Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China's War on Foreigners that Shook the World in the Summer of 1900

Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China's War on Foreigners that Shook the World in the Summer of 1900

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by Diana Preston

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Chinese peasants chafed against the foreign technologies and ideas that the imperialists introduced. Then a new movement-mystical, materialistic, and virulently anti-Christian-began to spread among them like wildfire. The foreigners laughed at the peasants' martial-arts routines and nicknamed them "the Boxers"-never imagining that the group, with the backing of


Chinese peasants chafed against the foreign technologies and ideas that the imperialists introduced. Then a new movement-mystical, materialistic, and virulently anti-Christian-began to spread among them like wildfire. The foreigners laughed at the peasants' martial-arts routines and nicknamed them "the Boxers"-never imagining that the group, with the backing of China's empress dowager, would soon terrorize the world...This acclaimed account of the Boxer Rebellion, by an Oxford-trained historian, is an important new addition to every shelf of high-quality, highly accessible history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Enthralling.”—The New Yorker

“With meticulous research and passionate style, Diana Preston recreates the tragedy that consumed China a century ago.”—Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking

“An outstanding popular history that also passes muster as first-rate historical research.”—Booklist

“Fascinating…penned with an obvious addiction to the delicious little details of history: whimsical, outrageous and macabre.”—The Washington Post

“A dramatic narrative that can be read on the beach or in the classroom…well-researched and lavishly descriptive accounts.”—The Christian Science Monitor

“Highly readable history.”—The Wall Street Journal

“Compelling…Briskly paced and carefully researched, its drama is replete with curious characters.”—The Boston Globe

“A nail-biting example of narrative history at its best…Preston knows precisely which colorful details will spice up this masterful mix of history, gossip, crystal-clear military strategy and ironic observations about colonial and imperial politiciking—and she keeps the pot at an irresistibly lively boil throughout.”—

“Tremendously exciting.”—The Christian Science Monitor

“Diana Preston’s dramatic retelling of the summer-long siege of the Peking foreign district 100 years ago—‘a pivotal episode in China’s fractured relationship with the West’—does much to clarify China’s enduring resentment toward foreign interference…Preston’s account, compiled from the many letters, diaries, and memoirs by European survivors of the siege, captures an odd strain of mordant humor.”—The New York Times Book Review

“A colorful and well-presented treatment of a crucial turning point in history.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Well-researched and well-told…brings to light the details of this obscure yet culturally significant event. Her stirring account, culled from the letters, diaries, and memoirs of the foreign survivors, shows exactly what it was like after June 20, 1900, when the Boxers and regular Chinese soldiers laid siege to foreign embassies…The vivid eyewitness accounts place the reader in the middle of events. And by shedding light on this important episode in past China-West relations, Preston goes a long way in explaining China’s current suspicious attitude toward the world.”—Houston Chronicle

