June is the time of the year in Beijing for hot, humid weather, the arrival of peaches, apricots, and cherries, and the anniversary of one of the lower points in the relationship between East and West: The Boxer Uprising of 1900.
In June of that year, with the tacit support of the Qing court, disparate groups of local militia and secret societies began a series of violent attacks against the foreign communities in North China, besieging the legations of Beijing and the concessions of Tianjin. Finally, in August an allied army made up of soldiers from eight foreign powers forced their way to Beijing, lifting the siege and crushing the Boxer Uprising.
Today, the Boxers are celebrated in China as patriots who used extreme measures to deal with the problem of foreign imperialism. In the rest of the world, they are the antagonist in a very old movie starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, and David Niven.
But like any great patriotic story, there are a number of myths and misconceptions about what went down in Beijing that summer. And since historians like nothing better than replacing one myth with another, I’ve asked another boxer, Rocky Balboa, to assist me in dispelling some of the rumors and semi-truths surrounding the history of the Uprising.
Hey Rocky, why do you fight?
Because I can’t sing or dance.
Throughout the 1890s, bands of local militia and secret societies organized for the protection of their villages and homes. Economic and natural disasters meant a large number of unemployed young men, natural fits for a violent movement against…well, what have you got? In the late 19th century, the most obvious target were the foreign powers. Missionaries who built churches blamed for “bottling up the sky” with their tall heterodox steeples. Weak-willed officials who capitulated to the international treaties rather than serve society. Before long, members of these groups began appearing in the cities of North China venting their frustration on anything they deemed tainted by foreignness.
I think we make a real sharp couple of coconuts—I’m dumb, you’re shy, whaddaya think, huh?
It wasn’t a Boxer “Rebellion”; it was an uprising. The Qing government threw in its lot with these bands terrorizing the foreign community of Beijing. It was bad decision and a mismatch from the start, but conservative elements of the Qing government and the Boxers were in it together.
The difference may be semantic, but semantics matter. The Qing court, doing the things you do when you get crazy and desperate, saw in the Boxer militias a possible solution to the problem of the foreign powers. The Boxers, for their part, were not against the government, much less in rebellion, although they had little patience for policies appeasing the foreign powers.
You’re gonna eat lightning, and you’re gonna crap thunder!
A lot has been made of the “special powers” of the Boxers. Rumors told of their being able to fly, to deflect bullets, and to call on supernatural forces which would allow them to defeat the technological advantages of the foreigners. Yeah, it didn’t work out so well. Would have been tough to be the first guy to figure it out.
You gotta be a moron…you gotta be a moron to wanna be a fighter.
The foreign powers called these groups boxers after observing their rituals and training involving traditional weapons and martial arts. Frankly, most of the kung fu practiced by the Boxers was more appropriate for the opera stage than the ring, but it still scared the rhubarb out of the foreign community.
In Chinese, the Boxers are known as the Yihequan 义和拳, which can be roughly translated as “Fists United in Righteousness.”
Go for the ribs, don’t let that bastard breathe!
Between June and August 1900, the Boxers laid siege to the foreign legations and isolated groups of foreigners holed up in churches around Beijing and throughout the North China Plain. While most groups had supplies to wait out the siege, cut off from the outside world and each other, there was no way of knowing how, when or if the blockade would be lifted.
“Life’s not about how hard of a hit you can give…it’s about how many you can take, and still keep moving forward.”
I’m trying to be ecumenical and include quotations from all four Rocky movies. Yes, I know there are rumors of a Rocky V, which was released sometime in the 1990s. The early 1990s is a little fuzzy in my memory, so I’m just going to go ahead and assume that movie never happened. Repeat after me: IT NEVER happened.
Unfortunately for the Boxers of 1900, the siege came to an end when an allied force of eight different countries took the Dagu Forts at Tianjin and marched on Beijing. On August 14, 1900, 18,000 foreign soldiers fought their way into the city and two weeks later foreign soldiers were parading through the grounds of the Forbidden City, “liberating” any pieces of art or antiquity they might happen across.
I wanna kiss ya. You don’t have to kiss me back if ya don’t wanna. I wanna kiss you.
Apart from the whole invading the city, lifting the siege and then occupying Beijing for the next few years, the most remarkable part of this famous (or infamous) “Eight Country Allied Army” is just who was along for the ride.
Consider the line up: Japan, Russia, Great Britain, France, United States, Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary. Not exactly eight countries you would imagine playing on the same side of the football in the early 20th century. In fact, several of these countries would be fighting each other in the decade to come. It seems like the one thing they COULD agree on was to go spank China. No wonder that the period from 1840-1949 is called the Century of Humiliation.
If violence isn’t your thing, then maybe the musical variety of boxer is more to your taste.
Cover image from VeryCD and Wikicommons