War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression
(1931-1945)
Civil War and Founding of the PRC
(1945-1949)
Tales of Hong Kong
(1840-1949)
Tales of Macao
(1840-1949)
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In spring 1900 (the year of Gengzi﹝庚子﹞in the Chinese lunar calendar), the 26th year of Emperor Guangxu’s (光緒) reign, the Boxers began to advance from Shandong Province (山東) into Zhili Province (直隸). Concerning their own safety, the foreign legations stationed in Beijing (北京) began to cable their home countries for military intervention. In June, more than 20 warships from various countries gathered in the waters off Dagu (大沽). Led by the British Vice-Admiral Edward Hobart Seymour, a 2,000-strong force comprising troops of various foreign powers set off for Beijing from the Tanggu (塘沽) area on 10 June. Meanwhile, the Boxers in Beijing joined forces with the Qing forces under General Dong Fuxiang (董福祥) to besiege Dongjiaomin Lane (東交民巷), the foreign legations hub in Beijing, as well as Catholic churches in Xishiku (西什庫). Sugiyama Akira, the secretary of the Japanese legation, and Baron Klemens von Ketteler, the German ambassador to China, were killed by the Boxers.

On 21 June, Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后) officially declared war on the foreign powers in Emperor Guangxu’s name. The eight nations, namely Britain, the United States, Japan, Russia, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, formed a coalition against China, which became known as the “Eight-Nation Alliance”. On 14 August, the alliance entered Beijing and engaged the Boxers in urban warfare for two days. It ended with the alliance capturing the Forbidden City (紫禁城) and a three-day open looting spree by its soldiers. Innumerable treasures, from texts to priceless artefacts, were either burnt or plundered by the invaders. The alliance, initially a 30,000-strong force, later saw its ranks swell to 50,000. Count Waldersee, a German general, assumed command of the coalition.

Meanwhile, Russia launched a large-scale assault in north-eastern China. On 15 August, Cixi escaped westward with Emperor Guangxu and other royal members. By the 16 August evening, the entire Beijing was basically under the alliance’s control. On 26 October, upon reaching Xi’an (西安), Cixi immediately sent envoys to the foreign invaders to sue for peace and negotiate a treaty.

Once Qing China had declared war on the foreign powers, how did its government officials respond to the call to arms? What was Empress Dowager Cixi’s stance on the war?

See answer below.

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In June 1900, the Boxers in Beijing began to attack the Legation Quarter. The crisis brought more than 20 warships from various countries to congregate off the coast of Tianjin (天津), ready to land in the Tanggu area and set off for Beijing. Pictured are British and American warships participating in the military operation against China. Tanggu, set aflame during the battle, can be seen smoking behind the American warship.

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On the left: in June 1900, the Boxers and the Eight-Nation Alliance forces engaged in fierce battle. On the right: an illustration depicting the death of Baron Klemens von Ketteler, the German ambassador to China, at the hands of the Boxers on 20 June 1900. The death of him and the Japanese legation secretary Sugiyama Akira (killed on 11 June) prompted the foreign powers to expand their military action against China. On 21 June 1900, Empress Dowager Cixi declared war on the powers in Emperor Guangxu’s name.

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The Cixi-led faction that held sway over the Qing government aided the Boxers in their xenophobic mission and declared war on the foreign powers. However, those local officials who were more insightful and more sensible refused to support these decisions. Among them were Liu Kunyi (劉坤一), the Viceroy of Liang-Jiang (兩江總督); Zhang Zidong (張之洞), the Viceroy of Huguang (湖廣總督); Li Hongzhang (李鴻章), the Viceroy of Liang-Guang (兩廣總督), and Yuan Shikai (袁世凱), the Governor of Shandong (山東巡撫). Calling the Imperial Decree of Declaration of War Against Foreign Powers a “false decree”, they refused to obey it; instead, they reached an agreement with the countries of the Eight-Nation Alliance. It was agreed that if their provinces were not invaded, they would safeguard all foreign interests and the lives and properties of any foreigners within those regions. The initiative was later referred to as the “Mutual Protection of Southeast China (東南互保)”. It spared China’s south-eastern provinces from the ravages of the Boxer Rebellion and the invasion of the Eight-Nation Alliance.

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With war formally declared, Britain, the United States, Japan, Russia, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy formed the Eight-Nation Alliance. It intended to capture first Tianjin, then Beijing. On 14 July, the alliance captured Tianjin. The left picture shows the Boxers engaged a fierce battle with the alliance forces in Tianjin; the right picture is a portrait of Nie Shicheng (聶士成), the Qing general who died in service of the country when defending Tianjin.

