History of South East Asia – BOXER REBELLION Part 2

The Origin of the Boxers

Boxers was the name given by foreigners to a Chinese Secret Society called ‘I-ho-Chuan’ means ‘Righteous Harmonious Fists’.  It was an offshoot of the ‘Eight Diagram Society’.  Their programme was the practice of magic arts by which they claimed immunity to bullets.  They used charms, incantations and rituals to invoke the supernatural power to neutralize the effects of guns.

Originally anti-Manchu, the Boxers in the 1890’s became prodynastic and anti-foreign.  They were determined to exterminate the foreigners and their Chinese collaborators.

THE COURSE OF THE REBELLION

In the initial phases of the uprising the Boxers consisted of strong anti-Manchu elements as well as others with the anti-foreign sentiments.  The anti-Manchu elements wanted the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty was the driving out of the foreigners.  In the later phase of the movement, the anti-Manchu rebels were suppressed and the others were absorbed into the local militia.  The Empress Dowager saw in the tense situation an opportunity, to perpetuate Manchu rule.  On the one hand, she was faced with the break-up of the empire into foreign controlled spheres and on the other, there was the movement for reforms to westernize the country.

Having crushed the reform movement, the Empress now threw her weight behind the parties of reaction and tried to direct the mounting discontent away from the throne and towards the foreigners.  She supported the Boxers first secretly and then openly.  Assured of the support of the Empress, the Boxer Movement grew more militant and fanatical.  In 1900, prompted by conservative officialdom, the Boxers indulged in slaughter and destruction in Shantung, Chihli, Shansi and Manchuria.  They burnt up churches and murdered Christian missionaries.  They destroyed railways and telegraphs.

The whole of Northern China was plunged in violence in June 1900, the government openly declared war on the foreign powers and permitted the Boxers to lay siege to the foreign legations in Peking.  The declaration of war was ignored by the southern provinces on the ground that it had not received the emperor’s sanction.  Thus the military operations were confined to the north.  The siege of the legations itself was half-hearted and lasted for eight weeks.  Jung Ju, the old general refrained from using artillery against the legations.

Foreign military intervention

An allied army of 18,000 troops under the leadership of the German General Waldersee entered Peking and planted the allied flags.  The Empress Dowager fled from the capital in disguise.  She later confessed that her support to the Boxers was one of the greatest mistakes of her life.  The international army hunted down the Boxers by instituting a reign of terror.

Boxer Protocol

After long and interminable delay, a settlement known as the Boxer Protocol was signed in 1901.   By the terms of the Protocol China agreed to

  1. Make and official apology to Germany and Japan whose representatives had been killed.
  2. Pay an indemnity of 450 million taels in 39 installments.
  3. Punish the Boxer leaders and official for the outrages and the atrocities.
  4. Suspend for five years all competitive examinations for the administrative posts in Boxer towns.
  5. Forbid the importation of arms and ammunitions.
  6. Permit the allies to maintain legation guards in Peking.
  7. Destroy the fort at the mouth of Taku River.
  8. Revise commercial treaties and create a ministry of foreign affairs.
  9. Accept military occupation of strategic points between the capital and the sea.
  10. Erect monuments in desecrated foreign cemeteries.

Nature of the movement

The Boxer movement may be divided into three phases.  In the first phase, the Boxers showed their hatred against the foreigners and tried to expel them.  They were both anti-Manchu and anti-foreign.  In the second phase, they adopted a favourable stand towards the Manchus and directed their activities against the foreigners.  In the third and the final phase, they wanted to get rid of the inefficient bureaucracy and corrupt officials.  In essence it was a movement against all westernizing influence, coming as a reaction of the people against the intolerable conditions of poverty and misery.

Strictly speaking, the Boxer uprising cannot be called a rebellion, because a rebellion signifies a revolt against a properly constituted authority.  In this case the Boxers fought against the foreigners and in this fight the Manchu government had a hand.  The Boxers cannot therefore be called rebels.  It was in fact a product of blind and ignorant patriotism directed against the ‘foreign devils’, their strange and intolerant religion and their insufferable airs of superiority.  Since the southern provinces did not participate in the movement it cannot also be called a wholly national uprising.  But the Marxist historians today consider the Boxer Movement a primitive form of a patriotic peasant uprising with the right motive but with the wrong methods.

CAUSES OF ITS FAILURE

It is interesting to know why such a popular uprising, which had the support of the court failed so miserably.  The reasons are not far to seek.

  1. The agitation was confined to the north in provinces. The south ignored the uprising even during the later stages on the ground that it did not have the sanction of the emperor.  What was worse, the Governors of these provinces concluded agreements with foreign powers for suppression of any possible uprising in their areas.  Thus, the movement though virulent in the north was not nationwide.
  2. The Chinese army did not act in co-ordination. The Empress herself was only half-hearted in giving her support to the movement.  She was keener on maintaining herself in power.  The Chinese army had no strong central command.  General Jung Lu did not use artillery against the foreigners for fear of escalating the war.  The military commanders had neither confidence in themselves or in the army.
  3. The Boxers acted in blind reaction. They acted negatively.  If they had captured the imagination of the masses by putting forward constructive programmes, the course of the uprising would have been different.  The Manchus, in all probability, could not have added eleven unearned years to the life of the dynasty.  The foreign powers would have also learnt to respect the sentiments of the Chinese.
  4. The Boxers did not have inspiring leadership. There were no glamorous personalities to rally the masses.
  5. The superior military strength of the joint Western expeditionary force was a decisive factor in the suppression of the uprising. The advanced technology, the greater fire power and better strategy of the West proved invincible.

EFFECTS OF THE BOXER REVOLT

  1. As a consequence of the Boxer Protocol, China was subjected to further humiliation. She had to give many concessions to the foreign powers compromising her sovereignty and dignity.  The huge indemnity payments crippled her economic strength.
  2. The Boxer uprising hastened the fall of the Manchus. The mass discontent now full to the brim swept the dynasty out of power in 1911.
  3. The Western powers sensed the mass discontent and moderated their ambition. Boxerism checked the disintegration of China.
  4. The Boxers made the Manchu court to think in terms of reform. The reforms that came immediately were very conservative.  All the same they marked the beginning of a change.