How did the Boxer Rebellion unite Imperial Powers and create Chinese Nationalism?

Foreign Armies in Beijing during Boxer Rebellion

The Boxer Uprising (1899-1901) was a key event in the history of China, as it reflected the colonial powers increasing influence in Chinese affairs and the weakness of late 19th century China.[1] The rebellion consisted of an uprising led by a group known as the Boxers, which culminated in a siege of representatives of the eight colonial powers in Beijing. The rebellion began in the Shandong province of China before leading to Beijing and spreading throughout much of the northern countryside, with many foreigners and converted Chinese Christians attacked. The Boxers were mostly peasants who performed a type of shaman act that has come down through Western interpretation as a sort of boxing, giving rise to the term Boxers. [2] While it is often believed the Boxers were not supported by or were against the main Chinese court and government at the time, the fact is once the uprising was underway it was indeed supported by the Qing Dynasty and its army.

The origins of the conflict can be traced to increased foreign presence in China, particularly by Great Britain, the United States, Russia, Germany, France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and eventually Japan. [3] Mass conversion of locals to Christianity and seizure of property and areas led to increase resentment, while the local population was very poor and the region densely populated. A drought and failed harvest in the great northern plain in Shandong then proved to be the final spark after a period of increased violence against foreigners and Chinese Christians that then that led to the outward expression of anger and mass mobilization.[4] Just 14 years before the Great War, this event also proved to be one of the last instances that all of the great powers of the day were united.

Foreign Interests in China

Western foreigners in China, after the arrival of Marco Polo in the 13th century, began to see China as a place for economic opportunity and for mass conversion to Christianity. In the 19th century, it was mainly Britain and its powerful navy that began to increase its presence in China and control of trade in the region.[5] One particular commodity of interest was opium, which became a product of increased demand in the West in the early to mid 19th century. Two main wars were fought over access to opium, which China had fought to restrict in trade, with the British, assisted by the French and United States in the second war, successfully defeating the Chinese in both wars. The Second Opium War (1856-1860), as it was called, was the most critical, as it was the key war that led to the opening of China to many countries, traders, and missionaries. The presence became affiliated with legations and it allowed the British, French, the United States, and Russia bases of operations and great access to China, including in Beijing and key port cities. This began a period of rapid increase in Western influence in China, which was increasingly seen by many Chinese as largely favoring Western interests and against their own.[6]

Competition Among Major Powers

The late 19th century was also a period of intense industrialization and competition among the Western powers. Initially it was Germany, France, Britain, and Russia, but soon the United States, that began to play an increasing role in foreign affairs.[7] Throughout much of the late 1800s, a weak Qing Dynasty that technically ruled China characterized the political power in China, but foreigners consistently took possessions within China or did as they please when it came to building or seizing land needed for their trade and bases. While foreign powers competed with each other throughout much of the world in the 19th century, China held mutual interests as the largely one-way trade was benefiting all the imperial powers collectively.[8]

Collaboration in the Rebellion

Foreign Armies attack Beijing Palace during Boxer Rebellion

Similar to what happened in the Second Opium war, the Boxer Rebellion created a situation where a mass uprising forced all the great powers with concessions in China to collaborate, as each one was to limit in resources to tackle the rebellion effectively. One great irony was by 1900 there was already great tension between the Western powers. Germany, or more specifically Prussia, and France had fought a bitter war in 1870-1871, Germany was seen as the rising rival to Great Britain, the Russo-Japanese War was only 4 years away at this point, although Great Britain began to draw more closely with the United States. [9]

However, the mass uprising in the Box Rebellion was swift and was very popular among the vast peasantry. This put immediate pressure on the Western powers to suppress the rebellion before all of them would lose their foothold in China. The rebellion forced the Qing Dynasty to largely support the uprising, even if members of the Qing court held reservations given their bitter defeats in the Opium wars.[10] With the arrival of foreign troops and reinforcements, with a large Japanese presence in particular, to Beijing, the Boxers were ultimately defeated by 1901. While the unity caused by the rebellion proved to be short-lived, as the rivalries between the great powers soon reemerged and ultimately led to World War I, for China there were long-term changes that have made these events of great interest to this day.

