book report: The Boxer Rebellion by Diana Preston

I encountered this history on display in a local library among other books related to China in response to the upcoming Olympic games in Beijing, also known in 1900 as Peking. Peasants across China were being displaced by modern technology brought in by the Europeans and Japan. Railroads were making camel trains obsolete and the telegraph prevented secrets being kept in the countryside. As resentment built a longing for the past rose up and found expression in the practice of martial arts, which looked like boxing to the Europeans, who named the practitioners "Boxers." The Boxers were work themselves into a frenzy and claim possession by local spirits. Their demonstrations attracted large crowds of Chinese as well as their xenophobic message. The foreigners were to be expelled. The spirits had showed their displeasure by bringing a drought which brought shortages to the rice crop. The Boxers reasoned and proclaimed that once the foreigners were expelled, the spirits would approve and send the rain averting famine and restoring work to the displaced. The white missionaries deep in the country saw trouble coming and warned their political ambassadors in Peking, who ignored them.

The Chinese who had converted to Christianity had also irritated the spirits and they needed to be purged or reconverted. Converts suffered persecution to the point of death. But that wasn't enough. Converts were killed, then two British missionaries were murdered. England's ambassador appealed to the Chinese court for justice and the suppression of the fanatics, but the court found popular support by letting the Boxers do as they would. Killing Christians wasn't enough. Railroad lines and stations were torn up and burned. Telegraph lines were cut. Boxers entered the the capital city itself and incited the brazen murders of a Japanese and a German official in the street. The British army was called to come to the rescue but the Chinese army opposed them. Then the city rose up against the quarter of the city that held all the ambassadorial legations. The quarter survived for 2 months with only 400 troops. The Catholic cathedral and school and convent property, Pei T'ang, survived with fewer troops and more at risk Chinese converts.

After 2 months a much larger international force made its way from the coast into Beijing and invested the city with sporadic resistance. The cathedral and legations survived on horse meat and moldy rice while putting out fires set by Boxers and trying to cut off mines of sappers and avoiding the thousands of bullets daily fired into the compounds. The army as well as the Boxers were ill trained, poorly coordinated, and possibly sabotaged by cooler heads who hid many field artillery pieces in their crates in warehouses. The Boxers believed their possession rituals made them impervious to bullets. As more of them died from European lead, the victims were blamed for not having enough faith or practice. I find it very interesting that other cultures confronting and resisting modern weaponry have made similar claims including rebels in the recent Liberian civil war as well as Plains Indians who believed the Ghost Dance would likewise protect them. Unfortunately, it never proved true.

After the European and Japanese troops seized the city as well as the royal court complex, the Forbidden City which the court had fled, order was restored. The army melted away. Eventually the court claimed the inability to control the rebellion and agreed to reparations as well as executions of Boxers.

Diana Preston does an excellent job with letters and diaries and oral histories as well as official histories to describe this tragedy in an engaging manner. She finds fault with most of the whites but mostly has kind words for the Americans who didn't have expansionist designs on China, although they were engaging in that very sin in the Philippines. I highly recommend this historical treatment.


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