Chinese sovereignty after the Second Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion is best described as a face-saving fiction which the West agreed to allow the Qing government. The dynasty could make its own decisions about the conduct of the country only when and where the West found it convenient. The tariffs it was permitted to place on trade goods, for example, were dictated to it by outsiders. Even the territorial integrity of China persisted only at the sufferance of other nations. When said nations demanded that they be handed large blocks of real estate inside the major trading ports, to occupy and administrate with no regard to the extant Chinese laws of the land, the Qing had no choice but to agree.

Fully half of Shanghai was given over under these terms to Western nationals, who turned their holdings into a gangster town beside which even Al Capone’s Chicago pales, a wonderland of drink, drugs, dance, and brothels that must have caused Confucius to turn over in his grave. The foreigners took advantage of the cheap native labor to rebuild their “international quarter” in their own image, creating a hodgepodge of Western-style architecture united only by its incongruity in a Chinese context. Men who would have been considered of only modest means in their home countries got to live the lives of millionaires and aristocrats in Shanghai. They were quite literally above the law; even if they chose to kill one of their Chinese valets, chefs, gardeners, porters, maids, laundresses, stable boys, or mistresses, there was nothing the Chinese government could do about it. Signs appeared in the public parks of the international quarter: “No dogs or Chinese allowed.”

As if China’s humiliation wasn’t already extreme enough, one of its closest neighbors in terms of both culture and geography also piled on. The Japanese islands had long been the home of a similarly insular society, with its Great Wall taking the form of the ocean that separated it from others. But, observing the degradation China was suffering at the hands of the West, Japan’s leaders decided to open themselves up to trade in a controlled fashion and to modernize their government and especially their military along largely Western lines before their own turn came around. Duly impressed, Western pundits pronounced Japan the exception to the rule of Oriental lassitude and ineffectuality — the very same exceptional status they had been willing to grant China during the better days of the Qing. Labeling Japan “racially Asiatic” but “adoptively European,” they mostly left it alone to manage its own affairs.

Eager to flex its newfound military muscle, but not wanting any direct conflict with the West as yet, Japan took to bullying China with all the enthusiasm evinced by the European powers before it. This was ignominy for China on a whole new level. China had, after all, always stood supreme at the top of the pyramid of settled East Asian cultures; the very glyphs the Japanese used to write their language, not to mention much of their philosophy and religion, had been borrowed from China. But the filial piety that their civilization owed to China now counted for nothing. Matters came fully to a head in 1894, when Japan declared war on China and proceeded to trounce it as handily as the Europeans had done in earlier decades, taking the island of Taiwan as the price of ceasing its depredations, along with access to the major port cities identical to that already enjoyed by the Europeans.

“We are the poorest and weakest state in the world, occupying the lowest position in international affairs,” said Sun Yat-sen, a Chinese statesman who will soon figure prominently in our story. “The rest of mankind is the carving knife and the serving dish, while we are the fish and the meat.” Proposed remedies for this deleterious situation broke along two lines that are all too typical of a land suffering a crisis of confidence. The reactionaries insisted that China’s plight was a result of its having already deviated too far from its traditions — that the only way out was to double down on Confucianism, reverence for the emperor, and everything else that had sustained China over the past 2000 years. Meanwhile the radical contingent saw China’s long history as a straitjacket, the wellspring of its diminished present, and pushed for a full-scale Westernization that would reshape every aspect of society and restore the country’s competitive edge.

Reformers of this latter stripe held an uncompromising mirror up to aspects of Chinese life that had gone unquestioned for hundreds or thousands of years. For instance, these generally young idealists dared to bring into the open their people’s longstanding practice of quietly drowning unwanted babies — meaning for the most part female ones.

As soon as the infants are born into this world, they become the victims of murder. They struggle in the water for a long time before they fall silent. On hearing their cries, one is brought to the brink of tears; on talking about it, one’s heart is rent with sorrow.

How can anyone be so cruel? Is it that people are evil by nature? No. It is that the custom has become so prevalent that people can no longer see the cruelty in it. Yet Heaven encourages life, and man abhors killing. Charitable people who are determined to accumulate good deeds even buy live animals just to release them! Why not save human lives?

