China's Boxer Rebellion in Photos

By the end of the nineteenth century, many people in Qing China felt extremely upset about the increasing influence of foreign powers and Christian missionaries in the Middle Kingdom. Long the Great Power of Asia, China had suffered humiliation and loss of face when Britain defeated it in the First and Second Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60). To add considerable insult to injury, Britain forced China to accept large shipments of Indian opium, resulting in widespread opium addiction. The country also was divided up into "spheres of influence" by the European powers, and perhaps worst of all, former tributary state Japan prevailed in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95.

These grievances had been festering in China for decades, as the ruling Manchu imperial family weakened. The final blow, which set off the movement that would become known as the Boxer Rebellion, was a deadly two-year drought in Shandong Province. Frustrated and hungry, the young men of Shandong formed the "Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists."

Armed with a few rifles and swords, plus a belief in their own supernatural invulnerability to bullets, the Boxers attacked the home of German missionary George Stenz on November 1, 1897. They killed two priests, although they did not find Stenz himself before local Christian villagers drove them away. Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm responded to this small local incident by sending a naval cruiser squadron to take control of Shandong's Jiaozhou Bay.

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The Boxer Rebellion Begins

The Boxers, or Righteous Harmony Society, fought to eradicate foreign influence from China
Boxers on the March, 1898. Whiting View Co. / Library of Congress Prints and Photos

The early Boxers, like those pictured above, were ill-equipped and disorganized, but they were highly motivated to rid China of foreign "demons." They publically practiced martial arts together, attacked Christian missionaries and churches, and soon inspired like-minded young men across the country to take up whatever arms they had available.

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A Boxer Rebel with his Weapons

The Boxers believed that they had magical immunity to bullets and swords.
A Chinese Boxer during the Boxer Rebellion with a pike and shield. via Wikipedia

The Boxers were a large-scale secret society, which first appeared in Shandong Province, northern China. They practiced martial arts en masse - hence the name "Boxers" applied by foreigners who had no other name for Chinese fighting techniques - and believed that their magical rituals could make them invulnerable.

According to Boxer mystical beliefs, breath-control exercises, magical incantations, and swallowing charms, the Boxers were able to make their bodies impenetrable to a sword or bullet. In addition, they could enter a trance and become possessed by spirits; if a large enough group of Boxers became possessed all at once, then they could summon an army of spirits or ghosts to help them rid China of foreign devils.

The Boxer Rebellion was a millenarian movement, which is a common reaction when people feel that their culture or their entire population is under an existential threat. Other examples include the Maji Maji Rebellion (1905-07) against German colonial rule in what is now Tanzania; the Mau Mau Rebellion (1952-1960) against the British in Kenya; and the Lakota Sioux Ghost Dance movement of 1890 in the United States. In each case, participants believed that mystical rituals could render them invulnerable to the weapons of their oppressors.

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Chinese Christian Converts Flee the Boxers

The Boxers killed almost 20,000 Chinese Christian converts during the Boxer Rebellion, 1898-1901
Chinese Christian converts flee from the Boxer Rebellion in China, 1900. H.C. White Co. / Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection

Why were the Chinese Christians such targets of rage during the Boxer Rebellion?

Generally speaking, Christianity was a threat to traditional Buddhist/Confucianist beliefs and attitudes within Chinese society. However, the Shandong drought provided the specific catalyst that set off the anti-Christian Boxer movement.

Traditionally, entire communities would come together during times of drought and pray to the gods and ancestors for rain. However, those villagers who had converted to Christianity refused to participate in the rituals; their neighbors suspected that this was the reason that the gods disregarded their pleas for rain.

As desperation and mistrust grew, rumors spread that the Chinese Christians were slaughtering people for their organs, to use as ingredients in magical medicines, or putting poison in the wells. Farmers genuinely believed that the Christians had so displeased the gods that all of the regions were being punished with drought. Young men, idled by the lack of crops to tend, began to practice martial arts and eye their Christian neighbors.

In the end, an unknown number of Christians died at the hands of the Boxers, and many more Christian villagers were driven from their homes, like those pictured above. Most estimates say that "hundreds" of western missionaries and "thousands" of the Chinese converts were killed, by the time the Boxer Rebellion ended.

