The Boxer Rebellion – China Against the World Powers

American troops in the relief of Peking in China on 14 August 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion.

The uprising known as China’s Boxer Rebellion came about as a reaction to Western Imperialism and trade policies as well as the spread of Christianity.

Founded in the province of Shandong, in northern China, the Boxer’s official name was the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists. Its members were mostly peasants who had lost their jobs due to economic policies and other procedures instituted by foreigners, as well as to natural disasters.

As the members of the society practiced martial arts and calisthenics, the term Boxer was applied to them by the Western media. Boxers believed that the exercises, as well as diet and summons to Buddhist and Taoist spirits would make them invulnerable and allow them to carry out superhuman feats.

Grounds for Rebellion

In the last half of the 19th Century, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia and Japan controlled large sections of Chinese territory and the country’s economy. With the backing of the Western Powers, Christian missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, proselytized a faith that was foreign to the Chinese. Furthermore, there was unease among the peasantry who were worried that missionaries and native Christians, who were not under Chinese law, might perhaps appropriate non-believers land and assets.

One particularly detested consequence of foreign intrusion was the compulsory importation of opium that produced pervasive dependence among large segments of the population. Nature didn’t help China’s peasants either. Shadong province was first assailed by drought and later by floods. Impoverished farmers moved to the cities, thus swelling the ranks of the poor and destitute in the urban areas.

The powers, with the exception of Great Britain – which controlled most of the trade – and the United States – which dominated no territories in China – wanted to simply cut China into pieces. This, of course, was anathema to patriotic Chinese. Washington was not acting out of noble beliefs, though. The Americans wanted China to remain whole, because they had been left out of the partition and a weak China was a freer trading partner than sections of the country controlled by other nations and their corporations.

The Revolt

Young, Qing Dynasty, Emperor Gangue signed what is known as the Hundred Days Reform on June 11, 1898. The Reform, destined to westernize China, was violently opposed by the Boxers and by the emperor’s mother, Empress Dowager. She led a successful coup against her son and then patched up her differences with the Boxers.

Now the Boxers, who had been enemies of the 200-year-old Qing government, were able to turn their fury against foreigners and Christians with the backing of the authorities. The disorders started in the provinces and, at first were mostly directed against German missionaries and their churches.

Some army units attached themselves to the rebel cause and by June 1900 they attacked the areas in Peking (Beijing) and Tianjin where the foreign delegations offices were located. In Peking, the area was known as the Legation Quarter and it was situated near the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists.

The British, French, American, Russian, Italian, Austro- Hungarian and Dutch, embassies were all in the Legation Quarter. They rapidly established a defense perimeter. The employees of the Belgian and Spanish delegations, which were a few blocks away, were able to move to the compound, but the Germans, whose office was farther away, did not. The German representative, Klemens Freiher von Ketteler, and many of his staff were killed.

There are reports that the commander of the Boxer group that invaded the German embassy ate von Ketteler’s heart. In Peking, the rebels also killed numerous Christians and looted the city. A massacre of Christians in the northern city of Taiyuan is one of the most infamous incidents of the rebellion. Some 18,000 Catholics and 48 Catholic missionaries; 500 Protestant and 182 Protestant missionaries along with 222 Eastern Orthodox Christians were murdered.

Contrary to popular belief the Boxers and their supporters were well armed with modern weapons, such as rifles and cannons manufactured in Europe.

The Powers Counter

Six European nations (Spain, the Netherlands, and Belgium opted out); Japan and the United States decide to intervene and rescue their diplomats. This is known as the Eight-Nation Alliance. Approximately 45,000 troops, almost half of them Japanese, and numerous warships were dispatched. The first contingent, about 435 soldiers, arrived by train – from the Takou 80 miles away, on May 3. They promptly joined the besieged Legation Quarter.

During the following days, the international troops continued to pour into China and fought their way from Tianjin to Peking. Once in the Chinese capital, the rebels’ resistance stiffened and it would take the Alliance until August 14 to take the city.

Then, the foreign troops went on a rampage, looting, raping and pillaging, in which many Chinese also participated. The Forbidden City was plundered and many of its treasures taken to Europe. All indications are that neither the Americans, nor the Japanese participated in the atrocities and that at least in one case American marines tried to stop the soldiers of other nations.

But, there are also reports of American participation in atrocities and one American diplomat was caught while trying to get away with a train wagon full of priceless artifacts.

Consequences of the Rebellion

Emperor Gangue was forced to sign the Boxer Protocol on September 7, 1901, which further diminished the government’s control over Chinese territory, forced Peking to pay hefty reparations and surrendered 10 high ranking Chinese officials to be executed.

Even though the Western nations backed away from total intervention, believing that the best way to control China was through the emperor, the Qing dynasty was much weakened and this accelerated the 1911 Republican Revolution which ousted the emperor.

Some Other Important information

Additional interesting facts about the rebellion are:

  • While the Boxers had no qualms about killing or mutilating women and children, they did not rape.
  • Many Western intellectuals, including American Mark Twain and Russian Leo Tolstoy defended the Boxers. Twain, specifically, referred to the Boxers as patriots.
  • Some of the most fierce Boxer fighters were Muslims.


  1. Preston, Diana. The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China’s War on Foreigners That Shook the World in the Summer of 1900. Walker & Company. New York, 2000