The Boxer Rebellion Explained: Uprising in China

Since the 1840s, China had been dominated by European powers in pursuit of profits. In 1899, a group of nationalists known as Boxers tried to push foreign influences from China.

Aug 26, 2023By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
boxer rebellion in china
Details from a French-language newspaper from June 1900 showing Chinese Boxers pulling up railroad tracks to prevent European and allied troops from intervening, via PBS Learning Media


During the early 1800s, European powers sought colonies in Africa and Asia to both access low-cost natural resources and develop captive markets. In China, this resulted in the Opium Wars of the 1840s and 1850s, after which a humiliated China was dominated by Britain and other European powers. These powers carved up China into spheres of influence, within which each European power had a monopoly on trade. By the late 1890s, many young Chinese men were upset at China’s economic and political woes and sought to push out foreign influence from their country. These nationalists, called Boxers due to their public displays of martial arts skills, tried to use armed force to defeat European, American, and Japanese installations in 1899-1900.


Setting the Stage: The Opium Wars in China Lead to the Century of Humiliation

opium war china
A painting showing British troops defeating Chinese soldiers during the Opium Wars of the 19th century, via The National Interest


In the early 1800s, European powers were eagerly seeking colonies in Africa and Asia, looking for cheap natural resources and the ability to set up captive trading markets. Since 1757, trade between Europe and China had been limited to the southern port city of Guangzhou. Around 1800, Britain began importing opium, grown in India, into China. Quickly, many Chinese became addicted to opium, and China began to restrict its use by the early 1810s. Still, the opium trade grew rapidly, and by the 1830s, it had become a major social problem. By 1839, China decided to ban the opium trade entirely. This quickly resulted in conflicts with British traders, resulting in the First Opium War.


The British won the First Opium War and received the port city of Hong Kong and access to five other port cities, where any citizens of Britain would be subject to British laws instead of Chinese laws. Hostilities erupted again in 1856, and the Second Opium War saw a second defeat of China at the hands of both Britain and France. As in the aftermath of the first war, the European powers were granted access to many additional port cities. British and French troops also looted the Imperial Summer Palace, which exemplified the century of humiliation era (1839-1949) suffered by China at the hands of the West and Japan.


Setting the Stage: The Sino-Japanese War of 1895

sino japanese war 1895
A Japanese woodblock painting commemorating its victory over the Chinese in the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, via the Naval History and Heritage Command


While the British and French desired port cities in China’s central and southern regions, Russia and Japan were closer to China’s northeastern provinces, including the Korean peninsula. Japan, which had begun modernizing rapidly in the late 1860s after the introduction of trade with the West, desired access to both Korea and Manchuria (northeastern China). Having previously been occupied by China, Korea enjoyed a brief period of independence, but the assassination of a pro-Japan Korean minister led to a resurgence of tensions between China and Japan. Both China and Japan sent troops into Korea, which sparked armed conflict between the two nations.

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Fighting began on July 25, 1894, with war formally declared a week later. Chinese troops suffered from poor unification, leadership, and inferior weaponry, resulting in a continual string of losses to the more modernized Japanese forces. As Japan took more territory in northeastern China, Western powers became involved and forced Japan to cede back some of the territory. This resulted in Russia making gains in Manchuria, including Port Arthur. Although Japan had won a decisive victory over China, European intervention in the war set the stage for the Russo-Japanese War a decade later. The intervention of European powers also furthered the humiliation of China, with many Chinese feeling that China could no longer manage its own affairs.


Setting the Stage: Christian Missionaries in China

christian missionaries china 1890s
A photograph of Christian missionaries in China wearing traditional Chinese clothing circa 1890, via the Victoria University Library (Canada)


European port cities and Japanese aggression humiliated China, which had once been a great power. A third pillar of tension came from Christian missionaries, which were sometimes seen as trying to replace traditional Chinese culture with Western culture. It likely did not help that the re-emergence of Christian missionaries in China, following their ban in 1721, came along with the rise of for-profit Western merchants. This led many to view the missionaries as more focused on cultural imperialism than simply religious education. Many also felt the presence of Christian missionaries to be a reminder of Western power and its dominance over China.


