Chinese history

The Boxer Movement 1898 - 1901

Chinese history

This is a historical article from an early issue of China Now magazine wirtten by Paul Clifford.
The Boxer Rebellion has long been seen as one of the first indication of Chinese Nationalism after the humiliation of the Opium Wars.

An outbreak of mindless, xenophobic violence or a heroic anti-imperialist struggle which is 'the pride and glory of the Chinese people and one of the foundation stones for their triumph fifty years later'? One's attitude towards the Boxer Movement is regarded in China today as a 'touchstone distinguishing genuine from fake revolutionaries, revolutionaries from counter-revolutionaries.' Peter Fleming in his book on the Boxers, wrote that, they [the foreigners] came to China to trade; their motives may not have been lofty, but it was natural and legitimate… It was inevitable that the Powers would come with selfish aims to China. It was inevitable that they would be prepared to use force to further their aims. What … does not seem wholly inevitable is that China's rulers should have immured the country for so long in a cocoon of childish bigotry that her first important encounters with younger civilisations were bound to end in tears.

One can compare this shameless apology for Imperialism with Lenin's reaction to the Boxer Movement :

“… the European governments have already started the partition of China … They have begun to rob China as ghouls rob corpses and when the seeming corpse attempted to resist, they flung themselves upon it like savage beasts, burning down whole villages, shooting, bayoneting and drowning in the Amur River unarmed inhabitants, their wives and their children. And all these Christian exploits are accompanied by howls against the Chinese barbarians who dared to raise their hands against the civilised Europeans.”

The Boxers first appeared at the beginning of the 18th century as a secret society which sought to overthrow the Manchu Qing (Ching) dynasty and restore the Ming. Closely linked to the anti-dynastic White-Lotus Sect, the Boxers, or 'Harmonious and Righteous Fists' to give them their full name, were so called because of their use of the Daoist cult of Chinese Boxing or Wushu as a means of endowing its members with supernatural powers. Although the Boxers were suppressed, the superstition of magical boxing kept the tradition of the sect alive in obscurity until in 1898 it was revived in Shandong and present day Hebei in North China.

By the end of the 19th century, the penetration of Imperialism had totally disrupted China's economy and the expenditure for the Sino-Japanese War together with the indemnity imposed on China after the defeat, left China bankrupt. The peasantry, already suffering from the destruction of their handicraft industry by cheap imports, now had to bear the burden of even higher taxation. Growing popular resistance to imperialist intrusion showed itself in riots against the activities of missionaries, particularly from the 1860's onwards. This violence was seized upon by the Western Powers as a pretext for further aggression and in 1897, following the killing of several German missionaries, Germany sent warships to occupy Jiao Zhou (Kiaochow) Bay and a German sphere of interest was established in Shandong. German capital began to flow into the interior, seeking mining and railway concessions. Farmland was acquired by enforced sale, and roads, factories and railways built with total disregard for the 'fengshui' or geomantic forces believed in by the local people. The import of cotton goods and petroleum rapidly increased between 1896 and 1899 and drastically affected the livelihood of the Shandong peasants. On top of this, poor harvests and the flooding of the Yellow River had left many peasants homeless and destitute.

It was against this background of growing Imperialist intrusion and popular resistance to it in the form of violence against missionaries and their converts, that the Boxers resurfaced in Shandong. Although they still opposed the Qing dynasty, now, instead of aiming to restore the Ming, they raised the slogan of 'annihilate the foreigner', a change which reflected the fact that the main contradiction in semi-colonial China was between the Chinese people and Imperialism. For a period, the Governor of Shandong, unable to suppress the Boxers, resorted to supporting them and deflected their anti-dynastic aims by giving them semi-legal status. However, although on their banners they now 'supported' rather than 'opposed' the dynasty, the Boxers never came under the control of the government, which soon sent Yan Shikai to suppress them. Shandong was 'peaceful', but in the first half of 1900, the Boxers moved north into present day Hebei, killing converts and burning Church property, and in June they entered Tianjin and Beijing. There began the 55 day siege of the foreign legation quarter in Beijing. Britain, France, Germany, Japan, United States, Austria, Russia and Italy, seizing the opportunity of finally dismembering China, dispatched an international expedition to suppress the Boxers. The Boxers armed only with swords, spears and other primitive weapons, bravely blocked the advance of the allied force on Tianjin and Beijing. The battle to defend Tianjin lasted for one month, with not only men but also women at the front line. The Red Lanterns, an organisation of young women who wore red hats and carried red lanterns and red tasselled spears, took an active part in the fierce fighting. A song of the time went.

“The Red Lanterns and the Boxers are brothers and sisters in revolt. With one heart they fight the foreign officials.”

