The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China by David J. Silbey (2012)

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

1. Silbey is an American – he is Associate Professor of History at Alvernia University, Pennsylvania – so for a start it’s nice to read someone who is not a Brit and therefore does not go on and on about the wickedness of the British in a tediously self-hating manner (compare and contrast with the tediously anti-British tone of recent China books by Rana Mitter or Robert Bickers).

Instead, Silbey treats the Brits sensibly, as the dominant imperialist power until later in the 19th century, when more and more European powers began hovering around China like vultures – but as only one among a pack of imperialist nations who all shared the same values and assumptions and, moreover, by 1900, one that was very much losing its European dominance to Germany, its global industrial dominance to America, and, in Asia, was nervously aware of the growing rivalry between Japan and Russia.

2. This is a great read – at a slender 240 pages it’s half the size of most of the other China books I’ve been reading, and is written in a clear style with short declarative sentences retailing facts and events in a lucid, forceful way, not drowning them in political correct attitude or an over-fancy prose style.

To begin with Silbey skips briefly over the prior history of the Qing Dynasty (which was founded way back in 1644), and through the more recent two opium wars with Britain (1839-42 and 1856-60). These passages lack the depth or detail of a John Keay or Jonathan Fenby, but they are well judged as an introduction to the main theme. Slowly the detail builds up along with the pace, until I found myself genuinely gripped and excited by his narrative. I read the whole book in less than a day.

Background

Before he even gets to the account of the Boxer Rebellion itself, I found one early section particularly memorable, mainly because it chimes with my own obsessions/concerns.

For me everything any human being does or says or thinks is secondary to the basic fact that we are breeding like rabbits and destroying the planet. Our ‘cultural’ achievements – much though I spend time and effort enjoying and analysing them – are ultimately trivial compared to the one Big Story of our time, that we are degrading the natural environment wherever we go, driving huge numbers of plants and animals extinct, fouling our own nest and bequeathing our children a poisoned planet.

So I sat up a bit when Silbey himself early on introduced an environmental explanation for the rise of what became known as the Boxer Rebellion. Basically, overpopulation was the fundamental cause for the social instability which plagued China throughout the 19th century and beyond:

  • Population China’s population was 150 million in 1700, around 350 million by 1800, and maybe 430 million by 1850!
  • Environment, flood and famine This explosive population growth was supported by the immense fertility of China’s huge river valleys – specially the Yellow River in the north and Yangtze to the south. But the Chinese didn’t have the kind of ‘agricultural revolution’ that we in the West benefited from during the 1700s. By 1850 even these huge fertile river plains could barely support the galloping population. Thus, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, China’s population was extremely vulnerable to agricultural disaster, caused by drought or torrential rain leading to floods, or when the Yellow River underwent one of its periodic massive shifts of route, leaving devastation in its wake (as it did in 1855). China lived on an environmental and agricultural knife-edge which was almost guaranteed to produce periodic disasters, mass starvation, huge population dislocations. (Silbey doesn’t mention it but Jonathan Fenby’s more overarching account of China 1850 to 2000 describes, in often gruesome detail, repeated outbreaks of cannibalism in famine-stricken areas of China.) Even at the best of times, many millions were reduced to a hand-to-mouth existence on the periphery of their villages, or became migrant labourers roaming the countryside and easily transitioning into the ‘bandits’ who plagued much of non-coastal China – angry young men looking for food/justice/a better life.
  • Secret societies Chinese culture was drenched in respect for authority, for the family dead, for parents, local authority figures and for the Big Daddy of them all, the emperor. There were no political parties. There was no legal way to express opposition or dissent. Anyone who got on the wrong side of the emperor – and, in the second half of the 19th century, that meant anyone who crossed the all-powerful Dowager Empress Cixi – was liable to be beheaded. Hence it was a country alive with ‘secret societies’, cults and underground movements, the more so as so many of the dispossessed migrant workers, deprived of the traditional home, support and constraints of a settled village community, sought safety and validation elsewhere – in what were, basically, gangs.