Tensions grew over the fact that Christian missionaries sometimes treated Chinese traditions as “backward” and received some degree of immunity from Chinese laws, especially when residing in Western-controlled port cities. By the 1890s, instead of individual religious conversions, missionary groups were more focused on social movements, such as higher education. This furthered tensions with the Chinese elite, who felt that their own status would be diminished by the rise of a new elite under Western cultural norms. Many Chinese began to fear the erosion of their traditional culture, increasing resentment of Westerners.


1899: The Boxer Movement

chinese boxer photo 1900
A photograph of a Chinese Boxer in 1900, via the National Archives


The growing hostility between supporters of traditional Chinese values and supporters of Christianity intensified over time. By the early 1890s, pamphlets criticizing Christian missionaries and their followers were being published. Many peasant men, prevented from accessing stable middle-class careers due to lack of education, became known for putting on displays of physical strength and fighting skills. These men became known as “Boxers” and grew popular in rural China.


Violence against Westerners and Christians erupted after droughts and natural disasters wracked China in the late 1890s. Boxers and their allies blamed Western influences, including Christianity, for “provoking Heaven’s wrath.” Quickly, Boxers began destroying Western-built infrastructure, including railroad and telegraph lines. This destruction was intended to both repudiate Western culture and to make it harder for Western military forces to invade the area and put down the growing Boxer Rebellion.


June 1900: Qing Government Backs the Boxers

empress dowager xi 1903
A photograph of the Empress Dowager Cixi, head of the Qing Dynasty during the Boxer Rebellion, via the National Museum of Asian Art of the Smithsonian Institution


At first, the Boxer Rebellion was against the law and did not receive Chinese government support. However, as the movement grew stronger, it gained the support of China’s official ruler, Empress Dowager Cixi. During the spring of 1900, the Empress told local Qing dynasty officials not to interfere with the Boxers. In June, she announced her support for the Boxers and declared war on the foreign powers active in China. By this point, the rebellion had killed a German and a Japanese diplomat, destroyed the British summer legation west of Beijing, and cut off telegraph access to Beijing.


Beijing, which was called Peking at the time by anglophone Westerners, was home to international legations in China. On May 31, the first violence between Western military forces and Boxers occurred when a squadron of Russian Cossacks rescued a group of European engineers near Tianjin. Knowing that the Boxers would target the international legations, the Western nations there moved to reinforce them. However, only small forces of Western troops were currently in Beijing, so the call was put out for reinforcements. No foreign military bases existed in China, but several nations had warships at Taku, about 115 miles from Beijing.


Siege of the Beijing Legations: Eight-Nation Alliance Responds

A painting showing Western powers responding to defeat the Boxers’ siege of the Beijing international legations in the Battle of Peking, via Historic UK


In early June, a relief force of 2,000 soldiers from Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Japan, and the United States attempted to reach Beijing by train, complementing the 350 foreign troops, including 50 US Marines, who had arrived on May 31. However, the Boxers had destroyed railway lines, forcing the Western soldiers to turn back. This isolation of Beijing from Western reinforcements led to the Siege of Peking. In the international legation quarter, troops from eight allied nations had to work together to maintain strong defenses against both the Boxers and the Qing Dynasty army.


The south wall of the legation quarters, known as the “Tartar Wall,” was 45 feet tall but faced both Chinese snipers and artillery. Outside the legation, the defeat of the first attempt to reinforce the city attracted worldwide media attention. On June 16, the allied navies decided to attack, and quickly captured the forts at the mouth of the Hai River that led up to Beijing. This led to the Qing dynasty formally allying itself with the Boxers on June 21 and prevented a diplomatic solution to the Siege of Peking. As violence against foreigners was threatened in the streets of Beijing, foreigners and Chinese Christians rushed to find sanctuary at the international legation quarter. A 55-day siege had begun!


Foreign Powers Defeat the Boxers

eight nation alliance boxer rebellion
A photograph of senior officers of the Eight-Nation Alliance after the successful quashing of the Boxer Rebellion, via the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)


On July 13 and 14, Japanese and Russian troops defeated the Chinese forces at Tianjin. However, fierce resistance and an unexpectedly large number of Chinese soldiers at Tianjin led the eight-nation alliance to pause. Instead of pushing straight for Beijing, they waited to amass ample forces in Tianjin. In early August, they were ready to proceed. About 18,000 troops from five of the eight members of the alliance set off for Beijing from Tianjin, with the largest contingents from Japan, Russia, Britain, and the United States.


