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The Boxer Rebellion: China Fights Imperialism


Kill The Foreigners
Hulton Archive - Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Boxer Rebellion - Summary:

Beginning in 1899, the Boxer Rebellion was an uprising in China against foreign influence in religion, politics, and trade. In the fighting, the Boxers killed thousands of Chinese Christians and attempted to storm the foreign embassies in Beijing. Following a 55-day siege, the embassies were relieved by 20,000 Japanese, American, and European troops. In the wake of the rebellion, several punitive expeditions were launched and the Chinese government was forced to sign the "Boxer Protocol" which called for the rebellion's leaders to be executed and the payment of financial reparations to the injured nations.


The Boxer Rebellion began in November 1899, in the Shandong Province and ended on September 7, 1901, with the signing of the Boxer Protocol.

Boxer Rebellion - Outbreak:

The activities of the Boxers, also known as the Righteous and Harmonious Society Movement, began in the Shandong Province of eastern China in March 1898. This was largely in response to the failure of the government's modernization initiative, the Self-Strengthening Movement, as well as the German occupation of the Jiao Zhou region and the British seizure of Weihai. The first signs of unrest appeared in a village after a local court ruled in favor of giving a local temple over to the Roman Catholic authorities for use as a church. Upset by the decision, the villagers, led by Boxer agitators, attacked the church.

Boxer Rebellion - The Uprising Grows:

While the Boxers initially pursued an anti-government platform, they shifted to an anti-foreigner agenda after being severely beaten by Imperial troops in October 1898. Following this new course, they fell upon Western missionaries and Chinese Christians who they viewed as agents of foreign influence. In Beijing, the Imperial court was controlled by ultra-conservatives who supported the Boxers and their cause. From their position of power, they forced the Empress Dowager Cixi to issue edicts endorsing the Boxers' activities, which angered foreign diplomats.

Boxer Rebellion - The Legation Quarter Under Attack:

In June 1900, the Boxers, along with parts of the Imperial Army, began attacking foreign embassies in Beijing and Tianjin. In Beijing, the embassies of Great Britain, the United States, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, and Japan were all located in the Legation Quarter near the Forbidden City. Anticipating such a move, a mixed force of 435 marines from eight countries had been sent to reinforce the embassy guards. As the Boxers approached, the embassies were quickly linked into a fortified compound. Those embassies located outside of the compound were evacuated, with the staff taking refuge inside.

On June 20, the compound was surrounded and attacks began. Across town, the German envoy, Klemens von Ketteler, was killed trying to escape the city. The following day, Cixi declared war on all of the Western powers, however her regional governors refused to obey and a larger war was avoided. In the compound, the defense was led by the British ambassador, Claude M. McDonald. Fighting with small arms and one old cannon, they managed to keep the Boxers at bay. This cannon became known as the "International Gun," as it had a British barrel, an Italian carriage, fired Russian shells, and was served by Americans.

Boxer Rebellion - First Attempt to Relieve the Legation Quarter:

To deal with the Boxer threat, an alliance was formed between Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States. On June 10, an international force of 2,000 marines was dispatched from Takou under British Vice Admiral Edward Seymour to aid Beijing. Moving by rail to Tianjin, they were forced to continue on foot as the Boxers had severed the line to Beijing. Seymour's column advanced as far Tong-Tcheou, 12 miles from Beijing, before being forced to retreat due to stiff Boxer resistance. They arrived back at Tianjin on June 26, having suffered 350 casualties.

Boxer Rebellion - Second Attempt to Relieve the Legation Quarter:

With the situation deteriorating, the members of the Eight-Nation Alliance sent reinforcements to the area. Commanded by British Lt. Gen. Alfred Gaselee, the international army numbered 54,000. Advancing, they captured Tianjin on July 14. Continuing with 20,000 men, Gaselee pressed on for the capital. Boxer and Imperial forces made a stand at Yangcun, but were defeated by British and American assaults. On August 14, the army entered Beijing and ended the fifty-five day siege of the legation compound. Over the next year, a second German-led international force conducted punitive raids throughout China.

Boxer Rebellion - Aftermath:

Following the fall of Beijing, Cixi sent Li Hongzhang to begin negotiations with the alliance. The result was the Boxer Protocol which required the execution of ten high-ranking leaders who had supported the rebellion, as well as payment of 450,000,000 tael of silver as war reparations. The Imperial government's defeat further weakened the Qing Dynasty, paving the way for its overthrow in 1912. During the fighting, 270 missionaries were killed, along with 18,722 Chinese Christians. The allied victory also led to further partitioning of China, with the Russians occupying Manchuria and the Germans taking Tsingtao.

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