So unlike Rana Mitter – who centres his (admittedly later) history on the diary of China’s leader Chiang Kai-Shek, or Robert Bickers – who quotes extensively from British traders and officials throughout the nineteenth century – i.e. unlike both those accounts which focus on surviving texts left by high-level, literate social leaders – Silbey digs deeper to put his finger on the key structural forces which help to explain the chronic instability of 19th century China.

And in particular he applies them to the rise of the so-called Boxer movement in the last years of the 19th century: population explosion, poverty, secret societies and then – a catastrophic natural disaster. In 1898 the Yellow River broke its banks, flooding millions of acres and reducing millions of peasants to starvation; the following year, in a cruel irony, there was drought. Huge numbers of peasants took to the road seeking food.

Exterminate the foreigners

The Boxers were mostly illiterate peasants, which explains why we have no manifesto or documentation from, for or about them. There are hardly any photographs of ‘Boxers’, even though their numbers at their peak ran into the millions. They didn’t have a leader, so we have no diaries or correspondence to pore over, no high level meetings to eavesdrop on, no strategies to weight and assess.

Almost the only thing we know about the Boxers is their one, simple, peasant slogan –

Support the Qing, exterminate the foreigners

What seems to have happened is that disparate groups of young men across northern China but especially in Shandong Province, just to the south of the capital Peking (as it was then called), became superstitiously convinced that it – the disaster, the poverty, the starvation -was the fault of the foreigners.

In particular, they blamed the only foreigners that the average peasant ever met or knew about – the interfering missionaries, missionaries from all the European nations, who arrived one day out of the blue in your village and not only began preaching un-Chinese nonsense about a tortured god, but made converts often among the lowest dregs of society – criminals and losers – who promptly used their powerful western backers to start winning village feuds and gaining the upper hand.

Silbey quotes numerous missionaries and journalists who were uncomfortably aware of this trend at the time. Missionaries appealed most to renegade members of society who had nothing to lose and everything to gain by acquiring powerful new western sponsors, but were often despised and scorned by their peers.

So the Boxer phenomenon first manifested itself, to western eyes anyway, as attacks on the Chinese converts to Christianity. Reports of scattered attacks, some murders, some atrocities, filtered into the European legations in Peking in 1898. And then came reports – sporadic at first – of attacks on the European missionaries themselves, which filtered in during 1899.

Occasional attacks on remote mission settlements were not unknown already, so it took a while for anyone to realise something new was happening, something more organised. Silbey reports the scepticism among consular officials in Peking, and even more so among hard-pressed imperial civil servants back in Britain and and the European nations.

The missionaries had always been a problem for imperial officials because they were always wandering far beyond the protection of our minimal military forces and then getting into trouble. For a long time the Boxer thing seemed like more of the same.

The Boxer movement

The Boxers are so-named because they grew out of secret societies and groups who were reviving China’s native traditions of martial arts. In Chinese the name was Yi-he quan, roughly translated as ‘Righteous Fists of Harmony’ or ‘Boxers United in Righteousness’. Boxers was short and snappy, so that’s what caught on with the British and has stuck to this day.

To their martial arts the Boxers added the voodoo belief that the correct rituals and spiritual exercises, for example swallowing bits of paper with magic phrases on them, would make them invulnerable to bullets – something we’ve seen in our own time among some African fighting groups.

Their discipline, their cult-like conviction, the righteousness of their cause, all spread like wildfire among half-starving angry young men in the drought summer of 1899, and through into the spring of 1900. They attacked missionaries and got away with it, they coalesced into larger bands, they stole guns and weapons where they could find them – and then they began to infiltrate the big cities.

The fighting

As 1900 progressed, consular officials wrote reports about the increase in attacks. In the spring Boxers – wearing their trademark red sashes – began to appear in towns frequented by foreigners, intimidating them with hard stares and displays of martial arts.

