How China Fought Imperialism With the Boxer Rebellion

Attack on Peking during the Boxer Rebellion
US troops attack during the August 14, 1900 Allied Relief Expedition assault on the outer walls of Peking in China.

US Army Center for Military History/Public domain

Beginning in 1899, the Boxer Rebellion was an uprising in China against foreign influence in religion, politics, and trade. In the fighting, the Boxers killed thousands of Chinese Christians and attempted to storm the foreign embassies in Beijing. Following a 55-day siege, the embassies were relieved by 20,000 Japanese, American, and European troops. In the wake of the rebellion, several punitive expeditions were launched and the Chinese government was forced to sign the "Boxer Protocol" which called for the rebellion's leaders to be executed and the payment of financial reparations to the injured nations.


The Boxer Rebellion began in November 1899, in the Shandong Province and ended on September 7, 1901, with the signing of the Boxer Protocol.


The activities of the Boxers, also known as the Righteous and Harmonious Society Movement, began in the Shandong Province of eastern China in March 1898. This was largely in response to the failure of the government's modernization initiative, the Self-Strengthening Movement, as well as the German occupation of the Jiao Zhou region and the British seizure of Weihai. The first signs of unrest appeared in a village after a local court ruled in favor of giving a local temple over to the Roman Catholic authorities for use as a church. Upset by the decision, the villagers, led by Boxer agitators, attacked the church.

The Uprising Grows

While the Boxers initially pursued an anti-government platform, they shifted to an anti-foreigner agenda after being severely beaten by Imperial troops in October 1898. Following this new course, they fell upon Western missionaries and Chinese Christians who they viewed as agents of foreign influence. In Beijing, the Imperial court was controlled by ultra-conservatives who supported the Boxers and their cause. From their position of power, they forced the Empress Dowager Cixi to issue edicts endorsing the Boxers' activities, which angered foreign diplomats.

The Legation Quarter Under Attack

In June 1900, the Boxers, along with parts of the Imperial Army, began attacking foreign embassies in Beijing and Tianjin. In Beijing, the embassies of Great Britain, the United States, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, and Japan were all located in the Legation Quarter near the Forbidden City. Anticipating such a move, a mixed force of 435 marines from eight countries had been sent to reinforce the embassy guards. As the Boxers approached, the embassies were quickly linked into a fortified compound. Those embassies located outside of the compound were evacuated, with the staff taking refuge inside.

On June 20, the compound was surrounded and attacks began. Across town, the German envoy, Klemens von Ketteler, was killed trying to escape the city. The following day, Cixi declared war on all of the Western powers, however, her regional governors refused to obey and a larger war was avoided. In the compound, the defense was led by the British ambassador, Claude M. McDonald. Fighting with small arms and one old cannon, they managed to keep the Boxers at bay. This cannon became known as the "International Gun," as it had a British barrel, an Italian carriage, fired Russian shells, and was served by Americans.

The First Attempt to Relieve the Legation Quarter

To deal with the Boxer threat, an alliance was formed between Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States. On June 10, an international force of 2,000 Marines was dispatched from Takou under British Vice Admiral Edward Seymour to aid Beijing. Moving by rail to Tianjin, they were forced to continue on foot as the Boxers had severed the line to Beijing. Seymour's column advanced as far Tong-Tcheou, 12 miles from Beijing, before being forced to retreat due to stiff Boxer resistance. They arrived back at Tianjin on June 26, having suffered 350 casualties.

Second Attempt to Relieve the Legation Quarter

With the situation deteriorating, the members of the Eight-Nation Alliance sent reinforcements to the area. Commanded by British Lieutenant-General Alfred Gaselee, the international army numbered 54,000. Advancing, they captured Tianjin on July 14. Continuing with 20,000 men, Gaselee pressed on for the capital. Boxer and Imperial forces next made a stand at Yangcun where they assumed a defensive position between the Hai River and a railroad embankment. Enduring intense temperatures which led to many Allied soldiers falling out of the ranks, British, Russian, and American forces attacked on August 6. In the fighting, American troops secured the embankment and found that many of the Chinese defenders had fled. The remainder of the day saw the Allies engage the enemy in a series of rearguard actions.

Arriving at Beijing, a plan was quickly developed which called for each major contingent to assault a separate gate in the city's eastern wall. While the Russians struck in the north, the Japanese would attack to the south with the Americans and British below them. Deviating from the plan, the Russians moved against the Dongen, which had been assigned to the Americans, around 3:00 AM on August 14. Though they breached the gate, they were quickly pinned down. Arriving on the scene, the surprised Americans shifted 200 yards south. Once there, Corporal Calvin P. Titus volunteered to scale the wall to secure a foothold on the ramparts. Successful, he was followed by the remainder of the American forces. For his bravery, Titus later received the Medal of Honor.

To the north, the Japanese succeeded in gaining access to the city after a sharp fight while further south the British penetrated into Beijing against minimal resistance. Pushing towards the Legation Quarter, the British column dispersed the few Boxers in the area and reached their goal around 2:30 PM. They were joined by the Americans two hours later. Casualties among the two columns proved extremely light with one of the wounded being Captain Smedley Butler. With the siege of the legation compound relieved, the combined international force swept the city the next day and occupied the Imperial City. Over the next year, a second German-led international force conducted punitive raids throughout China.

Boxer Rebellion Aftermath

Following the fall of Beijing, Cixi sent Li Hongzhang to begin negotiations with the alliance. The result was the Boxer Protocol which required the execution of ten high-ranking leaders who had supported the rebellion, as well as payment of 450,000,000 taels of silver as war reparations. The Imperial government's defeat further weakened the Qing Dynasty, paving the way for its overthrow in 1912. During the fighting, 270 missionaries were killed, along with 18,722 Chinese Christians. The allied victory also led to further partitioning of China, with the Russians occupying Manchuria and the Germans taking Tsingtao.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "How China Fought Imperialism With the Boxer Rebellion." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). How China Fought Imperialism With the Boxer Rebellion. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "How China Fought Imperialism With the Boxer Rebellion." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).