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China And The Boxer Rebellion

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Mr Graham Perry
Graham Perry
Experienced Arbitration Lawyer | China & Chinese Business Affairs | Public Speaker/Lecturer.

Today in 1900 the western named Boxer Rebellion commenced in China. The name “Boxers” was given to the China movement of rebellion by foreigners to the rebels that practised Yihequan – “Righteous and Harmonious Fists”. The original aim of the Boxers was the destruction of the Qing dynasty and the removal of Westerners from positions of privilege in China.

By the end of the 19th Century, the Western powers and Japan had forced the ruling Qing dynasty to accept foreign control of the China’s economic affairs. In the Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856-1860 China fought back but lacked a modernised military and suffered many casualties. But resistance was beginning and a combination of growing economic impoverishment, a series of national calamities, and upgraded foreign aggression led to the Boxers increasing their strength in the Northern Provinces. Although the Boxers were drawn from various parts of Chinese society, the backbone were peasants particularly from Shandong province. Additionally, the activities of Christian missionaries, whose converts flouted traditional Chinese ceremonies and family relations, provoked the Boxers whose focus was on “things foreign” in China. Christian missionaries and Chinese Christians were killed; churches and railroad stations destroyed.

On June 20 1900, the Boxers began a siege  of Beijing’s foreign legation district and the following day Qing Empress Dowager Cixi declared war on a foreign nations with diplomatic ties in China. Some estimates suggest that several hundred foreigners and several thousand Chinese Christians were killed.

In response to growing military achievement by the Boxers, an international force of 19,000 soldiers drawn from Japan, Russia, Great Britain, the USA, France and Italy confronted the Boxers, captured Beijing, relieved the foreigners, and provided for reparations in the sum of $330m to be paid to the invading foreign nations

The Boxer Protocol of 7 September 1901 brought the Rebellion to an end. Forts protecting Beijing were destroyed; Boxer and Chinese Government officials involved in the uprising were executed/ imprisoned and foreign legations were permitted to station troops in Beijing for their defence. The Qing dynasty, which had been established in 1644, was weakened by its failure and the dynasty came to an end in 1912 when China became a republic.

The Boxer Rebellion was a defeat. The rebels lost and the invading foreign powers won. China also lost the Opium Wars of 1939-1842 and 1856-1860. And, significantly, on 18 October 1860 Lord Elgin, the British High Commissioner to China, ordered the violent destruction of the Old Summer Palace in order to punish the Qing Empire for resorting to kidnapping in order to resist the British invasion. As everyone in China is taught, the Summer Palace was a beautiful collection of architecture and art. Its Chinese name was Yuanmingyuan – the Garden of Perfect Brightness. Elgin helped organise an auction of many thousand works of art with the some of the spoils used to compensate the families of the dead and wounded soldiers. Soon after the destruction of the Summer Palace in 1860, Elgin made a triumphant entry to the centre of Beijing – a procession symbolising two key political messages; first, British and Western domination, and, second Chinese loss of face.

The Opium Wars, the sacking of the Summer Palace and the Boxer Rebellion are key parts of China’s Century of Humiliation that came to an end in 1949 when China took charge of its future destiny and formed the People’s Republic of China.

If there is a weakness in the Western attitude to China, it is in its failure to understand China; a failure to see China’s history from a China perspective. The UK knows its history – Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, and Standing Alone against the Nazis in 1940 but when it comes to China does it really appreciate the British role in the Opium Wars, the Sacking of the Summer Palace and the Boxer Rebellion? The Chinese are right to blame their own weaknesses and their own failure to stand up to the violence of British Imperialism but are the British – their governments and their people – sufficiently aware of the role Britain played in condemning China to backwardness for a hundred years. And taking it one stage further, are they aware of the steadfastness and determination that now permeates China’s foreign policy as a consequence?

Graham Perry
August 2020

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