BOXERS (IN BRIEF)
As part of my continuing blog concerning the recent donation of rare books to our library by Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf, I thought that I would highlight today some of the materials dealing with the turn-of-the-century conflict in the Far East known as the “Boxer Rebellion.” As many of my readers might not be familiar with this war, I thought I would provide a very brief outline of events.
Beginning in 1898, a nativist movement sprouted in China’s Shandong province organized by a secret society calling itself the “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists.” The group began to attract a popular following among conservative Chinese disgusted by the Qing dynasty’s inept management of state finances, and its inadequate response to natural disasters that flooded out peasants and left many thousands homeless, and its perceived subservience to “Imperialist” powers.
Many Chinese resented the presence of Westerners in their land, especially owing to their involvement in the Opium trade that was creating millions of addicts, and to an aggressive Christian proselytizing campaign that was luring tens of thousands of converts away from traditional beliefs. The “Boxers,” (as they were referred to by the outsiders), drew in many young adherents and provided them with martial arts training and a regimen of prayers that promised spiritual support, protection, and success in their campaign to purge and “purify” China of the foreigners and their evil influence.
The Qing government originally moved to suppress the activities of the “Boxers,” but the movement continued to grow in popularity and strength. When in the summer of 1900 a large mass of largely unarmed “Boxers” swarmed into Beijing and surrounded the foreign embassies, conservative elements within the Imperial Court persuaded the Empress to reverse course—to harness the populist tide and to declare war with the aim of expelling the foreigners.
Western diplomats, embassy staff, foreigners, and Chinese Christian converts in the capital retreated to the diplomatic compounds in the Legation Quarter to defend themselves as the Boxers and some Muslim elements within the Imperial army began attacking the foreigners, targeting missionaries, and burning out and slaughtering Christian converts. Almost immediately, a few hundred international troops from nearby naval ships came to the aid and relief of the besieged defenders, and soon after several thousand Russian troops from Port Arthur and British marines landed and engaged the Boxers in battle. The tide was not turned, however, until the arrival of 55,000 troops from eight nations (Japan, Russian, British, French, United States, Germany, Italy, Austro-Hungary, and China) that the Boxers were soundly defeated.
The diplomatic compounds were besieged for fifty-five days before Eight Nation Alliance troops broke the siege, defeated the Boxers, and waged a retaliatory campaign of pillage and looting. The Imperial government was forced to capitulate and sign the Boxer Protocol in September of 1901—a humiliating treaty requiring the payment of a heavy indemnity to the winners.
Although Japanese, Russian, and British troops played a major part in the suppression of the Boxers, most of the Boxer Rebellion-themed books donated by the Sharfs were written in the West as personal reminiscences, or heroic historical fiction novels. As such they provide an invaluable window into the way “the West” perceived and depicted this early struggle in the Far East. Our thanks go out to Fred and Jean Sharf for their continued generosity and commitment to making these rare materials more readily available to scholars.