Tsinghua University Founded

Reparations paid by the Chinese to the US following the Boxer Rebellion were used to open Tsinghua University in Beijing on 11 April, 1911.

Top ranking: Tsinghua University, Beijing, China. (Henry Westheim/Alamy)When the Righteous and Harmonious Fists rose up in patriotic fervour in 1899, they did so against the pernicious foreign presence weakening China. Yet the Boxer Rebellion would in actuality hasten the decline of China’s last imperial dynasty and prove a catalyst for its modernisation. 

The Yellow River – known colloquially as ‘China’s sorrow’ – had flooded in 1897, destroying the harvest in the northern province of Shandong. Drought and hardship followed. The Boxer Rebellion emerged from this desperate context, but the target of its anger was the foreign presence, in particular Christianity, which the peasants behind its cause believed had caused the disasters. The Second Opium War had ended in 1860, diminishing the autonomy of the Qing Dynasty which had ruled China since 1644. Among other things the terms of peace granted Catholic missionaries the freedom to preach anywhere in China and summarily purchase land on which to build churches. The presence of telegraph poles and the railway, symbols of modernity, increased anger. 

Lacking an identifiable leader or the cohesion typical of similar uprisings, in August 1899 men wearing red and yellow turbans burned churches and attacked foreigners and Chinese Christians (known as the ‘secondary hairy ones’). The rebellion is considered the last war in which one side believed in the supernatural, using traditional spells which they believed made them invulnerable to bullets. The ‘Boxer’ soubriquet is from a rough translation of the martial art technique Meihuaquan or ‘Plum Flower Boxing’, adhered to by the rebels. With slogans expressing anti-foreign sentiment, tens of thousands of rebels moved on Beijing in 1900 armed with spears, guns and incantations. 

Until this point the Qing Dynasty had been ambivalent towards the Boxers, largely as a result of opposing sympathies within the Forbidden City. But on June 21st the Empress Dowager Cixi declared her support for the rebel army, issuing the ‘Imperial Decree of declaration of war against foreign powers’. Victims of the Boxer Rebellion included westerners (the German ambassador Clemens von Ketteler among them) but the vast majority of victims were Chinese Christians, tens of thousands of whom were killed.

Empress Cixi’s declaration prompted an unlikely coalition. Rival world powers with mutual Chinese interests formed the Eight-Nation Alliance, consisting of Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary and the United States. The alliance mustered over 50,000 men (of whom over 20,000 were Japanese), captured Beijing and put the rebellion down. Predictably, the reparations were severe. Signed on September 7th, 1901, the ‘Final Protocol for the Settlement of the Disturbances of 1900’ is seen as one of China’s ten great humiliations. Alongside the human reprisals (executions, deportations and forced suicides), the protocol demanded roughly $333 million in reparations. 

Born in Guangdong Province in 1864, Liang Cheng had been sent to study in Massachusetts at the age of 12 as part of the Chinese Educational Mission, returning in 1881. In 1902, he was appointed Chinese ambassador to the United States, reportedly meeting President Roosevelt and bonding over a shared love of baseball. Under the terms of the Protocol, the US – which had committed over 3,000 men, including nearly 300 marines to the Alliance – was allocated 7.32 per cent of reparations, a figure that Secretary of State John Hay thought excessive. Learning of this, Cheng negotiated a reduction in the payments and the US agreed to remit $11,961,121.76 on December 28th, 1908. Various events delayed the remittance, including Hay’s death, lack of US public support and China’s refusal to reveal how the money would be spent. 

The Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program was proposed by Edmund J. James, president of the University of Illinois, who argued that, with China on the cusp of a revolution, ‘the nation which succeeds in educating the young Chinese will be the nation which will reap the largest possible returns in moral, intellectual and commercial influence’. The funds were used to open Tsinghua College in Beijing in April 1911, designed to serve as a preparatory school for Chinese students before studying in the United States. James was correct about imminent revolution, though he probably did not envision Chairman Mao: during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s many of its students joined the Red Guards. The university began admitting students again in 1978, becoming a multidisciplinary institution in the 1980s. It is consistently ranked among the best in China, with two Nobel Prize laureates among its alumni.