Boxer Rebellion

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The Boxer Rebellion was a violent popular attack on foreign diplomats and Christian missionaries in China in 1899-1900, centered on the capital of Peking. The uprising was prompted by xenophobic resentment of the increasing numbers of Christian missionaries in north China and from popular outrage at the failure of the Qing court to effectively resist the depredations of foreign powers in China (which had been increasing in scope since the Opium War of 1839-42). The international community was outraged, and a large army was sent by Euopean powers, Japan and the U.S. to retake Peking and destroy the rebels, who had unofficial support from the Chinese government.

The Boxer movement was known in Chinese as the 'Society of Righteous (or Harmonious) Fists', and it practiced a martial art which appeared much like sparring to western observers, hence its western name. It built upon a tradition of secret society activity among the lower orders of society and dispossessed intelligentsia, and initially adopted the slogan 'destroy the Qing, restore the Ming' (the Qing being the non-Han Chinese 'Manchu' dynasty; the Ming, predecessors of the Qing, being ethnic Han Chinese). The Boxer movement arose at a time of division and faction in the Qing court, and anti-Western courtiers believed that it could be harnessed as a means of overcoming foreign influence. Slowly a new slogan prevailed among the Boxers, 'Support the Qing, destroy the foreigners'.

Attacks began in 1899, and missionaries in the outlying areas who survived Boxer attackls fled to Peking. The Empress Dowager Cixi, ruler of China, herself appeared to give support to the Boxers, who occupied Peking and besieged the foreign legations in the city in the summer of 1900. However, although Cixi declared war on the powers and committed official Chinese forces to the siege, moderate elements at court were able to moderate her actions. The legation quarter siege was pursued only half-heartedly; and senior statesmen such as Li Hongzhang (known as 'the Bismarck of China', in temporary eclipse at court and at that time Governor General of Canton) and Yuan Shikai (Governor of Shandong, and head of the country's most modern armies) were able to come to a separate agreement with the powers. This unpublished agreement ensured that the war was confined to a few provinces of northern China, and, although the imperial government had declared war, the western powers would 'overlook' this and continue to see the violence as a 'rebellion' against the Qing.

During the summer of 1900, a large multinational expedition occupied the Dagu Forts, Tianjin and ultimately Peking itself. Peking was thoroughly looted by the occupying armies. Li Hongzhang was recalled to Peking to negotiate and sign (1901) a treaty with the allied powers, which provided for a large indemnity to be paid by China and allowed the powers to maintain sizable garrisons in the heart of the Chinese capital.

The Boxer Rebellion was a humiliating fiasco for China; the Qing rulers proved visibly incompetent and lost prestige irreparably, while the foreign powers gained greater influence in Chinese affairs.

In popular culture

The patriotic nature of the Boxer rebellion has made it a popular theme in Chinese cinema, notably in Jet Li's Once Upon A Time In China series of martial arts films. A more western-centered version of the story is 55 Days in Peking (1963), starring Ava Gardner and Charlton Heston.


  • Ch'ên, Jerome. "The Nature and Characteristics of the Boxer Movement--A Morphological Study," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1960), pp. 287–308 in JSTOR
  • Duiker, William J. Cultures in Collision: The Boxer Rebellion. (1978)
  • Fairbank, John K. and Liu, Kwang-Ching, ed. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 2: Late Ch'ing, 1800-1911, Part 2. Cambridge U. Press, 1980. 754 pp.
  • Latourette, Kenneth Scott. The Development of China (1917) 273 pages; full text online pp 199–96, by a leading Christian historian
  • Martin, Christopher. The Boxer Rebellion (1968), 175pp, popular history
  • Tan, Chester, The Boxer Catastrophe, (1983) standard scholarly history