The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China

A peasant army, incensed by the large Western presence in China, descended on Beijing and laid siege to the foreign quarter. Howard W. French reviews “The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China” by David J. Silbey.

Copyright The Wall Street Journal


Looking at the world today it is easy to be awed by the pace and scale of global change. From America’s recent, brief moment of unipolar pre-eminence, we have suddenly stepped into a new and uncertain age, with big, fast-growing new actors, China and India chief among them, rising to claim a place on the world stage. Meanwhile, as the global furniture is rearranged, many regard whole regions, even all of Africa, as coming into play. And yet the change, for all its dramatic implications, has been remarkably mild in execution. For a sense of historical perspective on how convulsive things might have been, it helps to cast an eye back a little more than a century, when a different clutch of powers was rising to challenge the global order, with results that were far more sweeping and traumatic.

At the turn of the last century, with the European “Scramble for Africa,” as it was known, only recently completed, three assertive new major powers were fast emerging: Germany, Japan and the United States. Most of the world had already been claimed by more established actors. But decrepit, late Qing Dynasty China, with its hundreds of millions of people, centuries of accumulated wealth and vast territory, loomed as the final big prize on the imperial frontier. The New York Times at the time called China “the greatest potential market of the world,” and circling foreign powers, old and new, were drawn by its weakness and misrule.

Such is the stage of David J. Silbey’s thoughtful and concisely told “The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China.” The war that gives the book its title was the last of the West’s repeated armed confrontations with the Qing, but compared with other Chinese conflicts of the era, notably the midcentury, overlapping Taiping Rebellion and Second Opium War, it was a far smaller affair, both in duration and scale, essentially lasting through the long summer of 1900.

Mr. Silbey places the war in a tradition that he says was long familiar to the British but brand-new to the Americans, one where empire is created “on the scene, and to the surprise of the mother county,” by free-lancing representatives of faraway Western capitals. In the case of the Boxer Rebellion, this meant a conflict that pitted the assembled forces of the world’s major powers against China. The unforeseen result, soon after the defeat of the Qing, was the end of thousands of years of dynastic rule and arguably the beginning of the end of the imperial age itself.

The Boxer Rebellion—its name derives from the uprising’s practitioners of martial arts—had its roots in China’s 19th-century demographic explosion, as well as crop failures and drought, which served as a catalyst for one of the era’s many Chinese peasant uprisings. What was different this time was the target. The Boxers, who arose in Shandong Province, were not mobilized against the Qing state but rather against the large Western presence in the country, especially that of Christian missionaries, who were attacked by the rebels in the summer and fall of 1899.


The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China

By David J. Silbey
(Hill & Wang, 273 pages, $26.95)

According to Mr. Silbey, a historian a Cornell University’s Washington, D.C., campus, the Boxers’ problem was not with the Westerners’ religion per se. The rebels were incensed because, in the vacuum left behind by a failing Qing administration, the foreign church-based organizations were becoming local administrators. As such they were direct competition for the Chinese secret societies, like the Boxers, that were also moving to fill the void.

The Boxers were leaderless, largely illiterate peasant militants whose alliance in loose, improvised networks made them hard to stop. The movement quickly gained momentum in 1900, when spring rains failed to arrive: Unable to plant their crops, peasants were idled, frustrated and receptive to the Boxers’ recruiting efforts. In May, rallying under the slogan “Support the Qing. Exterminate the Foreigners,” the Boxers descended on Beijing and laid siege to the foreign quarter. Forced to choose sides, the Empress Dowager Cixi ordered foreign legations to quit the capital. (please follow the link below to continue reading)

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