Clash of cul­tures

The re­bel­lion erupted in China amid decades of Western im­pe­ri­al­ism, the de­cline of the Qing dy­nasty and fears that the tra­di­tions and her­itage of the peo­ple were in jeop­ardy

History of War - - CONTENTS -

Western su­per­pow­ers sought to leave their own stamp on the ‘sick man of Asia’

For more than 200 years the Qing dy­nasty had ruled China – a coun­try that was to Western­ers a vast, mys­te­ri­ous land that seemed to beckon the en­trepreneurial, ad­ven­tur­ous and am­bi­tious from Europe and Amer­ica to ex­plore, dis­cover and some­times ex­ploit. As early as 1793 Em­peror Qian­long told Lord Mccart­ney, a Bri­tish en­voy, that China pos­sessed “all things” and nei­ther needed nor de­sired trade with the in­dus­tri­al­is­ing West.

Nev­er­the­less, within half a cen­tury the Chi­nese had suf­fered de­feat in the Opium Wars, utilised first by Britain and later Rus­sia, France, and the United States to open China to trade. As Western in­flu­ence grew, China’s nat­u­ral re­sources were plun­dered while the peo­ple watched the steady im­pe­ri­al­ist en­croach­ment, seem­ingly pow­er­less to stem the tide.

Along with Euro­pean and Amer­i­can in­cur­sions came the cul­tural shock of Western civ­i­liza­tion, par­tic­u­larly the in­tro­duc­tion of the Chris­tian church. While some Western ob­servers de­cried the ex­ploita­tion of the Chi­nese, others adopted a more pa­ter­nal per­spec­tive. Con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­ity would be pos­i­tive, they rea­soned.

The Chi­nese were pre­sented as be­ing in­ca­pable of manag­ing their own af­fairs in the mod­ern world. Euro­pean and Amer­i­can ‘bene­fac­tors’ would as­sist. In 1884 France was vic­to­ri­ous in a brief war with China and took con­trol of In­dochina (later Viet­nam). A decade later Ja­pan, which had by then em­braced in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, de­ci­sively de­feated China in the Sino-ja­panese War of 1894-95, seiz­ing con­trol of the Korean Penin­sula and as­sum­ing trade con­ces­sions sim­i­lar to those of the Western pow­ers.

To ex­ac­er­bate mat­ters, floods, droughts and famines wracked the land, com­pound­ing the woes of the Chi­nese peas­ant class. In the midst of the up­heaval cre­ated by grind­ing poverty in north­east­ern China rose the So­ci­ety of the Right­eous and Har­mo­nious Fists, a se­cre­tive as­so­ci­a­tion that prac­tised mar­tial arts and in­tense phys­i­cal ex­er­cise in the be­lief that it would make them im­per­vi­ous to in­jury from the bul­lets of Western guns. Ob­servers of their reg­i­mented ex­er­cise rou­tines were re­minded of ‘shadow box­ing’ and re­ferred to the so­ci­ety’s mem­bers as ‘Box­ers’.

Their per­cep­tion of the ero­sion of Chi­nese cul­ture, so­ci­ety and po­lit­i­cal au­ton­omy in­evitably drove the Box­ers to mil­i­tancy. In de­fence of their way of life, the Box­ers be­came vi­o­lent, anti-western and anti-chris­tian while fos­ter­ing di­vided loy­al­ties even within the hi­er­ar­chy of the rul­ing Qing dy­nasty. The Boxer Re­bel­lion raged across the coun­try­side from Novem­ber 1899 un­til Septem­ber 1901 and erupted in the streets of the cap­i­tal of Bei­jing and the port city of Tientsin. The Box­ers burned churches, threat­ened the eco­nomic in­ter­ests of Europe and the United States in China, mur­dered Western­ers and killed their own peo­ple who had con­verted from the tra­di­tional re­li­gion to Chris­tian­ity. Dowa­ger Em­press Tz’u-hzi re­strained the army from sup­press­ing the

Box­ers as vi­o­lence es­ca­lated in Shan­dong and Zhili prov­inces, and went a step fur­ther with a dec­la­ra­tion of war against any for­eign na­tion with diplo­matic or eco­nomic ties to China. By the time the Eight-na­tion Al­liance of Britain, Rus­sia, France, Ger­many, the United States, Italy and Aus­tria-hun­gary had put down the re­bel­lion thou­sands had died – the ma­jor­ity of them in­no­cent Chi­nese.

The clash of cul­tures was in­evitable and vi­o­lence was its pre­dictable by-prod­uct. To this day the de­bate rages as to where real cul­pa­bil­ity lies. Western im­pe­ri­al­ism and its lust for power was, with­out doubt, a con­tribut­ing fac­tor, as were the se­ries of man-made and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters that had be­fallen the Chi­nese peo­ple in the decades pre­ced­ing the Boxer Re­bel­lion. The in­ef­fec­tive lead­er­ship of the Qing rulers as their ca­pac­ity to gov­ern steadily de­clined, and the mil­i­tancy of the Box­ers bol­stered by their dis­re­gard for life and prop­erty all played a part. Ul­ti­mately the Boxer Re­bel­lion was the fu­ri­ous re­lease of pent-up rage against the bur­geon­ing Western phi­los­o­phy of a ‘bet­ter way’ that of­fered a con­ve­nient ex­cuse to ex­er­cise im­pe­ri­al­ism in China.

At times the most salient point in an eval­u­a­tion of the Boxer Re­bel­lion, its causes and its wretched af­ter­math is over­looked. Western his­to­ri­ans tend to con­sider the cri­sis through the prism of Western val­ues and the eyes of those im­mersed in Western cul­ture. But the Chi­nese peo­ple had de­vel­oped and lived in a com­plex so­ci­ety with its own val­ues sys­tem and its own per­spec­tive on the world long be­fore the first Euro­peans set foot on the Asian con­ti­nent. Ul­ti­mately both sides were guilty of judg­ing the other cul­ture’s way of life through their own cul­tural val­ues, which led to mis­un­der­stand­ing and con­flict.


RIGHT: Ts’u-hzi, who was ef­fec­tively ruler of China for al­most 50 years, op­posed the west­ern­i­sa­tion of her coun­try

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