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(2) The Qing Government Made Use of the Anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion

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The invasion of the Eight-Nation Alliance (八國聯軍) in 1900 occurred against a background of growing xenophobic and anti-Christian activities by the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists (Yihetuan, 義和團). The Society originated in the Shandong Province (山東) area and was initially called the Righteous and Harmonious Fists (Yihequan, 義和拳). The group became known as the Boxers to Westerners. With leaders including Zhu Hongdeng (朱紅燈), the group organised martial arts drills using the slogan “Overthrow the Qing, revive the Ming [dynasty] (反清復明) ”. They rallied the masses with the claim that a person could withstand bullets and weapons simply by possessing certain talismans or chanting incantations.

The movement swept through Shandong, resulting in the destruction of numerous churches and missionaries being killed or expelled. It also managed to score successive victories over the Qing forces sent to suppress them. Yuxian (毓賢), the Governor of Shandong, decided to change tactics to appease instead of suppressing the group, recognising it as a local militia. This prompted the group to change its name from the “Righteous and Harmonious Fists” to the “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists”, and adopt the modified slogan of “Support the Qing, destroy the foreigners (扶清滅洋)”. Yuxian was dismissed under the diplomatic pressure. His post was taken over by Yuan Shikai (袁世凱), who suppressed the Boxers ruthlessly. Led by Cao Futian (曹福田) and Zhang Decheng (張德成), some of the Boxers made their way to Zhili Province (直隸, now Hebei Province﹝河北﹞) and entered Tianjin (天津) and Beijing (北京) to continue their xenophobic activities.

Meanwhile, Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后) had long resented the foreign powers for sympathising with Emperor Guangxu (光緒) during the Wuxu Coup (戊戌政變). The Boxers presented an opportunity for her to use the people’s xenophobic sentiments against the foreigners. With her consent, the Qing government stopped suppressing the Boxers and began to appease and encourage them instead. This enabled the Boxers in Beijing and Tianjin to work in concert with the Qing forces under Dong Fuxiang (董福祥) and other generals to engage the Eight-Nation Alliance in direct combat.

The Boxers claimed that their adherents could withstand bullets and weapons simply by possessing certain talismans or chanting certain incantations. They planned to use these abilities to support the Qing dynasty in destroying the foreigners. Given the absurdity of the claim, why did the Qing government still support them?

See answer below.

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Pictured are two anti-Christian illustrations circulated in China in the early 1890s, a sign of the people’s accumulating anti-Christian sentiments. These became ready fuel for the explosive anti-Christian and anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion.

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On the left: an illustration titled Shooting a Pig and Beheading Goats (Shezhu zhanyang tu,《射豬斬羊圖》). Certain words in the illustration are puns on the similarity of pronunciation between “pig squeals (zhujiao)” and “bishop ”in Chinese. The word “goat” (yang) is a pun on the pronunciation of the word “foreign” in Chinese. The title suggested killing foreign missionaries. On the right is an illustration titled Beating Demons and Burning Their Books (Dagui shaoshu tu,《打鬼燒書圖》). The word “demon” (gui) denoted foreign missionaries. The illustration called for the burning of the “evil books” (the Bible) the missionaries used for preaching.

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A photo of a group of Boxers. The Righteous and Harmonious Fists, as it was called when it first appeared in Shandong, was an anti-Christian, xenophobic, and anti-Qing group that managed to score successive victories over the Qing forces sent to suppress them.

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From the left: a photo of Yuxian, the Governor of Shandong; on the right: a photo of Zaiyi (載漪), also known as Prince Duan (端郡王, figure seated in the centre). Unable to suppress the Boxers, Yuxian decided to harness their xenophobic sentiments by supporting them. He also recognised the group as a local militia. This gave the group license to rename itself the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists and adopt the modified slogan of “Support the Qing, destroy the foreigners’’. Later, the Boxers also received support from some nobles like Zaiyi.

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From the left: a bust of Cao Futian (曹福田) and a portrait of Zhang Decheng (張德成). Both were key leaders of the Boxer group.

