At the start of the 20th century countless ceremonies are held all over northern China, to demonstrate to villagers that the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, called by foreigners “the Boxers “- are impervious to harm from weapons. China is the Middle Kingdom – to the Chinese the civilized world – where the gods controlled destiny – the will of Heaven. The emperor is the interpreter of Heavens will, and he resided in the Forbidden City in the centre of Peking, the nations capital. For over 10 centuries no foreigner had gazed on the emperor’s face, but by the end of the 19th century the empire had a population of four hundred million, and the increasingly powerful western countries wished to further open up this vast market to trade.
Opium – feeding the Chinese demand
The foreigners were uninvited and unwanted – and the Chinese restricted theses ” barbarians” to Canton port – and here British traders there bought porcelain, silks, teas and Chinese goods with – opium. In 1839 the Chinese government reacted to this enforced purchase of addiction, and a large shipment of opium from British India was dumped into Canton Harbour.
The British reacted violently, and an invasion force moved inland , seizing towns and cities- resulting in the 1842 Treaty – enforcing the purchase of opium by the Chinese and the award to the British of Hong Kong island in perpetuity. Other countries followed and were awarded concession areas – harbours and ports especially – France, Russia, Germany, Japan, the Americans and the Spanish. Even the Mexicans came.
Unfair treaties – and now foreign gods
The missionaries came as well – and penetrated everywhere – and the Chinese became especially resentful of the imposition of these foreign gods. Local gods and the spirits of the ancestors were offended, but the foreigners continued and in mission schools children were taught to reject the traditions of their ancestors. The Chinese had no power or rights within the concession areas. Thus the seeds of bloody insurrection are sown.
Natural disasters – foreigners are to blame
In the Summer of 1898 a huge flood in northern China was followed by a tremendous drought – and these natural calamities are regarded by the Chinese as the fault of the Europeans and Westerners – thus the “Boxers United in Righteousness” – uneducated but traditionally observant peasants, spread the word of rebellion against the outsiders. These “boxers” were disorganised, but commonly believed in spirit possession – during spiritual trances one could take on the invulnerability of the gods – impervious to swords, spears and even bullets – if the practitioners were full believers. In the early months of 1900 the “Boxers” moved toward Peking – and their wrath was exacted on the Christian missions they came across (secondary devils), but soon attacked all foreigners, male and female, adult and child, and Chinese Christians. The empress Ci Xi, the aunt of the Emperor and the real power in government, maintained her silence.
Horror stories reach Peking
She was of course aware of what was going on, as were the residents of the Peking foreign quarter – the place of legations, foreign banks and business houses – bestowed by treaty as a place under foreign control – and in late Spring more foreigners arrived from the Chinese provinces, together with Chinese Christian converts – with stories of horror.
Troops are sent
The various legations ministers cabled for troops, which started to arrive in late May 1900. By the end of the month there were 400 troops of eight nations. They also brought news that British Admiral Seymour would arrive in days with 2,000 troops.
The Boxers advance
Now the flames of the advance of the “Boxers” could now be seen from Peking, and the Empress was presented with a document stating that the foreigners demanded her abdication. Her anger was intense and she called on the Imperial troops to assist the “Boxers” ( she learns much later that the document is a forgery by her chief advisors). By now the Boxers were in the city burning all foreign buildings from churches to the race course grandstand.
China severs diplomatic relations
On the 19th June the legations were informed that diplomatic relations were severed and all foreigners were given one day to leave.
Baron Clemens von Ketteler, the German Minister, had already enraged Chinese Muslim troops by ordering his guard to fire on them after they started attacking Christians and in response to Ketteler’s unprovoked shooting dead of a Chinese boy. Unconcerned of his personal safety, he went with a few bodyguards to the Zongli Yaman (Foreign Office) to request more time to leave Peking but was intercepted by Manchu Bannnermen and shot dead in the ensuing firefight.
A commander of the Kansu Braves flayed von Ketteler and ate his heart, following their earlier assassination the Japanese chancellor by tearing him apart
Detained and executed
The man detained as von Ketteler’s murderer — Captain En Hai of the Manchu Bannermen was proud to claim the act himself, and intimations of the Chinese government’s official blessing for anti-foreigner activities were carefully massaged since the Eight-Nation powers would have need of the Qing dynasty to keep order locally.
