China's Story - William Griffis

The Boxer Riots

Her exorbitant creditors now pressed China, and as usual she had to pay all the bills. To Russia she, yielded the right to extend her Siberian railway through Manchuria to Vladivostok, with branch lines to Mukden and Port Arthur. The French were promised that railways in China when built should meet theirs in Tong King. Germany was given fresh mining and railway privileges in Shantung.

The burdens of the war fell upon the poor people, who were goaded almost to universal rebellion by the new exactions laid upon them. One of the worst results was the pitiable exposure of China's military weakness, the great world, as usual, having been misled by notions of bulk. It was the old case of Jack and the Giant. Hercules, with only the head of a cocoanut, is no match against brains and nimbleness, whether of sprightly boys or intelligent princesses.

Foreign powers now seemed to rely less on diplomacy and reason, and more and more on force and brutality. One British author even wrote a book entitled "The Break-up of China." It was something like that of another British historian, whose premature work was entitled a "History of Federal Government from the Amphictyonic Council to the Disruption of the United States of America."

Beneath diplomacy and war there lie other motives than political ambition, earth-hunger, martial glory, or love of conquest, chiefly commercial. Trade wars for markets are often provoked to enrich a few men at the expense of the many. Economic conditions in America forced European action. As soon as steel could be produced in Pittsburg cheaper than in Europe, the United States not only ceased to be a market for this metal, but became an exporter, and the Europeans saw that they must seek new customers. At once they made strenuous efforts to get at China's untold wealth of iron and coal.

To find both market and fields of profitable investment is the motive underlying most of Western statecraft concerning the Far East. China's mineral wealth exceeds that of ten Pennsylvanias. Within four months from America's economic independence of Europe, Germany, Great Britain, France, Russia, and even Italy made a rush to be in at the supposed "break-up of China." When on November 1, 1897, two Roman Catholic missionaries from Germany were murdered by robbers in Shantung, Germany landed troops, drove Chinese soldiers out of the forts, demanded indemnity, with mining and railway privileges, and a lease of Kiao Chau for ninety-nine years. Helpless China agreed.

Russia demanded a German-like lease of both Port Arthur and Talien Wan, and at once began building a great city of empty houses called Dalny. At this the Japanese were not surprised. As soon as the Mikado's soldiers evacuated Wei-hai-wei, Great Britain took a twenty-five years' lease of the place, and in 1899 secured more land back of Hong Kong also. Italy sent a warship to demand San-men Bay, but was refused. Europeans who had been making new maps and dividing China up into "spheres of influence" wondered what was the new power that had stiffened China's back to refuse further vivisection. They soon found that the empress dowager had returned to power.

Meanwhile the Chinese people, looking at these acts of European governments as spoliations, became more embittered than ever against foreigners. In addition to the staggering burdens of taxation imposed under the form of indemnities, the so-called Christian nations were vivisecting their country. Now began the interior activities of the secret society of United Righteous Strikers, called later, by foreigners, the Boxers.

Hurricane reform is as dangerous as the dry-rot of conservatism. In 1898, under the influence of a patriot, Kang Yu Wei, the young emperor Kwang Si began the issue of edicts of reform, which, had they been patiently carried out, would have made a new life for China. The civil service examinations were entirely changed, so as to bring the curriculum into harmony with modern needs. The government was to be reorganized. A system of public schools on Western models was to be established, and the right to petition the throne was to be given to all officers throughout the empire. Ardent and radical reformers rejoiced at the action of the young emperor and foresaw a new era.

Looking at this wonderful programme from the Western point of view, it seemed right and promising. The motives of the reformers appeared to be pure and their proceedings righteous. The dawn of the new day was widely heralded.

From the Chinese point of view, however, especially from that of the Court in Peking, the whole situation and the purposes of the reformers were interpreted differently. The Conservatives saw in the new movement the machinations of traitors, and the subversion of ancient customs. They discerned also a plot to kidnap and remove the empress dowager.

In most old-fashioned Oriental schemes to secure unanimity of opinion, even as in some instances in the West, the removal of the heads of opponents was part of the proceedings. The conservatives, led by the empress, struck a blow for their own lives, and, as they believed, for the stability of the empire. With military force in reserve, the empress dowager, on the 22d of September, 1898, seized the person of the young emperor and made him sign a paper, in which it was stated that owing to ill-health—the stock pretext in Asia—he was obliged to drop the reins of government. The same lady who had lifted the baby, crying, out of his cradle, now drove the grown man off the throne.

The dowager empress became regent of the empire, and the reformers were bunted out and banished or beheaded. With the ultra-conservatives around her and now in power, she, in the emperor's name, by the decree of September 26, negatived the proposed reforms. The spirit of the government became more anti-foreign. Secret plots to rid China of all aliens, whose modern machinery, both political and commercial, threatened the very existence of the hoary empire, were undoubtedly encouraged at court. Lest the reform spirit might break out afresh and the men of new mind rally round the young emperor, the empress dowager compelled her nephew to issue a decree on the Chinese New Year's Day, January 31, 1900, announcing that he had abdicated. Despite all protests, native and foreign, which only confirmed her purpose, she had her own way. A reign of terror against all reformers was instituted. Prince Tuan's son, a little boy, was made heir apparent.