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Ammunition Piled in Front of the Forbidden City

During the Boxer Rebellion, fighting took place in the heart of Peking (Beijing) China.
Cannonballs and shells are stacked in front of a gate to the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. Buyenlarge via Getty Images

The Qing Dynasty was caught off-guard by the Boxer Rebellion and did not immediately know how to react. Initially, the Empress Dowager Cixi moved almost reflexively to suppress the rebellion, as Chinese emperors had been doing to protest movements for centuries. However, she soon realized that the ordinary people of China might be able, through sheer determination, to drive the foreigners out of her realm. In January of 1900, Cixi reversed her earlier attitude and issued a royal edict in support of the Boxers.

For their part, the Boxers distrusted the Empress and the Qing in general. Not only had the government attempted to clamp down on the movement initially, but the imperial family were also foreigners - ethnic Manchus from the far northeast of China, not Han Chinese.

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Chinese Imperial Army Cadets at Tientsin

Foreign trade concessions like that at Tientsin were a threat to Chinese sovereignty.
Qing Imperial Army cadets in uniform at Tientsin, before the battle against the foreign Eight Nations force. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Initially, the Qing government was aligned with the foreign powers in seeking to suppress the Boxer rebels; the Dowager Empress Cixi soon changed her mind, however, and sent the Imperial Army out in support of the Boxers. Here, new cadets of the Qing Imperial Army line up before the Battle of Tientsin.

The city of Tientsin (Tianjin) is a major inland port on the Yellow River and the Grand Canal. During the Boxer Rebellion, Tientsin became a target because it had a large neighborhood of foreign traders, called the concession.

In addition, Tientsin was "on the way" to Beijing from the Bohai Gulf, where foreign troops disembarked on their way to relieve the besieged foreign legations in the capital. In order to get to Beijing, the Eight Nations foreign army had to get past the fortified city of Tientsin, which was held by a joint force of Boxer rebels and Imperial Army troops.

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Eight-Nation Invasion Force at Port Tang Ku

Foreign nations wanted to protect their trade concessions in key Chinese cities and ports
Foreign invasion force from the Eight Nations disembarks at the Port of Tang Ku, 1900. B.W. Kilburn / Library of Congress Prints and Photos

In order to lift the Boxer siege on their legations in Beijing and reassert their authority over their trading concessions in China, the nations of Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Russia, the United States, Italy, Germany and Japan sent a force of 55,000 men from the port at Tang Ku (Tanggu) toward Beijing. The majority of them - almost 21,000 - were Japanese, along with 13,000 Russians, 12,000 from the British Commonwealth (including Australian and Indian divisions), 3,500 each from France and the US, and smaller numbers from the remaining nations.

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Chinese Regular Soldiers Line Up at Tientsin

The foreign invaders prevailed at the Battle of Tientsin, 1900.
Soldiers from Qing China's regular army line up to aid the Boxer Rebels in their fight against the Eight Nation Invasion Force at Tientsin. Keystone View Co. / Library of Congress Prints and Photos

Early in July of 1900, the Boxer Rebellion was going quite well for the Boxers and their government allies. The combined forces of the Imperial Army, Chinese regulars (like those pictured here) and the Boxers were dug in at the key river-port city of Tientsin. They had a small foreign force pinned down outside the city walls and surrounded the foreigners on three sides.

The foreign powers knew that in order to get to Peking (Beijing), where their diplomats were under siege, the Eight-Nation Invasion Force had to get through Tientsin. Full of racist hubris and feelings of superiority, few of them expected effective resistance from the Chinese forces arrayed against them.

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German Imperial Troops Deploy at Tientsin

The July 1900 Battle of Tientsin was much more difficult than foreign forces anticipated.
German soldiers appear to be on their way to a picnic, laughing as they prepare for the Battle of Tientsin. Underwood & Underwood / Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection

Germany sent only a small contingent to the relief of the foreign legions in Peking, but Kaiser Wilhelm II sent his men with this command: "Bear yourselves as Huns of Attila. For a thousand years, let the Chinese tremble at the approach of a German." The German imperial troops obeyed, with so much rape, looting, and murder of Chinese citizens that the American and (ironically, given the events of the next 45 years) Japanese troops had to turn their guns several times on the Germans and threaten to shoot them, to restore order.

