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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
Assess the underlying causes of the Boxers uprising?
The Boxer Uprising of 1898-1900, a predominantly peasant movement which ultimately was doomed to fail from its conception primarily due to its divided and leaderless structure, was a reaction to a series of factors, most of which were caused by western imperialism and the weak and again also divided Qing government. One of the most important motivations for this rebellion was arguably the religious influence of the west in China, destabilizing old power structures and culture and enforcing their own ideals, causing the discontent that would spawn the uprising.
However, if the flooding of the Yellow River on August 8th 1898 had not occurred nor the draught after the winter of the same year, it is doubtable that the movement would have existed, food being the likely prerogative of a peasant based society under geographical problems such as those in the late nineteenth century; the Boxers notably had a good food supply, an important incentive to join. If geographical problems were the catalyst for the people then religion, imperialism and the Qing government only exacerbated and encouraged the development of the uprising.
The forced imperialism of China by Europe in the nineteenth century had totally reworked and changed the traditional Chinese system, Confucianism was seen as backward and the west pressured China to modernise. The Treaties of Tianjin in 1858 had opened up 10 ports to Europe and by 1890 ‘thirty three cities were open to foreign trade and residence’1and between ‘1894 and 1917, 59 more were added’2the significance of which meant there was an influx of foreigners and increasing outside market pressures, for example the cotton and textiles industry of China was directly impacted by foreign imports and the introduction of western yarn spinning machines. ‘In 1882, Yantai imported only 11,288 piculs of cotton yarn. Four years later that figure had increased five-fold to 56,726’3 by the time of the Boxer uprising these figures were significantly higher. There is no coincidence then that the areas where the Boxers emerged were cotton growing areas.
The 1858 treaty had also allowed Christian missionaries to move into mainland China. Shandong one of the areas where the Boxers predominantly rose up was under German influence, the missionaries created many tensions within the villages, none more so with local officials due to the forced reconfiguring of the traditional Chinese legal system to a more bureaucratic pro-Christian system. Missionaries would interfere in local disputes challenging the local official’s authority and often influencing decisions in aid of those who had converted to Christianity, in cases bandits and criminals could escape conviction through proclaiming they were converted.
Naturally animosity developed between the traditional Chinese and that of the missionaries and converts, missionaries even banned converts from attending local festivals. The consequences of such interferences led to the murder of two German missionaries in Shandong in 1897 by the Big Sword Society, the retaliation of Kaiser Wilhelm II was to unnecessarily seize the port of Jiaozhuo. This led the Big sword society, a sect which was eventually taken over by the Boxers, to increase their patriotic efforts, the Germans in reaction burnt down their villages.
Although they appear a patriotic sect, at the time they were no means in support of the Qing as the Qing were Manchu however after these incidents and the influence of Boxer leaders the slogan ‘destroy the Qing, Restore Ming’4 now changed to ‘Support the Qing and drive out the foreigners’5 these series of events led to anti-foreign sentiment due to religious and imperialistic factors, which did contribute to the uprising. However missionaries were soon associated and became scapegoats for the natural disasters which occurred in North China in the late 1890’s, it was soon believed that missionaries were causing the lack of rain and to eliminate the foreigners was to please the rain gods. The below text shows the belief that missionaries and their churches, which took land from the Chinese, contributed to the lack of rain, the text is a propaganda notice put up by the Boxers.
‘No rain comes from Heaven
The earth is parched and dry.
And all because the churches
Have bottled the sky
The Gods are very angry
The spirits seek revenge…’6
This conflict between the two religions was supposedly spearheading the reasoning of the group but it does not truly explain why there was so much peasant support, it is possible that the idea of being invulnerable through the Boxers spiritual rituals was appealing for example empowerment possession which was ‘enormously attractive to those at the bottom of the Chinese scale, regardless of locale’7 Spence also suggests that ‘perhaps 70 percent were poor peasants male and young’8 thus suggesting status was not important in joining a movement where you could become invincible and so naturally an attractive prospect. But reverting back to the geographical problems experienced in 1898 and 1899 it is more likely that desperation for food and unemployment was the predominantly the main reason for joining the cause of the Boxers and arguably without which there wouldn’t have been an uprising to the extent it occurred.
I would suggest that geographical effects were the determining factor, not imperialism and its consequences, in August 1898 ‘a flood broke the Yellow River dikes in three places, sending torrents of water into thirty-four counties, covering over two thousand villages, and making at least temporary refugees out of millions’9 this is arguably significant especially when China is predominantly agrarian, ‘ some 80 percent of a population of about 400 million tilled the land’10, of course that 80 percent did not all live in the surrounding provinces but significantly those effected by the disasters were provinces which were to produce Boxer activity.
Further emphasis on the effect of the floods and the need for food, food which I argue was the main incentive for peasants to join the movement, is the aftermath : ‘many peasants were still huddled on the dikes eating leaves bark or weeds fully three months after the flooding’11 coupled with this post winter 1898 there was a severe drought and the Qing governments was inefficient in providing aid and so it can be said the ideal conditions for revolt and discontent were laid. For peasants with no food and no crops to till joining the Boxers with their supply of food, mainly attained through looting, seemed an attractive option, backing this up is that when a ‘substantial penetrating rain’12 did fall as it did in ‘April along the Zhili-Shandong border’13 the peasants who were involved and fought with the Boxers and the Big Sword Society returned to their crops, this suggests there was no real loyalty to the Boxers cause their motivation to join stemmed from a lack of food and land to till.