In April and May reports arrived of Chinese converts being murdered in ritualistic ways, tied to trees, having their arms chopped off and their intestines hacked out.

On June 1 two missionaries were ambushed, tortured and murdered. In late May the first surly, aggressive, red-sashed young men arrived in the streets of Peking, terrifying the Europeans. On May 27 a bloodied Belgian engineer staggered into the Peking embassies to announce that the train line to the coast was being destroyed by Boxers. On 31 May the British ambassador called a meeting of all the foreign consuls and they telegraphed to the coast for help and soldiers. The menfolk of the legations began building defences, reinforcing the existing wall surrounding the European quarter, adding barbed wire and trenches. On 9 June a racetrack just outside Peking was attacked and burned down. Some young Westerners who rode out to see the fun got caught in a firefight and came scampering back. On 11 June the Japanese ambassador, Sugiyama Akira, went with a servant to the train station to check on the arrival of the reinforcements but was shot dead in the streets. On June 13 the last telegraph line was cut. On 14 June several hundred Boxers with flaming torches attacked the legation but were beaten back by a picket of marines. By June 17 the legation quarter was surrounded and the Westerners were besieged, cut off from food, water, ammunition and help.

Thus Silbey shows how a trickle of scattered events slowly snowball into a major historical event -the siege of Peking – without anyone realising.

Several points are worth making about Silbey’s approach:

1. Day-to-day detail

There are numerous different ‘types’ of history writing, but nothing replaces a straightforward account of what actually happened.

Silbey’s narrative covers every available strand of the so-called Boxer Rebellion, the European part of which, the bit which is well-documented and understandable, took place in three or four locations simultaneously. By taking you carefully through it on a day-by-day basis, Silbey helps the reader understand the pressure the players were under, the limits of what they knew, the decisions they faced, why they did what they did – even if, with the benefit of hindsight, it turns out to have been the wrong decision.

Like a video game, this approach puts you in the game

  • Should the European forces set off to relieve Peking by train (quicker but vulnerable) or by river (safer but a lot slower)?
  • Should the Empress Cixi back the Boxers, hitching her star to this unpredictable uprising because it’s the best chance in a generation to kick the Europeans out of China?
  • Or are the Boxers a flash in the pan which the Europeans will crush, in which case she should declare war on them?

Silbey shows how at the start of June contingents of the Chinese army were stationed all along the train track and river from the coast via the city of Tianjin and along the route on to Peking – waiting for orders from the court: were they to make an alliance with the foreign armies in order to attack the Boxers – or ally with the Boxers against the foreigners?

Silbey’s day-by-day approach means that you, the reader, get involved in these decisions and find yourself taking sides, making gambles, taking part. The result is vastly more involvement, commitment and understanding than in the usual run of higher-level histories, which might make throwaway references to this or that battle, generalising, summarising etc.

But in Silbey’s account we are right down in the nitty gritty. When Able Seaman McCarthy is shot down in open ground in front of the fortified walls of Tianjin, Basil Guy a midshipman stays with him to bind the wound, under heavy fire, runs to get a stretcher team which he brings back, then helps the stricken McCarthy to safety. This takes half a page to describe and the reader is shaking at the intensity of the experience; you wonder whether you would have the nerve to do that, to stay with a comrade under heavy rifle and sniping fire, taking every measure to save their life. Guy was awarded the Victoria Cross (p.154).

During the same battle, the allies struggled to take the heavily defended inner wall of the city. Late at night the Japanese, closest to the inner wall, under cover of darkness planted tins of gunpowder against the south gate and set a fuse. Three times they set it and three times the Chinese defenders saw it flaring and shot it out. Until finally a Japanese engineer grabbed a box of matches, ran to the pile of gunpowder, and lit it. Boom! Up went the gate and the engineer was blown to smithereens. Wow – what bravery, fanaticism, madness!

