From 1840, China was subjected to successive foreign invasions and military defeats. As the 19th century transitioned into the 20th, it suffered another serious act of foreign aggression known as the invasion of the Eight-Nation Alliance (1900-01). The invasion was closely linked to a series of “religious incidents” in the provinces of Zhili (直隸), Shandong (山東), and other regions. Among these incidents, those in Shandong were of particular importance as they developed into the anti-foreign and anti-Christian Boxer Rebellion.
The movement’s initiator, the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists (Yihetuan, 義和團), were initially known as the Righteous and Harmonious Fists (Yihequan, 義和拳). Its adherents were called Boxers (quanmin, 拳民). The Boxers harboured a deep hatred towards foreign invasions to China, and resented the missionaries and their followers for their privileges and their bullying of local people. It advocated expelling foreigners via the use of violence and “indigenous methods” such as burning churches, destroying railways, and cutting cables.
In spring 1900 (or Gengzi Year﹝庚子﹞in the Chinese lunar calendar), the Qing government changed its policy on the Boxers from suppression to appeasement to use them against the foreign powers. The Boxers changed their name to the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists since then. The group soon spread from Shandong to Zhili, Tianjin (天津), and Beijing (北京). In response, Britain, the United States, Japan, Russia, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy formed the Eight-Nation Alliance.
On 10 June, the alliance advance on Beijing from the Tanggu (塘沽) area. The Beijing-based Boxers and part of the Qing forces besieged the international legations and churches in Beijing, killing the secretary of the Japanese legation and the German ambassador to China.
On 21 June, China officially declared war on the foreign powers. On 14 August, the alliance enter Beijing and engaged the Boxers and Qing forces in urban warfare for two days. Eventually, the alliance captured the Forbidden City and allowed its forces to loot openly in the capital for three days. On 15 August, Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后) fled to Xi’an (西安) with Emperor Guangxu (光緒).
While escaping, Cixi made plans to sue for peace with the foreign powers and negotiate a treaty. On 7 September 1901 (or Xinchou Year﹝辛丑﹞in the Chinese lunar calendar) China signed the Boxer Protocol (《辛丑條約》) with the foreign powers. Under the protocol, China promised to punish those responsible for atrocities against foreigners, apologise for wrongdoings, pay indemnities, dismantle its cannon stations, and allow foreign armies to station in strategic locations.
In short, the protocol represented another serious blow to Chinese sovereignty. The invasion opened the Qing government’s eyes to the inevitability of implementing reform if only to save itself. Meanwhile, multitudes who had already given up hope on the Qing government flocked to support Sun Yat-sen’s (孫中山) revolutionary movement.