What Was the Boxer Rebellion?

Road in front of English embassy in Beijing, China, Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), photograph by R Alt, from LIllustrazione Italiana, Year XXVII, No 27, July 8, 1900
De Agostini / Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Getty Images

The Boxer Rebellion was an anti-foreigner uprising in Qing China, which took place from November of 1899 through September of 1901. The Boxers, known in Chinese as the "Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists," were ordinary villagers who reacted violently against the increasing influence of foreign Christian missionaries and diplomats in the Middle Kingdom. Their movement is also known as the Boxer Uprising or the Yihetuan Movement.  Yihetuan literally means "the militia united in righteousness."

How It Started

During the nineteenth century, Europeans and Americans gradually imposed themselves and their beliefs more and more intrusively on the ordinary people of China, particularly in the eastern coastal region. For long centuries, the Chinese people had considered themselves to be subjects of the Middle Kingdom, the center of the entire civilized world. Suddenly, rude barbarian foreigners had arrived and begun to push Chinese people around, and the Chinese government seemed unable to stop this grave affront. Indeed, the government lost badly in the two Opium Wars against Britain, opening China to further insult by all of the western world powers and eventually even that former Chinese tributary, Japan.  

The Resistance

In reaction, the ordinary people of China decided to organize a resistance. They formed a spiritualist/martial arts movement, which included many mystical or magical elements such as the belief that the "Boxers" could themselves impervious to bullets. The English name "Boxers" comes from the British lack of any word for martial artists, thus the use of the nearest English equivalent.

Initially, the Boxers lumped the Qing government in with the other foreigners who needed to be driven from China. After all, the Qing Dynasty was not ethnically Han Chinese, but rather Manchu. Caught between the threatening western foreigners on the one hand, and an enraged Han Chinese populace on the other, the Empress Dowager Cixi and other Qing officials were initially unsure how to react to the Boxers. Eventually, deciding that the foreigners posed a greater threat, the Qing and the Boxers came to an understanding, and Beijing ended up supporting the rebels with imperial troops.

The Beginning of the End

Between November of 1899 and September of 1901, the Boxers killed more than 230 foreign men, women, and children on Chinese soil. Thousands of Chinese converts to Christianity also died at the hands of their neighbors during the violence. However, this prompted a coalition force of 20,000 troops from Japan, the U.K., Germany, Russia, France, Austria, the U.S., and Italy to march on Beijing and lift a siege on the foreign diplomatic quarters in the Chinese capital. The foreign troops defeated the Qing army and the Boxers, forcing Empress Cixi and the Emperor to flee Beijing dressed as simple peasants.  Although the rulers and the nation survived this assault (barely), the Boxer Rebellion really signaled the beginning of the end for the Qing. Within ten or eleven years, the dynasty would fall and China's imperial history, stretching back perhaps four thousand years, would be over. 

For more information on this topic, please see a Boxer Rebellion timeline, look through a photo essay of the Boxer Rebellion and learn about western attitudes toward the Boxer Rebellion through editorial cartoons published by European magazines at that time.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Was the Boxer Rebellion?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-was-the-boxer-rebellion-195300. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). What Was the Boxer Rebellion? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-boxer-rebellion-195300 Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Was the Boxer Rebellion?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-boxer-rebellion-195300 (accessed June 3, 2023).