Wilhelm and his army were motivated most immediately by the murder of the two German missionaries in Shandong Province. However, their larger motivation was that Germany had only unified in as a nation in 1871. The Germans felt that they had fallen behind European powers like the United Kingdom and France, and Germany wanted its own "place in the sun" - its own empire. Collectively, they were prepared to be utterly ruthless in pursuit of that goal.

The Battle of Tientsin would be the bloodiest of the Boxer Rebellion. In an unsettling preview of World War I, the foreign troops ran across open ground to attack the fortified Chinese positions and were simply mown down; the Chinese regulars on the city walls had Maxim guns, an early machine-gun, as well as cannons. Foreign casualties at Tientsin topped 750.

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Tientsin Family Eats in the Ruins of their Home

The Chinese defenders fought ferociously at Tientsin until the night of July 13th or early morning of the 14th. Then, for reasons unknown, the imperial army melted away, sneaking out of the city gates under cover of darkness, leaving the Boxers and the civilian population of Tientsin at the mercy of the foreigners.

Atrocities were common, particularly from the Russian and German troops, including rape, looting, and murder. The foreign troops from the other six countries behaved somewhat better, but all were merciless when it came to suspected Boxers. Hundreds were rounded up and summarily executed.

Even those civilians who escaped direct oppression by the foreign troops had trouble following the battle. The family shown here has lost their roof, and much of their home is heavily damaged.

The city generally was badly damaged by naval shelling. On July 13, at 5:30 am, the British naval artillery sent a shell into the walls of Tientsin that hit a powder magazine. The entire store of gunpowder blew up, leaving a gap in the city wall and knocking people off their feet as far as 500 yards away.

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The Imperial Family Flees Peking

The Empress Dowager Cixi of China as photographed by an American artist
Portrait of Dowager Empress Cixi of the Qing Dynasty in China. Frank & Frances Carpenter Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photos

By the beginning of July 1900, the desperate foreign delegates and Chinese Christians within the Peking legation quarter were running low on ammunition and food supplies. Constant rifle-fire through the gates picked people off, and occasionally the Imperial Army would let loose a barrage of artillery fire aimed at the legation houses. Thirty-eight of the guards were killed, and fifty-five more wounded.

To make matters worse, smallpox and dysentery made the rounds of the refugees. The people trapped in the legation quarter had no way to send or receive messages; they did not know if anyone was coming to rescue them.

They began to hope that rescuers would appear on July 17, when suddenly the Boxers and the Imperial Army stopped shooting at them after a month of ceaseless fire. The Qing court declared a partial truce. A smuggled message, brought by a Japanese agent, gave the foreigners hope that relief would come on July 20, but that hope was dashed.

In vain, the foreigners and Chinese Christians watched for foreign troops to come for another miserable month. Finally, on August 13, as the foreign invasion force neared Peking, the Chinese once more began to fire on the legations with a new intensity. However, on the next afternoon, the British division of the force reached the Legation Quarter and lifted the siege. Nobody remembered to lift the siege on a nearby French cathedral, called Beitang, until two days later, when the Japanese went to the rescue.

On August 15, as the foreign troops were celebrating their success in relieving the legations, an elderly woman and a young man dressed in peasant clothing slipped out of the Forbidden City in ox carts. They sneaked out of Peking, headed for the ancient capital of Xi'an.

The Dowager Empress Cixi and Emperor Guangxu and their retinue claimed they were not retreating, but rather going out on a "tour of inspection." In fact, this flight from Peking would give Cixi a glimpse of life for the common people of China that altered her perspective considerably. The foreign invasion force decided not to pursue the imperial family; the road to Xi'an was long, and the royals were guarded by divisions of the Kansu Braves.

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Thousands of Boxers Taken Prisoner

These men probably were all executed on suspicion of being Boxer rebels.
Accused Boxer rebel prisoners waiting for punishment, after the Boxer Rebellion in China. Buyenlarge / Getty Images

In the days following the relief of the Legation Quarter, the foreign troops went on a rampage in Peking. They looted anything they could get their hands on, calling it "reparations," and mistreated innocent civilians just as they had at Tientsin.

Thousands of real or supposed Boxers were arrested. Some would be put on trial, while others were summarily executed without such niceties.