On the road to Beijing, the allied force of 1,500 men lost nearly half its number and retreated in panic to Tianjin, but eventually, on 14 August the foreign troops broke into Beijing. The US cavalry rode through the Gate of Heavenly Peace and into the Imperial Palace. The Empress Dowager Cixi, who had declared war on the Imperialist Powers shortly after the arrival of the Boxers in Beijing, fled in disguise to Xian in the North West and the Chinese authorities now proceeded to massacre the Boxers at the behest of the foreigners. In September 1901 the Boxer Protocol, greatest of all the unequal treaties, was signed. Under it, China was condemned to pay a huge indemnity of 450 million taels (with interest nearly double this amount) to come from customs duty and salt tax. The Chinese government also agreed to execute officials involved with the Boxers and to permit the stationing of foreign troops in the Capital and along the railways.

This loss of sovereignty and national humiliation, led even progressive Chinese of the time to blame the Boxers for what happened. Kang Yu-wei, the exiled reformer, urged that the foreigners be helped in their suppression of the Boxers and the national revolutionary, Sun Yatsen, considered that the Boxers 'were inciting the masses with rumours, causing chaos and endangering the country.' The foreigners described the Movement as mindless, xenophobic violence, aggression against them. Later, the comprador bourgeois, Hu Shi, claimed that the Boxers' uncivilised behaviour provoked the foreign reaction. But despite its lack of co-ordinated leadership and its primitive weapons, there can be no doubt that the Boxer Movement in fact thwarted the ambitions of the Imperialists to dismember China. The German Emperor Wilhelm was told by his commander in China. Von Waidersee, that in view of the unexpected resistance by the Chinese, it was 'an ill-advised policy to try dismemberment.' To blame the Boxers for the Imperialist aggression is to stand history on its head. Although Bernstein in the 2nd International said that the German occupation of Jiao Zhou Bay was necessary and the French 'socialist', Jaures, voted in the Assembly to send French troops to suppress the Boxers, true Marxists have always regarded the Boxers as a heroic anti-imperialist mass movement. As Mao Zedong has written,

Revolutionary fervour
Revolutionary fervour in China

Was it the Boxers, organised by the Chinese people that went to stage rebellion in the Imperialist countries of Europe and America and in Imperialist Japan and 'commit murder and arson'? Or was it the Imperialist countries that invaded our country to oppress and exploit the Chinese people .... This is a major question of right and wrong which must be argued out.

And the Chinese regard the Movement as a high tide of the first phase of the bourgeois democratic revolution, directed not only at Imperialism but also at its lackey within China, the Qing government. This anti-feudal character of the Movement is fiercely disputed by Soviet historians today. They claim that the Chinese overstress the revolutionary spirit of the peasantry and wrongly identify the spontaneous rebellion with a conscious revolutionary movement. They hold that the Chinese historians have deviated from scientific methodology, gradually 'intensifying the anti-feudal aspects of the movement and playing down the role of the gentry in it'. In China the Boxer question has become a touchstone of whether you are a true revolutionary or a revisionist. During the Cultural Revolution, as part of a general critique of bourgeois reformism, a fierce attack was made on Liu Shaoqi for his reluctance to denounce a film, which, it was alleged, praised the Reform Movement of 1898 and slandered the Boxers. Like Liu, the Russians are accused of stressing the backward aspects of the Boxer Movement. However, the Chinese accept that the Boxers permitted gentry members to join their ranks and point out that in raising the slogan 'support the Qing', they revealed a lack of understanding of the relationship between the feudal ruling clique and Imperialism.

Obviously in China, only the working class could ultimately carry through to the end the bourgeois democratic revolution. But the Chinese stress that despite those weaknesses inherent in a peasant movement and without the leadership of a proletarian party, the Boxers at no time became a tool of the Qing throne. We can see their anti-feudal spirit in battle cries of 'kill the foreigners and wipe out the corrupt officials,' and a song of the time went,

“Kill the foreigners and the mandarin beasts. There will be no hope for the common people until the foreigners and mandarins are gone.”

Such songs, the Russians claim, prove nothing because they were only recorded at the end of the 1950's. But quite apart from this, there is a good deal of evidence, presented by Western historians as well, that there were elements of the Boxers which were consistently anti-government and certainly after the fall of Beijing to the foreigners and the capitulation of the throne, the Boxers in parts of North China continued to fight, but under a new banner of 'sweep away the Qing'.

During and since the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese have been urged to emulate the Boxers' fearless, revolutionary spirit of rebellion, for instance as shown in one of their songs "Give back our land and rights".

“Oceans of fire and mountains of daggers cannot halt us.
What matter if the Emperor bows to the invader.
We shall not rest while an alien survives.”

There may well be risks involved in having socialist China learn in this way from an incoherent and spontaneous peasant movement, however truly anti-imperialist and anti-feudal it was in function. But in their desire to expose what they regard as Mao's petty-bourgeois deviation of over-reliance on the revolutionary potential of the peasantry, the Russians are driven to oppose the Chinese assessment of the Boxers, to the extent that they err towards the Imperialist view. If the Chinese err towards a rather too uncritical view of the Movement, it is because they have to repudiate their history as written by Imperialism and its servants within China and write a new one, based on a correct analysis of the 'great rights and wrongs of history.'

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 : an extract from SACU's magazine China Now 55, Page 9, October 1976

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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