Now no escape for foreigners in Peking
There was no escape route now for the foreigners – the railway had been torn up, and the city was held by Boxers and xenophobic Imperial Troops. Admiral Seymour’s relief force was attacked by Boxers and imperial Troops, and had to retreat back to Tiensin, unknown to the legations.
The British Legation is the defence base, and the minister the leader of the defenders
However, the most defenceable building is the British legation, and the majority of legation residents barricade themselves there against 20,0000 Boxers and Imperial Troops which surrounded them.
Admiral Seymour’s relief force was attacked by Boxers and imperial Troops, and had to retreat back to Tiensin, unknown to the legations.
However, the most defencable building is the British legation, and the majority of legation residents barricade themselves there against 20,0000 Boxers and Imperial Troops which surrounded them.
The Chinese open fire
At 4.00 p.m on the 20th June., the deadline set by the Empress for the exit of the foreigners, the Chinese opened fire.
Almost immediately the foreigners took casualties – a young French sentry was the first, followed by a British civilian who was captured and beheaded. The makeshift legation hospital began to fill. All fit men were at the barricades, while every able bodied woman produced up to 2,000 sand bags per day.
The Empress is satisfied
The Empress stated: “The foreigners are like fish in a stew pan”. However, the boxers started to take heavy casualties due to their reckless head on attacks – their leaders explaining that those who were casualties were” not pure of heart”, and the determination of the Boxers to expel all foreigners remained. On June 23rd, the Chinese set fire to the priceless Imperial Library hope that it would cause an inferno at the next door British Legation – but the wind changed away and the fire spread to the Chinese lines. Many Boxers died in the conflagration and the heavy fire from the legation lines.
However, the boxers started to take heavy casualties due to their reckless head on attacks – their leaders explaining that those who were casualties were” not pure of heart”, and the determination of the Boxers to expel all foreigners remained.
On June 23rd, the Chinese set fire to the priceless Imperial Library hope that it would cause an inferno at the next door British Legation – but the wind changed away and the fire spread to the Chinese lines. Many Boxers died in the conflagration and the heavy fire from the legation lines. The world learns of the siege
A new relief force is assembled
On June 29th a Chinese Christian escaped through the Chinese lines and word reached Tiensin, and the outside world. Reactions differed -U.S. President McKinley did not want to act hastily, but on July 6th newspapers reported that the legations had fallen and all had been killed. The German Kaiser demanded revenge and vowed that Peking should be stormed and leveled to the ground. Other countries began to muster troops. On the 20th July a coded message is received in Washington D.C. stating that the legations still held and assistance was urgent.
Eight nations, one purpose – to win the race to Peking
Three weeks later eight nations had mustered troops in Tiensin, and began a disorganised race toward Peking. There following heavy fighting for ten days befor the first of the troops reached the capital’s city wall.
The siege is lifted
The siege is lifted By now, sixty foreigners the legation were dead, and over one hundred and eighty wounded and sick. Additionally hundreds more Christian Chinese had died. Food was scarce and starvation loomed, but a message was smuggled to the besieged informing them that the relief force would arrive on August 13th or 14th.
Final Chinese assault
The Chinese launch a final all out assault on the morning of August 12th on all sides of the defences, the fighting lasting until 2.00 a.m. on August 14th. Suddenly the Chinese firing stopped. The relief force had arrived with the British troops struggling through a drain under the Tartar Walls being the first to arrive. The siege had lasted 55 days. The foreigners had lost 65 dead, but 3,450 survived. Unfortunately hundreds of Chinese Christians died. Thousands of Boxers and Chinese, military and civilian died.
The Empress flees and truns against the nationalist Boxers
The Empress fled dressed as a peasant, but ordered the Imperial Troops to arrest all Boxers and begin their execution, in an effort to placate the victors
The looting begins
During this time the Imperial city was plundered and trashed by the foreign troops, and the Empress’ Palace became the H.Q of the German troops. Many buildings are reduced to rubble, and the railway, once restored, was the means to carry away tons of loot. The Chinese were forced to pay an indemnity equal to one ounce of silver for every man woman and child in the Middle Kingdom. China is changed forever The Empress returned two years later, enfeebled but intent on trying to restore foreign relations. Thus the last stand of the conservatives failed, and the country changed – the foreigners stayed and the Qing Empire eventually collapsed in 1912, to be taken over by forward looking republicans and a protracted civil war. China was changed forever.