Photo Essay: Retracing History in Beijing — The Boxer Rebellion

In June 2012 I spent a wonderful afternoon walking around the old Peking legations quarter off the eastern side of Tiananmen Square in Beijing searching for remnant buildings from the 1900 Boxer Rebellion.

My interest in exploring the old Peking legations quarter was inspired by Dianna Preston’s 2002 book A Brief History of the Boxer Rebellion: China’s War on Foreigners, 1900Preston’s book tells the story of the rebellion from the perspective of the Western expats caught up in the legations siege, who found themselves immersed within a combustible political environment fueled by popular discontent, seventy years of foreign entanglement in China and machinations of court surrounding the Empress Dowager Cixi and the crumbling Qing Dynasty.

After an introduction to the politics surrounding the Boxer Rebellion, the photo essay below documents my journey in search of architectural evidence of this remarkable period in modern Chinese history.

Preceding the Boxer Rebellion: Dynastic Decline

The Boxer Rebellion exploded upon a powder-keg of imperial decline, increasing foreign manipulation and growing popular resentment.

The First Sino-Japanese War was fought between Qing China and the stirring great power Japan over a nine month period in 1894 – 1895, during which the Japanese army delivered a series of crushing defeats to China along the rim of the East China Sea, from Korea and Manchuria south to Taiwan.

The war was essentially about control over Korea, which had traditionally been a Chinese vassal state.  It demonstrated the growing technological superiority of Japan, which had embarked on a vigorous modernisation program under the Meiji Emperor during the latter half of the 19th century.  This was a marked contrast to China, which was hampered by technological backwardness, corrupt government, and the defeats to western powers in the Opium Wars.

Japan’s victory was sealed by the Treaty of Shimonseki in April 1895.  In this treaty, China recognized the independence of Korea and ceded the Liaodong peninsula (now part of Liaoning province) to Japan, along with the islands of Taiwan (Formosa) and Penghu.  China also paid Japan a large war indemnity and signed a commercial treaty similar to the unpopular concessions granted to the western powers in the aftermath of the Opium Wars that opened various Chinese ports and rivers to Japanese trade.

Overall, the war was a blow to the Qing government, further weakening a royal dynasty already in decline.

In wake of humiliation of Treaty of Shimonoseki, the Guāngxù Emperor ordered a series of legal, political and social changes known as the Hundred Days Reform based on Japan’s Meiji restoration.  These reforms included modernisation of the traditional exam system for entry into imperial bureaucracy, development of a modern education system privileging mathematics and science over Confucian texts, capitalist economic reforms and industrialisation, and a strengthening of the military.

The Hundred Days Reforms were short-lived.   They proved too rapid for many in the conservative Confucian Chinese society of the time and were actively undermined by conservative factions of the Qing court who suspected the reforms as a foreign plot.  The Empress Dowager Cíxǐ deposed the Guāngxù Emperor in a coup and regained control of government, extinguishing what would be the last real opportunity to reform the Qing regime.

The Boxer Rebellion (1900)

As the country weakened, from inside and out, rebellious movements began to challenge Qing rule.

One such movement were the “Boxers”—the Righteous Harmony Society (Yìhétuán)—so named by Western observers because of their practice of martial arts, who were a secret society that had been established since 17th century.  The grievances of the Boxers were many, largely stemming from the ‘unequal treaties’ forced upon China as a result of the Opium Wars.  They rallied against foreign opium traders and opposed the political invasion embodied in the treaty ports and concession territories, as well as the missionary activities of Christian preachers from the West.  They became popular in wake of Sino-Japanese War and the Treaty of Shimonoseki because of their strong stance against foreign manipulation.

Members of the Yìhétuán began attacking and killing Western Christian missionaries stationed in outlying centre in Shandong Province and across the North China Plain from 1898.  With the connivance of the Dowager Empress, the Yìhétuán converged on Peking and launched a bloody campaign in June 1900 to rid the country of foreigners.  Fearing for their lives, foreign nationals took refuge in diplomatic quarter in Peking.  The legations were soon besieged by a much larger force of Yìhétuán and Chinese imperial troops.  Empress Dowager Cíxǐ’s support for the Yìhétuán drew from a notion that popular disaffection could be channelled toward foreigners and away from Qing leadership.

The Peking legations quarter

Such a provocative action inevitably drew a response from foreign governments.  An eight-nation alliance of foreign powers sent 20,000 troops to China, including Australian troops fighting under the British flag, in a series of interventions over the following year to relieve the siege and put down the rebellion.  The sieges of the legations quarter and nearby Beitang cathedral were lifted on 14th August 1900.  Sixty-nine soldiers and civilians were killed and 159 wounded defending the legations quarter during the fifty-five day siege.

Fallout of the Boxer Rebellion

The Empress Dowager Cíxǐ and the Qing court were humiliated by the occupation of Peking and the sacking of the Forbidden City by foreign troops.  The Dowager Empress herself fled the Forbidden City prior to its occupation but in so doing lost face with the Chinese people, further discrediting her already weak leadership.

After a year under foreign occupation, the Qing court signed the Boxer Protocol on the 7th September 1901 with the allied powers, which officially brought the conflict to a close.

The allies allowed Empress Dowager Cíxǐ to remain in power.  She used this opportunity to embark on a reform program, scrapping the centuries-old imperial examination system to gain entry into the public service.  It was too late however for such piece-meal reforms to have any effect in stabilising the dynasty’s decline.  The rebellion further broadened the conflict between anti-Qing revolutionaries based in southern China and anti-foreign royalists, based in the north.  This division would explode to life during the warlord period after the fall of the dynasty over a decade later.

Empress Dowager Cíxǐ died 1908, leaving a power vacuum that was never properly filled.  The heir apparent was the infant boy Pu Yi, who was only two years old at the time, who was designated emperor under regency of Zeifeng.  Pu Yi abdicated the throne in 1912 after the Wuchang Coup and Xinhai Revolution, which formally dissolved the Qing Dynasty and swept the victorious Nationalist regime to power.

Further Information

The Boxer Rebellion in China: 1898-1900.

PBS: What Was the Boxer Rebellion?

Modern History Sourcebook: Fei Ch’i-hao – The Boxer Rebellion, 1900.

Ben Habib: Lecture Series – Introducing Contemporary China.

The old Ming Wall and the canal, which is today covered by Chongwenmen Dong Dajie.


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