Washington Post
Fascinating...penned with an obvious addiction to the delicious little details of history: whimsical, outrageous, and macabre.
Christian Science Monitor
A dramatic narrative that can be read on the beach or in the classroom...well-researched and lavishly descriptive accounts.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
One hundred years ago, China, led by a shadowy and highly militant sect called the Boxers, rose up in revolt against all manner of foreign presence and influence, forever altering China and its relationship with the outside world. In this vivid and thorough account, Oxford-trained historian and journalist Preston (A First-Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole) examines the Boxer Rebellion primarily from the perspective of the Western diplomats and missionaries who narrowly escaped massacre in Peking (as Beijing was then known), Tientsin and elsewhere in the summer of 1900. Drawing extensively on contemporaneous accounts by English and American defenders, Preston places readers inside Peking's barricaded diplomatic district. Detailing the beginning of the Boxer assault, she charts the reasons for the rebellion--the xenophobia, superstition, abject poverty and legitimate outrage at foreign attempts at domination that drove the rebels and their sympathizers in the Manchu court. With equal immediacy and concreteness, she describes the rebellion's progress: the brutal conditions confronted by Europeans (and the Chinese converts who were barricaded with them) during the bombardment; the long-delayed arrival of Western reinforcements just in the nick of time. Preston puzzles over why the Chinese besiegers, who outnumbered the defenders by perhaps 500 to 1, did not instantly overwhelm their opponents. Evidently, she concludes, even as fanatical a group as the Boxers did not truly wish a wholesale slaughter; still, tens of thousands died in the Boxer Rebellion, most of them Chinese converts to Western religions. Bringing this ordeal back from historical obscurity, Preston tells a riveting story about ordinary people placed under extreme pressure by events they could neither understand nor control. 10 pages photos not seen by PW. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Preston is unsuccessful in presenting a history of the Boxer Rebellion primarily because she is unable to separate fact from fiction in the memoirs she uses as primary documents. A journalist who has written books about such historical subjects as the race to the South Pole, Preston has reconstructed events through the recollections of Christian missionaries and others who suffered the attacks of the Boxers, a xenophobic spiritual group. She focuses on the Chinese leader, the Empress Dowager, who apparently sexually exploited many people (including foreigners) and did not stop the Boxers because she wanted to deflect attention from her inept government. Preston also details numerous acts of violence performed by the Boxers on Chinese and Western Christians. However, she does not provide the general reader with an understanding of the historical context of Chinese politics and Christianity found in, for example, Joanna Waley-Cohen's The Sextants of Beijing: Global Currents in Chinese History (LJ 2/15/99). By using memoirs as the basis for building facts, Preston creates an uneven work that is often too sensational to get the nuanced history across. Not recommended.--Peggy Spitzer Christoff, Oak Park, IL Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
In the final years of the 19th century, China was in danger of becoming a colony of the West. This work chronicles the 1900 uprising and ensuing two-month siege of the foreign ministries in Peking and the foreign community in Tientsin by a nationalistic and virulently anti-Christian group. Relies on diaries, letters, and memoirs of participants, and on research from Chinese and Western perspectives. Includes b&w historical photos. Preston is a writer, historian, and broadcaster. First published in somewhat different form as in Great Britain in 1999 by Constable and Company, Ltd. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
David Walton
Diana Preston's dramatic retelling of the summer-long siege of the Peking foreign district 100 years ago -- ''a pivotal episode in China's fractured relationship with the West'' -- does much to clarify China's enduring resentment toward foreign interference.
The New York Times Book Review
The New Yorker
This enthralling history looks back to the heydey of imperialism and forward to our present reliance on multinational forces.
Kim Risedorph
Diana Preston presents a dramatic narrative that can be read on the beach or in the classroom.
The Christian Science Monitor
Kirkus Reviews
A popular history of the Boxer Rebellion, which took place a century ago this year, brings its events to life Preston (A First Rate Tragedy, 1998) draws upon the testimony of primary sources and eyewitnesses to recapitulate the Chinese uprising that caught the world off guard at the turn of the century. Long perceived by Westerners as a plum ripe for the picking, China in the 19th century was the object of much attention from foreigners and foreign powers alike—who introduced railroads, telegraphs, and Christian missionaries into the country. The nativist movement that arose in response was characterized by the practice of martial arts (the "Boxers") and the employment of arcane rituals meant to make one invulnerable to bullets. The first signs of danger were the murders of Christian missionaries and Chinese converts in rural areas. The Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi backed the insurgents, and Westerners in Peking were rapidly cut off from outside aid. The siege of the European embassies by the Chinese army, the eventual relief of the siege, and the bloody aftermath of the rebellion are the central points of Preston's narrative. Events became surreal at times: champagne was more plentiful than water inside the embassies, and often the besieged diplomats smoked cigars to drown out the stench of dead bodies just beyond their walls. Still, the social graces were preserved, and the ladies of the embassy eagerly traded recipes for mule meat. The relief expedition was a rare example of cooperation among the Western powers, but rivalries remained fierce and often led to stupid command decisions (which, fortunately for the Europeans, the poorly organized Chinese forces wererarelyable to exploit): after Peking fell, the occupying forces probably caused more death and damage than the Boxers themselves. Preston excels at picking out the telling detail or quotation, although at times the larger picture seems a bit foggy. Still, there is plenty of fascinating information here. A colorful and well-presented treatment of a crucial turning point in history.

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Chapter One

A Thousand Deaths

To have friends coming to one from distant parts—is not this a great pleasure?—Confucius

I do not wonder that the Chinese hate the foreigner. The foreigner is frequently severe and exacting in this Empire which is not his own. He often treats the Chinese as though they were dogs and had no rights whatever—no wonder that they growl and sometimes bite.—Sarah Pike Conger

             Turn-of-the-century Peking (Beijing) was the world's filthiest city—or so foreigners thought. Their letters and diaries rail about the worst smells imaginable," "the sickening odor," "dusty and malodorous streets," and "dirt, piled in mountains of dust in the summer, spread in oozing quagmires of mud after the rains." They complained it was "impossible to avoid the foul sights and smells" that made Peking "superlatively disgusting even for China" and that "the European eye may perhaps become more or less callous after years of education but the European nose never." They deplored "an infragrant population ignorant of the most elementary laws of sanitation, cleanliness, or decency," content to collect their sewage in great holes at the sides of the unlit streets into which at least one unwary foreigner had tumbled and drowned. The city was nicknamed Pékin-les-Odeurs.

