Magazine article History Today

Chinese Burns Britain in China 1842-1900

Magazine article History Today

Chinese Burns Britain in China 1842-1900

Article excerpt

Robert Bickers shows how the history of British and European imperialism in China helps explain the ferocious Boxer War of 1900.

THE BOXER RISING began in the obscurity of the north-west regions of China's Shandong province in 1899. It finished as an international crisis. The Chinese siege of the foreign legations in the capital city Beijing from June 20th to August 14th, 1900, gripped the world's press. It fed and still feeds a steady stream of memoir and narrative to willing publishers.

The `Boxer' became an international figure. But the episode began in 1899 when young Shandong farm boys, made idle as drought followed flooding, started practising `spirit boxing', a martial art which was acquiring new features including individual `spirit possession' and invulnerability rituals. They then set out to right a world gone wrong. Boxer beliefs, circulated through placards and pamphlets and rehearsed in doggerel and rumour, restated common prejudices and exacerbated long-standing rural tensions by scapegoating Chinese Christian converts and their foreign missionary mentors. They believed that church spires pierced the sky and prevented the rains and that the withdrawal of converts from communal ritual life unbalanced the world. Exterminating the foreign would surely bring the rain and also save their Qing rulers from foreign aggression.

The rains came in early July, but by August 14th, 1900, British and other armed forces had also arrived and were camped in the ruins of Beijing, having lifted the fifty-five-day siege of the legations and of the city's Roman Catholic Northern Cathedral (the Beitang). The port city of Tianjin, gateway to the capital, was levelled after its own siege. Numerous small towns and villages on the north China plain had seen vicious destructive warfare, and foreign troops launched raids to `punish' residents living in the sites of alleged Boxer activity deep into 1901. Russian troops would not be evacuated from Manchuria until forced out in a Russo-Japanese war fought mostly on Chinese territory. The Qing court -- which had taken the Boxers as allies and declared war on imperialism on June 21st, 1900 -- fled to China's north-west city of Xian, where it remained until October 1901. At least 220 foreign missionaries were dead, some executed at the order of Qing officials, while hundreds of foreign soldiers and probably tens of thousands of Chinese Christians, soldiers and civilians were killed in battle or cold blood, or died of disease or starvation as the conflict disordered north China. `Invulnerable' Boxers had been cut down by foreign soldiers (who would not spare any captives) and by Qing troops angry at the impotence of Boxer magic or cynically using them as cannon fodder. The September 1901 Boxer Protocol imposed a huge indemnity on the Qing state and established permanent foreign garrisons in the capital to guard a legation district that was removed from Chinese control and turned into an internationalised enclave.

Popular xenophobia and elite opportunism have often been blamed for the outbreak of what even one sympathetic foreign observer, the Inspector-General of China's Maritime Customs Service, Ulsterman Sir Robert Hart, called `mid-summer madness'. But there was much method and deliberation in such elite and mass `madness', and while attention in recent years has focused on understanding the anthropology of the Boxer movement and its roots in Shandong popular culture, research is in progress on the rational deliberations which led a powerful coalition at the Qing court to align itself with a mass movement in a bid to be rid of the foreign peril. It is as well, then, to focus on the history of foreign intrusions which fed Chinese worries. After all, British forces had camped out at Beijing before, in 1860, and had first seen Tianjin from their warships in 1840. Popular and elite resistance had cost Britons dearly at times, but British power had always won out. …

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