On August 13 the Boxers made what was to be their final assault on the Peking legations, including an attack on the so-called Tartar Wall, an ancient fortification which they’d included in their defences. The section under attack was defended by just two men, Captain Newt Hall and Private Dan Daly of the U.S.Marines. As the attack intensified, Hall left Daly to go get reinforcements. Now alone, Daly, five feet six inches tall and ‘the most prolifically profane man in the history of the armed services’, held off waves of attacks. If he had given in or run away the Boxers would have made a breach, swarmed in and massacred the 500 plus Europeans. For his sweary bravery Daly was later awarded the Medal of Honour.

The day-by-day approach puts this book (for me) in the same league as Simon Schama’s monumental history of the French Revolution, Citizens (1989), or Orlando Figes’ epic account of the Russian Revolution (1996) or – going back earlier – Veronica Wedgwood’s masterpiece narrative of the British Civil Wars of the 1640s, The King’s War (1958).

By dealing with each day at a time, these historians convey not only the events, but something important about the very nature of human behaviour, of time and free will. The outcome of entire wars are shown to hang by a thread. The Chinese had held off the Europeans at Tianjin – if the Japanese engineer hadn’t sacrificed his life to blow the gate, would they have continued to hold out long enough to force the Europeans to run out of ammunition and be forced to retreat? Would the European legations in Peking have been stormed? Would Chinese forces in the rest of China, hesitating about which side to join, have come in on the side of the Empire and the whole thing turned into a genuine war of liberation against the Europeans? Would the Empress Cixi have gone down in history as the woman who liberated China and guaranteed the future of the Qing Dynasty for another century? And China never have fallen to Mao’s communists?

The day-to-day approach shows how truly contingent human affairs are, how people are forced to take all kinds of decisions on the basis of inadequate or zero information, decisions which only later assume huge importance.

All of this – the specificity of human agency and free will, the importance of individuals, the contingency of human affairs, heroism and cowardice, luck or good planning – come over brilliantly in this thrillingly detailed and exciting history.

And all of this is precisely what is lost as you write higher and higher level history, which deals in broader and broader brushstroke, misleading generalisations, giving a profoundly misleading sense that human history is somehow fated, predictable or purposeful.

2. Revealing the precise scope of the war

The day-by-day approach helps you understand a whole range of things. For a start, by the end of the book you’ve grasped the odd shape of the ‘conflict’. Basically, the European legations in Tianjin and further up the river, at Peking, found themselves unexpectedly besieged. A train of troops led by Admiral Seymour set off from the coast to rescue them, but found the track dug up by Boxers and came under repeated attack until eventually they had to retreat in disarray. So, next the Europeans tried the river route up the River Hai to get to Tianjin. But the seaward entrance to the Hai River was guarded by two forts on the north and south banks. So Silber gives us a nailbiting description of the European assault on the forts, infantry fighting their way across the mudflats, while the Royal Navy planned to bring two ships alongside two moored Chinese battleships and storm them – a plan Silber righttly describes as ‘insane’.

But it worked.

And so, having secured the forts, the riverborne relief troops set off up the river and, next, had to take Tianjin to free the besieged Europeans inside. This was a long hard fight in which the Europeans nearly lost. Eventually, they took the city, freed the Europeans and sailed on into another battle, to take the next settlement up the river, Beicang. Silber describes this battle in punishing detail, as he does the next encounter at Huangcan.

The Dagu Forts are significant because it was this which forced the Empress Cixi to make a decision. Support the Europeans against the illegal rebel Boxers, or support the Boxers against the far-from-invulnerable Europeans? She took option B, executed all the advisers who had been pushing for option A (there really not being space in Chinese politics for opposition or political parties – your argument loses, you die), and ordered the Chinese army to engage the foreigners.

At Beicang and again at Huangcan the Chinese army proved tougher and better organised than the foreigners expected. The Chinese lost, but they fought hard, and they withdrew in good order, not just scarpering and abandoning their kit.