    Yet many also wrote lyrically of a unique city that was the most fascinating in the East. Bertram Lenox Simpson, atwenty-two-year-old Briton employed by the Imperial Customs Service, was captivated by this "capital of capitals" with its "unending lines of camels plodding slowly in from the Western deserts laden with all manner of merchandise ... curious palanquins slung between two mules and escorted by sword-armed men; a Mongol market with bare-pared and long-coated Mongols hawking venison; ... comely Soochow harlots with reeking native scents rising from their hair; ... water-carriers and barbers from sturdy Shantung; cooks from epicurean Canton; bankers from Shansi—the whole empire of China sending its best to its old-world barbaric capital." Even the fastidious Lord Curzon, despite complaining of Peking's "myriad and assorted effluvia," thought it a fabulous Babylon "without parallel in the modern world."

    Peking assaulted all the senses with its din and dust, filth and foulness, wonder and awe. Yet to foreign visitors and the five hundred or so diplomats, customs officials, academics, and missionaries who lived there, it was above all a place of "venerable and measureless bewilderment." They were just a tiny drop in the exotic ocean of humanity. Peking's population was nearly a million, and it was the heart of an empire of over 300 million souls. In 1900, Whitaker's Almanack quoted a total of 10,855 foreign residents in the whole of China, including 4,362 Britons, 1,439 Americans, 933 French, 870 Germans, and 852 Japanese.

    Hampered by language, culture, and internal rivalries, foreigners and Chinese found each other's behavior and motivation hard to interpret. Deep mutual suspicion was the result. Like spectators at a play enacted in a strange language and with an unknown plot, the foreigners watched the mandarins, the agents of the Imperial Chinese government, go about their business. The mandarins were striking figures in their long silken or sable coats. Their official hats displayed jeweled buttons or the coveted peacock's feather to denote their rank. Ivory chopstick holders and jeweled enameled watches hung from jade clasps at their waists. "Nodding behind saucer-like spectacles," some traveled swiftly through the streets in green or blue sedan chairs—the greater the dignitary, the faster the chair carriers had to run. Others rode flanked by outriders in closed Peking carts—springless wooden vehicles drawn by soft-coated mules in purple harnesses. Imperial messengers clad in red and yellow picked their way through the refuse-strewn streets bearing dispatches to and from the provinces.

    Women of the ruling house—the Manchus—walked with their servants. Juliet Bredon, the daughter of Lenox Simpson's current mistress, described how "they gathered in groups like birds of bright plumage, to gossip at temple fairs. They paid their visits ... in carts or chairs, and a pretty face or a brilliant headdress might frequently be glimpsed through the window of a passing vehicle." They wore long, straight gowns that fastened at the shoulder and were in delicate hues of pink and lavender. Their faces were heavily powdered and rouged, and their long, dark hair was worn twisted in a high knot or mounted on a satin board, decorated with jewels, flowers, and fringes of pearls. Their feet were unbound, unlike the Chinese women whose feet were broken in infancy to produce the tiny "golden lilies" that so aroused the Chinese male.

    The streets of Peking were raucous with the calls of hawkers—the shrill blare of a brass trumpet announced the knife-grinder or the barber while the pedicurist clacked wooden castanets. Curio dealers hawking carved jade snuff-bottles or porcelain bowls jostled with charm sellers, acrobats, and "story-tellers enchaining an open-mouthed crowd." Such scenes conjured "the half-fabulous days of Kubla Khan" in the mind of a young American socialite, Polly Condit Smith, staying with relatives in the U.S. legation. Yet the picturesque often mingled with the grotesque. Juliet Bredon recalled that "repulsive sights were common. Masseurs, butchers, and chiropodists plied their trades in the open while passers by obligingly made a detour to leave them room. Barbers shaved their customers on any convenient doorstep. Lepers and lunatics wandered about unchecked displaying their nakedness and their wounds."

    The complexity and beauty of Peking's architecture, shaped by waves of successive invaders, were undeniable. The walls of the ancient Chinese City were thirty feet high and over twenty feet thick. The walls of the Tartar or Inner City, which adjoined it to the north, were even more massive—over forty feet high, fifty feet broad at the top, and about sixty feet thick at the base, with six great iron-studded gates in the outer wall and three in the southern wall. Lenox Simpson thought Peking both alien and beautiful with its "vast and magnificent works ... weather-beaten though they be; the fierce reds, the wonderful greens, the boldness and size of everything speak to us of an age which knew of mighty conquests of all Asia by invincible Mongol horsemen."

    Those Mongol horsemen had been succeeded by the Chinese Ming dynasty. Nervous of the energetic nomadic tribes in the mountains and valleys beyond the Great Wall north of Peking, they prudently established their capital on the Yangtze, calling it "Nanking" or the "southern capital." The third Ming emperor felt sufficiently confident to move his capital back to Peking, the "northern capital." However, in June 1644, after seventy years of harassing raids from Manchuria, the Chinese generals finally lost faith in the ruling house and invited their northeastern neighbors to take the dragon throne. The last Ming emperor hanged himself in shame and despair from a tree that still clings to life in his former pleasure gardens. The Manchus moved into the Inner City and took stock of their new possessions.

