Boxer Rebellion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Boxer Rebellion was a peasant revolt, supported by the Chinese government, that attempted to remove all foreigners from Chinese soil. It marked the final, unsuccessful attempt of the Qing Dynasty to throw off the yoke of foreign imperialism.

Summary of Event

After the First Opium War Opium War, First (1839-1842) (1839-1842) with Great Britain, China was continually subjected to foreign pressure. The Treaty of Nanjing Nanjing, Treaty of (1842) (1842) following the First Opium War, the Tianjin, Treaty of (1858) Tianjin (Tientsin) Treaty (1858), and the Beijing Convention (1860) Beijing, Convention of (1860) following the Second Opium War Opium War, Second (1856-1860) (1856-1860) allowed a system of foreign enclaves, the Treaty Ports, to be set up in dozens of Chinese cities. Foreign diplomats, not Chinese officials, controlled trade, administration, the collection of customs revenues, and the dispensing of justice in the Treaty Ports. By the late 1890’s, this practice of extraterritoriality had been extended to cover all foreigners, and even Chinese subjects who had converted to Christianity were exempt from the power of Chinese courts. Boxer Rebellion (1900) China;Boxer Rebellion Qing Dynasty;and Boxer Rebellion[Boxer Rebellion] China;Qing Dynasty China;Qing Dynasty [kw]Boxer Rebellion (May, 1900-Sept. 7, 1901) [kw]Rebellion, Boxer (May, 1900-Sept. 7, 1901) Boxer Rebellion (1900) China;Boxer Rebellion Qing Dynasty;and Boxer Rebellion[Boxer Rebellion] China;Qing Dynasty China;Qing Dynasty [g]China;May, 1900-Sept. 7, 1901: Boxer Rebellion[6500] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May, 1900-Sept. 7, 1901: Boxer Rebellion[6500] Cixi [p]Cixi;and Boxer Rebellion[Boxer Rebellion] Ronglu Guangxu Waldersee, Alfred von Zhang Zhidong Li Hongzhang

Starting with the cession of Hong Kong Hong Kong;British occupation of to the British in 1842, the Manchu Qing Dynasty had been forced to surrender territory and sovereignty as a result of war or threat. Russia exerted pressure in Manchuria Manchuria and Central Asia; France took control of Indochina Indochina in the second half of the nineteenth century. A newly modernized Japan humiliated China Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895)[Sino Japanese War (1894-1895)] in a war over influence in Korea in 1894-1895 and took Taiwan as a prize. In the wake of the Korean defeat, the older treaty powers redoubled their efforts, and new players, especially Germany, entered the race for Chinese concessions.

Despite persistent attempts at modernization, most notably the “self-strengthening movement” led by the officials Li Li Hongzhang Hongzhang and Zhang Zhidong, Zhang Zhidong imperial armies and fleets routinely found themselves overmatched. Additionally, the great Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) Qing Dynasty;and Taiping Rebellion[Taiping Rebellion] Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) China;Taiping Rebellion and the Nien and Muslim China;Muslim rebellions uprisings during the 1860’s and 1870’s—which by some estimates collectively took upward of thirty million lives—stretched resources to the limit and devastated much of the most productive land in the empire. By the late 1890’s, secret societies and antiforeign militia had proliferated, particularly in the northern provinces of Chihli, Shandong, and Shaanxi, where Christian missionary Missionaries;in China[China] activity and foreign encroachment had most recently become prominent.

In November, 1897, Germany, Germany;and China[China] China;and Germany[Germany] as part of a comprehensive program of naval expansion, demanded and received a naval base and concession at Jiaozhou Bay in Shandong. The methods by which the Germans consolidated their position, including punitive forays into the surrounding countryside and demands for the safety of their missionaries, increasingly inflamed the sensibilities of local groups and officials. Among the most prominent of these was an association of secret societies called the Yihechuan (Wage-Giles, I-ho ch’üan; the Association of Righteousness and Harmony, most commonly known as the Righteous and Harmonious Fists). As part of its ritual exercises, this group practiced the ancient Chinese martial art of tai chi, which included a form of shadowboxing, prompting the foreign nickname of “Boxers.”

The origin of the Boxers is obscure, but it is generally agreed that several of their constituent organizations had taken part in the White Lotus White Lotus movement China;White Lotus movement Rebellion of 1796-1804. Their beliefs may be characterized as nativist and fundamentalist, blending Taoist naturalism, Buddhist spirituality, Confucian ethics and politics, and a strong anti-foreign bent. Previously, this xenophobia had taken the form of anti-Qing activities, because the Manchus, who had founded the dynasty and still occupied the principal court positions, were ethnically distinct from the Han Chinese majority, having invaded from Manchuria Manchuria in 1644. Increasingly, however, the emphasis of the group shifted to antimissionary Missionaries;in China[China] activity, especially after the Germans extended their control over Shandong, the birthplace of Confucius, in 1898.

