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
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.
“TO THIS DAY THE DEBATE RAGES AS TO WHERE REAL CULPABILITY LIES”
RIGHT: Ts’u-hzi, who was effectively ruler of China for almost 50 years, opposed the westernisation of her country