What Was the Boxer Rebellion?

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Boxer Rebellion

In the era between 1898 and 1901, the nation of China found itself entrenched in an internal conflict with conservative elements of the population and foreign powers. Following decades of trade and labor exploitation at the hands of Western powers such as the United States, Great Britain and France, many Chinese nationals, enveloped in religious zealotry, moved to expel foreign colonists and Christians from their country.

This conflict became known as the Boxer Rebellion. The major instigators in the uprising were known as the Righteous Harmony Society, a movement that grew slowly against the imperialist control of the West and conservative elements in the nation’s own government, the Qing Dynasty. Opponents to the Boxers were the Eight-Nation Alliance, a coalition between Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary.

Causes of the Boxer Rebellion

Much of the foundations of the Boxer Rebellion stem from the events of the 1800s. Prior to the early 19th century, China practiced the fundamentals of isolationism. The British Empire was primarily responsible for the opening of the large nation’s industrial and cultural wares to the rest of the world.

Through a systematic policy of trade, most notably with its territories in India, Britain ended the centuries of closed borders. In addition to the exploitation of labor and the overwhelming tragedy of the opium trade, China and Britain engaged in two major conflicts collectively known as the Opium Wars. These battles effectively left the Qing Dynasty with dramatically less political power in its own country and gave British rule to many ports of call around the nation, most notably Hong Kong.

The Taiping Rebellion and the Rise of the Boxers

During the same time period, China was in a period of social upheaval in regards to its religious harmony and political power. Tens of millions of Chinese Christians, called the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, rose up to battle the Qing Dynasty in what effectively became a civil war. This conflict was known as the Taiping Rebellion and lasted decades before the dissidents were defeated.

Much of the Righteous Harmony Society rose from the aftermath of this conflict, attempting to return to traditional Chinese religious practices, most notably Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. The nickname “Boxers” descended from the fact that many of the movement’s leadership practiced Wushu martial arts, which many foreigners mistook for pugilistic boxing.

The Boxer Uprising

As the Boxer Rebellion grew at the turn of the century, it slowly gained the support of the Qing Dynasty and the imperial military under Empress Dowager Cixi. Christian nationals and foreigners were slowly pushed from the countryside and many cities. They took refuge in 1901 in the Legation Quarter, a section of Beijing controlled by the foreign powers.

As the Boxers continued to practice insurgent tactics and attack the area, the Eight-Nation Alliance eventually formed an army of roughly 20,000 troops, which overthrew the Boxers and brought the Qing Dynasty to its knees.

Aftermath and the Boxer Protocol

On September 7, 1901, the Boxer Protocol was signed as a peace treaty between China and the eight other nations. In addition to monetary rewards to the foreign nations, many dissidents were executed or arrested. The agreement also left the Qing Dynasty essentially powerless, setting the stage for the 1911 Revolution, which established the Chinese Republic.