Chinese Burns: The British in China 1842-1900

Robert Bickers shows how the history of British and European imperialism in China helps explain the ferocious Boxer War of 1900.

The Boxer Rising began in the obscurity of the north-west regions of China's Shandong province in 1899. It finished as an international crisis. The Chinese siege of the foreign legations in the capital city Beijing from June 20th to August 14th, 1900, gripped the world's press. It fed and still feeds a steady stream of memoir and narrative to willing publishers.

The 'Boxer' became an international figure. But the episode began in 1899 when young Shandong farm boys, made idle as drought followed flooding, started practising 'spirit boxing', a martial art which was acquiring new features including individual 'spirit possession' and invulnerability rituals. They then set out to right a world gone wrong. Boxer beliefs, circulated through placards and pamphlets and rehearsed in doggerel and rumour, restated common prejudices and exacerbated long-standing rural tensions by scapegoating Chinese Christian converts and their foreign missionary mentors. They believed that church spires pierced the sky and prevented the rains and that the withdrawal of converts from communal ritual life unbalanced the world. Exterminating the foreign would surely bring the rain and also save their Qing rulers from foreign aggression.

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