    Within the Inner City lay the Imperial City, a complex of palaces, temples, public offices, and pleasure gardens. At its heart was the fabled Purple or Forbidden City—"the Great Within"—begun by the Ming emperor Yung Lo in the early fifteenth century. According to legend, he received the plans from a priest who had descended from heaven specifically for that purpose. The city was an exquisite private world of painted ceremonial gateways, lofty halls supported by vermilion pillars, ethereal bridges of glistening white marble, graceful pavilions, and shaded courtyards. When the sun shone, yellow-tiled roofs reflected the light, creating a golden aura. Precious objects—carved jade, pieces of cloisonné, rare and delicate porcelain—were arranged with the same exquisite and symbolic symmetry as the Forbidden City itself. The dragon motif was everywhere, denoting that here lived the Son of Heaven—the emperor.

    The emperor was the only man allowed on pain of death to remain within the Forbidden City after nightfall. His sexual needs were gratified by concubines, chosen from the Manchu clans or from the Manchu's Mongol allies. Intermarriage between the Manchu and the Chinese was prohibited to preserve the purity of the ruling elite. He was tended by an army of eunuchs, "semi-men" whose entire private parts had been cut off with one sweep of the knife. A man could choose to become a eunuch at any age. Some even married and had children before taking this radical step. Their severed genitalia—known as "the precious"—were carefully preserved in a pot. This served a dual purpose. The pot's contents could be presented as evidence of emasculation, but, more important, the eunuchs believed that if they took them to their graves they would become whole men again in the next world.

    Castration brought certain physical inconveniences—many could no longer control their urine flow after the operation, giving them always a sour, offensive smell. Yet once their wounds had healed the eunuchs could become cogs in the elaborate machinery of court ritual. Some, like the Empress Dowager's favorite, the grand eunuch Li Lien-ying, achieved immense power and wealth through bribery and graft. However, advancement depended on the emperor's whim—mistakes could be punished by savage flogging, even death. Nevertheless, the loss of their manhood was treated with sensitivity. Courtiers considered it the height of tactlessness to mention tailless dogs or teapots with missing spouts in a eunuch's presence.

    Foreigners found the workings of the Great Within, with its oblique pronouncements and innumerable opaque rituals, impenetrable. Dr. Arthur Smith, an American missionary acknowledged as one of the greatest authorities on China and the Chinese then living, described the court as "marsupial." The struggles and strife within the pink-hued walls were as effectually concealed from the world "as the squabbles of the young kangaroos in the pouch of their mother."

    Nevertheless, the foreigners gossiped avidly and speculated wildly about what went on in palaces "full of warm-blooded Manchu concubines [and] sleek eunuchs ... and ... always hot with intrigue." The secret life of the Forbidden City was custom-made to feed the imagination and fantasizing was irresistible. In his "Decadence Mandchoue," Edmund Backhouse, eccentric scholar, literary charlatan, and closet pornographer, described a lurid but illusory affair with the elderly and formidable Empress Dowager. During one encounter he claimed that the grand eunuch anointed his "secret parts" with sandalwood scent and instructed him in the Empress Dowager's sexual preferences, informing him that she had "an abnormally large clitoris," which she enjoyed rubbing against her lovers' anuses. Backhouse, clad only in a thigh-length cloak, was then led to the Imperial presence. The empress's bedchamber was ablaze with lights and lined with mirrors and she called to him to join her on her phoenix couch with the lascivious order: "My bed is cold ... now exhibit to me your genitals for I know I shall love them."

    The Chinese found the diplomatic district—the "Legation Quarter," as it was then known—as closed and mysterious as the foreigners did the Forbidden City, with customs and morals just as suspect and salacious. The Empress Dowager was said to believe that foreign women, once married, took lovers as a matter of course, and that "no one seems to think ill of the matter, least of all the husband. They even have signals for this sort of clandestine arrangement. When the lover comes in during the absence of the husband, he leaves his hat and cane in the hall. When the husband returns, and finds the hat and cane, he knows that the lover is with his wife—and goes away again until the hat and cane shall have been removed!"

    The Legation Quarter covered an area some three-quarters of a mile square within the Tartar City. It was bounded by the massive Tartar Wall to the south and by the walls of the Imperial City to the north. Within the quarter lay the high-walled compounds of the "ministers"—the diplomatic representatives—of eleven nations: Britain, America, France, Germany, Spain, Japan, Russia, Italy, Austria, Belgium, and Holland. The compounds were interspersed with princely mansions, the gilded premises of wealthy Chinese merchants, and the plain, one-story houses and shops of ordinary Chinese with their tiny courtyards full of plants and songbirds.

