A 1900 peasant uprising in China that attempted to drive out the imperialist Western powers. It was officially sanctioned by the Qing Dynasty, for it too was suffering from the oppression of the Open Door Policy. Ironically, the secret society that started the rebellion, Yi He Chuan, or the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, was also formed for the purpose of overthrowing the dynastic rule of China. Also known as the Boxers, they were a splinter group from the Eight Trigrams Society, another anti-dynastic organization in China. Incidentally, they were the ancestors of the Chinese mafia, the Triads.

Popular dissent against the foreigners (especially the Brits) gave the Boxers plenty of support in Northern China. The members of the group went through strange rituals of worship that supposedly made them impervious to bullets. In addition, the Dowager Empress, sick of the Open Door Policy, was moved to officially support the group as "patriotic". The roving bands of bandits stormed Beijing, attacking foreigners and Chinese Christians. They suspected the Christians to be on the foreigners' side. On June 18, the Empress decided to go all-or-nothing, and ordered that all foreigners in Beijing to be executed. Beijing turned into a siege, with the Westerners hiding out in a fortified cathedral in the middle of town.

In August an international force consisting of American, British, French and German forces smashed their way from Tianjin into Beijing and relieved their beseiged comrades. The imperial court fled to Xian, and the foreigners burned and looted Beijing and committed several atrocities against the helpless civilians. China was forced to pay heavy fines to the collective foreign powers for their support of the rebellious Boxers. It wasn't until the 1930's that the Open Door Policy was abandoned.

Apparently, the Library of Peking fared rather badly in all this. The situation on the ground had spiralled completely out of control as the uprising grew more grave, especically in light of imperial European colonial and commercial interest in China. The Brotherhood of the Harmonious Fist were labelled a secret society by the European press services (though the Brotherhood was more akin to a labor union). The group's major concern were the Westerns operating in the colony; they flatly opposed the European's political and commercial manipulation of China (imagine, if you will, WTO/FTAA protesters, except 100 years ago and more hand-to-hand combat). After the European sections of the city were put under seige by their forces, several European 'missionaries' (most likely merchants or consulars) were killed in the chaos. When news reached the navies of the Western powers, the five nations with a stake in the region (England, France, Russia, Germany and Japan) proceeded to shell the city's Library from the harbour in retaliation, completely destroying its nearly 2000 year old collection.

Source: J. M. Roberts, The History of the World (London: Helicon, 1992)

There was also the siege of the Foreign Legations in Peking. All the foreign embassies of the European powers were housed with in a single semi-walled area a very short distance from the Forbidden City. The concept was that the Mandarins, the eunuch administrative class that served the Dowager Empress, could then visit the Europeans in a single location and keep track of their movements and minimize their influence. The mandarins controlled access to the Empress, the ambassadors controlled access to the West. The entire area was called the Foreign Legation. It was connected by telegraph to Shanghai.

At the start of the uprising, the telegraph lines were cut and the Boxers laid siege to the Legation. The Euros and Americans inside hastily enclosed the rest of the perimeter, to withstand an attack which would last some 8 weeks until the arrival of a multinational rescue force. During the beginning of the siege, the Boxers were helped by the Chinese army, sometimes openly.

There were a number of factors critical to the survival of the Legations. First, political maneuvering by the ambassadors inside kept the official uniformed forces of the Chinese off balance. Sometimes they would help the Boxers, at others, they would actually run them off. Second, the women inside the compound contributed openly in the survival efforts - rationing food, organizing medical brigades and hospitals, and on occasion fighting. Finally, the tenacity of the British "Blueshirts" (naval infantry) and the company of US Marines onsite made the conduct of the siege very costly for the Chinese.

In a related story, a commander of some of the Chinese Army forces was meeting with an American official after the siege. The Chinese officer pointed to a US Marine leaning against a distant wall and cleaning his rifle. "Who is that man there, in the floppy hat?" referring to the "smokey the bear" campaign hat the Marine was wearing.

"That is a United State Marine" replied the American.

"When one of those men fires, one of my men falls. They are to be feared."