Boxer Rebellion United Chinese Against the Imperial Powers

The Boxers remained controversial figures in China. Some Chinese historians and individuals see the Boxers as largely ignorant peasants who were misguided and xenophobic. On the other hand, China experienced a wave of nationalism in the early 20th century that paved the way for the transition between the last royal dynasty and modern China. This nationalism had seen the Boxers as being Chinese nationalists who were standing up to for their cause and fighting an aggressive foreign occupation. [11] In the decades that followed the Boxer Rebellion, Chinese anti-imperialists and nationals began to use the Boxer Rebellion as a rallying cry that helped to bring about political change within China.

The Boxer Rebellion also exposed divisions within China, namely those who looked to the West and those who aspired for nationalism. China descended into a chaotic period after 1911-1912, when the last emperor of China abdicated, with warlords and factionalism replacing various parts of China. Soon, the influence of Communism began to affect China and the Chinese Civil War (1927-1950) was in part shaped by the events of the Boxer Rebellion. [12] Resentment to the West, including what was seen as Western Capitalism, lingered in many areas and many peasants and young intellectuals had joined the Communist party which was seen as a cure for China’s ills brought about by the Western encroachment initially and then the collapse of the state all together in 1911-12.[13]


We can conclude that in many ways the Boxer Rebellion was seen as a Western victory that allowed the great powers to continue their trade and political policies in China; however, as is often the case, the events had more of an impact on local populations. Resentment to the West continued for decades and may have ultimately pushed a large number of peasants and some urban intellectuals to take up the Communist cause in the Chinese Civil War.


  1. For an overview of this period, see: Preston, Diana, and Diana Preston. 2001. The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China’s War on Foreigners That Shook the World in the Summer of 1900. New York: Berkley Books.
  2. For a discussion on shamanism and its role in the rebellion see: Esherick, Joseph W. 1987. The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. Berkeley: University of California Press, Pg. 5-7, 39.
  3. For an overview of increased foreign presence in the 19th century see: Duara, Prasenjit. 1995. Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Pg. 60.
  4. Esherick, Joseph W. 1987. The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. Berkeley: University of California Press, Pg. 300.
  5. For an overview of how trade and drugs in particular fueled British interaction and ultimately increased interest in China see: Lovell, Julia. 2011. Ya Pian Zhan Zheng = The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China. London: Picador.
  6. See Chow, Gregory C. 2007. Knowing China. New Jersey ;London: World Scientific.
  7. or a discussion on 19th century political competition see: Held, David, Anthony McGrew, David Goldblatt, and Jonathan Perraton, eds. 2002. Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture. Stanford, Calif: Stanford Univ. Press, Pg. 43.
  8. See the discussion in Chapter 3 regarding the great powers in China before the Boxer Rebellion: Silbey, David. 2012. The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China. New York: Hill and Wang.
  9. For a discussion on Anglo-US relations in the late 19th century see: Ellis, Sylvia. 2009. Historical Dictionary of Anglo-American Relations. Historical Dictionaries of U.S. Diplomacy 10. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press.
  10. Esherick, Joseph W. 1987. The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. Berkeley: University of California Press, pg. xiv.
  11. Purcell, Victor. 2010. The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pg. 271.
  12. For an overview of key events that shaped China from 1911 to the Chinese Civil War see: Clubb, Edmund. 1964. 20th Century China. New York, N.Y.; Columbia University Press.
  13. Sheel, Kamal. 1989. Peasant Society and Marxist Intellectuals in China: Fang Zhimin and the Origin of a Revolutionary Movement in the Xinjiang Region. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


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