The march to Beijing took ten days, under brutal heat. Despite the intense hostility faced by the foreigners in June, the eight-nation alliance expedition to Beijing faced little armed resistance. On August 15, 1900, US forces officially entered the international legation quarters. That same day, Empress Dowager Cixi fled from Beijing, allowing the Western powers to occupy the city. The relatively bloodless victory of the alliance led to ample photo opportunities showing international cooperation and was seen as an event marking Japan’s admission into the club of “civilized” developed nations.


Foreign Domination of China Continues

russian map manchuria 1901
A Russian map from 1901 showing the imperial power’s occupation of Manchuria, a region of northeastern China with ample natural resources, via the Library of Congress


The victorious allies forced the Qing Dynasty to pay a $333 million settlement in 1901, which effectively bankrupted the already struggling government. The Boxer Protocol was enacted the same year, allowing the stationing of foreign troops in Beijing. Under foreign domination, the Qing Dynasty had little choice but to accept radical reforms. Some of these reforms were enacted under Western pressure, but others were attempts by the Chinese to modernize and not face further military humiliations at the hands of the West. One major reform was the abolishment of the traditional examination system for civil service jobs.


Defeating the Boxers and the Qing Dynasty gave Russia and Japan essentially a free hand in occupying northeastern China. Russia dominated Manchuria through its Trans-Manchuria Railway and South-Manchurian Railway, which could be used to transport Russian troops. Only a few years after the Boxer Rebellion, Japan would target Russia’s forts in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War. During this episode, Japan would occupy the Korean Peninsula and claim it as a protectorate. Other European powers remained largely confined to the port cities, but Britain did diplomatically side with Japan over Russia in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion to limit Russia’s growing influence in China.


Aftermath: Qing Dynasty Weakened, China Faces Foreign Incursions

fall of qing dynasty 1911
A painting depicting the collapse of the Qing Dynasty during the Wuchang Uprising of autumn 1911, which resulted in the new Republic of China, via the Chinese Language Institute


Under what amounted to foreign occupation, the Qing dynasty had no choice but to accept pro-Western reforms. Unfortunately for the Empress, this meant the loss of what little power the royal court had left. Secular elites, made wealthier through trade with the West, demanded more political power. In 1905, the Qing Dynasty began allowing some decentralized government power at the provincial level. However, these reforms only emboldened those who wanted to end the monarchy.


The Chinese Revolution of 1911 began in the south and quickly picked up steam. Although the Qing Court tried to head off the revolt by naming a new premier, Yuan Shikai, the dynasty continued to collapse. Of the fifteen provinces in China, fourteen joined the new Revolutionary Alliance. The royal family abdicated the throne in February 1912, paving the way for the official rise of the Republic of China under Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. A new era for China, under a semi-democratic government, had begun.


Aftermath: China Wary of Foreign Powers

china military parade 2017
A 2017 photograph showing Chinese troops during a military parade, via the Council on Foreign Relations


The infamous century of humiliation, which included the failed Boxer Rebellion, likely influenced China’s rise as a military power after World War II.  After the communists won control of mainland China in 1949 in the Chinese Civil War, China assisted North Korea in the Korean War (1950-53) by sending a million-man army to help its communist neighbors push back US forces. China wanted to show that it would not be intimidated by the West. A decade later, China also pushed back strongly against its former communist ally, the Soviet Union, in the Sino-Soviet Split. Rather than accept political changes in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev, China chose to sever its geopolitical ties during the Cold War.


China’s rapid military growth in recent decades can be seen as a conscious attempt to avoid future humiliations at the hands of the West. This could come from incursions within China’s own sphere of influence, including North Korea and Taiwan (Nationalist China after the Chinese Civil War). Allowing the West to either topple North Korea’s ruling regime or build up weapons in Taiwan could be seen as reminiscent of the incursions during the Boxer Rebellion. Similar to the Soviet Union’s aggression in Eastern Europe after two German invasions, China’s aggression in the Pacific region is likely linked to past painful defeats and attempts to prevent similar happenings.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.