The men in this photograph are awaiting their fate. You can see a glimpse of their foreign captors in the background; the photographer has cut off their heads.

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Trials of Boxer Prisoners Conducted by Chinese Government

Trial in a Qing Imperial court for alleged Boxer rebels, 1901
Alleged Boxers on trial in China, after the Boxer Rebellion. Keystone View Co. / Library of Congress Prints and Photos

The Qing Dynasty was embarrassed by the outcome of the Boxer Rebellion, but this was not a crushing defeat. Although they could have continued fighting, the Empress Dowager Cixi decided to accept the foreign proposal for peace and authorized her representatives to sign the "Boxer Protocols" on September 7, 1901.

Ten top officials considered implicated in the rebellion would be executed, and China was fined 450,000,000 taels of silver, to be paid over 39 years to the foreign governments. The Qing government refused to punish the leaders of the Ganzu Braves, even though they had been out front in attacking the foreigners, and the anti-Boxer coalition had no choice but to withdraw that demand.

The alleged Boxers in this photograph are on trial before a Chinese court. If they were convicted (as most of those on trial were), it may well have been the foreigners who actually executed them.

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Foreign Troops Take Part in Executions

Buyenlarge / Getty Images

Although some of the executions after the Boxer Rebellion followed trials, many were summary. There is no record of an accused Boxer being acquitted of all charges, in any case.

The Japanese soldiers, shown here, became well-known among the Eight Nations troops for their skill at chopping off alleged Boxers' heads. Although this was a modern conscript army, not a collection of samurai, the Japanese contingent still likely had been trained more heavily in use of the sword than their European and American counterparts.

The American General Adna Chaffee said, "It is safe to say that where one real Boxer has been killed... fifty harmless coolies or laborers on the farms, including not a few women and children, have been slain."

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Execution of Boxers, Real or Alleged

Nobody knows how many Chinese people ended up this way after the Boxer Rebellion
Decapitated heads of Boxer suspects after the Boxer Rebellion in China, 1899-1901. Underwood & Underwood / Library of Congress Prints and Photos

This photo shows the heads of executed Boxer suspects, tied to a post by their queues. Nobody knows how many Boxers were killed in the fighting or in the executions that followed the Boxer Rebellion.

Estimates for all the different casualty figures are hazy. Somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 Chinese Christians likely were killed. About 20,000 Imperial troops and nearly as many other Chinese civilians probably died as well. The most specific number is that of foreign military killed - 526 foreign soldiers. As for foreign missionaries, the number of men, women, and children killed is usually cited simply as "hundreds."

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Return to an Uneasy Stability

These American Legation staff members don't look worse for the wear, Boxer Rebellion, Beijing 1901
Surviving staff of the US Legation in Peking after the Siege, Boxer Rebellion. Underwood & Underwood / Library of Congress Prints and Photos

Surviving members of the American legation staff gather for a photograph after the end of the Boxer Rebellion. Although you might suspect that an outburst of fury like the rebellion would prompt foreign powers to rethink their policies and approach to a nation like China, in fact, it did not have that effect. If anything, economic imperialism over China strengthened, and an increasing number of Christian missionaries poured into the Chinese countryside to continue the work of the "Martyrs of 1900."

The Qing Dynasty would hold on to power for another decade, before falling to a nationalist movement. Empress Cixi herself died in 1908; her final appointee, the child emperor Puyi, would be China's Last Emperor.


Clements, Paul H. The Boxer Rebellion: A Political and Diplomatic Review, New York: Columbia University Press, 1915.

Esherick, Joseph. The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Leonhard, Robert. "The China Relief Expedition: Joint Coalition Warfare in China, Summer 1900," accessed Feb. 6, 2012.

Preston, Diana. The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China's War on Foreigners that Shook the World in the Summer of 1900, New York: Berkley Books, 2001.

Thompson, Larry C. William Scott Ament and the Boxer Rebellion: Heroism, Hubris and the "Ideal Missionary", Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.

Zheng Yangwen. "Hunan: Laboratory of Reform and Revolution: Hunanese in the Making of Modern China," Modern Asian Studies, 42:6 (2008), pp. 1113-1136.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "China's Boxer Rebellion in Photos." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, February 16). China's Boxer Rebellion in Photos. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "China's Boxer Rebellion in Photos." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 6, 2023).