    Along the shady, tree-lined boulevards like the aptly named Legation Street, running east-west through the quarter, were stores like Imbeck's and Kierulff's, the oldest foreign shops in Peking. They stocked the latest delicacies from Europe, including plenty of Monopole champagne, and were enthusiastically patronized by Manchu princes. There was a post office and that mainstay of expatriate life, a club. There were the Russo-Chinese and Hong Kong and Shanghai banks, the offices of Jardine Matheson, and the premises of the Imperial Maritime Customs. Visitors could stay in the comfortable Hôtel de Pékin, managed by Auguste Chamot, an enterprising thirty-three-year-old Swiss, and his Chicago-born wife, Annie. A noisome canal, fetid and green but euphemistically known as "the Jade River," flowed south through the Legation Quarter, out through a sluice gate in the Tartar Wall, and into the moat beyond.

    The British Legation compound, on the western side of the canal and covering just over three acres, was easily the most imposing. It enjoyed a reputation for "a generous and uniform hospitality." The minister's house, once a ducal dwelling, was "a beautiful Chinese building with an imposing entrance" approached by a raised pathway "passing under two stately porticoes." Its roof was covered with the green tiles reserved exclusively for the residences of high-ranking officials. Other legation staff, including the young student interpreters recruited to the Consular Service, were housed in Chinese or European-style buildings dotted about the compound. There was a chapel and, for relaxation, stables, a tennis lawn, a bowling alley, fives courts, a theater, even an embryonic bicycle track. Near the main gate was also a handsome bell tower erected in honor of Queen Victoria's Jubilee. Mature trees pleasantly shaded the gardens and the whole complex had a look of comfortable permanence—rightly so, in fact, for the British had been there for nearly forty years.

    The Western right to maintain a permanent diplomatic presence in Peking had been wrested from the Chinese after a bitter conflict in 1860. The war had concluded with the flight of the emperor and his court beyond the Great Wall, a punitive march on Peking by French and British troops, and the looting and burning of the exquisite Summer Palace under the direction of Lord Elgin. This was just one in the chain of mutually inglorious events that characterized China's relations with the West in the nineteenth century. The rot had begun with Britain's defeat of China in the Opium War of 1840 to 1842 and the ceding to her of Hong Kong Island. Foreign powers, greedy for cargoes of tea, silk, and the rhubarb that the Chinese believed was essential to cure the foreigners' chronic constipation, had forced China to open her doors to trade. Initially at least these goods were purchased with money from the sale of "foreign mud"—opium. As China's weakness became more apparent, she was coerced into making further territorial concessions. Shanghai, strategically placed at the mouth of the Yangtze, became a thriving international settlement, and the port of Tientsin, eighty miles from Peking at the mouth of the silted Peiho River, was opened to foreign trade.

    As the century drew to a close, the Powers vied with one another for concessions in a kind of imperial feeding frenzy. One by one they wrested control over the satellite countries beyond China's borders. Nominally self-ruling, these countries acknowledged China as their effective overlord and sent tribute. She had already lost Burma to Britain in 1852. By 1885 the French, whose ambitions lay in southwest China, had secured a protectorate over both Tonkin and Annan (Vietnam) after a series of bloodthirsty encounters culminating in the destruction of almost the entire Chinese fleet.

    The Japanese were becoming a particular threat. In 1878 they had intervened to prevent the king of the Loochoo Islands, between Japan and Formosa (Taiwan), from sending his customary tribute to the Middle Kingdom. The vigorous Japanese emperor Mutsuhito was particularly determined to end China's domination of Korea. The opportunity came in 1894 when a request from the Korean queen for help in suppressing a rebellion provided a pretext for both Japan and China to send troops into Korea. Finding the rebels already defeated, the two forces turned on one another and Japan emerged the easy victor. China was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended her control over Korea and compelled further territorial concessions to Japan, including that of Formosa and the opening up of four further river ports to foreign trade.

    This disastrous defeat by the despised "dwarf bandits"—as the Chinese contemptuously called the Japanese—sent shock waves throughout China. It also exposed her weakness for all the world to see. Arthur Smith wrote: "China was shown to be a hollow sham, a painted gun on a wooden background, a giant manacled by a race of `pygmy dwarfs.'" Her unpaid, ill-fed, ill-armed, ill-drilled, and badly led troops had simply fled at the sight of the enemy. Only three-fifths of the Chinese troops even had rifles—the remainder had to rely on pikes, swords, and spears. China's defeat signaled something more fundamental than mere inadequacies in equipment. As Arthur Smith correctly observed, "The necessity of making the appeal to arms was to the Chinese in many ways distasteful. They did not wish to fight, but merely to be let alone."