A new generation of muckraking journalists investigated the plight of laborers in such branches as coal mining, which in waterlogged Southern Inner China often first entailed pumping out the underground water reservoirs that lay atop the precious veins of rock.

The foremen built near the pit dark, damp earthen cubicles which had only a single opening. Surrounded by stockades, both the entrances and exits of these cubicles were controlled by the foremen. These were known as “sealed drums.” People lured, bought, tricked, or kidnapped were all incarcerated in such drums, and were called “water toads.” Their clothes and shoes were stripped off, and they were forced to work manning the water pumps in alternating shifts day and night without respite. No consideration was given to their hunger and cold. Those who looked tired had their backs whipped, and those who attempted to escape had their feet slashed. Moreover, because it is freezing in the pits and the work is extremely heavy, the weaker miners usually died within a fortnight, and stronger ones suffered from rotten legs and swollen bellies within a couple of months. Without rest and medication, they perished helplessly. What was most pitiful was that those water toads who survived were still kept in the drums during the spring suspension in order to be used as water pumpers again the next season.

The situation was kept hidden from the outside world. The dozens or hundreds of water toads who died at each mine every year were buried in the caves nearby. Not even their relatives were informed of their deaths…

The young journalists didn’t hesitate to prescribe remedies for the country’s woes. In doing so, they often placed themselves at odds not only with the imperial government but with many Westerners, who were perfectly comfortable with the current status quo in China. Consider, for example, the reformist position on the ongoing scourge of opium.

Opium smoking is the enemy of all of us. We have the physical and moral strength to do something about it, and we should do everything we possibly can to rid ourselves of it, treating it like a noxious substance or infectious disease. It is simply because education is underdeveloped and our people ignorant that they seek a narcotic to escape their troubles. We are late in doing something about this. Therefore everyone in our country, high and low, must look on the task as a matter of life and death, of saving people from water or fire, and not slack off for a moment.

One of the most courageous of all the reformers was a woman named Qiu Jin, who, inspired by the suffragette movement in the West, campaigned for equality for her gender in China. Her advocacy became so disruptive that she was ultimately executed by the imperial authorities. The manifesto she left behind is a remarkable document indeed, so much so that it deserves to be quoted at some length here.

Alas! The greatest injustice in this world must be the injustice suffered by our female population of 200 million. If a girl is lucky enough to have a good father, then her childhood is at least tolerable. But if by chance her father is an ill-tempered and unreasonable man, he may curse her birth: “What rotten luck! Another useless thing!” Some men go as far as killing baby girls, while others hold the opinion that “girls are eventually someone else’s property” and treat them with coldness and disdain. In a few years, without thinking about whether it is right or wrong, he forcibly binds his daughter’s soft, white feet with white cloth, so that even in her sleep she cannot find comfort and relief, until the flesh becomes rotten and bones broken. What is all this misery for? Is it just so that on the girl’s wedding day friends and neighbors will compliment him, saying, “Your daughter’s feet are really small”? Is that what the pain is for?

But that is not the worst of it. When the time for marriage comes, a girl’s future life is placed in the hands of a couple of shameless matchmakers and a family seeking rich and powerful in-laws. A match can be made without anyone ever inquiring whether the prospective bridegroom is honest, kind, or educated. On the day of the marriage, the girl is forced into a red and green bridal sedan chair, and all this time she is not allowed to breathe one word about her future. After her marriage, if the man doesn’t do her any harm, she is told that she should thank Heaven for her good fortune. But if the man is bad or mistreats her, she is told that her marriage is retribution for some sin committed in her previous existence. If she complains at all or tries to reason with her husband, he may get angry and beat her. When other people find out, they will criticize, saying, “That woman is bad. She doesn’t know how to behave like a wife.” What can she do?

When a man dies, his wife must mourn him for three years and never remarry. But if the woman dies, her husband only needs to tie his queue with a blue thread. Some men consider this to be ugly and don’t even do it. In some cases, three days after his wife’s death, a man will go out for some “entertainment.” Sometimes before seven weeks have passed, a new bride has already arrived at the door.

When Heaven created people, it never intended such injustice, because if the world is without women, how can men be born? Why is there no justice for women? We constantly hear men say, “The human mind is just and we must treat people with fairness and equality.” Then why do they treat women like black slaves from Africa? How did inequality and injustice reach this state?

Dear sisters, you must know that you’ll get nothing if you rely upon others. You must go out and get things for yourselves. In ancient times, when decadent scholars came out with such nonsense as “men are exalted, women are lowly,” “a virtuous woman is one without talent,” and “the husband guides the wife,” ambitious and spirited women should have organized and opposed them. When the second Chen ruler [the Chen was a brief-lived empire of the post-Han era of division] popularized foot binding, women should have challenged him if they had any sense of humiliation at all.

Men feared that if women were educated they would become superior to men, so they did not allow us to be educated. Couldn’t the women have challenged the men and refused to submit? It seems clear now that it was we women who abandoned our responsibilities to ourselves and felt content to let men do everything for us. As long as we could live in comfort and leisure, we let men make all the decisions for us. When men said we were useless, we became useless; when they said we were incapable, we stopped questioning them, even when our entire female sex had reached slave status. At the same time, we were insecure in our good fortune and our physical comfort, so we did everything to please men. When we heard that men like small feet, we immediately bound them just to please them, just to keep our free meal tickets. As for their forbidding us to read and write, well, that was only too good to be true. We readily agreed.

Think about it, sisters: can anyone really enjoy such comfort and leisure without forfeiting dearly for it? It was only natural that men, with their knowledge, wisdom, and hard work, received the right to freedom while we became their slaves. And as slaves, how can we escape repression? Whom can we blame but ourselves, since we have brought this on ourselves? I feel very sad talking about this, yet I feel that there is no need for me to elaborate, since all of us are in the same situation.

I hope that we shall put aside the past and work hard for the future. Let us all put aside our former selves and be resurrected as complete human beings. Those of you who are old, do not call yourselves old and useless. If your husbands want to open schools, don’t stop them; if your good sons want to study abroad, don’t hold them back. Those among us who are middle-aged, don’t hold back your husbands, lest they lose their ambition and spirit and fail in their work. After your sons are born, send them to schools. You must do the same for your daughters — and, whatever you do, don’t bind their feet. As for you young girls among us, go to school if you can. If not, read and study at home. Those of you who are rich, persuade your husbands to open schools, build factories, and contribute to charitable organizations. Those of you who are poor, work hard and help your husbands. Don’t be lazy; don’t eat idle rice. This is what I hope for you. You must know that when a country is near destruction, women cannot rely on men anymore because the men aren’t even able to protect themselves. If we don’t take heart now and shape up, it will be too late when China is destroyed.

Sisters, we must follow through on these ideas!

At times, the reformers’ merciless dissection of their country’s ills could leave them sounding downright self-loathing. One of their number by the name of Liang Qichao traveled to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, comparing the life he knew in his homeland unfavorably at every turn with the one he encountered in this vigorous young nation. The following is a small sampling of his damning final verdicts, outlining what he saw as the four principal failings of the Chinese character:

1. Our character is that of clansmen rather than citizens. Chinese social organization is based on family and clan as the unit rather than on the individual, what is called “regulating one’s family before ruling the country.” In my opinion, though the power of self-government of the Aryans of the West was developed earlier, our Chinese system of local self-government was just as good. Why is it that they could form a nation-state and we could not? The answer is that what they developed was the city system of self-government, while we developed a clan system of self-government. That Chinese can be clansmen but cannot be citizens, I came to believe more strongly after traveling in North America.

2. We have a village mentality and not a national mentality. I heard [Theodore] Roosevelt’s speech to the effect that the most urgent task for the American people is to get rid of the village mentality, by which he meant people’s feelings of loyalty to their own town and state. From the point of view of history, however, America has been successful in exercising a republican form of government precisely because this local sentiment was there at the start, and so it cannot be completely faulted. But developed to excess it becomes an obstacle to nation-building. We Chinese have developed it too far.

3. We can accept only despotism and cannot enjoy freedom. When I look at all the societies of the world, none is so disorderly as the Chinese community in San Francisco. Why? The answer is freedom. The character of the Chinese in China is not superior to those of San Francisco, but at home they are governed by officials and restrained by fathers and elder brothers. The situation of the Chinese of Southeast Asia would seem different from those in China — but England, Holland, and France rule them harshly, ordering the breakup of assemblies of more than ten people, and taking away all freedoms. This is even more severe than inside China, and so they are docile. It is those who live in North America and Australia who enjoy the same degree of freedom under law as Westerners. In towns where there are few of them, they cannot gather into a force and their defects are not so apparent. But in San Francisco, which leads the list of free cities with the largest group of Chinese living in the same place, we have seen what the situation is like.

4. We lack lofty objectives. This is the fundamental weakness of us Chinese. The motives of Europeans and Americans are not all the same, but in my estimation the most important are their love of beauty, concern for social honor, and the idea of the future in their religion. These three are at the root of the development of Western spiritual civilization, and are what we Chinese lack most.

Such harsh self-criticism would be a difficult sell to any society, even if it was fully justified, which it arguably was not in this case. The unique conditions and contradictions of life in turn-of-the-century China virtually guaranteed that the Western-centric point of view would remain confined to a small minority of well-educated and/or well-traveled elites. From the standpoint of Confucianism, the invincible moral riposte to their fulsome admiration of the West was the treatment which China had suffered in recent decades at the hands of the same countries that Liang Qichao was so eager to praise; “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” arguments only went so far. And even when setting moral dimensions aside, the gap between the present-day reality of China — a rigidly hierarchical, essentially feudal society of land holders and land workers — and the dream of an egalitarian, Westernized China was so wide as to appear unbridgeable. Despite boasting the oldest system of writing and the longest uninterrupted literary tradition in the world, China had a population that was two-thirds illiterate by even the most generous estimate. (Other estimates hewed closer to 90 or even 95 percent.) Just how was one to make wise voters out of people who couldn’t even read? Given these facts on the ground, it struck even many well-educated Chinese as far more practical to fall back on the customs that had been serving their people more or less well for twenty centuries before the current crisis of confidence.

The foremost avatar of this philosophy of Chinese renewal via retrenchment was ironically a member of that half of the population that was normally most disadvantaged by the strictures of Confucianism. That said, the Empress Dowager Cixi herself was a rare exception to the rule of female powerlessness; she was in fact the most powerful Chinese woman since Wu Zetian of the Tang dynasty had reigned as the only full-fledged empress in all of China’s history. Cixi did almost as well for herself, serving as her country’s de-facto head of state for some four decades, endeavoring all the while to push back the tide of Progress.

Born in 1835 into an obscure and not especially respectable branch of the imperial family tree, Cixi was chosen at age eighteen to become one of the scores of concubines in the entourage of Emperor Xianfeng. She waited fully two years for the emperor to call her to his bedchamber, but, when he finally did, she made the most of the opportunity: she lured the Son of Heaven into ejaculating inside her, something he had not intended to do, and nine months later she gave birth to a son, the emperor’s first. As the mother of the heir to the throne, her station was elevated enormously. And by the time Emperor Xianfeng died of depression and dissipation in the wake of the twin debacles of the Second Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion, the 26-year-old Cixi had maneuvered herself into a position of such influence inside the Forbidden City that she could rule in the name of her five-year-old son. She reveled in her luxuries, her status, and most of all her authority, diverting funds earmarked for a desperately needed national railway network to rebuild the Summer Palace that the British had recently burnt. She insisted that all of the niceties of imperial decorum be adhered to in exacting detail. Seldom if ever venturing beyond the hallowed walls of the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, she issued instructions to her people via written edicts that were lowered down from the heights in a splendid phoenix-shaped casket — sacred missives from a goddess who deigned to communicate with mere mortals only indirectly and unidirectionally.

Cixi’s son, who was called Emperor Tongzhi (“Order and Prosperity”), grew up weak-willed and indolent, which, one senses, suited her just fine. Unfortunately, he died of disease or intrigue before his fourteenth birthday. Undaunted, Cixi manipulated matters to make his successor her four-year-old nephew. This Emperor Guangxu (“Glorious Succession”) grew up sickly in body, but he had a curious mind, and proved disconcertingly willing to listen to reformers like Liang Qichao rather than attribute all of China’s problems to a failure to be Confucian enough, as did his aunt. By the time he reached his twenties, he was growing noticeably restless under Cixi’s thumb.

In 1898, Qing China suffered its latest round of humiliation at the hands of the European powers. Over the course of a single spring, Britain, France, and Germany each forced China to “lease” it a separate chunk of valuable coastal territory for a span of 99 years, the longest term allowed under international law. Britain grabbed yet another piece of the mainland close to Hong Kong, France took a piece of Southern Inner China not far from Guangzhou, and Germany seized part of the Shandong Peninsula in Northern Inner China, not that far from Beijing itself.

The 27-year-old Emperor Guangxu seems to have taken these depredations as a call to action. He made a complete break with his aunt, agreeing to implement a program of comprehensive reform submitted to him by Liang Qichao. It was to use a range of new taxes on the wealthy to construct the long-delayed national railroad along with a postal network, to alter school curricula to reflect modern Western science as well as the Confucian classics, to develop modern factories and mines whose workers would not be subject to horrors like the ones described earlier in this chapter, and to introduce a single national currency. (Amazingly, the country that had invented paper money was at this late date still using a hodgepodge of incompatible regional banknotes.) The end goal was to turn China into a constitutional monarchy on the British model, just as soon as the people were educated enough to become responsible citizens under such a system.

But Empress Dowager Cixi engineered a counter-revolution before the program could get off the ground. She imprisoned, executed, or drove into exile its proponents — Liang Qichao fled to take up permanent residence in the United States — and placed the emperor himself on a private island on a lake within the Forbidden City, where he was allowed to have anything he wished except his freedom of movement and his imperial authority.

Then Cixi continued to rule in his name. Now more than 60 years old, wrinkled and a bit stout, she was nicknamed “Old Buddha” by her retinue for her resemblance to that enlightened one as she sat on her throne gazing inscrutably down on them, self-satisfied and self-assured. “I have often thought that I am the most clever woman that ever lived, and others cannot compare with me,” she said without a hint of irony. “Although I have heard much about Queen Victoria, I don’t think her life was half so interesting and eventful as mine. She has nothing really to say about the policy of the country. But look at me. I have 400 million people dependent on my judgment.” Sadly, her judgment was that essentially nothing should be done to make the lives of those 400 million better.

A handful of photographs that were taken during the time of Empress Dowager Cixi provide us with our only glimpses of life within the Chinese imperial court, which had gone unchanged in many ways for more than 1000 years by that point. Cixi is the woman at the very center of the frame here, flanked by a lesser princess and the chief eunuch of the Forbidden City. The men surrounding them are all likewise eunuchs, who were responsible for all of the day-to-day practicalities of life at court. (Public Domain)

Cixi had barely put her naïve nephew and his misbegotten package of reforms in their place when the Yellow River, that ever-shifting boon and bane of Northern Inner China’s existence, overflowed its banks in unusually disastrous fashion. The province of Shandong was hit by an extended drought immediately after the floods had devastated the civic infrastructure. The twin catastrophes would have been enough to cause even the most scientific of minds, of which China had relatively few at this time, to muse about the possibility of divine anger.

This part of China has always had a reputation for hardiness, martial spirit, and “righteous banditry”; it was here that the sturdy outlaw heroes of the Ming-era novel The Water Margin stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Now, the people of Shandong decided again that enough was enough, forming “societies” — really vigilante groups — to take matters into their own hands. They called themselves the Yi He Quan, which can be roughly translated as the “Righteous Fists of Harmony.”

Unlike the Taiping and countless other peasant rebels who had come before them in the course of Chinese history, they did not direct their ire against the extant imperial government. They rather blamed their plight on the Westerners who had been victimizing China for so long. Their first targets were Christian missionaries, who had been migrating upward from the coastal provinces of Southern Inner China in considerable numbers ever since the treaty that ended the Second Opium War had made it impossible for the Qing government to restrict their movements. Even as they aggressively promoted their own religion, the missionaries treated the traditional belief systems of China with scathing contempt. It was this, the starving local populaces believed, that had enraged the real spiritual forces of the world, causing nature itself to rise up against all of them.

No rain comes from Heaven.
The earth is parched and dry.
And all because the churches
Have bottled up the sky.

The only way to placate nature and restore regular harvests was to scour the land of those who had offended it.

All of this was as bizarre and inexplicable in the eyes of the missionaries as, say, a sudden outbreak of cannibalism among the natives would have been. Initially more bemused than truly frightened, they took to calling their condemners “boxers,” because, being so poor, they mostly had no weapons to hand, and so fought with their fists alone. Thus the violence that was coming would go down in history as the Boxer Rebellion.

With their ranks filled almost entirely with illiterate peasants, the Boxers had no coherent manifesto or ideology, nor even an identifiable leadership structure — just naked rage in the face of their suffering. Their only slogan was, “Exterminate the foreigners!” Drawing upon strands of folk religion thousands of years older than the tenets of Confucianism, Taoism, or Buddhism, many of them believed that, through proper prayer and ritual, they could make themselves invulnerable to the bullets of the foreign devils. On New Years Day, 1900, a group of Boxers abducted a British missionary, beheaded him, and mutilated his body in front of a baying throng.

Confronted by an outraged British ambassador, the Qing government arrested and executed two men for the murder. Yet Empress Dowager Cixi, who had no love for the West, was in reality more pleased than otherwise by the Boxers’ actions. She secretly funneled money to them, and the movement spread like wildfire from village to village, moving beyond Shandong and across the whole of Northern Inner China, attracting in the process a smattering of literate adherents who could begin to articulate a list of grievances. The Christian missionaries “destroy the gods we worship” and “pull down temples and altars,” they wrote on their placards; “cast away tracts on ethics and ignore reason”; “undermine the very root of the Empire and open its door wide.”

The Boxers didn’t make much distinction between the missionaries and foreigners who were in China for other purposes than proselytizing; soon all Westerners were in danger, as arson and vandalism escalated into concerted attempts to massacre them en masse. The Westerners huddled together for protection in scattered redoubts, unable to trust even their own, heretofore docile native servants. By late May of 1900, the coastal city of Tianjin, the second largest in all of Northern Inner China, had been taken over by the Boxers, with the exception only of a small, besieged Western enclave. The unrest had also reached Beijing proper. The streets of the capital were clogged with bloodthirsty mobs, while Cixi, looking placidly down on the chaos from behind the walls of the Forbidden City, continued to do nothing. The foreign embassies were surrounded by Boxers shouting, “Sha! Sha!” — “Kill! Kill!” — while the diplomats cowered inside with their wives and children.

It is one of history’s sad ironies that this explosion of long-suppressed resentments was occurring just as the Western powers were showing some first signs of amending their reprehensible treatment of China. On September 6, 1899, John Hay, the American secretary of state, had made a public plea for an “Open Door Policy” toward China, in which all countries would agree to respect its territorial integrity, to trade with it on a level playing field, and to restore some measure of sovereign authority to its government on matters such as tariffs. Hay’s Open Door has been widely ridiculed by historians since as a transparent attempt by the United States, which didn’t enjoy the same special concessions in China as many of the European countries, to disingenuously force its way into a potentially lucrative foreign market. And there is undoubtedly more than a little truth to such claims. Yet the fact remains that it was the first policy proposal of its type to give even lip service to the idea of justice for the Chinese as well as Westerners. Whether out of a guilty conscience or just because they had already extracted all the concessions they really needed out of China, even the likes of Britain, France, and Germany greeted it with some receptivity.

Now, though, all of that was forgotten amidst the West’s need to subdue China militarily for the third time in the past 60 years. Inflamed as they were with righteous anger, the Boxers proved a more formidable opponent than regular Chinese armies had ever been. The first British expedition to try to relieve the Westerners trapped in Tianjin and Beijing consisted of about 2000 soldiers who had been stationed in China before the rebellion began. It was thrown back with heavy losses, marking the first significant defeat of a Western army by the Chinese in all of history. Inspired by this achievement, Empress Dowager Cixi dropped even the pretense of imperial neutrality in the conflict. She opened her armories to equip her enemies’ enemies with better weapons than fists, and sent regular Chinese army units out to join the fray as well. For all intents and purposes, China was at open war with the West yet again. Still, Cixi was wise enough to ensure that the Boxers didn’t massacre the foreigners they had trapped, even as she likewise ensured that the Western enclaves received enough food and other supplies to keep them alive. For a full-scale civilian bloodbath, she well knew, would incense the West past the point where she might be able to attain her hoped-for outcome: that of a stalemate followed by a favorable offer of peace from foreign nations who had grown sick of the whole business.

With the failed British unilateral attack having demonstrated that a more concentrated effort would be needed to defeat the Boxers, a motley crew was now gathered to prosecute the war on the opposing side. It included in its ranks British, French, German, American, Russian, and even Japanese units that happened to be in the region and could be thrown into the fray at short notice. The allies had serious command and control issues; an acute shortage of translators meant that the wildly heterogeneous units of the coalition had trouble even talking to one another, much less coordinating their efforts effectually. Thanks to this and to their own esprit de corps, the Chinese continued for some days to acquit themselves better than they had in their previous wars with the West.

In the end, though, the technological superiority of their enemies’ rifles, machine guns, and heavy artillery, along with their superior training in marksmanship, were simply too much for bravery and numbers alone to overcome. On July 14, 1900, the allies took Tianjin, relieving their countrymen who had been trapped there and marking the successful conclusion of the first phase of their joint campaign just a few weeks after it had begun. One British officer explained that “when men have been exposed to all sorts of danger, through no fault of their own, from a city that has, more or less voluntarily, sheltered hordes of the most cruel fanatics the world has ever seen, you must not be too hard on them if their human nature gets a little the upper hand of their finer feelings.” Tianjin was, in other words, plundered mercilessly by the victors.

There were several more hard-fought battles on the march toward Beijing, but the Chinese will to fight gradually dissipated in the face of the superiority of the foreign armies and the dawning realization that the gods were not according the Boxers any special protection against their bullets after all. Having sprung up out of nothing, with no leader and no explicitly stated goal, the Boxer Rebellion melted away as amorphously as it had appeared. Empress Dowager Cixi must have felt a distinct sense of déjà vu as she packed up her court and fled north into Manchuria, just as she had 40 years earlier, when she was merely the favorite concubine of Emperor Xianfeng. On August 28, the combined foreign armies, having already successfully relieved the Western embassies, paraded right through the middle of the Forbidden City itself. Let the looting begin! The Chinese could count themselves lucky that the soldiers didn’t burn as much this time…

Meanwhile the leaders of the coalition sat in the occupied Chinese capital debating what was to be done with the country for the second time in less than half a century. In spite of Empress Dowager Cixi’s less than tacit support for the Boxers, they concluded that a restoration of a chastened Qing dynasty was again their best option; all of the considerations that had led to that decision in 1860 still applied in 1900. Thus they sent messages to her and to the impotent Emperor Guangxu to let them know that their lives would be spared and they would be restored to their stations if they came back to Beijing.

The Boxer Protocol, as the final peace treaty was colloquially known, was signed on September 7, 1901. Its central stipulation was another round of crippling reparations payments, to be remitted annually from China to the allies of the coalition for the next 40 years. In addition, senior Chinese diplomats were to make a tour of Western capitals formally apologizing for the recent trouble, the Qing government was to formally promise that nothing like the Boxer Rebellion would ever be permitted to occur again, and the allied nations were to be allowed to move troops freely wherever they wished in China’s interior, just in case that promise showed signs of not being honored. The coalition thought about asking for more, but China was already so thoroughly in these nations’ thrall that it was hard to know what else to demand of it.

And so, in this ignoble fashion, the last war against foreigners that would ever be fought by imperial China came to an end. With the reactionary impulse having so conspicuously failed the country, the radicals believed themselves to be closer than ever to that of which they had been dreaming for so long: a chance to rebuild China on a firmer, less anachronistic foundation, one which would owe as much to John Locke and Thomas Jefferson as Confucius and Laozi.

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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

2 Comments for "Chapter 16: Radicals and Reactionaries"

  • Will Moczarski

    In spite of Empress Dowager’s Cixi’s
    -> Empress Dowager Cixi‘s

    • Jimmy Maher



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