Interview with Historian David Silbey

3/1/2012 • MH Interviews

A contemporary print shows Japanese (foreground), British and French (background) forces storming a Chinese walled city during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. (Torajiro Kasai/Library of Congress)
A contemporary print shows Japanese (foreground), British and French (background) forces storming a Chinese walled city during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. (Torajiro Kasai/Library of Congress)

Northern China in the summer of 1900 was the scene of the Boxer Rebellion, one of the most spontaneous, disorganized, violent and downright peculiar uprisings of that or any other century. Vividly described and detailed by Cornell University historian David J. Silbey in his new book, The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China, the rebellion was at once a peasants’ insurgency, an attack on modernism, a clash of cultures and a game changer in the nascent international struggle for power in the Pacific in the new century. Based on letters, diaries and memoirs of many participants, Silbey’s brisk narrative traces the root causes, the wild and bloody clashes between the ill-armed Boxers (who mystically believed themselves invulnerable) and the combined military units of Japan, Russia, Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Italy and the United States, and the global consequences of this hitherto-bewildering struggle.

‘China has a long tradition of having secret societies rise up when [that country] is in chaos’

What was the origin of the Boxers?
To understand the Boxers, you have to understand what was going on with China in the late 19th century. It was a country in chaos. The government was not working effectively. The economy was being horribly disrupted by the arrival of industrialism and modernity—railroads, telegraph and the like. Even the environment was not cooperating; northern China was subject to floods and droughts.

Was the rebellion a response to that chaos in China?
Yes, China has a long tradition of having secret societies rise up when China is in chaos. They’re a combination of secret clubs, mutual-aid societies and martial-arts groups. They are communities of action and support for the people getting hurt. The Boxers were one of these.

What was the Boxers’ ideology?
The name “Boxer” is a rough translation of an expression that means “fists united in righteousness.” They were dedicated to two things: One, a set of martial-arts rituals that promised physical immunity to harm—if done correctly. Two, to getting rid of corrupting influences in Chinese society and compelling the ruling dynasty to drive out modern “decadent” influences. They had a simple slogan: “Exterminate the foreigner; support the [Qing] dynasty.”

They blamed China’s ills on foreigners?
Yes, exactly. There was a logic to it: Many Chinese worked in industries that were disrupted by the arrival of the railroad and the telegraph. There was a sense that China’s balance had been thrown out of whack by these modern innovations, and only by destroying the innovations and the foreigners who brought them could the balance be restored.

How widespread was xenophobia?
Very, especially among rural Chinese. They were very insular and unused to outsiders—such as Western missionaries—especially outsiders with massively different values from theirs.

Who were the Boxer leaders?
There was no real leadership. Each local group had its own leader, but not officially and not nationally. That was both the strength and weakness of the movement—weakness in that they didn’t coordinate well, but strength in that there was nobody to lock up.

How did the Boxers grow so quickly and spark a full-blown rebellion?
They offered a very simple view of the world that coincided with the way many Chinese were perceiving what was going on—and offered a solution. The Boxer message was easy to understand, easy to transmit and simple to carry out. In a fairly illiterate population that is something that can spread very quickly—as it did in that drought summer of 1900.

How large did the movement get?
It’s hard to answer that authoritatively—they did not count themselves and do reports. My estimate is that Boxer groups in the villages probably topped out south of 100 people. Once they got into cities like Beijing, where the population was in the millions, their numbers were probably in the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands. The total number of Boxers across northern China was probably 500,000 to 1 million.

Why did the Boxers attack foreign missionaries so savagely?
The Boxers went after the foreigners they saw every day—missionaries, railroad engineers, telegraph workers—the foreigners who represented what they saw was wrong with China. Remember, this was a very violent culture. It is a cliché to say that life was cheap in China at the time, but to some extent that was true. Add to that the strangeness of the Westerners to the Chinese; it was very easy for them to dehumanize their targets, to see them as not real human beings.

So the foreign missionaries were a really disruptive force?
Immensely so. Especially in the northern provinces, and Shandong was one of the provinces where missionaries—especially the German missionaries—were really aggressive about proselytizing. Just by their presence the missionaries were making a value statement, essentially saying: “You are insufficient, your religion is wrong, your education system is wrong. We are going to correct you.”

What were all these Westerners—missionaries, diplomats, technicians, soldiers—doing in China?
Early in the 19th century a few European imperial powers—England, France, Denmark and Belgium—divided the world among themselves. Then, later in the century, the new powers—the United States, Germany, Russia and Japan—sought empires of their own, but the only big chunk left was China. The Chinese tried to resist but failed. They were not strong enough militarily or politically, so parts of China got nipped off as “concessions.” That’s when the British acquired Hong Kong and the Portuguese acquired Macao.

What did the Westerners want?
The British and the Americans were interested in markets. The Germans and the Russians wanted territory. The Japanese wanted domination, and their two rivals in Asia were the Chinese and the Russians. They wanted to control China.

Why did Western diplomats and their military units react so sluggishly to the Boxer uprising?
Chinese political and social life had been very chaotic for the previous decade. So at first the Boxers were seen as just more social chaos. The Westerners were surprised by how quickly the rebellion exploded in Beijing, where at the beginning of May 1900 things were essentially fine, and within two weeks the legations were besieged by Boxers. Finally, there had been a lot of turnover among people posted at the embassies in China, so many of the ministers lacked the long-term experience to see that the Boxer uprising was something really different.

How did Western military units in China coordinate their attacks?
Badly. If you tried to design the worst possible command structure for military expeditions, you couldn’t come up with anything worse than how the Westerners managed it in China in 1900. For their second expedition they organized a generals’ council, which met every day to decide on policy. You know the old joke about a camel being a horse designed by a committee? This was the same thing, and it went about as well.

How did the Boxer Rebellion end?
It’s a mystery. The Boxers just disappeared in the middle of August, hanging the Chinese army out to dry. It very quickly lost Beijing, and the empress and emperor had to flee. None of the histories really explain where the Boxers went. Here’s what I found: For January through July 1900 the rainfall totals there were below 1 inch per month, which is very low. It’s the drought. But in August 1900, 15 inches of rain fell, and in September, 10 inches. The drought ended, and I think what happened is that the men who joined the Boxers decided, All right, I had an adventurous time, I exterminated some foreigners, I supported the dynasty, and now it’s time to go back to my real life as a farmer. They just went home.

What were the long-term consequences of the Boxer Rebellion?
It cemented the collapse of the Chinese dynasty. And that’s when the revolutionary elements in China saw both the fecklessness of the dynasty and the nasty imperialism of the West. People like Mao Zedong and Sun Yat-sen took strong lessons from the Boxers.

And the global consequences?
It confirmed Japan as the rising power in Asia. The United States also became an Asian power, committed to some kind of role in China and in the Philippines—thus putting Japan and America on a collision course.

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