    However, this was not an option. China's defeat by Japan prompted what Lord Salisbury disdainfully described as the "Battle of Concessions." Germany won concessions in Shantung, Russia demanded Port Arthur, and the French, Kwangchouwan. The British, not to be left out despite their scruples, pressed for Weihaiwei and also secured a ninety-nine-year lease on a further part of the Chinese mainland opposite Hong Kong. Sir Claude MacDonald, the British minister in Peking, described the whole episode as a "general, and not very edifying, scramble." Many believed the partition of China to be only a matter of time. In March 1899 the Times's correspondent in Peking, a thirty-seven-year-old Australian doctor called George Morrison, wrote to his foreign editor in London that it was coming nearer every day. Good imperialist that he was, he argued that Britain must stake her claim.

    Many Britons agreed with him. They believed that China, with her enormous mineral resources and huge population, was more important to Britain commercially than India. Colonel Francis Younghusband, who later famously led a British military intervention in Tibet, wrote to the Times that "the earth is too small, the portion of it they occupy is too big and rich, and the intercourse of nations is now too intimate, to permit the Chinese keeping China to themselves." Britain was particularly well placed to expand her influence if she so wished. In 1900, there were 672 foreign companies in China, of which more than half were British.

    The British government, however, was reluctant to take on yet further imperial commitments. This stance received a fillip when the American secretary of state John Hay issued his "Open Door" note in September 1899 seeking equal trading rights for all within a sovereign China. The Americans, or "flowery flag devils" as some Chinese called them, had long been one of Britain's main rivals in the China trade. In 1784, the first American ship had arrived in China and by 1802 there was a thriving American "factory" or trading station in Canton. One American merchant, William Hunter, amassed a mercantile fortune estimated in the 1830s as probably the largest in the world—a then staggering $25,000,000. As with the British, opium was a major early source of revenue. The Americans specialized in shipping Turkish opium to China, and in consequence the Chinese believed for many years that Turkey was part of the United States.

    America's interest in China had, like Britain's, remained primarily commercial. She wanted trading opportunities rather than territory and by the late nineteenth century was better placed than ever to pursue this. Her recent victory in the Spanish-American War had given her the Philippines, an operating base a mere 400 miles or so off the coast of China, while industrial production at home was increasing rapidly. However, John Hay knew that this promising market would be prejudiced if other foreign powers established mutually exclusive spheres of interest in China. Hay's call for China's territorial integrity to be preserved and for commercial equality was therefore prompted as much by economic self-interest as by the political desire not to see China carved up as Africa had so recently been by the Europeans. The British supported Hay's call for reasons of equal self-interest.

    Yet to the watching Chinese the situation looked desperate. Her foremost statesman, Li Hung-chang, called it "an unprecedented situation in the history of more than three thousand years." An Imperial edict of 21 November 1899 bemoaned the "tiger-like voracity" of the foreign powers.

    Some foreigners shared that perception and their consciences were pricked. Journalist George Lynch summed the position up nicely: "In the Punishment of a Thousand Deaths the criminal is bound up, and thus absolutely helpless, slices are quietly cut off his arms, his legs and so on. Now, although China has committed no crime whatever against the West, the Punishment of a Thousand Deaths is being inflicted upon that unfortunate country. Great Britain takes a bit, because the Chinese will not take to the consumption of a poisonous drug out of which Englishmen make money. Then France takes a slice, then the German Emperor comes along and carves out a bit from the tenderest portion of the anatomy ... after Japan has had its piece. Now Russia is taking the big, fleshy, flabby slab of Manchuria."

    Faced by such threats, China could no longer seek to remain aloof, "wrapped in the mantle of a superb and paralyzing conceit," as Lord Curzon put it. But if the danger was clear, the solution was less so. In simple terms China appeared to have two choices—a process of modernization similar to that which had so recently transformed Japan or firm action to rid China of the "foreign devils" and allow her to resume her isolationist path.

For a brief 100 days it had appeared that the choice would be reform. The twenty-seven-year-old emperor, Kuang Hsu, although quiet and shy, had developed an interest in foreign ideas as a stimulating escape from a life of relentless ritual. He had read the work of foreign missionaries like the Reverend Timothy Richard, which had been translated into Chinese, and Robert Mackenzie's influential book The Nineteenth Century: A History, which, thanks to Richard, had also been translated and become a major source of information about Europe. Prior to this, the West had been almost literally "a closed book," with relatively few works translated into Chinese.

    Kuang Hsu also began to listen to, and indeed to encourage the thinking of, a group of Chinese reforming scholars who had come into contact with foreigners in such places as Shanghai and Canton and had traveled abroad. They argued that China's only salvation lay in modernizing. He was particularly impressed by the ideas of Kang Yu-wei, a young man from Canton who had studied in Japan and written books about the West. Kang wrote to the emperor with the warning that "China is confronted with the gravest danger in her history."

