese killed when the foreign powers retaliated would dwarf the casualties suffered by foreigners and Christians.
The Imperialist Counter-Offensive
By the end of the middle of August, a multinational force representing eight countries (Japan, Germany, Russia, Britain, France, the US, Italy and Austria-Hungry) had occupied Tianjin and Beijing. Chinese villages that stood in the path of the foreign army on the march from Tianjin to Beijing were razed to the ground. Kang Youwei, the Chinese liberal reformer who we discussed in our last episode, initially hoped that the foreign forces would restore the Guangxu Emperor to real power, but it soon became clear that vengeance was the main goal of the occupying forces.
As the foreign army invaded Beijing, the Boxers melted back into the regular population. For troops hellbent on punishing the Boxers, this meant that they would either have to forego vengeance, or just kill a lot of Chinese people. True to form, the imperialist armies opted for the bloodier option. As the commander of the American troops there confessed: “It is safe to say, that where one real Boxer has been killed since the capture of Peking, 15 harmless coolies or laborers on the farms, not including a few women and children, have been slain.”
Kaiser Wilhelm in particular articulated Germany’s war aim of making China fear Germany. He said the following in a speech: “Just as the Huns, a thousand years ago, under the leadership of Attila, gained a reputation by virtue of which they still live in historical tradition, so may the name of Germany become known in such a manner in China that no Chinese will ever again even dare to look askance at a German.”
Rampant looting took place by the troops of all the countries in the expedition. However, they organized their looting differently. The British required all the loot to be turned in at the British legation so that it could be publicly auctioned, while most other countries allowed their troops to carry off whatever they could carry. One Russian officer managed to fill ten large trunks full of valuables. And a French Bishop, Alphonse Favier, targeted a rich Chinese noble’s house and stole his silver.
In Manchuria, the Russians took advantage of the war to begin an ethnic cleansing of Chinese in the border region of the areas that Russia had annexed at the end of the Second Opium War. The thousands of Chinese who lived in the town of Blagoveshchensk, on the east bank of the Amur River (and formerly known as the Chinese city of Hailanpao), were rounded up and the herded into the river at bayonet point. Those who tried to escape were shot, and only a few made it to the other side. About 5,000 Chinese were killed there. The Russians then went to another Chinese settlement on the east bank of the Amur and killed at least another 2000 Chinese and stole all their property.
The Boxer Protocol was the latest unequal treaty forced on China as a result of the invasion. It forced a huge indemnity on China, which was so large that China couldn’t afford to pay it, even before taking into account the debt China was already saddled with from the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki, which we talked about in episode seven. China had to take out loans even to begin making payments. Another provision of the treaty was that foreign troops could be stationed as occupying forces in the treaty port cities, where they would remain until the Second World War.
The predatory and opportunistic motivations of the foreign powers in imposing the Boxer Protocol on China is illustrated by something that United States President William McKinley wrote to his Secretary of State when he sent troops to China. He asked bluntly: “May we not want a slice if it [China] is to be divided?” And that was the overall attitude of the occupying powers. Yes, missionaries and other citizens had been killed by the Boxers. But for the foreign powers, this represented an opportunity to squeeze China once again. It was a welcome justification for intervention, and full advantage was taken of the opportunity.
The shock of the defeat finally seems to have won the Empress Dowager Cixi over to implementing a reform program. When she returned to Beijing in 1902, she began to implement Guangxu’s program from the Hundred Days Reform (which we discussed in the last episode). But it was too little, too late. After forty years in power as a self-serving obstacle to China’s modernization, there was nothing that could now be done to save the Qing Empire. It was only a matter of time now until the dynasty would collapse.
Which is a theme we will be taking up in our next episode.