The great mystery at the heart of the story is what happened next: after the battle of Huangcan the Chinese opposition suddenly and completely melted away. Before Huangcan the allies had been sniped at and ambushed at every bend in the river; afterwards, it was plain sailing through an empty landscape to Peking.

Why?

Silber invokes the same causes he gave at the beginning of his account: it started to rain. Plenty of journalists had been accompanying the expedition and they, and accounts from soldiers, paint a searing picture of the scorching summer heat of July and August in the north China plain. Dead crops, abandoned villages, bodies of animals and humans scattered across the barren plains. Then it started to rain. And rain. And rain. Crops needed tending, fields looking after, animals shepherded back into health, families needed supporting, flood defences reinforcing. The Boxers disappeared back to their villages. And the Chinese army hesitated.

At Peking, it’s true, the allies did encounter stiff resistance – but this was patriotic: after all, who would want their capital city assaulted and razed by foreigners? The Dowager Empress Cixi and her court had long fled into the western provinces (where, in Fenby’s account, she for the first time in her life witnessed the squalor her subjects endured, living in mud huts or holes in cliffs, suffering malnutrition and starvation in their hundreds of thousands).

After hard fighting, the allies took Peking and liberated the legations who, to their surprise, were generally in better shape than many of the troops – not having spent the previous two months marching through a parched landscape and fighting tough battles. A peace settlement was imposed on the Chinese government. The war was over.

Thus Silbey’s account allows you to really understand the shape and scope of the actual events. It wasn’t a ‘war’ as we think of European wars; it was really a glorified relief expedition which, at several key moments, very nearly failed.

3. Imperial shame

Because Silbey’s account has soaked us in the day-to-day struggles and suffering of everyone concerned – the starving peasants, the angry Boxers, the murdered missionaries, the officials and soldiers on both sides, because it has all been made imaginatively alive and important to us – this makes the atrocities that he describes all the more shocking.

The taking of the three towns (Tianjin, Beicang and Huangcun) was followed by Western reprisals and, because the Boxers were essentially civilians, only sometimes marked out by their red sashes, the reprisals are shockingly indiscriminate. An American contingent came across a group of French soldiers who had corraled about 300 Chinese men, women and children down towards the river and were firing indiscriminately into them – mass murder.

High level historians like Mitter and Bickers use words like racism very freely, so freely that after a while they lose their power. Silbey, by contrast, rarely uses the word – he shows you the thing in action – and this is infinitely more shocking, repellent and shameful.

Plenty of correspondents, even senior army officers and European officials, were horrified at the behaviour of their troops and – crucially – realised that they undermined if not destroyed any claim whatsoever that European ‘civilisation’ possessed any kind of superior values.

Having ‘liberated’ Peking, the allied troops went on a rampage of killing, raping and looting. Officers and officials tried to prevent it, and Silbey recounts the story of one American soldier who was tried and convicted of murder and rape and sentenced to life imprisonment; and this attempt at keeping control contrasts with, say, the behaviour of Japanese troops in China 30 years later who were given complete freedom to murder, rape and torture the Chinese at will. There was a real difference in attitude, with the best of the allies trying to prevent atrocity. But all too often they failed, and they certainly failed when it came to the wholesale ransacking the Peking.

Silbey doesn’t judge, he just shows. And by taking us so thoroughly into the feel and pressure of the time, by taking us so close to the sweating, fearful people of those days, makes us experience the atrocities with a similar visceral intensity – more powerful than any amount of name-calling or political correctness. Less is more.

4. Patriotic hate and the fall of the Qing

The Empress Cixi came back to Peking, her tail between her legs, and appointed the aged statesman Li Hongzhu to negotiate a crushingly humiliating peace treaty with the allies. A huge indemnity was forced on China, which she was still paying off 40 years later. The Western rapes, murders and looting shook the  Chinese intellectual class to the core; quite obviously ‘Western values’ were about as humane as Genghis Khan’s. They smile and invite you to tea with the vicar but, given half a chance, will ransack your capital city and rape your women. 