Japanese painting of a Russian regiment assaulting the Chinese stronghold at Tianjin.

(Library of Congress)

The Qing government found itself in an increasingly untenable position. On one hand, it faced pressure from the Boxers and other hostile secret societies to protect the empire from foreign encroachment. On the other hand, it had to recognize increasingly strident foreign demands to suppress antiforeign disorder. For a brief period in the summer of 1898, it seemed as if some of these issues would be resolved. Emperor Guangxu Guangxu, having recently attained his majority, attempted, under the guidance of his adviser Kang Youwei, an ambitious reform of Chinese governmental institutions along the lines of the Meiji Japan;Meiji era Restoration in Japan. However, this Hundred Days of Reform came to an abrupt end in September, 1898, when Guangxu’s aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi Cixi [p]Cixi;and Boxer Rebellion[Boxer Rebellion] , prompted by her chief adviser, Ronglu Ronglu , and fearful of the consequences of extensive reform, staged a coup d’état. Guangxu Guangxu was placed under house arrest, Kang Youwei barely escaped with his life, and Cixi ruled outright, swinging the dynasty toward a much more narrowly antiforeign position.

Encouraged by the tacit support of many local officials in North China, including the governor of Shandong, the Boxers staged increasingly provocative attacks on foreigners. By the summer of 1899, the major Boxer groups in Shandong, led by the Big Sword Society (Dadaohui), had taken as their slogan “fu-Qing, mie-yang” (support the Qing, exterminate the foreigners) and with official support had now become the Yihetuan, or Righteous and Harmonious Militia. The foreign powers, during the winter of 1899-1900, presented the Imperial Court with increasingly heated demands for suppression of the Boxers and threatened to send troops.

Cixi Cixi [p]Cixi;and Boxer Rebellion[Boxer Rebellion] , impressed with the success of the militia in destroying foreign railroads and settlements, and fascinated by their claims of invulnerability to foreign bullets, called upon the army and people to defend the country from an anticipated invasion by the foreign powers. Emboldened by this outright imperial support, Boxer groups in Beijing, the metropolitan province of Chihli, and adjacent Shaanxi staged massive antiforeign demonstrations of in May of 1900, beginning the Boxer Rebellion. Hundreds of missionaries Missionaries;in China[China] and thousands of Chinese converts were wounded and killed, often in deliberately gruesome fashion. A foreign relief force sent from Tianjin was turned back by Boxers and Chinese army units in early June. The German minister to China, Count Clemens von Ketteler Ketteler, Clemens von , was shot down in the capital’s streets. On June 21, 1900, the Qing government declared war on all the treaty powers in China and commanded Boxer militia to besiege Beijing’s foreign legation quarter.

An edict of June 21 directed Chinese officials throughout the empire to use their forces in conjunction with the Boxers to attack foreign strong points. With the exception of those in North China with close Boxer affiliations, however, provincial officials in the rest of the empire ignored, defied, or did their best to stall the implementation of the orders. Many of the army commanders, such as future Chinese president Yuan Shikai, maintained a considerable skepticism about the Boxers’ combat abilities and did their best to stay aloof from the fighting. Disillusionment with the seemingly futile declaration of war and the leadership that implemented it, sympathy for the captive emperor and the expelled reformers, and the muted influence of more cosmopolitan Chinese officials all served to keep conditions in the capital chaotic and to blunt the force of the Boxers’ siege of the legations.

By late July, a powerful international relief force of twenty thousand men, including Germans, Japanese, Americans, British, Russians, French, Austrians, and Italians, had been assembled in Tianjin under the command of Count Alfred von Waldersee, Alfred von Waldersee. After two weeks of daily skirmishes and several intense fights, the allied forces fought their way to Beijing, entered the city through an unguarded sewer gate, and ended the siege of the legations on August 14. The imperial court fled to Xi’an, most government forces surrendered quickly, and the Boxers, who had proven largely unreliable in battle, melted quickly into the northern Chinese countryside.

Incensed by the brutality meted out to foreigners and Chinese Christians at the hands of the Boxers, the allies launched continuous punitive expeditions into the suburbs of Beijing and Tianjin, burning, looting, and summarily executing suspected Boxers. International forces remained in occupation of the capital until September, 1901, when hostilities formally came to an end. The empress dowager and her court did not return until the beginning of 1902.

Japanese and British troops storming Tianjin.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The final peace treaty, the Boxer Protocol, accepted by the Chinese on September 7, 1901, was the most severe of the many “unequal treaties” imposed on China during the sixty years following the First Opium War. Among its provisions were allied demands for the execution, exile, degradation, and dismissal of officials charged with collaborating with the Boxers; the suspension of official examinations (based on classical texts of Confucianism) for five years in cities where Boxer activity had taken place; foreign occupation of the Beijing-Tianjin corridor; the erection of expiatory statues of von Ketteler and other “martyrs”; and a crippling indemnity of $333 million. The indemnity, payable over thirty-nine years at 4 percent interest, required installments nearly matching the annual revenue of the empire.


