The Boxer Rebellion in Editorial Cartoons

 Initially, the Boxer movement (or Righteous Harmony Society Movement) was a threat to both the Qing Dynasty and representatives of foreign powers in China. After all, the Qing were ethnic Manchus, rather than Han Chinese, and thus many Boxers considered the imperial family to be just another type of foreigners. The Emperor and Dowager Empress Cixi were targets of early Boxer propaganda.

As the Boxer Rebellion went on, however, the majority of the Qing government's officials (though not all) and the Dowager Empress realized that the Boxers could be useful in weakening foreign missionary, economic and military power in China. The court and the Boxers united, albeit half-heartedly, against the forces of Britain, France, the United States, Italy, Russia, Germany, Austria, and Japan.

This cartoon expresses the Emperor's hesitation to confront the Boxers. The foreign powers obviously recognized that the Boxer Rebellion was a serious threat to their own interests, but the Qing government saw the Boxers as potentially useful allies.

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The First Duty: If You Don't, I Shall

Boxer Rebellion magazine cover from August 8, 1900
by Udo Keppler for Puck Magazine / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

In this 1900 editorial cartoon from the cover of Puck Magazine, foreign powers in Qing China threaten to slay the Boxer Rebellion dragon if a weak-looking Emperor Guangxu refuses to do so. The caption reads: "The First Duty. Civilization (to China) - That dragon must be killed before our troubles can be adjusted. If you don't do it, I shall have to."

The character "Civilization" here obviously represents the western powers of Europe and the US, plus (perhaps) Japan. The magazine editors' faith that the western powers were morally and culturally superior to China would be shaken by subsequent events, as troops from the Eight-Nation coalition committed horrific war crimes in putting down the Boxer Rebellion.

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In the Chinese Labyrinth

During the Boxer Rebellion, Germany was at the forefront in belligerence against China
Udo Keppler for Puck Magazine / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

A wary-looking group of western powers plus Japan tiptoe into China, careful to avoid the bear-traps of conflict (labeled casus belli - "cause of war") over the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901). The United States as Uncle Sam leads the way, carrying the lamp of "prudence."

At the rear, though, the figure of German Kaiser Wilhelm II appears to be on the verge of putting his foot right into the trap. In fact, throughout the Boxer Rebellion, the Germans were the most aggressive both in their general dealings with Chinese citizens (as when their ambassador murdered a young boy for no reason) and with their advocacy of all-out war. and with their advocacy of all-out war.

As early as November of 1897, after the Juye Incident in which Boxers killed two German citizens, Kaiser Wilhelm called for his troops in China to give no quarter and take no prisoners, like the Huns.

His comment created an accidental "great circle" in history. The Huns were likely descended in large part from the Xiongnu, a nomadic people from the steppes north and west of China. In 89 CE, the Han Chinese defeated the Xiongnu, driving one division of them to migrate far to the west, where they absorbed other nomadic peoples and became the Huns. The Huns then invaded Europe via what is now Germany. Thus, Kaiser Wilhelm was actually urging his troops to get beaten by the Chinese, and driven across Central Asia!

Of course, that was not his intention when he made the remark. His speech may have inspired the World War I (1914-18) nickname for German troops used by the British and French, however. They called the Germans "the Huns."

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Are Our Teachings, Then, In Vain?

Jesus and Confucius commiserate over the Boxer Rebellion

 Udo Keppler / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

Confucius and Jesus Christ look on in sorrow as Qing Chinese and western troops battle during the Boxer Rebellion. The Chinese soldier on the left and the western soldier on the right in the foreground hold banners inscribed with the Confucian and Biblical versions of the Golden Rule - often paraphrased as "do unto others as you'd have done to you."

This October 3, 1900, editorial cartoon reflects a marked change in attitude at Puck Magazine since August 8, when they ran the threatening "If You Don't, I Shall" cartoon (image #1 in this document).​

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Expedition of the European Powers against the Boxers

The British, Russian, French and German figures invite the Japanese man to take part.
by Hermann Paul for L'assiette au Beurre / Hulton Archives, Getty Images

This French cartoon from L'assiette au Beurre shows the European powers gleefully trampling children and carrying severed heads as they put down the Boxer Rebellion. A pagoda burns in the background. The illustration by Hermann Paul is titled "L'expedition des Puissances Europeennes Contre les Boxers," (Expedition of the European Powers against the Boxers).

Unfortunately, the archive does not list the exact date of publication for this cartoon. Presumably, it came sometime after the July 13-14, 1900 Battle of Tientsin, where troops from the Eight Nations (particularly Germany and Russia) rampaged through the town, looting, raping and killing civilians.

Similar scenes played out in Beijing after the force arrived there on August 14, 1900. A number of journals and newspaper accounts record that members of the American and Japanese forces tried to stop their allies from committing the worst atrocities, even to the point that U.S. Marines shot some German soldiers who were raping and then bayonetting Chinese women. One American's journal noted that for every real Boxer executed "50 innocent coolies" were killed - not just men, but women and children as well.

