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The Chinese Boxer Rebellion Was A Failed Revolution History Essay

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Any basic inquiry into the understanding of the “Chinese Revolution” would spark an open debate to a controversial string of complex events, namely the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, the Boxer Rebellion, the Xinhai Revolution, the Chinese Revolution of 1949 and lastly the Cultural Revolution. Undoubtedly, the success of the Chinese revolution as an entirety lies embedded in every turbulent and dramatic event which denotes that revolution, or at the very least China’s revolution is better understood as a long term “revolutionary process” (Krejčí 1994: 7; Tanter and Midlarsky 1967: 267). Complications arise when up till today, no single universal theory of revolution which justifiably explains all forms of revolution exist (Freeman 1972: 358). What constitutes certain events to be tagged as a “revolution” while others are demonized as a “rebellion”? This paper seeks to argue that the Boxer Rebellion was indeed a failed revolution, but a revolution nonetheless and was termed a “rebellion” due to political agendas (Dunn 1989: 70).

The multitude of different approaches one could consider in the application of certain events to be revolutionary or not, appears to be incredibly subjective. Freeman wittingly notes that the number of revolutions that took place in France between 1789 and 1799 could range from zero to nine, depending on the approach one wishes to adopt when identifying revolutions (1972: 359). This does not entail that revolutionary theorists are flippant in their attitude towards analyzing revolutions but demark different approaches towards their own ideal of a genuine revolution. I shall be reiterating this point by illustrating key concepts within Karl Marx’s and Chalmers Johnson’s theories of revolution in mind and the Boxer rebellion as my backdrop.

A Marxist views revolutions as “a product of irresistible historical forces, which culminate in a struggle between bourgeoisie and the proletariat” (cited in Tanter and Midlarsky 1967: 264). However, the Boxer rebellion was a clash between peasantry and sectarian elements from the Boxers cult against foreigners and Christians (Wakeman 1977: 209). Under the Marxist framework, the Boxer rebellion is cursed to remain as a “rebellion”. Who were these mystical “Boxers” that eventually had the rebellion named after them? Academics are still divided as to the original roots and the actual aims of this organization (Wakeman 1977: 208-209). Joseph Esherick notes that there were in fact two separate Boxer traditions (citied in Harrell and Perry 1982: 298). In southwestern Shandong, the Boxers began as a conservative self-defense group lead by land owners and rich peasants to protect their land from bandits. While in northwestern Shandong, the Boxers were ordinary folk who practiced a sort of egalitarian rule where they basically manage themselves. Harrell and Perry note sectarian movements like the Boxers, do not possess a doctrinal element which is passively rebellious (1982: 294-296). The Boxers were basically peasants who grouped together for the purpose of their own self-preservation.

Would Marxism be able explain the Boxer Rebellion? In his book, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in China, Manabendra Nath Roy, an Indian Comintern agent in China concluded the Taiping Revolt to be the first phase of a Marxist bourgeois democratic revolution and the second stage was none other than the Boxer rebellion (cited in Fairbank 1949: 279). Fairbank argues that this endeavor to apply Marxist patterns dogmatically into Chinese society is baseless without a more concrete study of Chinese social and cultural aspects (1949: 282). A superficial application of Marxist theories into the Chinese revolutionary framework imposes Western “class structure” and a multitude of social and economical factors which would have existed very differently in Chinese society than. Ultimately, a true Marxist revolution is an economical revolution and not a social revolution. Therefore, the Boxer rebellion would not be considered a genuine “revolution” if we chose to view it under a strict Marxist approach.

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However, if we are to accept Chalmers Johnson’s definition of a revolution which he identifies four key factors; “social changes, successful or unsuccessful, involving violence and concerning the principles of distributive justice prevailing in society”, the Boxer rebellion would perfectly fit in this paradigm as a “revolution” (cited in Freeman 1972: 345). Social change was apparent during the prelude of the Boxer rebellion in 1898 as China as a whole was under a constant onslaught of social upheavals such as the Opium Wars, the Taiping rebellion and the Sino-Japanese War (Manning 1910: 849). The succession of turmoils brought about much stress and humiliation towards the Chinese peasantry population as at the end of the day, the brunt of the burden will be laid on the peasants in terms of the availability of sustenance. The success or failure of a movement is not regarded as crucial within Chalmers’s framework. Even though the imperial Chinese forces were defeated at the Siege of Legations, the movement still qualifies as a “revolution”. Violence was transparent with the mass killings of Christians and foreigners wherever the Boxers went. Justice is believed to have been delivered by ridding the country of the evils that were exploiting and humiliating Chinese society. Under Chalmer’s theory, the Boxer rebellion would indeed be considered a “revolution”.

Have the objectives of the movement been met? Is this event considered a failed revolution? In order to answer this question, we firstly have to understand the objectives of the Boxer rebellion. Surprisingly, scholarship offers little understanding to the demands of the Boxers, other than the obvious xenophobia towards foreigners and Christians, and the desire to expel them from the country. In this regard, the rebellion has failed as the outcome was further humiliation to China though the signing of the Boxer Protocol on 7th September 1901 and increased foreign military presence on Chinese soil (Manning 1910: 860-861). However, what success the movement achieved whether unintentionally or intentionally are twofold. Firstly, is to force foreign powers to think twice before they dwell to further divide up China amongst themselves, as it might induce further revolts on their hands if they continue to do so. Secondly, the “failure” of the Boxer rebellion would spark further hatred towards the foreign powers generated from the shame of the Boxer Protocol, which would in turn give strength to the next revolt.

So far, I have argued that the Boxer rebellion can be seen either as a revolution or not, depending on the choice of theory one adapts. This suggests that the labeling of a particular event to be known as a revolution or a rebellion does not pivot on the edge of theories, but of something else. I believe political agenda hold the key to the understanding of classifying revolutions and rebellions. Stone highlights the concept of “internal war” to replace colonial wars, civil wars and social revolutions, and defines it as “any attempt to alter state policy, rulers, or institutions by the use of violence, in societies where violent competition is not the norm and where well-defined institutional patterns exist” (1966: 160). If we adopt a dichotomic approach to Stone’s definition together with Clausewitz’s most famous dictum which states that “war is but a continuation of politics by other means”, we see that “revolution” or “internal war” as a word by itself has its hidden connotations within politics. Words like “rebellion” and “revolution” bring about their own cases of political baggage whenever they are thrown. For example, the usage of “rebellion” would hint opposition to the government, while on the other hand, “revolution” inspires hope and emancipation from oppression (Harrell and Perry 1982: 296; Bauman 1994: 15-17). It is viewed through this lens, that there is a possibility that the Qing government labeled the peasantry movement to be a “rebellion” so as to appease the foreign powers into believing that the Qing government was indeed on their side. This was purely a political maneuver done so in order to receive less hash reparations when dealing with the “Boxer Protocol”.

In conclusion, this paper has shown how one is able to flexibly use certain revolutionary approaches to label an event to be revolutionary or not. I am not suggesting we adopt a flippant attitude towards the way we view revolutionary theories, but encourage the notion of viewing various revolutions against different theories as the multitude of approaches will certainly enlighten us in a variety of ways. The Boxer rebellion does indeed have revolutionary characteristics according to certain theorists. However, due to political interests, the “Boxer revolution” is forever known as the “Boxer rebellion”. As the popular saying goes, one man’s rebel is another man’s “revolutionist”.

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