    The emperor summoned Kang to an unprecedented two-and-a-half-hour audience. According to the scholar, who apparently knelt throughout the interview, the emperor complained that his conservative ministers were ruining China by their inaction. Kang agreed, arguing with passion that China's vulnerability to foreign aggressors resulted from her failure to embrace progress and that China would perish without radical change.

    As Kang later told a journalist from the China Mail: "I asked him to look at the difficulties Japan had to overcome before she could reform on modern lines. There the military or feudal party had more power than our present conservative Ministers, but the Mikado adopted the proper course by selecting young and intelligent men, junior officials, some of whom he set to work out the reforms in the country, while others went abroad to learn foreign methods, and returned to make Japan the powerful country which it is today. I repeated to him what Peter the Great did to make Russia powerful, saying, `You, the Emperor, I would ask you to remove yourself from the seclusion in which you live. Come boldly forward.'"

    Kuang Hsu came forward, embarking on a feverish program of political and social reform aimed at revolutionizing China's administrative, financial, educational, military, and industrial systems. There was to be a free press, and a university at Peking, while the age-old examination system, which selected the imperial bureaucrats at the heart of Chinese government, was to be overhauled. He dismissed reactionary officials and threatened to sweep sinecures away. Between June and September 1898 he issued some forty decrees.

    However, a strong conservative faction opposed the reformers. To some it was heresy to overthrow China's traditional laws and customs. Others left personally threatened. A number even feared that the reform movement was being actively fostered by the foreign powers as a way of extending their control over China. The sheer speed of the changes alarmed many more moderate people who might have been attracted to them in theory.

    Kuang Hsu's aunt—the aging Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi, who had twice been regent—had been watching events. Arthur Smith wrote of her: "There is probably no human being now alive in regard to whom so much has been written upon such a slender basis of actual knowledge." Nevertheless, ignorance did not prevent this shadowy and enigmatic figure from being compared with an international "rogues' gallery" of queens from the psychotic Empress Wu who ruled during China's Tang dynasty to Catherine de Medici and even "Jezebel of Samaria, who slaughtered the prophets of the Lord and rioted with the priests of Baal."

    Reginald Johnston, tutor to the last emperor of China, Pu Yi, described her as a kind of "Queen of Wonderland" able to indulge her bloodthirsty caprices. "When the `Venerable Buddha' [Tzu Hsi] said `Off with his head' there was no Alice to retort `Stuff and nonsense.'" Her powers of skillful procrastination and ability to play off competing factions make her perhaps closer to Elizabeth I of England as one of history's survivors. However, it was Queen Victoria whom she admired. Victoria's portrait hung in her apartments and Tzu Hsi was apparently intrigued by her relationship with her Scottish ghillie, John Brown, wanting to know whether he was "cut off from the family," that is, a eunuch. Indeed, her fascination with Victoria was so strong that the first time she emerged from behind a gauze screen to allow herself to be seen by a foreign male was to greet Prince Heinrich of Prussia. He received this unprecedented honor purely because he was the British queen's grandson and Tzu Hsi wanted to take a close look at him.

    Born in 1835, the Empress Dowager began life as the daughter of a minor Manchu official. By the age of sixteen her striking, piquant beauty had caught the appreciative eye of Emperor Hsien Feng. Selected as an Imperial concubine (third class), she rose quickly through the ranks by virtue of her looks, vivacious personality, and a piece of good luck—she was the first of Hsien Feng's concubines to provide him with a male heir. Her reward was promotion to concubine of the first rank, making her second in status only to the empress.

    Courageous, opinionated, and genuinely gifted as a student of court politics, she developed a taste for power and a talent for retaining it, becoming one of the emperor's closest confidantes and a trusted consultant on affairs of state. A natural conservative with scant knowledge of the Western world, she had an overriding concern to protect her own position, and she never hesitated to act with ruthless opportunism when she felt under threat. She had a great love of the theater and could herself assume different characters to suit the occasion. Many accounts describe her ability to manipulate people and she was no doubt speaking the truth when she told her lady-in-waiting: "I can make people hate me worse than poison, and can also make them love me. I have the power." This was certainly to prove true of the foreign community. One foreign admirer called her "le seul homme de la Chine"—"the only man in China"—and another described how she "dominates everything and everybody in the Palace."

    When Tzu Hsi's husband, the emperor Hsien Feng, died in 1861 she assumed the regency until her son Tung Chih—a libertine of dramatic sexual appetites—was enthroned in 1873. When Tung Chih died two years later, Tzu Hsi was instrumental in the selection of her own infant nephew, Kuang Hsu, as his successor. She was thus able to reign again until 1889, when, at the age of seventeen, Kuang Hsu came of age.

