The Boxer Rebellion

Madeleine Brodie, Dickson College, 2008

The Boxer Rebellion was caused by an increase in foreign influence and power within China. These changes interfered with traditional culture and disrupted the dynamics of Chinese society. Traditional culture and the increasing power and influence of western countries in China affected the spread of intolerance and discontent, which in time lead to the uprising. Many changes started to affect imperial China and the economy and livelihood of everyday citizens. Trouble within China increased with the introduction of western infrastructure, lifted restrictions on missionaries and the affect of natural disasters on the economy. This led the peasants to revolt, striving to remove foreign influence from China. Aspects of traditional culture such as martial arts and spirituality helped the peasants to unite the country as they fought for independence. The origins of the uprising are complex and incorporate many differing issues; however, they all play a role affecting reasoning behind the Boxer Rebellion.

Culture, tradition and spirituality were extremely important to the citizens of imperial China. One aspect of upholding traditional culture was the combination of martial arts and spirituality. For the “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists” these aspects of Chinese culture were the basis of their popularity and success and resulted in their European name the “Boxers”. (Koutsoukis, 1992) They combined heterodox religious acts - charms, spells, spirit possession, claimed invulnerability -with the use martial arts such as boxing and swordsmanship to become a powerful force to be reckoned with (Ke-wan 1998). Along with the use of martial arts and spirituality was the false sense of invulnerability. Boxers and peasants alike believed that the Boxers were indestructible and could use magic to protect themselves and the country. Guan He, a Chinese resident demonstrates the superstitious power that the Boxers claimed to have:

…when foreign soldiers and Boxers fought the Boxers only had to bow, and without taking a step, could advance forward. If they bowed three times, they advanced one hundred steps. If they bowed three times, they engaged the foreign soldiers directly, and before the latter had a chance to fire their guns they were killed…Therefore the foreign arms went down to defeat.”(Cohen, 1997)

This shows how traditional Chinese culture played a role in the belief that the Boxers couldn’t be beaten and had power to over throw all foreign influence within China. The Boxers and their supporters alike were under an unrealistic view that the peasant uprising was invincible.

As foreign influence within China increased, so did the amount of foreign groups throughout the country. One foreign group with this freedom was the Christian missionaries, whose ideals led the peasants to become increasingly discontent and antagonistic. In 1838, thirty eight years prior to the rebellion, Conventions in Beijing took place which removed all restrictions upon missionaries (Koutsoukis, 1992). These religious groups were free to move inland, expanding and forcing their views upon traditional Chinese culture and citizens. As the missionaries were protected by the Convention, they were not subject to the same treatment and received special privileges. The peasants therefore started to mount a popular uprising in order to overthrow Christian arrogance and religion within China. The belief that all foreign influence should be expelled from China quickly spread, Li Yuanshan, a former Boxer, demonstrates the violent nature of the uprising:

Boxers didn’t kill indiscriminately. We killed people with a purpose in mind…When we wanted to kill people we made sure they were the secondary hairy ones [Christians] (Cohen, 1997)

The Boxers managed to increase their power and popularity by encouraging both peasants and the imperial government alike to fight for the nation and to uphold tradition and culture. Many officials who were indifferent to the rebellion were encouraged to dispel the missionaries.

…officials, who would otherwise be friendly hunt out the Christians, torture and destroy them. (Cohen, 1997)

Therefore, the Christian missionaries became targets as they demonstrated what the Boxers hated most about foreign influence, their growing power and ability to change traditional, cultural and religious activities.

Natural disasters within China were becoming increasingly common and started to affect the Chinese economy and the livelihood of many peasants, farmers and fishermen. Many peasants believed that the actions of humans and the will of the Heavens were linked, therefore natural disasters were considered to be caused by human actions and social discontent (Cohen, 1997). Chinese peasants were highly superstitious and spiritual and blamed the drought, famine and flooding on the missionaries and diplomats. From 1896 to 1897 the Northern provinces of China were affected by drought and the subsequent famine (Chesneaux, 1973). During this period rumors and superstition rapidly spread throughout China, and the Boxers took advantage of this unrest spreading anti-foreign propaganda:

Drive out the foreigner and in due course, the rains will fall and dispel our misfortunes.” (Cohen, 1997)

This demonstrates how superstition was important to the Boxer’s success as they managed to convince the farmers and peasants that foreign influence was causing the drought. Although support and popularity for the Boxers was on the rise, many Chinese citizens thought that things were getting out of control and that the only thing that would save them was the Heavens. This is evident in the statement by a farmer from the Shandong province,

…famine threatens the people with starvation…and the Boxers are threatening the destruction of the country by robbing and killing missionaries and Christians…The country is full of the wildest rumors and threats. We know God could send relief thru rain if He thot best and we know all our interests are in his hands. (Cohen, 1997)

In the following year the Yellow River flooded and those who survived the floods had to overcome disease and starvation. They survived on willow leaves, wheat gleanings and cotton seed. For many of the staving peasants and farmers the destruction of their lives and their futures increased their anger towards the foreigners and missionaries within China. As the suffering continued for the peasants, all foreigners were receiving relief and support from the local officials, who were under international obligations. Therefore, anger was mounting towards all foreigners within China as the Chinese blamed them for the actions of the Heavens and the disrupted weather. The Boxers took advantage of this civil unrest and led an anti-foreign uprising to expel all foreign influence.

Technological advancements also played a role in the discontent which drove the uprising. Along with an increase of foreign power came the introduction of western infrastructure and technology, such as railroads and steam boats. Railroads were built throughout China and in some cases passed through burial grounds. This blatant disrespect for Chinese culture and history decreased the tolerance many peasants had for international interference (Koutsoukis, 1992). Both steam boats and railroads destroyed the carrying trade by introducing a new form of transportation. In areas on low employment, such as in Manchuria and Shantung where the carrying trade was one of the only means of work these advancements in technology resulted in loss income and livelihoods (Chesneaux, 1973). The workers couldn’t compete with this faster more efficient transport and the dynamics of their trades and the economy was completely changed. Although technological and transportation advancements were crucial for the western world, when inflicted upon the traditional Chinese society it resulted in discontent and intolerance.

Nationalism and the use of propaganda influenced the uprising as the Boxers’ support increased and the rebellion gained momentum. Things were spiraling out of control for the peasants especially in the Northern provinces of China as technological advancements, famine, drought, flooding and the spread of Christian missionaries increased. For the Boxers, this was the perfect opportunity to increase support for their cause through propaganda and nationalism. As their anti-foreign outlook escalated so did the availability of propaganda posters. The Boxers were managing to unite a country, from the peasants to the imperial government and the Empress Dowager herself,

When at last all the foreign devils,Are expelled to the very last man,
The Great Qing, united, together,
Will bring peace to this land.
(Schoppa 1943)

Instead of listening to the western countries, whom where insisting that the uprising should be controlled, the Empress chose to support the Boxers. They demonstrated the voice of the people and their wish to remain true to traditional Chinese culture. For the Empress it was more important that she remained true to China and its people:

China is only weak; the only thing we can depend upon is the hearts of the people. (Schoppa 1943)

The Boxers used nationalism and rebellious propaganda to unite the country based entirely on the Boxer slogan:

Revive the Qing, destroy the foreigner. (Chesneaux, 1973)

Luckily, the Boxers gained support of the imperial government and therefore the army. The role of nationalism was important as it encouraged the entire country to support the uprising, instead of condemning it.

China leading up to the Boxer Rebellion was amidst technological, cultural and international developments. The uprising was fuelled by propaganda and nationalism as the Boxers strove to convince the country of their anti-foreign ideals. With the combination of traditional culture, natural disasters and the developments regarding foreign influence, China experienced a shift in ideals. As a whole the country propelled forward by the Boxers started to become intolerant and antagonistic. This negative and anti-foreign outlook was contributed to foreign influence, the crash in economy and agriculture, and cultural differences. However, as foreign power was inflicted upon Chinese society the country was forced to unite and fight for the nationalism.


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Schoppa, R. Keith 1943, The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History, Columbia University Press, New York.

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