In response to the national humiliation of losing wars to Japan and the European imperial powers, another uprising occurred that aimed to purify China of foreign cultural, economic, and political influence. These rebels, known as the Boxers, wanted to return Chinese culture to its conservative Confucian values, such as respect for elders, ancestors, family, and the emperor. The Boxers sought to rid China of all westerners and the influence of their Christian religion.
The rebels became known as the Boxers because they publicly demonstrated a type of spirit possession in which groups of people would invite Gods to embody them as they performed martial arts fighting exercises. They claimed that these spiritual trances rendered them invulnerable in fighting. The public martial arts displays helped them recruit new members—they also helped them became known as the Boxers. A former Boxer explained how he trained as a young man: “When we took up Spirit Boxing. . . we requested the gods to attach themselves to our bodies. When they had done so, we became Spirit Boxers, after which we were invulnerable to swords and spears, our courage was enhanced, and in fighting we were unafraid to die and dared to charge straight ahead” (Cohen 96).
Poor living conditions and natural disasters also increased Boxer recruitment. The experiences of drought and flood in 1899-1900 made people desperate for a solution to their problems. An American Christian minister wrote about the ripe environment for recruitment in 1900: “The people are very poor; until yesterday, practically no rain has fallen for nearly a year, plowing has not been and can not be done, crops have not been planted, the ground is too dry and hard to work in any way, and consequently the whole country is swarming with hungry, discontented, hopeless idlers, and they are ready to join any organization offered” (Cohen 82-83). The Boxers believed foreign intervention caused these natural disasters.
The Boxers blamed Christianity, in particular, for the ills that plagued China. One public notice posted in a town in 1899 showed how the rebels targeted Chinese converts to Christianity: “The gods of happiness and wealth issue these instructions for the information of the members of the Catholic and Protestant religions: You have abandoned the gods and done away with your ancestors, causing the gods to be angry so that the rains do not fall from the sky. Before long heavenly soldiers and heavenly generals will descend to earth and wage a great battle with the adherents of your two religions. It is a matter of great urgency that you quickly join the Boxers and sincerely mend your ways, so that when the time comes for the great battle, your entire families do not suffer harm” (Cohen 86). After such warnings, the Boxers harassed Chinese Christians, sometimes destroying their churches or burning down their houses. The largest amount of Chinese Christian converts— over 100,000 —lived in the area of Peking (Cohen 36). Not surprisingly, the Boxers grew strongest near the capital where there were also the most foreign diplomats, missionaries, telegraphs and railroads.
As the Boxers grew in number, popular songs about them spread from village to village. This example shows the emphasis the rebels placed on traditional Chinese values and the need to expel the foreigners:
Divinely aided Boxers,
Arose because the Devils
Messed up the Empire of yore.
They proselytize their sect,
And believe in only one God,
The spirits and their own ancestors
Are not even given a nod.
Their men are all immoral,
Their women are truly vile.
And if you don’t believe me,
Then have a careful view:
You’ll see the Devil’s eyes
Are all a shining blue.
No rain comes from Heaven.
The earth is parched and dry.
And all because the churches
Have bottled up the sky.
The gods are very angry.
The spirits seek revenge...
En masse they come from Heaven
To teach the Way to men.
Gods come down from the hills,
Possessing the bodies of men,
Transmitting their boxing skills.
When their marital and magic techniques
Are all learned by each one of you,
Suppressing the Foreign Devils
Will not be a tough thing to do.
Rip up the railroad tracks!
Pull down the telegraph lines!
Quickly! Hurry up! Smash them—
The boats and the steamship combines.
The mighty nation of France
Quivers in abject fear,
While from England, America, Russia
And from Germany naught do we hear.
When at last all the Foreign Devils
Are expelled to the very last man,
The Great Qing, united, together,
Will bring peace to this our land
After initially resisting the uprising, the Manchu Dynasty eventually supported the Boxers. The movement was popular but also unruly, so the Chinese court vacillated in deciding how to respond. Even though the Boxers supported the Manchu (Qing) Emperor, the Chinese government at first executed key Boxer leaders in 1898. New leaders quickly emerged, however, and the movement became even more popular. The rebellion inevitably spun towards chaos; for example, one mob of Boxers massacred thirty Catholic families in a village near the capital (Cohen 46). They also killed several western missionaries, targeted foreign diplomats in Peking (Beijing), and ripped up railways and telegraph lines. By the time the Chinese government fully supported the uprising, foreign powers had agreed to intervene to prevent further mistreatment of their citizens. The Boxers and government troops fought together against mostly Russian and Japanese troops at the battle of Tianjin. The Chinese lost against more industrialized armies. Just as during the Opium Wars, the foreigners won victory after victory. The Emperor fled. In the end, a couple hundred foreigners and thousands of Christian Chinese were murdered (Cohen 51). But, the Boxer rebellion that sought most of all to kick out the foreigners had, ironically, the opposite effect.
The victorious foreigners had the last word. They forced the Manchu court to agree to yet another humiliating treaty in 1901. The Boxer protocol, as it was called, expanded foreign presence and power in China. It stipulated that the government had to kill or exile key leaders in the imperial court who favored the rebels. The Chinese had to destroy important defensive forts so that future foreign military intervention would be even easier. The treaty also banned China from importing weapons for two years, enlarged the foreign guard stationed in Beijing to protect foreigners, and allowed the permanent presence of foreign troops between Beijing and the coast. And, of course, the protocol forced China to pay a huge indemnity. The disgraced and ineffectual Manchu Dynasty was, not surprisingly, finally overthrown in 1911, just ten years after the treaty (Cohen 56).