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Nie Shicheng fought in the First Sino-Japanese War (甲午戰爭) and won a battle against the Japanese military in Liaodong (遼東). He was one of the few infantry generals that distinguished themselves in the war. As commander of the Qing Army in Zhili during the Boxer Rebellion and the invasion of the Eight-Nation Alliance, Nie was adamant that the Boxers were bandits and a scourge to the country that must be quelled. After clashing with them on multiple occasions, he was reprimanded by the Qing government. As the Eight-Nation Alliance approached Tianjin, Nie was dispatched to engage the enemy. On the way, the Boxers kept ambushing and killing his men. Unable to fight back due to the Qing government’s protection of the Boxers, Nie had to endure the indignities, and found his army caught between two foes as his front line engaged the alliance while his back line was raided by the Boxers. On 9 July 1900, while waging a fierce battle against the Japanese army, Nie died after being shot seven times. The Boxers attempted to humiliate his body but failed because the foreign troops approached.

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An illustration titled Commander-in-Chief Dong’s Plan to Attack the Western Force at Yang Village (《董軍門楊村設計敵西兵圖》). On 6 August 1900, as the Eight-Nation Alliance advanced on Beijing from Tianjin, they clashed with the Qing force led by the Commander-in-Chief Dong Fuxiang (董福祥) at Yang Village (楊村). The Qing force was crushed, and the alliance continued with its sights set on Beijing.

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On 14 August 1900, the Eight-Nation Alliance invaded Beijing. On the following day, they breached the defences of the Forbidden City. The pictures show the alliance marching into the Forbidden City, and its officials posing in Jinluan Dian (金鑾殿), the throne room of the palace.

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When China was consumed by the invasion of the Eight-Nation Alliance, Russia invaded its north-eastern part and massacred its civilians. The photos show Russian force entering Fengtian Prefecture (奉天府, present-day Shenyang﹝瀋陽﹞) and occupying Shanhai Pass (山海關).

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The Japanese soldiers beheading the Boxer captives. In September 1900, the German General Count Waldersee became the commander-in-chief of the Eight-Nation Alliance. The alliance continued to augment its forces to eradicate the Boxers.

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Before the alliance could reach the Forbidden City, Empress Dowager Cixi had already made an undignified escape to Xi’an (西安) with Emperor Guangxu and her entourage. On the left: Cixi and her entourage on the run; on the right: the Xi’an imperial resort where Cixi and the emperor took refuge.

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The Qing executioners beheading the Boxers under the Eight-Nation Alliance’s supervision. While on the run, Cixi decided to sue for peace with the foreign powers and shift all the blame for the war to the Boxers. The Qing force joined the alliance in hunting down and exterminating the Boxers.

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While on the run, Cixi ordered officials nationwide to exterminate the Boxers. On 7 September, the Qing government issued a royal decree that proclaimed, “The Boxers are responsible for instigating the disaster. We must spare no effort in eradicating the root cause of the issue.”

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Military situation map of the invasion of the Eight-Nation Alliance

Once Qing China had declared war on the foreign powers, how did its government officials respond to the call to arms? What was Empress Dowager Cixi’s stance on the war?

While some Qing officials, like Nie Shicheng, fought ferociously once the war was declared, there were also those who ignored the call to arms and prioritised their own interests instead. Sheng Xuanhuai (盛宣懷), a celebrated entrepreneur, acting on behalf of Liu Kunyi, the Viceroy of Liang-Jiang, and Zhang Zhidong, the Viceroy of Huguang, reached an agreement called the Mutual Defense Pact of the Southeastern Provinces (《東南互保章程》) with the foreign consuls in Shanghai (上海). The agreement, which called for the “mutual protection of southeast China”, was supported by Li Hongzhang, the Viceroy of Liang-Guang; and Yuan Shikai, the Governor of Shandong. They claimed that the imperial declaration of war was a “false decree” issued under duress by the Boxers, and represented the will of the rebels instead of imperial’s. Thus, they ignored the call to arms.

In fact, Cixi also regretted her decision soon after the declaration of war. When Beijing fell, she immediately escaped westward with Emperor Guangxu. In her explanation to the foreign powers, she made the claim that “China, even when overconfident, knew better than to antagonise every country at the same time”, and shifted the blame for starting the war completely to the Boxers. Even while she was on the run, she expressed her willingness to “figure out ways to punish them when the opportunity arises”. Later, she grovelled for peace and promised to “allocate resources within China’s available means to please the foreign countries”.
From using the Boxers recklessly to instigate conflicts and declare war on numerous powers at the beginning, to grovelling for peace after China’s devastating defeat and launching a large-scale eradication of the Boxers despite their pledge to “support the Qing, destroy the foreigners”, Cixi’s speedy reversal of stance on both her foreign adversaries and domestic allies was unprecedented.

Source of most photos used in this feature piece: Fotoe

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