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Several items used by the Boxers: a banner emblazoned with the slogan “Support the Qing, destroy the foreigners”, a placard, and a public notice. The Boxers claimed that simply by possessing talismans and chanting incantations, a person could withstand bullets and weapons. This claim, along with their fierce devotion to “Support the Qing, destroy the foreigners”, helped them gained support from a growing number of nobles and high officials, eventually winning the approval of Empress Dowager Cixi.

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Illustrations in Le Petit Journal, a French newspaper, depicting the Boxers’ atrocities against Christians. Encouraged by the government, the Boxers launched an all-out assault on churches in Shandong, killing a large number of missionaries and Christians. As the situation escalated, the xenophobic and anti-Christian attacks began to spread outside Shandong.

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     The Boxers were not merely anti-Christian, they also rejected all foreign things. Pictured is a scene of Boxers vandalising railways and cables.

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A cartoon that depicts the United States demanding that the Qing government to suppress the Boxers. The escalating xenophobic movement compelled various foreign governments to exert diplomatic pressure on the Qing government. Beset by demands, the Qing government dismissed Yuxian and appointed Yuan Shikai in his stead as the Governor of Shandong. After assuming office, Yuan initiated a violent crackdown on the Boxers. Unable to stay in Shandong, some of the Boxers relocated to Zhili and advance on Tianjin and Beijing.

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On the left: missionaries and Chinese Christians taking refuge from the Boxers inside a Tianjin church in 1900. On the right: a group of Christians in Beijing once besieged by the Boxers in 1900. Xenophobic attacks continued in Zhili, Beijing, and Tianjin, where missionaries and Christians were massacred. Yet, most of the affected were those unfortunate ordinary civilians.

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On the left: a photo of the Beijing Legation Quarter at Dongjiaomin Lane (東交民巷) in 1900. On the right: the barricades construction to defend the Legation Quarter from the Boxers’ assault. The Legation Quarter became a target for attack in the xenophobic maelstrom. From there, the situation rapidly went downhill.

The Boxers claimed that their adherents could withstand bullets and weapons simply by possessing certain talismans or chanting certain incantations. They planned to use these abilities to support the Qing dynasty in destroying the foreigners. Given the absurdity of the claim, why did the Qing government still support them?

Many historians believe that the dominant faction in the government led by Empress Dowager Cixi supported the Boxers for several major reasons. The first was the xenophobia pervading the Qing government that long suffered military defeats. The harboured grudge against the foreign powers grew when China was thoroughly humiliated in the First Sino-Japanese War (甲午戰爭) and became subjected to the foreign powers’ scramble for concessions. Its second reason for supporting the Boxers was ignorance. Frustrated by its inability to expel the foreigners, the ruling faction made the utterly foolish decision to place their trust in the Boxers’ absurd and superstitious claims. The third reason stemmed from Cixi’s personal grudge against the foreign powers. Her attempts to dethrone Emperor Guangxu and install a new emperor was thwarted by the foreign powers, who sympathised with the emperor and the Reformist Camp during the Hundred Days’ Reform. Thus, the Boxer Rebellion became the perfect tool for Cixi to revenge.

Some historians have suggested that the Qing government’s lack of power to suppress the burgeoning Boxer Rebellion unaided was also influential. The rebellion started out as an anti-Qing and anti-foreign movement but had the potential to develop into a mass revolt capable of jeopardising the Qing regime. They decided they might as well join the rebellion in the hope of expelling the foreigners. Should the initiative to expel the foreigners fail, they could shift all the blame to the Boxers and borrow the foreign powers’ military might to nip the Boxer Rebellion in the bud. This might explain why the Qing government reversed its stance once the Eight-Nation Alliance entered Beijing, by working with the foreign invaders to eradicate the Boxers.

In any case, the Qing government’s inability to protect China and its blind decision to support the Boxers for the sake of safeguarding its own power damaged the country. It also exposed its own ineptitude, ignorance, and selfishness. Not surprisingly, the Qing dynasty fell around a decade after the end of the Boxer Rebellion.

Source of most photos used in this feature piece: Fotoe

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