The immediate consequence of the Boxer Rebellion and Protocol was that the Qing Dynasty effectively squandered what was left of its legitimacy in the eyes of both the Chinese and the rest of the world, while the roots of nationalism spread steadily, especially among Chinese communities abroad. While China avoided the fate of partition, the Manchu government appeared to be largely under the control of foreign powers. The weakness and lack of moral prestige of the central government contributed greatly to the trend toward regionalism that had been growing since midcentury. The most reactionary officials were purged, but people of ability, particularly those with modern or foreign training, tended to avoid taking their place in a government that had proven itself lacking in its hour of crisis. For the city dwellers in the ports and the peasants in the countryside, it appeared that nothing had been accomplished except an increase in foreign arrogance, Manchu ineptitude, and their own misery.

The empire was now in dire financial straits. The customs revenue (already under foreign control), internal transit taxes, and salt tax collectively proved inadequate to service its indemnity. The result was not only a large increase in the tax burden of Chinese subjects but also the wholesale borrowing of money from Western banks to make the scheduled installments.

The Empress Dowager, fearful of reform in 1898, now reluctantly allowed many of the edicts of the Hundred Days of Reform to be implemented. The traditional official examinations were abandoned in favor of more modern curricula. Army training was revamped to provide an emphasis on modern weapons and tactics. A number of sinecure positions in the bureaucracy were eliminated. The most ambitious of these reforms was an alteration of the form of government itself. Chinese officials toured the West, studying various legislative systems. A plan for a constitutional monarchy was prepared, and in 1909 and 1910 elections were held for regional and national parliamentary bodies.

Already, however, the initiative had passed away from the government to a wide spectrum of reformers and revolutionaries for whom the Boxer Rebellion had proven conclusively that the Qing had grown incapable of reform and too weak to rule. These ranged from the exiled Kang Youwei, whose Constitutional Monarchist Party was soon superseded, to radical anarchist Anarchism;in China[China] cells specializing in bombings and assassinations. Ultimately, the Revolutionary Alliance of Sun Yat-sen Sun Yat-sen , encompassing a variety of republican, nationalist, reform, and secret society organizations, would mount the blow destined to topple this last Chinese dynasty in the Revolution of 1911. On February 12, 1912, the boy emperor Puyi abdicated, ending millennia of imperial rule.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duiker, William J. Cultures in Collision: The Boxer Rebellion. San Rafael, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1978. A pioneering attempt to examine the cultural aspects of tradition and modernity as the background for the rise of the Boxers. English language references only.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Esherick, Joseph. The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. A major revisionist study based on extensive Chinese archival material and oral histories. Argues that the Boxers were never antidynastic, but instead that their opposition to Christianity grew out of the “social ecology” of the region. Scholarly yet readable. Numerous appendices and references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fleming, Peter. The Siege at Peking. London: Hart-Davis, 1959. Competent, solid, in the best tradition of English popular history. Extensive coverage of battle plans, tactics, and fortifications. Dated English language bibliography; no Chinese or Japanese sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laidler, Keith. The Last Empress. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. A well-written biography of the dowager empress who ruled China during the Boxer Rebellion; filled with anecdotes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Connor, Richard. The Spirit Soldiers: A Historical Narrative of the Boxer Rebellion. New York: Putnam, 1973. Gripping narrative history of the rebellion with an emphasis on explicating Chinese motives and activities. Strong ironic tone in treating the issues of imperialism and international cooperation. Efforts at deeper appreciation of Chinese conditions are undercut by a lack of Chinese sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paludan, Ann. Chronicles of the Chinese Emperors. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998. An excellent account of China’s emperors, including an acute portrayal of Cixi.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Price, Eva Jane. China Journal, 1889-1900: An American Missionary Family During the Boxer Rebellion. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989. A fine description of the strengths, shortcomings, and ultimate tragedy of the missionary enterprise in China as seen through the eyes of its practitioners. The letters and journal of the Prices, right up to the hour of their execution at the hands of a fraudulent military escort, reflect their deep love of the people, unflagging fortitude and good humor, and ultimate inability to comprehend fully the reasons for their fate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tan, Chester C. The Boxer Catastrophe. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971. Classic study, using extensive Chinese source material, of the diplomatic history of the rebellion. Tan’s thesis that imperialism and Qing ineptitude were the main causes of the movement has long been the standard interpretation. The volume is scholarly without being overly pedantic, and its great wealth of sources makes it highly useful to the expert as well as to the layperson.

First Opium War

China’s Taiping Rebellion

Qing Dynasty Confronts the Nian Rebellion

Muslim Rebellions in China

Second Opium War

China’s Self-Strengthening Movement Arises

Cixi’s Coup Preserves Qing Dynasty Power

Burlingame Treaty

Sino-Japanese War

Scramble for Chinese Concessions Begins

Hay Articulates “Open Door” Policy Toward China

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