An introduction to the last great anti-foreigner movement of Imperial China.
The Boxer Rebellion in China is probably the last large-scale conflict in which most participants believed that magic powers would help them to victory. The Boxers, who were members of a religious-political movement largely drawn from the peasantry, rebelled against the presence and role of foreigners in China and were also antithetical to Chinese converts to Christianity. The rebellion led to an enormous but unknown number of deaths and destruction. Throughout the nineteenth century, foreign interests had been becoming increasingly active in China and their presence was much resented. Not only were foreigners responsible for the forcible and disastrous import of opium into the country but also exacted a series of unequal treaties which were considered little better than legalized acts of theft. Christian missionaries, many of them American, were spreading across the country and were influencing judges and officials to give preference to converts over those who maintained traditional culture. Economics and culture united to inspire rage and resentment. This was given a means of expression by the I-Ho Chuan – the Righteous and Harmonious Fists – which was an organisation for rebels which provided indoctrination into mystical and physical doctrines. The Boxers received their name from the martial arts they practiced as part of this movement – it is vaguely similar to the Falun Gong movement much suppressed by the Chinese government today in that it combines physical movements with religious dogma, although Falun Gong has no rebellious component. The Boxers believed their exercises would protect them from bullets and inspire magical powers. Consequently, they were ready to engage foreigners armed with firearms with their fists and their melee weapons alone. The results were predictable, with great slaughter followed by the success of overwhelming numbers and violent, rage-filled reprisals. The Boxers had support from the Imperial Court and received more recruits from those parts of the country where natural disasters had occurred and impoverishment was at its worst. Boxer groups are described as if appearing near to European settlements as if by magic – which indicates a great deal of widespread support and efficiency of logistics. Christian Chinese were massacred in many locations and the rebellion, which occupied 1898-1900 with open, large-scale fighting taking place in the final year, reached its most significant action in the capital of Beijing (previously known as Peking). Boxers, with support from the empress dowager, seized the city and obeyed her order to kill all foreigners. Christians and foreigners were besieged in the Catholic cathedral. An international force led the attack against the Boxers and was ultimately successful. The dowager fled and her influence was broken. The end of Imperial China was hastened by the subsequent 1901 agreement in which the Chinese state was obliged to pay further crippling reparations to the foreign interests.