In the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, a Chinese secret organization called the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists led an uprising in northern China against the spread of Western and Japanese influence there. The rebels, referred to by Westerners as Boxers because they performed physical exercises they believed would make them able to withstand bullets, killed foreigners and Chinese Christians and destroyed foreign property.
From June to August, the Boxers besieged the foreign district of China’s capital city Beijing (then called Peking) until an international force that included American troops subdued the uprising. By the terms of the Boxer Protocol, which officially ended the rebellion in 1901, China agreed to pay more than $330 million in reparations.
Cause of the Boxer Rebellion
By the end of the 19th century, Western nations and Japan had forced China’s ruling Qing dynasty to accept wide foreign control over the country’s economic affairs. Throughout the Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856-60, popular rebellions and the Sino-Japanese War, China had fought to resist the foreigners, but it lacked a modernized military and suffered millions of casualties.
Did you know? America returned the money it received from China after the Boxer Rebellion, on the condition it be used to fund the creation of a university in Beijing. Other nations involved later remitted their shares of the Boxer indemnity as well.
John Hay, the U.S. Secretary of State from 1898 to 1905, began to implement an “Open Door Policy” to exert American and European influence over Chinese trade and economic partnerships. Though his Open Door Policy was met with indifference or resistance by other players—including the Qing Empress Dowager Tzu’u Hzi—continued Western influence over domestic Chinese affairs set the stage for rebellion.
By the late 1890s, a Chinese secret group, the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists (“I-ho-ch’uan” or “Yihequan”), had begun carrying out regular attacks on foreigners and Chinese Christians. The rebels performed calisthenics rituals and martial arts that they believed would give them the ability to withstand bullets and other forms of attack. Westerners referred to these rituals as shadow boxing, leading to the Boxers nickname.
Although the Boxers came from various parts of society, many were peasants, particularly from Shandong province, which had been struck by natural disasters such as famine and flooding. In the 1890s, China had given territorial and commercial concessions in this area to several European nations, and the Boxers blamed their poor standard of living on foreigners who were colonizing their country.
The Boxer Movement
In 1900, the Boxer movement spread to the Beijing area, where the Boxers killed Chinese Christians and Christian missionaries and destroyed churches, railroad stations and other property. On June 20, 1900, the Boxers began a siege of Beijing’s Legation District (where the official quarters of foreign diplomats were located). The following day, Empress Dowager Tzu’u Hzi declared a war on all foreign nations with diplomatic ties in China.
As the Western powers and Japan organized a multinational force to crush the rebellion, the siege stretched into weeks, and the diplomats, their families and guards suffered through hunger and degrading conditions as they fought to keep the Boxers at bay.
By some estimates, several hundred foreigners and several thousand Chinese Christians were killed during this time. On August 14, after fighting its way through northern China, an international force of approximately 20,000 troops from eight nations (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) arrived to take Beijing and rescue the foreigners and Chinese Christians.
The Boxer Rebellion formally ended with the signing of the Boxer Protocol on September 7, 1901. By terms of the agreement, forts protecting Beijing were to be destroyed, Boxer and Chinese government officials involved in the uprising were to be punished, foreign legations were permitted to station troops in Beijing for their defense, China was prohibited from importing arms for two years and it agreed to pay more than $330 million in reparations to the foreign nations involved.
The Qing dynasty, established in 1644, was weakened by the Boxer Rebellion. Following an uprising in 1911, the dynasty came to an end and China became a republic in 1912.
U.S. Marines in the Boxer Rebellion. National Archives.
Essay: The Boxer Rebellion. University of Washington: Digital Collections.