There are a number of unanswered questions about the siege. At some 300 to 1 odds, why didn't the Boxers just charge the legations and kill everyone in a single stroke? Why didn't the Chinese Army train the Boxers to use their artillery more effectively? A concerted campaign of shelling, over 8 weeks, should have reduced the place to rubble, breaking the back of any effective foreign resistance. The answer seems to lie in the fact that Boxers were fighting what they considered to be a spiritual war, more than an actual military campaign. When the Chinese army failed to gel the resolve of the Boxer fighting spirit, objective-driven fighting was only spasmodic.

There are still valuable lessons for the West, in both the siege and the rebellion. Indiscriminate use of military and economic force created the wellspring of anti foreign sentiment that sparked the uprising - very similar to the uprisings in Somalia in 1993, or the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 -when the US embassy was taken hostage. Failure to effective gauge indigenous sentiment and responsibly modulate cultural and economic impact have time and again resulted in being caught out in popular anti-western uprisings.

For a super introductory text, try Diana Preston's very readable The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China's War on Foreigners That Shook the World in the Summer of 1900 (hell of a title, isn't it?)

The period circa 1989-1993 in the United States (perhaps elsewhere, but I didn't grow up elsewhere, I grew up outside Chicago) when the youth fashion trend migrated from tighty whities to boxers. Originally, it struck me as an element of the college sports clothing craze at that age, manifesting as an inch or so of college mascot-printed cotton sticking out past guys' shorts in warm weather. (Note that here, boxers were displayed below the shorts, as opposed to the later trend of sagging* one's pants to display the waistband underneath.) Over time, the mascots diminished in favor of the traditional solids, plaids, and yellow-smiley-faces-with-suggestively-placed-tongue.

I first noted them my sophomore year of high school, and by casual observation and anecdote they seemed to have become the de facto standard during my freshman year of college. Like any fashion trend, I have no clue what sparked it. All I know is that boxers weren't at all effective at concealing the signs of adolescent male hormones, so they weren't going to work for me... ;-)

* This looks really silly with white briefs underneath. *shakes head* Suburban ghetto-punk-wannabes...

The Boxer Rebellion of 1899 and 1900 was a key event in the downfall of the Chinese Manchu empire. This writeup will look at the background to the rebellion, the rebellion itself, and its consequences for China.


Ever since the Opium War had ended with the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 and the loss of Hong Kong and other important cities to the British, foreign powers had exerted considerable influence over China. The Russians, French, German, and British, among others, all developed spheres of influence in the country. In 1895, the Japanese navy defeated the Chinese and gained the island of Formosa, now known as Taiwan.

Chinese organisations such as the Big Sword Society began to emerge in opposition to Christian missions in the country. The Yi he quan (Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists) were another movement opposing the spread of Christianity. They wore red clothing and practiced ritual boxing, leading to their nickname of Boxers.

In 1898, the Chinese emperor Guangxu tried to counter the unrest in the country following the defeat by Japan and the scramble for concessions by the other powers in the area. He introduced decrees characterised as the "Hundred Days of Reform". These attempts at reform of the old Manchu empire were stamped out by the Empress Dowager Ci Xi, who assumed power in September. The European powers thought they scented blood, and moved in for the kill, trying to take over Chinese land.


In 1899, the Boxers rose up, targeting foreign missionaries and legations, and Chinese traders who worked with the Westerners. By June 1900, after atrocities against Chinese Christians, the Boxers captured the key cities of Tientsin and Beijing. Foreign legations were placed under siege, and Western forces retaliated. The Boxers held Beijing for 55 days before 16,000 foreign troops lifted the siege on 14 August. 76 foreign soldiers and six children were killed, but thousands of Chinese men were massacred, and the already poor regime had to pay huge reparations. Ci Xi was forced to accept peace terms, and Allied soldiers looted the city.


The long-term consequences for the imperial court were to lead to its downfall. Its failure to defend the country from foreign powers increased republican feeling, and revolution followed in 1911, leading to the Republic of China being proclaimed.

Chronicle of the World, Jacques Legrand S.A.International Publishing, 1989
The Times History of the 20th Century, Times Books, 2003

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