Magazine article History Today

Knocking out the Boxers: Mark Bryant Looks at the Cartoons Produced in Response to the Conflict Which Followed the Opium Wars between China and the West

Magazine article History Today

Knocking out the Boxers: Mark Bryant Looks at the Cartoons Produced in Response to the Conflict Which Followed the Opium Wars between China and the West

Article excerpt

The Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1900 was the fourth conflict involving China and Britain in sixty years and came about when a group of ultra-patriotic Chinese, eager to expel all foreigners from their homeland, attacked and killed a number of British Christian missionaries and other European personnel stationed in the country, including the German ambassador. The uprising followed the three so-called 'Opium Wars' which had been fought to protect Britain's commercial interests, notably the export of opium to China. In all four conflicts the fighting was fierce and bloody and the cartoons produced on both sides during this period reflected the extreme mood of the protagonists.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the British empire was the world's largest producer of what the Chinese called the 'devil drug' and in 1839 the Emperor Tao Kuang (Hsuan Tsung) gave personal orders to ban the import of opium as it was destroying the Chinese people and making vast profits for foreigners. This led to the first Opium War (1839-42) by which Britain gained a 150-year lease on the island of Hong Kong. On the Emperor's death in 1850 the anti-opium policy was continued by his son Hsien Feng (Wen Tsung) and war broke out with the West again the same decade. However, as before, the Imperial Army was no match for the military might of Britain and its allies. In the Second Opium War (1857-58) the main trading port of Canton was shelled and the Chinese viceroy's palace was destroyed. Then in the Third Opium War (1859-60) the magnificent and historic Summer Palace in Peking (Beijing)--one of the wonders of the world--was destroyed by the Allies before the Chinese government sued for peace.

For the next three decades, and throughout the bloody civil war known as the Taiping Rebellion, anti-Western sentiment festered in China. This was encouraged by Emperor Hsien Feng's widow, the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, who from 1861 ruled as regent during the minority of two successive boy emperors. However, all was reasonably quiet until, in May 1891, Chinese mobs destroyed Catholic and Protestant missions in the belief that they were kidnapping children. In December the same year there was an uprising against foreigners and foreign churches led by the Golden Elixir Sect in Manchuria which was eventually put down by the Chinese government.

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The Boxer Rebellion, however, was on a much larger scale, and followed China's defeat in the Chinese-Japanese War (1894-95) and the scramble for territorial leases and trading concessions by European countries that ensued. The Rebellion began in May 1899 when 1,500 foreigners and Chinese converts to Christianity were massacred by a group called the 'Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists', which had started as a patriotic society devoted to martial arts, especially boxing. These 'Boxers', as they came to be known in the West, quickly gained popular support and had the tacit backing of the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi who was strongly against 'Western ideas'. One of the favourite mottoes of the Boxers was 'Protect the country, destroy the foreigners'.

The actions of the Boxers included the burning of Christian churches and foreign embassies, and the destruction of the railway line between Peking and its port at Tientsin. …

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