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The Real Trouble Will Come with the Wake

In the end, only China's neighbors - Japan and Russia - seized large tracts of land.
by Joseph Keppler for Puck Magazine / Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection

Animal characters representing the European powers, led by the Russian bear and British lion, squabble over the carcass of the Qing Chinese dragon after the defeat of the Boxer Rebellion. A Japanese leopard(?) slinks in for a piece, while the American eagle stands back and watches the imperial scramble.

This cartoon was published in Puck Magazine on August 15, 1900, the day after foreign troops entered Beijing. August 15 was also the date that Empress Dowager Cixi and her nephew, the Guangxu Emperor, fled the Forbidden City in peasant disguises.

As it still does today, the United States at this time prided itself on being above imperialism. The peoples of the Philippines, Cuba, and Hawai'i likely would have found that ironic.

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Too Many Shylocks

This March 27, 1901 cartoon illustrates growing disagreement among the foreign powers
by John S. Pughe for Puck Magazine / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

This Puck cartoon from March 27, 1901, depicts the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion as a scene from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. The Shylocks (Russia, England, Germany and Japan) each clamor for their "pound of flesh" from China, aka the merchant Antonio. In the background, a child (Puck Magazine) urges Uncle Sam to step in and play the role of Portia, who saves Antonio in ​Shakespeare's play. The subtitle of the cartoon reads: "Puck to Uncle Sam - That poor fellow needs a Portia. Why don't you take the part?"

In the end, the Qing government signed the "Boxer Protocol" on September 7, 1901, which included war indemnities of 450,000,000 taels of silver (one tael per citizen of China). At a current price of $42.88/ounce, and with one tael = 1.2 troy ounces, that means that in modern dollars China was fined the equivalent of more than $23 billion US for the Boxer Rebellion. The victors gave the Qing 39 years to pay, although at 4% interest this nearly doubled the final price tag.

Rather than following little Puck's advice, the United States took a 7% cut of the indemnities. In so doing, it supported a very unfortunate precedent.

This European custom of imposing crushing reparations on defeated opponents would have horrific global consequences in coming decades. At the end of World War I (1914-18), the Allied Powers would demand such heavy reparations from Germany that the country's economy was left in shambles. In desperation, the people of Germany sought both a leader and a scapegoat; they found them in Adolf Hitler and the Jewish people, respectively.

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The Latest Chinese Wall

China sits back and laughs as the foreign powers face off after the Boxer Rebellion
John S. Pughe for Puck Magazine / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

In this Puck cartoon from April 24, 1901, the Russian Imperial bear, with its desire for territorial expansion, stands against the rest of the foreign powers, trying to get its saber into a grinning China. In the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, Russia wanted to seize Manchuria as part of the war reparations, expanding its holdings in the Pacific region of Siberia. The other powers opposed Russia's plans, and seizure of territory was not included among the indemnities in the Boxer Protocol, which was agreed on September 7, 1900.

Nonetheless, on September 21, 1900, Russia seized Jilin in Shandong Province and large sections of Manchuria. Russia's move infuriated its erstwhile allies - particularly Japan, which had its own plans for Manchuria. (Incidentally, this foreign squabbling over Manchuria must have been painful for the ethnic Manchu Qing court, since that region was their ancestral homeland.) In large part because of this key region, the two former allies fought the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.

To the great shock of everyone in Europe, Russia lost that war. Racist imperialist thinkers in Europe were aghast that a non-European power had defeated one of the European empires. Japan received Russian recognition of its occupation of Korea, and Russia withdrew all its troops from Manchuria.

Incidentally, the last figure in the background looks like Mickey Mouse, doesn't it? However, Walt Disney had not yet created his iconic character when this was drawn, so it must be a coincidence.

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A Disturbing Possibility in the East

China's rage hangs by a thread, threatening the victorious foreign powers after the Boxer Rebellion
by Udo Keppler / Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection

In the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, observers in Europe and the United States began to worry that they had pushed China too far. In this Puck cartoon, a sword of Damocles named "Awakening of China" hangs over the heads of the eight foreign powers as they prepare to devour the fruits of their victory over the Boxers. The fruit is labeled "Chinese Indemnities" - actually, 450,000,000 taels (540,000,000 troy ounces) of silver.

In fact, it would take China several decades to awaken. The Boxer Rebellion and its aftermath helped bring down the Qing Dynasty in 1911, and the country descended into a civil war that would last until Mao Zedong's Communist forces prevailed in 1949.

During World War II, Japan occupied the coastal area of China, but could never conquer the interior. If they had been prescient, most of the western nations seated around this table would have known that Japan, represented here by the Meiji Emperor, gave them more to fear than China.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Boxer Rebellion in Editorial Cartoons." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, February 16). The Boxer Rebellion in Editorial Cartoons. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Boxer Rebellion in Editorial Cartoons." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).

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