The uprising is named for the revolutionary society known as the Fists of Righteous Harmony (in the then current Wade-Giles system of Romanisation of Mandarin Chinese transliteration, I-Ho Ch'uan) or in contemporary English parlance, Boxers, a group which initially opposed but later reconciled itself to China's ruling Manchu Qing dynasty.
|Boxer forces in Tianjin|
The uprising was concentrated in north-eastern China where the European powers had begun to demand territorial, railroad and mining concessions. Germany responded to the killing of two missionaries in Shandong province (November 1897) by seizing the port of Qingdao. The next month, a Russian squadron took possession of Lushun, in southern Lioayang. Britain and France followed, taking possession of Weihai and Zhanjiang respectively.
Boxer activity began in northern Shandong in March 1898, with the slogan "Overthrow the Qing, destroy the foreigner". The movement's emergence was a response to both foreign penetration and the failure of the Imperial court's "self-strengthening" strategy of officially-directed development, whose shortcomings had been shown graphically in China's defeat by Japan in (1895)
The early months of the movement's growth coincided with the "Hundred Days' Reform" (June 11-September 21, 1898), during which the Guangxu Emperor sought to improve the central administration, before the process was reversed at the behest his powerful aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi.
After a mauling at the hands of loyal Imperial troops in October 1899, the Boxers dropped their anti-court slogans, turning their attention to foreign missionaries and their converts, whom they saw as agents of foreign colonialist influence. The court, now under Cixi's firm control, issued edicts in defence of the insurgents, drawing heated complaints from Western diplomats (January 1900).
The conflict came to a head in June 1900, when the rebels, now joined by elements of the Imperial army, boldly attacked foreign compounds within the cities of Tianjin and Beijing. The killing of the German minister on June 20 brought open war, the court proclaiming hostilities against the powers, who in turn prepared military intervention to relieve the legations.
The defeat of the insurgents fell to an international force eventually numbering 45,000 Japanese, United States', Austro-Hungarian, British, French, German, Italian, Russian and anti-Boxer Chinese troops, which captured Tianjing on July 14 and Beijing on August 14.
German troops came in for criticism for their enthusiasm in carrying out Kaiser Wilhelm II's July 2 order to "make the name German remembered in China for a thousand years so that no Chinaman will ever again dare to even squint at a German". This speech, in which Wilhelm invoked the memory of the 5th-century Huns, gave rise to the later derogatory English usage of the latter term for their German enemy during World War I.
On September 7, 1901, the Qing court was compelled to sign the "Boxer Protocol", undertaking to execute ten officials linked to the outbreak and to pay war reparations of $333 million. So great was the sum that much of the money was later earmarked by the Britain and the U.S. for overseas education of Chinese students, forming the basis of Tsinghua University.
The court's humiliating failure to defend China against the foreign powers contributed to the growth of republican feeling, which was to culminate a decade later in the dynasty's overthrow and the establishment of the Republic of China. The foreign privileges which had angered Chinese opinion were largely cancelled in the 1930s and 1940s.
Russia had meanwhile busied herself (October 1900) with occupying much of the north-eastern province of Manchuria, a move which threatened Anglo-American hopes of maintaining what remained of China's territorial integrity and openness to commerce (the "Open Door"), and led ultimately to disastrous conflict with an increasingly confident Japan.