Even with the support of a hungry peasantry and a ‘mixture of itinerants and artisans’14 building the numbers of the Boxers, the uprising should have been quelled easily and quickly before it gathered any momentum. The Boxers were an unorganised and leaderless group. When the Boxers ended up in Beijing and Tianjin in June 1900 ‘the Beijing foreign legation quarter was able to withstand a siege until help arrived in August’ thus showing the weakness of the uprising. It is no surprise that they were easily quelled by the western and Japanese forces, however the Qing itself should have stopped the movement a lot earlier, normally the Qing court would ‘crackdown on a mass movement that made unsanctioned use of the Gods’15 but due to the defeat in the Sino-Japanese war of 1895 Qing forces were depleted.
Sympathies gradually arose to the Boxers cause; many officials supported the Boxers for example Yu Xian who was the governor of Shandong and a patron of the Big Sword Society and as Jack Gray theorises his influence could have been used to ‘harmonise the activities of the two societies (Boxers and the Big Sword Society) in a common front against the foreigners’16. Officials who were sick of the loss of authority to the foreigners, in cases tolerated the sects, it is also possible that the ancient Chinese idea that ‘when the people rise in righteousness they are both justified and irresistible’17 was accepted among those whom still held Confucian and traditional values.
These sympathies arguably allowed the development of the uprising to continue, the Empress Dowager Cixi herself decided to support the Boxers she was quoted in saying ‘China is weak; the only thing we can depend upon is the hearts of the people’18 her sentiments were supportive of the Boxers she even declared war against all foreigners further supporting the goals of the Boxers. The Qing court however was divided over fear of the power of the rebels if they won and the hope that they might just defeat the foreigners, eventually there stance shifted from hostility to tolerance and then support. This is arguably an important factor for the Boxer uprising one which did little to apprehend the expansion of the movement and instead encouraged it.
Although the Boxer uprising developed under religious and anti-foreign ideals due to the effects of imperialism, western religion and the failures of the Qing government the main cause itself is geographical. Uprisings always necessitate support, without which it cannot occur, an arguably support was derived from geographical problems in 1898-1899 and not from a spontaneous incessant and united hatred for the foreigners. As mentioned earlier the fact when rain did fall after the drought many peasants returned to their land and stopped fighting, the need for food and purpose was a huge reason for why peasants supported and joined the Boxers. The foreigners were just used as scapegoats for these natural disasters and only gave incentive and purpose to the movement, but it appears more reactionary than a true reason for the cause of the uprising itself. The Qing government itself surely would not have supported the uprising had there not been large numbers of people involved in the Boxers sect, and the attribution to the size of the movement again stems from the flood and drought. The fact that stirrings mainly occurred in the North of China and in the areas where there was drought and conversely little activity in the Centre and South is hardly coincidental, imperialism itself was far stronger in Central and Southern China so why did the Boxers mainly sprout in Northern China? The answer is surely due to the aftermath of the flooding of the Yellow river and the drought that followed in 1899. Imperialistic, religious and political factors may have helped the uprisings development, but the underlying cause and catalyst for the movement was due to the effects of the natural disasters on the Northern peasantry in the late nineteenth century.
1 Peter Zarrow, China in War and Revolution, 1895-1949, (Oxon, 2005), p.7.
2 Zarrow, China in War and Revolution, p.7.
3 China: Inspectorate General of Customs. Returns of Trade and Trade Reports, (1886) cited in Joseph Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, (University of California, 1987), p.69.
4 Jack Gray, China from the 1800’s to 2000, (Oxford, 2002), p.135.
5 Gray, China from the 1800’s to 2000, p.135.
6 Paul Cohen, China Unbound: Evolving Perspectives on the Chinese Past (New York, 2003), p.109.
7 Paul Cohen, History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event Experience and Myth (New York, 1997), p.34. cited in R. Keith Schoppa, Revolution and its past : Identities and Change in modern Chinese History, 2nd Ed. (London, 2006)
8 Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (London 1999), p.231.
9 R. Keith Schoppa, Revolution and its past : Identities and Change in modern Chinese History, 2nd Ed. (London, 2006), p.118.
10 Zarrow, China in War and Revolution, p.6.
11 Joseph Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, (University of California, 1987), p.179. cited in R. Keith Schoppa, Revolution and its past : Identities and Change in modern Chinese History, 2nd Ed. (London, 2006), p.118.
12 Joseph Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, (University of California, 1987), p.281. cited in Paul Cohen History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event Experience and Myth (New York, 1997), p.78.
13 Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, p.281. cited in Paul Cohen History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event Experience and Myth (New York, 1997), p.78.
14 Spence, The Search for Modern China, p.231.
15 Zarrow, China in War and Revolution, p.3.
16 Gray, China from the 1800’s to 2000, p.137.
17 Gray, China from the 1800’s to 2000, pp.136-137
18 Schoppa, Revolution and its past, p.120
Cohen, Paul, China Unbound: Evolving Perspectives on the Chinese Past (New York, 2003)
Esherick, Joseph, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, (University of California, 1987)
Gray, Jack, China from the 1800’s to 2000, (Oxford, 2002)
Schoppa, R. Keith, Revolution and its past : Identities and Change in modern Chinese History, 2nd Ed. (London, 2006)
Spence, Jonathan D, The Search for Modern China (London 1999)
Zarrow, Peter, China in War and Revolution, 1895-1949, (Oxon, 2005)
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