Cixi’s gamble had failed. She had backed the wrong side. More starkly than in some of the other accounts I’ve read, Silbey highlights how her failure condemned not only her dynasty, but the entire tradition of imperial rule, to the dustbin. Patriots and intellectuals growing up during this crisis not only saw at first hand that Westerners were violent, exploitative hypocrites – but just as clearly that the entire structure of imperial rule had failed and had to go.

5. The allies

So far I haven’t mentioned one of the dominant threads in the story which is that the expedition to relieve the besieged legations was strikingly multinational. Forces from Britain, British India, France, America, Japan and Russia took part. Again, by drilling down to the daily nitty-gritty Silbey reveals the highly complex world of competing imperial rivalry which operated, from staff level all the way down to individual soldiers. When the allied force finally took Tianjin, there was a race, an actual race, between the Japanese and British to get to the city flagpole and be the first to raise their flag over the liberated city. There was even more intense rivalry about which nation’s forces would be the first into besieged Peking (again it boiled down to bitter rivalry between the British and Japanese).

Silbey makes the point (as does Bickers in his book) that the Boxer conflict took place at exactly the same period as the second modern Olympic Games were happening in Paris (summer 1900). Exactly the same spirit of international rivalry was on display in China.

6. The aftermath

I’ve mentioned that one of the medium-term consequences was the end of the Qing dynasty, which itself contained the seed of another 75 years of further turmoil for China.

But it was really the rivalry between the allies which was full of portent and omen. The armies of France, Britain, Russia, Japan, America not only fought alongside each other against the Boxers and Chinese army – they watched each other and assessed each other. Spookily, at the Peking victory parade, the Japanese examined the Russians with a very appraising eye, noticed by onlookers. Four years later Japan would provoke a conflict with Russia in which she would whip the hapless Slavs, and consolidate her sense of being a World Power and entitled to a major role in Asia – a sense of entitlement which would lead her to annex Korea in 1910 and then invade north China in 1931.

It is fascinating to learn that conquered Peking was partitioned into sectors, each run by a different power – exactly like Berlin in 1945. All through the story the Germans had behaved with egregious brutality, inspired by their wicked Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who made a speech to departing troops telling them to take no prisoners and to inspire the same terror as their forebears, the Huns under Attila.

Silbey goes on to detail how the Chinese fled the brutality of the German sector, which became a ghost town, and flooded into the relatively well-run American sector. Apparently, when the Americans came to pull out a year later, the Chinese raised a large petition begging them to stay. The Americans brought order, stability, law, as well as clean water, medical facilities, schools and so on, something even their own authorities couldn’t provide until…. well, when exactly? The 1980s? The 1990s?

Conclusion

This is a thrillingly powerful, well-written, lucid and thought-provoking account of the Boxer Rebellion and the allied expedition to relieve Peking – bristling with all kinds of ideas and insights into the period itself, but also into the very nature of war and politics, of heroism and failure, of the scope and possibility of free will and action in a world constrained by society, history, politics and culture.

They did what they thought right, some of it wicked, some of it wrong, some of it foolish and deluded, some of it inspired and heroic. They were flawed people, constrained by their times, just as we are, in ours. For as Silbey writes:

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

Judge not lest ye be judged. A clear, well-written factual account of these kind of events is vastly more illuminating – and ultimately damning – than any amount of editorialising and name calling.

American cartoon (by Joseph Keppler for Puck magazine) satirising the foreign powers squabbling over China's corpse in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion

American cartoon (by Joseph Keppler for Puck magazine) satirising the foreign powers squabbling over China’s corpse in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion


Related links

Other reviews about the history of China or the Far East

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. David Silbey

     /  June 27, 2017

    You’re very kind. Thank you for the thoughtful review.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: