The siege of the Legation Quarter in Peking, which began on June 20th, 1900, happened when Imperial China´s decay had become evident and the colonial powers, including Japan with recently annexed Taiwan, were at the height of their might: the establishment of French Indochina had gradually ended formal Chinese influence in the region. Great Britain had just again expanded its territory in Hong Kong. Germany had leased Kiautschou Bay in Shantung province. Japan had been forced to return Liaotung Peninsula in Liaoning province, but Russia had taken its place.
The painfully obvious weakness of the languishing Qing-Dynasty and as a result, political, cultural and social stagnation were perceived as truly humiliating by Chinese from all straights of society. Recurring natural disasters caused massive land flight and starvation, the most recent in 1896/97. The often ruthless behavior of the foreign nations that wanted a piece of the Chinese cake fanned strong xenophobic feelings. Privileges for foreign nationals, including all Christian missionaries, made Chinese feel like second-rated citizens.
This caused the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, which since the mid-1880s had pursued the downfall of the Qing rulers for being too ¨Westernized¨, to support them unconditionally against all alien influence. Its tens of thousands of members were noted for practicing calisthenics and martial arts, called “Chinese boxing” at the time. Deeply superstitious, they claimed that certain rituals would make them invulnerable, and that millions of spirit soldiers were ready to descend to earth. Closely associated with other secret anti-Christian societies, which had killed missionaries in Northern China on July 4th, 1896 and November 1st, 1897, the group in March 1898 started agitating against “foreign devils” for “tainting the purity of the Chinese culture”. After a skirmish with government troops on October 18th, 1899, on November 2nd the Boxers declared war on the invaders and their baptized followers.
In January 1900, edicts issued in their defense by a conservative majority in the Imperial Court encouraged the murder of countless converts and the destruction of churches and other public buildings. Alarmed by this development, the foreign representatives urged for government action. But in spring 1900 the turmoil had reached the outskirts of the capital, from where American Minister Edwin H. Conger cabled Washington that “the whole country was swarming with hungry, discontented, hopeless idlers.”
The British Minister, Sir Claude MacDonald, informed the Chinese that foreigners might have to take their fate into their own hands, reminding them of the presence of numerous allied warships in the Yellow Sea. As security kept deteriorating, in late May he asked for military protection. Around four hundred soldiers from Austria-Hungary, Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States were dispatched by train from the port of Tientsin. While the expedition reached the Legation Quarter in Peking on May 31st, the Boxers cut the railway to the coast on June 6th, trapping the foreigners in the metropolis.
On the 19th, they were given twenty-four hours to leave, disregarding the fact that the railway link had just been destroyed. German Minister Clemens Baron von Ketteler, on his way to negotiate safe passage for all, was shot dead on June 20th by a local soldier. If the killing of a European diplomat didn’t mean outright war, it implied at least military intervention. Due to their inconvenient location, the Austro-Hungarian and the Italian Legation were abandoned. All foreigners in the city withdrew into the remaining six, located in an area of three by one and a half kilometers. 473 foreign civilians were housed in the British Legation and more than 2, 500 Chinese Christians nearby. The newly arrived defenders, supported by one hundred and fifty civilian volunteers, including priests, had only three machine guns and two cannons. Those who could not reach the Legations took refuge in the North Cathedral, where 33 priests and nuns as well as over 3,000 converts were guarded by 43 French and Italians.
China on the 21st decided to declare war against its Western enemies and granted the numerically-strong Boxers legal status. Although not armed with modern weapons and usually attacking with knives and spears, they were organized alongside the army as an additional force which on the 23rd formed the bulk of the besieging force. They attacked in large numbers, but due to their poor equipment were easily and consistently repelled.
On June 30th, barricades were erected within a feet of the wall protecting the quarter. This on July 3rd provoked an American-led counterattack. Most of the French Legation was badly damaged and evacuated on July 13th. The Chinese army probably didn’t destroy the Legation Quarter because they were ordered not to by Chinese high-ranking officials, who were aware of the possible consequences of such a bloodshed. In any case, after a cease-fire was agreed on July 17th, the siege continued.
Meanwhile, the “Seymour Expedition”, 2,100 Allied soldiers from the Eight-Nation Alliance led by British Vice-Admiral Edward Seymour, which had begun their trek towards Peking on June 10th, met heavy resistance from Chinese troops along the way. Within two weeks the Western relief force was forced to retreat back to Tientsin, as its leader had drastically underestimated the resistance of his adversaries.
It took more than a month to organize a larger and better-equipped army, consisting of about 18,000 man, mostly Americans, British, French, Japanese and Russians, which on August 4th gave it a second try. As the Chinese this time made no serious attempt to block the “foreign devils” from moving north, they moved into Peking on August 14th. British troops reached the Legations first, ending a 55-day-long siege. Unfortunately, looting, pillaging and seizure of food, as well as indiscriminate assaults and killings of Chinese citizens did follow.
The Committee for the Management of the City of Peking convened for the first time on October 12th, but only American, British, German, Italian and Japanese representatives attended. Hostilities did not officially end until the signing of the “Boxer Protocol” (short for Final Protocol for the Settlement of the Disturbances of 1900) on September 7th, 1901 at the Spanish Legation. It stipulated the execution of functionaries who had supported the Boxers, generous provisions for the foreign troops to be stationed in Peking and a reparation nowadays worth approximately 10 billion US dollars. This amount, to be paid over the course of the next 39 years, was actually higher than China’s annual tax revenue. Empress Dowager Cixi fled and was only allowed to return in 1902.
The foreign losses vary between 55 and 68 dead, including Count Akira Sugiyama, murdered on June 11th by Muslim soldiers, and 13 civilians, with some 135 wounded, as well as an uncounted number of Chinese casualties on both sides.
The naive bravery of the Boxers is indeed admirable, though their slogan “Support the Qing, exterminate the foreigners” reflects their inherently violent nature. At the end, their sacrifice was in vain. The last Chinese dynasty, frozen in time for too long and ultimately incapable of adapting to a rapidly changing world, fell in October 1911. Asia’s first republic was born!
P.D.: Belgium, The Netherlands and Spain didn’t take part in the conflict, but were present during the negotiations afterwards.