During the Boxer Rebellion, an international force featuring British, Russian, American, Japanese, French, and German troops relieves the Chinese capital of Peking after fighting its way 80 miles from the port of Tientsin. The Chinese nationalists besieging Peking’s diplomatic quarter were crushed, and the Boxer Rebellion effectively came to an end.
By the end of the 19th century, the Western powers and Japan had forced China’s ruling Ch’ing dynasty to accept wide foreign control over the country’s economic affairs. In the Opium Wars, popular rebellions, and the Sino-Japanese War, China had fought to resist the foreigners, but it lacked a modernized military and millions died.
In 1898, Tz’u Hsi, the dowager empress, gained control of the Chinese government in a conservative coup against the Emperor Kuang-hsu, her adoptive son and an advocate of reforms. Tz’u Hsi had previously served as ruler of China in various regencies and was deeply anti-foreign in her ideology. In 1899, her court began to secretly support the anti-foreign rebels known as the I Ho Ch’uan, or the “Righteous and Harmonious Fists.”
The I Ho Ch’uan was a secret society formed with the original goal of expelling the foreigners and overthrowing the Ch’ing dynasty. The group practiced a ritualistic form of martial arts that they believed gave them supernatural powers and made them impervious to bullets. After witnessing these fighting displays, Westerners named members of the society “Boxers.” Most Boxers came from northern China, where natural calamities and foreign aggression in the late 1890s had ruined the economy. The ranks of the I Ho Ch’uan swelled with embittered peasants who directed their anger against Christian converts and foreign missionaries, whom they saw as a threat to their traditional ways and blamed for their misery.
After the dowager empress returned to power, the Boxers pushed for an alliance with the imperial court against the foreigners. Tz’u Hsi gave her tacit support to their growing violence against the Westerners and their institutions, and some officials incorporated the Boxers into local militias. Open attacks on missionaries and Chinese Christians began in late 1899, and by May 1900 bands of Boxers had begun gathering in the countryside around Peking. In spite of threats by the foreign powers, the empress dowager began openly supporting the Boxers.
In early June, an international relief force of 2,000 soldiers was dispatched by Western and Japanese authorities from the port of Tientsin to Peking. The empress dowager ordered Imperial forces to block the advance of the foreigners, and the relief force was turned back. Meanwhile, the Peking-Tientsin railway line and other railroads were destroyed by the Chinese. On June 13, the Boxers, now some 140,000 strong, moved into Peking and began burning churches and foreign residences. On June 17, the foreign powers seized forts between Tientsin and Peking, and the next day Tz’u Hsi called on all Chinese to attack foreigners. On June 20, the German ambassador Baron von Ketteler was killed and the Boxers began besieging the foreign legations in the diplomatic quarter of the Chinese capital.
As the foreign powers organized a multinational force to crush the rebellion, the siege of the Peking legations stretched into weeks, and the diplomats, their families, and guards suffered through hunger and degrading conditions as they fought desperately to keep the Boxers at bay. Eventually, an expedition of 19,000 multinational troops pushed their way to Peking after fighting two major battles against the Boxers. On August 14, the eight-nation allied relief force captured Peking and liberated the legations. The foreign troops looted the city and routed the Boxers, while the empress and her court fled to the north. The victorious powers began work on a peace settlement.
Due to mutual jealousies between the nations, it was agreed that China would not be partitioned further, and in September 1901 the Peking Protocol was signed, formally ending the Boxer Rebellion. By the terms of agreement, the foreign nations received extremely favorable commercial treaties with China, foreign troops were permanently stationed in Peking, and China was forced to pay $333 million as penalty for its rebellion. China was effectively a subject nation. The Boxers had failed to expel the foreigners, but their rebellion set the stage for the successful Chinese revolutions of the 20th century.