Ch'ing China

The Boxer Rebellion

Carving up the Melon

   When China was defeated by Japan in 1895, European powers responded with a policy they called, "carving up the Chinese melon." Following the partitioning of Africa among European powers, they turned their sights to what they saw as a terminally weak Chinese government. European powers and America began to scramble for what was called "spheres of interest." These spheres of interest involved holding leases for all railway and commercial privileges in various regions. The Russians got Port Arthur, the British got the New Territories around Hong Kong, the Germans got a leasehold in Shantung, and the Americans got nothing. Concentrating largely on the Philipines and Guam, the Americans had missed the Chinese boat and so insisted on an "open door" policy in China in which commercial opportunities were equally available to all European powers and the political and territorial integrity of China remained untouched.

The Boxers

   The imperial court responded to this foreign threat by giving aid to various secret societies. Traditionally, secret societies had been formed in opposition to imperial government; as such, they were certainly a threat to the Ch'ing government. However, anti-foreign sentiment had risen so greatly in China that the Empress Dowager believed that the secret societies could be the vanguard in a military expulsion of Europeans. This policy reached its climax in 1900 with the Boxer Rebellion.

   The Boxers, or "The Righteous and Harmonious Fists," were a religious society that had originally rebelled against the imperial government in Shantung in 1898. They practiced an animistic magic of rituals and spells which they believed made them impervious to bullets and pain. The Boxers believed that the expulsion of foreign devils would magically renew Chinese society and begin a new golden age. Much of their discontent, however, was focussed on the economic scarcity of the 1890's. They were a passionate and confident group, full of contempt for authority and violent emotions.

   In reality, the Boxer rebellion could hardly be classified as either a rebellion or a war against the Europeans. China was largely under the control of regional Governors General; these regional officials ignored the Empress Dowager's instructions and put forth every effort to prevent disorder or any harm coming to foreigners. The Boxer Rebellion, then, was only limited to a few places, but concentrated itself in Beijing. The Western response was swift and severe. Within a couple months, an international force captured and occupied Beijing and forced the imperial government to agree to the most humiliating terms yet: the Boxer Protocol of 1901. Under the Boxer Protocol, European powers got the right to maintain military forces in the capital, thus placing the imperial government more or less under arrest. The Protocols suspended the civil service examination, demanded a huge indemnity to be paid to European powers for the losses they had suffered, and required government officials to be prosecuted for their role in the rebellion. In addition, the Protocols suspended all arms imports into the country.

Reform

   The humiliation of the Boxer Protocols set China on new course of reform that dynamically put into place all of the reforms originally proposed by K'ang Yu-wei. In 1901, the education system was reformed to allow the admission of girls and the curriculum was changed from the study of the Classics and Confucian studies to the study of Western mathematics, science, engineering, and geography. The civil service examination was changed to reflect this new curriculum, and in 1905 it was abandoned altogether. The Chinese began to send its youth to Europe and to Japan to study the new sciences, such as economics, and radical new Western modes of thinking started making their way into China, such as Marxism. The military was reorganized under Yuan Shih-k'ai (1859-1916), who adopted Western and Japanese models of military organization and discipline. Key to this new military was the establishment of the military as a career; a new professional officer corps was created built on a new principle: loyalty to one's commander rather than loyalty to the Emperor.

   The provincial assemblies that had originally been proposed by K'ang Yu-wei were established in 1909, the year in which the last emperor, Pu Yi, the Hsüan-tung emperor, ascended the throne. A national, democratically elected Consultative Assembly was established in 1910. Although the Assembly was meant to support the imperial court, in reality it was frequently odds with the interests of the imperial government. This is where things stood in 1911 when an uprising began in Szechwan province in the west. Angered at a government plan to nationalize the railways, the uprising soon grew into a national revolution that would end once and for all imperial rule in China. That, however, is a story for another day.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-2-97