In all these proceedings the empress was probably actuated only by one dominating motive,—to prevent what foreigners had proclaimed "the break-up of China," and to save her country and people. There were too many eagles gathered together waiting for the expected corpse. She postponed the feast. The language of one of her decrees, like a window looking to the sun, lets in a great light upon the situation. It was as noble an address to her people as was Queen Elizabeth's to Englishmen in face of the Spanish Armada:—

"Let no one think of making peace, but let each strive to preserve from destruction and spoliation by the ruthless band of the invader his ancestral home and graves."

This was the Chinese woman's way of striking back at the spoilers, who under threat of battle-ships and armies of invasion had forced China to let them occupy her soil, and who ruthlessly disordered China's ancient industrial system.

The hundreds of thousands of rice-winners thrown out of employment made good material for agitators to work upon. The Buddhist priests used diligently their opportunity to organize a campaign against the foreign religion. The conservative Manchus at court, maddened by their repeated humiliations at the hands of the Europeans, were ready to utilize any movement, even apparently anti-dynastic, that promised to rid their country of the aliens. In their treatment of China and principles of diplomacy, these Europeans seemed to defy Heaven and all righteousness.

In the Confucian province of Shantung, a society had been formed whose original purpose was to expel the foreigners—Manchus. They were the Know-Nothings of the Middle Kingdom. As European aggression increased, these men attributed the woes of China to the misrule of the Tartar dynasty in Peking, and to the cowardice of their rulers in yielding to the Westerners. Because these "Fisters" were so anti-foreign in spirit, the Manchus opposed to reform were able to turn them to their own purpose.

Their name, composed of three Chinese characters meaning Righteousness, Unity, and Fists, may be translated Harmonious Holy Pugilists, or Righteous United Fisters, or Strikers, or, in short, Boxers. Armed for the most part only with arrows, swords, and spears, they began to drill in bodies during the autumn of 1899. Few were accustomed to guns and cartridges, and no large number of them ever mastered the use of firearms. They knew nothing of the tactics of real soldiers, or of the idea of unity of operations in a large army. This fact afterwards proved the salvation of the besieged in Peking. Misled largely by Taoist and Buddhist priests, the Boxers depended on charms and incantations, believing themselves invulnerable to the bullets of the aliens, who, they imagined, could be hypnotized and their missiles rendered harmless.

From first to last the Boxer uprising was nothing but a riot on a large scale, with which at first the Peking mandarins were unable to cope. Happily the authorities at Washington, learning this fact promptly, were saved from foolish diplomacy. No regular soldiers fired a hostile shot, nor did the Chinese government order, or let loose, its army against the Westerners, until the allied Europeans and Japanese—the Americans refusing to join in the "entangling alliance"—had wantonly begun war against a friendly nation by firing upon and destroying the Chinese forts at Taku.

The Boxers struck first at the native Christians, because they identified these as "foreigner-Chinese," who were supposed to approve of the doings of Europeans, the common people not being able to discriminate between the governments and the missionaries, or the differing motives of the various foreigners. With what looked like the impeding division of the empire among aliens, neither the local mandarins nor those in the central government were zealous in punishing the rioters, who were thus made bold to other excesses.

Furthermore, since it was possible to believe anything in old China, both the imperial troops and the local magistrates were terrified, thinking that the Boxers possessed magical powers and arts. In Shantung and northern China, therefore, the mandarins shrunk from strong measures. In the centre and south, where a vigorous preventive attitude was assumed by province governors, few or no symptoms of the Boxer madness manifested themselves, and foreigners were safe. In its actual outbreak, in 1900, the Boxer movement was wholly a northern affair.

The missionaries, living among the people and understanding their language, had long before warned the legations of their danger, but their words were not taken seriously. As a matter of fact, few of the diplomatists had been long in China, or knew the country or people well. Happily, however, convinced of their critical situation, they secured by telegrams several hundred marines and sailors, sent June 8, from the warships. Then they were isolated from the world, for the wires were cut and the rails, rolling stock, and stations of the railway destroyed. The first property injured by the Boxers was that supposed by them to have taken the rice out of their mouths.

All the foreigners in the capital and the native Christians, making common cause, assembled in the legation quarter. This, fortified under the directions of Rev. F. D. Gamewell, the American missionary-engineer, was soon surrounded by the rioters. So far, however, not one national soldier had fired a shot, for this was a riot, which the Peking government was unable to quell. In the Imperial Council some mandarins were only reasonably friendly to foreigners, while others were stalwart against the idea of injuring them, breaking the faith of treaties, or showing any sympathy with the rioters. But their strong arm of righteousness was paralyzed by the action of the allies in wantonly making war on China, as we shall see.

Knowing the awful danger of their countrymen beleaguered in Peking, the British Admiral Seymour and the American Captain McCalla quickly organized a force of a thousand men. These, hastily equipped and poorly provisioned, reached Tien Tsin June 10. Beyond this point the rails were torn up. It was slow work repairing the railway, and the rioters were swarming around them, but they bravely fought their way forward until provisions gave out, and they were obliged to retreat. Now began their surprises and terrible disasters.