By Pat Welsh, contributor


Last month I mentioned how the stage was set for the Boxer Rebellion to occur.  You may recall that the movement had its origin with the “Big Sword Society” (大刀會) and its goal of removing foreigners and their influence from China.

In greater detail, let’s backtrack to 1895 when Li Bingheng (李秉衡) was the governor of Shandong Province.  He harbored similar anti-foreign sentiments and had encouraged the activities of the Big Sword Society led by its founder, Liu Shiduan (劉士端).  In an odd quirk of fate, after disorders caused by the Big Sword Society, Yü Xian (魚線) who had also been sympathetic to anti-foreign sentiments, was appointed as Shandong judicial commissioner and charged with suppressing the Big Sword Society.  He arrested and executed Liu Shiduan and his main lieutenant Cao Deli (曹得禮).  Liu was replaced by Zhu Hengdeng (朱紅燈) who selected a new name for the society, Yihe Quan (義和拳, which translates into Righteous and Harmonious Fists) and set up its new slogan as “Protect the Qing and annihilate the foreigners” (扶清滅洋).    

On the night between November 1 and 2, about 30 men broke into the mission compound in Zhangjia Village (張家莊), about six miles from the town of Jüye (巨野) in Shandong Province.  There they slew two missionaries shortly before midnight.  The quick arrival of other Christian Chinese prevented the slaying of others.  This attack had been motivated by the refusal of a wealthy Christian Chinese family to pay for a temple feast.  This attack later was referred to as the Juye Incident.(曹州教案 or 巨野教案).

Germany responded by seizing Jiaozhou Bay on Shandong’s southern coast.  Under further threats by Germany, the Qing government was forced to remove Li Bingheng.  He was replaced by a close subordinate, Yü Xian who simply followed Li’s policy of encouraging the anti-foreign activities.  Yü then changed the name of the Boxers to Righteous and Harmonious Society (義和團).  Thereafter the Boxers flew a banner inscribed with the character yǘ (魚), which stood for Yü’s name.

The Boxers’ activities in killing Christian converts and burning churches were then protested by the French foreign ministry in Beijing.  Fearing a war, Yü Xian was recalled to Beijing and given the governorship of Shanxi Province nearby.  The governorship of Shandong was given to Yuan Shikai (袁世凱), who forced the Boxers out of Shandong northward into Zhili (直隸).  

Now near Beijing, with the help of Prince Duan (端郡王) and Grand Secretary Kang Yi (康頤), the Boxers gained entrance to the Forbidden City.  Meanwhile, the Dowager Empress Cixi (慈禧太后) was playing a dual role.  On one hand, she was publicly ordering Kang Yi and the Minister of Punishments Chao Shuqiao (趙舒翹) to arrest and disband the Boxers while on the other hand she had privately ordered them merely to investigate the conditions of these “righteous people.”  

Chao had recognized that the so-called “righteous people” were mostly untrustworthy thugs, but being unwilling to incur the wrath of the empress dowager, he reported that they were “very dependable, righteous people.”  At the same time, Kang Yi reported how the Boxers might be useful to the country.  

The Boxer Rebellion evolved and became ever bloodier by the springtime of 1900.  As a result, Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom and U.S.A., organised a fleet demonstration in the port of Dagu (大沽) near the city of Tianjin.  On May 31, warships of the eight Western powers landed a detachment of 438 men.  They were dispatched by train from Dagu to Beijing. 

In June of 1900, only the S.M.S. Zenta cruiser of the Austro-Hungarian Navy was directed by Vienna to the Chinese coast.  The Austro-Hungarian government also prepared to send three other warships.  Rear-Admiral Count Rudolf Montecuccoli was appointed as commander of this squadron.  The S.M.S. Zenta arrived at Dagu on June 2, 1900.  The next day it dispatched 30 sailors under one officer and two midshipmen to Beijing to protect the Legations and subjects of Austria-Hungary.  Later another detachment of 70 sailors was dispatched under the captain of the Zenta, Commander Eduard Thomann von Montalmar and one officer. 

At the same time the Boxers, now joined by elements of the Imperial Army, attacked and killed 230 foreigners in Tianjin and Beijing.  In Beijing, the endangered foreigners’ legations were situated on the Legation Quarter close to the Forbidden City, where all of the foreigners were collected. 

On June 10, the situation had grown more violent and another international force of 2,000 sailors and marines commanded by the British Vice-Admiral Edward Seymour was dispatched from Dagu to Beijing.  The troops were transported by train from Dagu to Tianjin with the agreement of the Chinese government due to confusion by conflicting orders from Beijing.  General Nie Shicheng (聂士成) had allowed Seymour's army transport by train.  Before arriving in Tianjin, the Allied detachment found that they could not advance to Beijing because the railway connection between the two cities had been severed earlier on June 5.  As the distance between two cities was only 75 miles, Seymour decided to move forward on foot.  In the meantime, the Allies worked on repairing the railway. 

On June 11, 1900, Akira Sugiyama (杉山 彬), a secretary of the Japanese Legation, was murdered, presumably by Boxers or Boxer-supporters. On June 20, a German career diplomat, Clemens August Freiherr von Ketteler was killed in the street as an act of revenge for the killing of a Chinese boy and for his ordering of his German Marines on June 17 to fire back at Kansu Muslim Chinese troops, killing of some 20 men.  Von Ketteler, together with his interpreter and other associates, had been on his way to the Zongli Yamen (總理衙門, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) accompanied by armed escorts.  After the Rebellion, En Hai, the killer of von Ketteler would give himself up to Western allied occupying forces.  He defiantly proclaimed his guilt and was subsequently tried, convicted and executed by Chinese authorities.

Also on June 11, the Allies had their first encounter with the Boxers.  Soon after, the Allied convoy was attacked again from all sides by Chinese irregulars and some governmental troops.  After learning about attacks on the foreign legations on June 18, Seymour decided to continue advancing, this time along the Beihe river toward Tongzhou (通州), about 16 miles from Beijing.  Facing stiff resistance on the 19th, Seymour had to retreat.  The wounded were so numerous that they had to be carried in junks along the river, pulled along with ropes by healthy combatants on the banks.  While retreating, the allied forces managed to take-over the Fort at Xigu with its hidden arsenal of field guns, rifles, ammunition, rice and medical supplies.  Here they were surrounded by the Chinese until June 25.  Fortunately for Seymour, he was rescued by a regiment composed essentially of a force of 900 Russian troops, 500 British seamen and 400 others from Port Arthur on June 25.  Now unopposed, the Allies completed their retreat back to Tianjin on June 26 after sustaining a loss of 350 men.

On June 21, the Empress Cixi declared war against all Western powers, but regional governors who commanded substantial modernized armies refused to join in the imperial court's declaration of war and withheld knowledge of it from the public in the south.  Yuan Shikai had used his own forces to suppress Boxers in Shandong while Zhang Zhidong (張之洞) entered into negotiations with the foreigners in Shanghai to keep his army out of the conflict.  The neutrality of these provincial and regional governors left the majority of China free of the conflict.

In Beijing, Dong Fuxiang (董福祥), the Gansu military commander, was denied artillery held by Ronglu (榮祿), the commander of Wuwei Middle Troop (武衛中軍).  Ronglu had been providing military security for the Forbidden City.  Ronglu’s denial prevented Dong from leveling the foreign legations.  When Dong complained to Empress Dowager Cixi on June 23, she dismissively said, "Your tail is becoming too heavy to wag."  

Attempting to halt the Allied advance to Beijing were 70,000 Imperial troops with anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 Boxers.  The Allies with 20,000 men under British Lieutenant General Alfred Gaselee encountered only minor resistance on Aug. 4  in Beicang (北倉) and Yangcun (楊村), about 19 miles outside Tianjin.  The weather, however, was a major obstacle with humid temperatures sometimes reaching 110° Fahrenheit.  The march also involved atrocities committed by both sides.  In any case, after Yangcun the Chinese forces melted away.  The International Allied Force reached and relieved the Foreign Legation on Aug. 13.  The next day, the Allies occupied Beijing itself.  

There were consequences of this rebellion to both the Qing Dynasty and to China itself, the topic of my next offering.


About Pat Welsh

In 2009 while teaching English at Sichuan University, Welsh was asked to give a speech where he was introduced to the audience as a “pioneer of Chinese American relations” as a result of his cooperative work in international banking during the Deng Xiaoping era. For more than 65 years, Welsh has been learning Chinese and has used this knowledge both professionally and personally to enhance his understanding of Chinese and Asian affairs.  He currently resides in Georgia and occasionally lectures on China to classes in World History and World Literature.


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