Mapping Out the U.S. in China’s Boxer Rebellion

Julianne Greco ’12

China’s Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th century was a three-way clash and shifting balance of power between Chinese peasants, the Qing Empire, and foreign powers (primarily Western). The Boxers, a religious and mystic-based group, predominantly peasants, are traditionally characterized by historians as xenophobic, anti-Christian, and anti-modernization (Esherick xiii). Their uprising reflected a wide frustration with internal social and economic problems attributed to the Qing Empire and also foreign imperial exploitation, especially by the British.

The breadth of the Boxer Rebellion is much too vast to fully capture in a single Google Map, or book for that matter, and the United States’ involvement in the episode is additionally too extensive for a single project. All things considered, the purpose of this map is to provide a geographical conceptualization of the United State’s connection to the Boxer Rebellion by highlighting significant people, institutions, and ideas of the episode. By using place-marks on this Google Map, we can see the physical dispersal of these factors and their international nature—this map gives a big picture, while providing analysis.

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The main secondary sources in this map consist of three academic books published by scholars Robert Bickers and R.G. Tiedemann, Joseph W. Esherick, and Paul A. Cohen, which provide a foundation and analysis of the episode, and journal articles by A. E. Campbell and Walter Lafeber, which offer framework for linking the U.S. to the episode.

The decision of how to group place-marks on this map was not an easy one given the interweaving nature of the excerpts from secondary sources in featuring ideas, people, and institutions. Thus, this post is roughly organized in chronological order to not divorce the different factors (some points do not fit cleanly into dates), but thematically in a couple of cases.

In order to grasp how the United States fits into the Boxer narrative, it is necessary to travel to the birthplace of the Boxer movement, the Yellow River floodplains of the Shandong Province in China, to contextualize the developments of the rebellion. The first marker is April-May, 1899, a time when foreign Western powers had “little awareness of the Boxer phenomenon” and only just noted, “skirmishes between Boxers and local Christians.” These assertions by Cohen highlight a limited knowledge of the social situation in China’s interior among foreigners at the time and can explain how the rebellion was able to erupt to the extent that it did without foreign intervention.

June 20, 1900, the second place marker, indicates the point when things got violent in Beijing and a force of Boxer and Qing imperial troops went after foreigners in the city’s Legation Quarter.  The next day, June 21, the Empress Dowager Cixi even declared “that a state of war existed between the Qing and the foreign powers,” and allied itself with the “Boxers” (Bickers & Tiedemann xiii). The cooperation between Boxer rebels and the imperial army demonstrates a strong vehemence against foreign presence at the time and frustrations with colonialism and foreign cultural influence. This common frustration was so strong that it united almost diametrically opposed forces, the army and the Boxers.

International attention turned to the situation of the Chinese Boxers once the rebellion broke out in June 1900: “in Europe, North America, and in their empires, newspaper readers devoured accounts of the sieges, the battles on the plain,” etc. (Bickers & Tiedemann xiv). Media outlets like The Washington Post in the U.S. had a field day with the rebellion despite limited reporters on the ground and even discussed the lack of confirmation of facts and the disconnect between information in China and the U.S. public. This gap underscores the challenges of the age in long-distance communication and the feeling of confusion in the U.S.

Prior to the rebellion, U.S. expressed its desire for commercial benefits in China, emphasizing the “Open Door” in the hopes of competing with British commercial dominance in China, however, it did not want to get involved in terms of military or allying with other countries against China. Secretary of State John Hay, during the McKinley Administration, upon realizing the gravity of the rebellion, “was willing to approve joint action” in working “concurrently with other Powers” (Campbell 171). The U.S.’s involvement challenges its diplomatic traditions/tendencies of Washington’s Farewell Address in avoiding entangling alliances and the Monroe Doctrine in involving itself in the colonial matters of imperial Europe. The stakes were too high for the U.S. to not act and the Boxer Rebellion was perceived to be a serious threat to U.S. interests by Hay and McKinley.

Consequently, the Eight Nation Alliance evolved to defend their legations and respond the crisis. The alliance consisted of the United States, Great Britain, Austria-Hungary, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and Russia. The forces sacked Tianjin and then marched to Beijing, leaving a “great swaft of destruction in their wake”, similar to Sherman’s March engaging in looting, targeting of civilians, and demolition (Esherick 310). Here, there is a twisted irony in the idealistic foreigners’ march of vengeance, as they are responding to attacks targeting foreigners in the country.

The place mark in July 1900, demonstrates the strain of the conflict on the Qing Empire with its defeat in Tianjin and the stress of taking on the major world powers at the time, so “court moderated its policy significantly: the shelling of the legations stopped,” and it plead to the “United States, France, and Germany to help resolve the conflict” (Esherick 309). Such a quick shift in alliances signifies the internal instability of the Qing Empire and the lack of deep loyalty to the fundamental cause of the Boxers.

When the Eight Nation Alliance arrived in Beijing, it “finally lifted the ‘Siege of Peking.” This was a big moment for the U.S. since it contained “American troops fighting on Chinese soil for the first time” (Esherick xiii). Troops were conveniently deployed from the U.S. naval base in the Philippines by order of President McKinley. He “ostensibly sent them to protect U.S. lives and property” but ultimately “set a historic precedent that the president without express authorization from Congress, could intervene in a sovereign nation act and, without that nation’s consent, go about reordering its political affairs” (Lafeber 174).

Once the flames of the rebellion were extinguished, the Eight Nation Alliance fixed the Boxer Protocol of 1901 to be signed between the alliance and the Qing Empire. The objective of the alliance, particularly the United States’ and Britain’s (remember preference for Open Door policy) was to “gain paramount influence at Peking or to prevent their rivals from gaining it, to partition China to their own advantage or to prevent for their own ends its partition” (Campbell 157).

Domestically, back on U.S. soil, the Boxer Rebellion sparked a number of debates and inspired much public discourse. Notably Mark Twain and his “I am a Boxer Speech” scorning the U.S. for involvement in China and the Reverend Scott Ament and fellow missionaries for indemnities collection. William Jennings Bryan responded to the satire Letters from John Chinaman with his Letters to a Chinese Official; Being a Western View of Civilization, offering a “very tart Western view” (Bickers & Tiedemann xv).

Although this map could not offer every intricacy of U.S. entanglements during the episode, it becomes apparent when placing the pieces of the map together that the Boxer Rebellion fundamentally challenged the nature of U.S. diplomatic tradition. It is often not credited enough for having such a major impact on the States, whether it involved destructive behavior of American troops towards Chinese, the beginning of American combat in China, the executive side-stepping of Congress, international alliances, media coverage and paranoia at home, or ideological and practical debates among intellectuals of the time.

Works Cited

Bickers, Robert, and  R. G. Tiedemann, eds. The Boxers, China, and the World. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007. Print.

Campbell, A. E. “Great Britain and the United States in the Far East, 1895-1903.” The Historical Journal Vol. 1 No. 2 (1958): 154-175. Web.

Cohen, Paul A. History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Print.

Esherick, Joseph W. The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Print.

Lafeber, Walter. “’The Lion in the Path’: The U.S. Emergence as a World Power.” Political Science Quarterly Vol. 101 No. 5 (1986): 705-718. Web.

 

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