A battle that made the world see red
THE BOXER REBELLION: THE DRAMATIC STORY OF CHINA'S WAR ON FOREIGNERS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD IN THE SUMMER OF 1900 By Diana Preston Walker & Co. 436 pp., $28
One hundred years ago this summer, Western relations with China reached a new low. Three months of war left a trail of blood and brutal memories that would affirm each side's worst stereotypes of the other. During the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the ruthless behavior on both sides confirmed Chinese fears of Western imperialism as well as Western anxieties about the "yellow peril."
Relying on the diaries of Westerners who witnessed the events, Diana Preston presents a dramatic narrative that can be read on the beach or in the classroom.
The Boxer movement, a union of several local societies in northeastern China, gained a reputation for killing Christians. They believed in their supernatural protection from swords and bullets as fervently as they believed in the evil of Christianity.
"Foreigners called them 'Boxers' because of the ritualistic martial arts they practiced," Preston notes. Attacks on missionaries and their Chinese converts did not originate with the Boxers, but they now reached epidemic proportions.
As the increasingly popular Boxers marched east toward Beijing and Tianjin, attacks expanded to include all foreigners.
Preston introduces us to the missionaries, military officers, and government officials who worked in late 19th-century China. Her well-researched and lavishly descriptive accounts draw us into the daily lives of Sir Robert Hart, George Morrison, Sarah Conger, future US President Herbert Hoover, and others. As we become attached to these individuals and their families, we realize their lives are in grave danger.
When the Boxers marched into Beijing, the foreign communities barricaded themselves in their compounds and endured three months of war, fear of imminent death, and food rations. Many Chinese Christians were offered the protection of the embassies, but suffered far more due to inferior food, lack of medical care, and more dangerous wartime assignments.
Near the end of the summer, relief troops from Russia, Japan, the United States, Germany, France, and Great Britain - the first international relief force - finally marched into the capital city. Detailed descriptions of the carnage show that they killed and tortured as harshly as the Boxers had.
The peace treaty imposed on China by those who sent relief troops demanded the execution of hundreds of Chinese, a huge indemnity, and additional privileges for the foreigners living in China.
What is missing in this account is a detailed look at why a violent, antiforeign, and anti-Christian group would arise. The ample bibliography will guide anyone who seeks additional perspectives on the rebellion. But because no Chinese sources were consulted, a host of questions remain unanswered: How do the Chinese, now and then, understand the events of 1900? Why did the imperial government of China, led by Empress Ci Xi, alternate between encouraging the Boxers and placating the foreigners?
The book's endnotes supply source information and additional background, but because they aren't noted in the text, readers may not realize how much interesting auxiliary information they're missing.
As she tells this tremendously exciting story, the author places the Boxer Rebellion in a larger historical context, noting how the symbols and themes would reappear 65 years later during the Cultural Revolution. And her use of previously unutilized diaries presents a vivid picture of life in the foreign legations.
In the final chapter, she pays tribute to all the individuals we meet in the book and tells what they did after the rebellion. We are left with the impression that many who survived were changed by their participation in these events. Just as readers will be.
*Kim Risedorph taught Chinese history at Nebraska Wesleyan University.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society