    Tzu Hsi's reputation for political ambition also became inextricably intertwined with a reputation for sexual depravity and cruelty. There were persistent rumors among the foreign community that false eunuchs were smuggled into the palace to pleasure her and then promptly murdered. It was also rumored that Tzu Hsi had personally supervised the debauching of Tung Chih. When he died of smallpox it was whispered that he had caught the disease from an infected face cloth sent him at her behest and that she had then ordered his pregnant wife, the empress A-lu-te, to be murdered. Many believed that she had poisoned her rival, the co-Empress Dowager Tzu An, in 1881. Although there is no reliable evidence that she actually committed all, or indeed any, of these unnatural crimes, the stories gave a sinister, mysterious aura to Tzu Hsi and the Imperial Court.

    At first the Empress Dowager appeared to acquiesce in her nephew's reform program, but she was prudently biding her time and as usual weighing the balance of power. Once Kuang Hsu's reforms began to touch such sensitive areas as the abolition of sinecures, her instinctive conservatism was triggered. Kuang Hsu suspected, probably correctly, that she intended to move against him and made frantic plans to have Tzu Hsi imprisoned. However, his chosen agent, the shrewd and unscrupulous general Yuan Shih-kai, betrayed the plot. The Empress Dowager acted quickly. Eunuchs burst into the emperor's room and he was imprisoned on an island known as the Ocean Terrace in a lake by the west wall of the Forbidden City, a broken man. His brief bid to exercise real power, independent of his formidable, indeed intimidating, aunt, was over. Tzu Hsi regathered the reins of power, and arrests, executions, and dismissals followed while many reformers fled—Kang Yu-wei escaping to Japan on board a British steamer.

    An Imperial proclamation stated that "the emperor being ill, the empress dowager has resumed the regency." The reference to illness suggested only one thing to the foreign community—that Tzu Hsi had decided to dispense with Kuang Hsu and was politely "notifying the world of his probable death at an early date." There even were rumors that Kuang Hsu had already been executed. Sir Claude MacDonald warned the Chinese that the foreign powers would view the emperor's execution "with extreme disfavor." As a result of this foreign pressure, a French doctor was allowed to visit Kuang Hsu to confirm he was still alive. Although the visit may have saved his life, such interference in China's internal affairs with its consequent loss of face caused considerable anger. There were antiforeign riots around the Legation Quarter and the situation became so serious that the diplomats summoned to Peking marine guards from the foreign fleets lying off the North China coast for a period to defend the foreign community. This was the first time foreign troops had marched into the capital in peacetime and it caused further terrible offense.

    To defuse the situation, Tzu Hsi invited some of the diplomatic ladies to call on her in December 1898—an unprecedented honor. The guests were entranced by the exquisite embroideries, rich satins, silks, and jeweled headdresses of the royal ladies. Sir Claude's wife thought the empress rather charming, genial, and kindly, and that "she might in another part of the world pass for an Italian peasant." The admiration was not mutual. The Empress Dowager thought the foreign women's feet very large, their shoes "like boats," and their faces hairy. She found the blue-eyed specimens among them particularly offensive. They reminded her of cats, which she loathed.

    Meanwhile, with the emperor Kuang Hsu relegated to a twilight existence, the Empress Dowager was busily revoking his reform decrees. Then, in the spring of 1899, China had an unexpected diplomatic triumph. With no legitimate claim on the territory, Italy demanded Sanmen Bay as a naval station. China refused to yield and the Italians backed down. Arthur Smith believed, paradoxically, that "the results to China were, perhaps, more serious than if the demand had been acceded to." Tzu Hsi began to believe that the foreigners might be resisted, even gotten rid of, and that China could "revert to its old life again and do away with foreign intercourse, interference and intrusion." The problem was how.

Meet the Author

Diana Preston is an Oxford-trained historian, writer, and broadcaster who lives in London, England. She is the author of The Road to Culloden Moor: Bonnie Prince Charlie and the ’45 Rebellion and A First Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole.

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Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China's War on Foreigners that Shook the World in the Summer Of 1900 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
TeechTX More than 1 year ago
This is a remarkably readable history of the Boxer Rebellion. It helps if one already knows the players and something about the old and new ways of "Romanizing" Chinese names, but this is not essential to enjoying and benefitting from the book. Preston gives good insight into the way in which the parochialism of both the Chinese and the Westerners created a situation that continues into contemporary tensions between China and the Western powers. More scholarly than Jung Chang's personal memoir of post-Boxer China in "Wild Swans" and Anchee Min's "Red Azalea," or than Min's novelized but well-researched approach in "Empress Orchid" and "The Last Empress," Preston's history of the Boxers provides an anchor for the reader of all these highly recommended books. I found Preston's book an accessible read, informative and intriguing. Her excellent scholarship does not make for the sense of reading a text book -- this is a lively and engrossing story. Five stars from me!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago