Between 1899 and 1901 there was a popular uprising, guided by some of the imperial house, against missionaries, and more generally against all the Western world people in China, called “Boxer Rebellion.”
At the end of the nineteenth century China had become the occupation land of all Western nations. There were numerous territorial concessions on Chinese soil under the control of European, Japanese, Russian and American occupants.
Foreigners were not subject in China to local legislation. Legations (embassies) practically had complete control over their citizens, but also about the Chinese who were at their service and their families. These people, tied up with relations with Europeans, Americans and Japanese, were taken away from the judiciary and the rules of China.
This widespread extraterritorial situation also involved missionaries, churches, convents and homes, including the Chinese who had converted to Christianity and their families.
The contempt of local traditions by foreigners caused a resentment that grew more and more. Kung-fu‘s schools were the coves where the followers of this struggle discipline fueled hatred against occupants. The kung-fu wrestlers represented the humblest elements of the population, many of them were the boaters who feared losing their job because of the steamships brought to China by the Westerners. They were convinced that the discipline of Kung-fu made them invincible and that the bullets of invaders had no effect on them. The missionaries called these rebels “boxer” took Kung-fu for boxing.
The last members of the Manchu dynasty were at the apex of Chinese power. Empress Cixi lived in the “forbidden city”, surrounded by his ministers and councilors, without any contact with the common people. Cixi, daughter of a Manchuang Mandarin, became concubine of Emperor Xianfeng. At the death of the same, which occurred in 1861, she was named Mother Empress, in the form of the parent of the future emperor Tongzhi. She exercised power together with the widow of the deceased Emperor, Ci’an, who had the title of Widow Empress, or Empress of the Oriental Palace.
In 1873 Tongzhi reached the age of majority and replaced his mother on the throne. After only two years Tongzhi died. Cixi, with a coup d’etat, appointed her nephew Guangxu the heir to the throne. Cixi and Ci’an resumed power as Guangxu was a minor.
In 1879 Guangxu became an adult and became emperor. Cixi retired to his country estate, continuing to exercise power through her nephew. Following the defeat of China in the war against Japan in 1895, Guangxu promoted a series of reforms to modernize the state (100 days reform). These reforms were aimed at adapting the country to Western civilization. Same modernization had been made in Japan. While reforms in the island of Japan were effectively implemented, making the country an economic and military power, the same operation found many impediments in China. Failure to implement the reforms desired by the Emperor relegated China to a secondary role, submitted to Western powers and to Japan. Contrary to the reforms of the nephew, Cixi implemented a second coup d’etat, taking Guangxu’s place. The nephew was locked inside the imperial palace, in fact he was a prisoner.
Cixi, who once again became Empress, was faced with the discontent of the population towards foreigners. Officially, the empress was against the xenophobic movement that hatched in the schools of Kung-fu. Secretly fueled the Boxer’s aversion to foreigners. The Chinese considered Westerners as barbarians who could never match their civilization.
In mid-nineteenth century the war of opium broke out between China and England. it had abruptly brought the Chinese empire back to reality. The defeat of China was a great humiliation, as the opposing army was a small thing in comparison to the Chinese army. The grudge against foreigners was then accentuated by the Sino-Japanese conflict that removed the Korean Peninsula to Chinese control. After 1895, Emperor Guangxu launched the reforms he deemed necessary to overcome the technological gap that had caused the two defeats. But the interests touched were so many, given the general backwardness, reforms had to change virtually everything, that there was a general rebellion against these decrees. In these frantic times, the foreign origin of the imperial family originated in Manchuria came to light. This matter made suspected in the mind of the humblest people. Mother Empress Cixi took advantage of the popular discontent in returning power in her own hands, exhaling her nephew.
In 1895, the year of the defeat in the war against Japan, the “boxer” rebellion began with the aggression against the Western people. The first to suffer consequences were the Christian missionaries present throughout the Chinese territory. The missionaries had contributed to the hatred of them with the claim to be recognized as an authority established in the civil and judicial administration of both foreign people and Chinese converters. Claims that went beyond the acceptable when their demands would have them even above the highest civilian authorities in the provinces of residence.
The killing of the missionaries began first in the most peripheral areas of the empire, and then all of China was involved. There were 200 missionaries beaten by boxers, recently 120 of them were declared martyrs of the church. Even the converted Chinese were involved in the massacres. It is estimated that more than 30,000 Chinese Christians were killed, including women and children, some with atrocious tortures. They were given the opportunity to save themselves by abjuring Christianity, but few were who took advantage of this possibility.
The revolt against foreigners was supported by the royal house, which considered it a means of resizing the power of the European states, of the united States and Japan, which, although they did not occupy territories, had obtained concessions at various points in the country, in particular in Tianjin (Today Tientsin), Beijing’s seafront, within which the law of the occupying state was in force.
Foreign embassies were located in the capital, in a neighborhood surrounded by defensive walls, adjacent to the south side of the “Forbidden City”. On the other side of the Forbidden City was the Catholic cathedral, also surrounded by walls. At that time, all Beijing neighborhoods, which hosted the various nationalities present in the city, were built within defensive walls, a historical legacy of the Middle Ages, during which the various ethnic groups often fought among themselves.
Since the early days of 1900 there were killings and massacres of missionaries, embassies officials and foreign traders also in the capital. Many Chinese converts were murdered. Beijing was not a safe city. Boxer’s pressure increased so much against legations that on June 20, 1900, the district of legations was besieged by the rebels. Empress Cixi, who in a word condemned violence against foreigners, did not take any measures to shelter the grave situation that had been created. Indeed after June 20, China formally declared war on the eight countries whose representatives were locked up in legations to resist the attacks of the rebels: Italy, England, Russia, United States, France, Austria-Hungary, Germany and Japan.
Since early June, all these countries, worried about of events of Beijing, had provisionally sent military forces to protect their ambassadors. There were 470 marines from all the nations involved. Another contingent of two thousand marines commanded by Admiral Seymour on June 10 departed by train from Tianjin heading for Beijing. In the first group there were also 41 Italian marines commanded by Lieutenant Commander Federico Paolini and Lieutenant Angelo Olivieri, others italians were included in the two thousand military reinforcements. The 470 soldiers were divided between the defence of the legation zone and the defense of the Catholic cathedral, where French and Italian marines were located.
Admiral Seymour’s expedition was stopped by the Chinese army and rebels and forced to return to Tianjin. Following the conquest of the Dagu Forts of Tianjin by the Western soldiers, the Chinese army declared war on the eight states involved, disobeying the Empress’s orders, who, frightened by the magnitude of the revolt, sought to curb its in some way. Cixi also stood openly with the rebels after the conquest of the Dagu Fortresses.
All the foreigners in the city, about 500, had been refugees within the walls surrounding the legacies and also over 3,000 Chinese who, because of their close contacts with foreigners, were afraid of being victims of revenge. They were men, women, and so many children. The guest orphanage children were accommodated inside the Cathedral with Monsignor Alphonse Favier within 3500 Chinese converters. On June 20, the German ambassador, Baron Klemens von Katteler, was killed. This was the signal of the start of the battle against the Embassies Quarter. The few soldiers present stood in defense of their positions with an old cannon and all available men at the two crucial points of the siege: legations and Catholic cathedral.
The western neighborhood was besieged by the rebels, but they did not get the modern weapons and artillery by army. They were armed with old sabers, knives, bamboo spears, some gun, and some old rifles. The most heroic resistance was that of the cathedral, which was only defended by about forty marines.
Despite the huge numerical gap, both the neighborhood of the legations and the cathedral resisted the repeated attacks of the boxer. There were many heroic acts. The commander of the marines in defense of the cathedral, the Lieutenant Paul Henry, though mortally wounded by two rifle shots, continued his command until, exhausted and dying, he went down from the walls and died into the arms of two religious men. Altogether, 76 were foreign victims, including six children. There were 12 Italian marines who were killed in the Beijing battle, six in defense of legacies and six in that of the cathedral. Another six Italian soldiers had died in clashes in Tianjin. Some hundreds of deaths were among the besiegers.
An international expeditionary force was organized in a hurry in Europa, when the authorities became aware of the serious situation. Kaiser William II, who was the most active in gathering the military forces of the various countries involved, recommended to his military to destroy Beijing to avenge Baron von Katteler. An expeditionary force of about 20,000 men, commanded by the German Field Marshal Alfred von Waldersee, reached Tianjin. There was also a contingent of 2000 Italian soldiers who had embarked on Naples to join the international rescue force on July 16. The military had been greeted at the time of embarkation by a speech by King Umberto I, who later was assassinated by the anarchist Bresci a few days.
On August 14, 1900 the expeditionary force, formed by military personnel from the eight countries, involved came to Beijing. It was 55 days since legations and the cathedral were under attack by the rebels. The behavior of the occupation force was terrible. It overwhelmed the boxers in bitterness. The troops moved to the capital after the liberation of the embassies and the cathedral. looting, rapes, indiscriminate killing of Chinese people began. The banks were plundered. The Forbidden City was invaded and all the transportable was taken away. Whole villages, believed to be places where Western killings had taken place, were burned down and their occupiers were slaughtered. Terror crossed all over China. The remembrance of those massacres is still alive in China’s history. All soldiers stood out in those devastation and excitement, especially the Cossacks of the Russian Army and the colonial troops of the British Army. The sack of Beijing and nearby locations lasted a few months.
The Chinese economy after the events of Beijing fell completely apart. The currency was devalued several times. Customs with its duties became property of the states that in fact occupied China and treated it as a colony from which to suck wealth. Russia took Manchuria, bordering on Siberia, making its own province. Western countries took possession of small lands, in strategic locations for trade and transportation, and for military control of the territory where they exercised full sovereignty.
When the foreign army came to Beijing, the Empress and her family, accompanied by all the dignitaries of the palace, escaped from the Forbidden City disguised as peasants, taking refuge in Xi’an City, the ancient Chang,an capital at the time of Silk Road. Cixi dealt with the Field Marshal Alfred von Waldersee through a court dignitary, Li Hongzhang. The conditions imposed on China were really heavy in the “Boxer Protocol”. In fact, the control of the country’s economy went to the occupants. The war damages that the Chinese had to pay amounted to about one billion Tael, equivalent to one hundred billion dollars in today’s currency, to be paid for thirty-nine years. In addition, customs went under the control of occupants to guarantee payment of war damages. In the end, China paid “only” seven hundred million Tael, about 70 billion dollars today.
The occupying nations widened the fence of their legacies which was banned from the Chinese. They also expanded the old territorial concessions and established new ones. In 1901, the following territorial “concessions” were present:
Macau of Portugal,
Hong Kong, Tianjin, Hankou and Weihaiwei of England,
Tianjin and Shanghai of Italy,
Tianjin of Austria-Hungary,
Hankou, Kiautschou and Tianjin of Germany,
Hankou, Port Arthur and Tianjin, in addition to the Manchuria which was annexed to Siberia, of Russia
Shanghai, Tianjin, Hankou and Guangzhou of France,
Hankou, Lushunkou and Qingdao of Japan.
In 1902 Belgium had the Tianjin concession.
Empress Cixi, who had lost all his credibility towards of her subjects, resisted on throne until his death in 1908. Guangxu, her natural heir who had spent the last years in jail, died shortly before death Of Cixi. Emperor was named Pu Yi, who was only two years old. He was son of Guangxu’s brother. His father was named Regent. In 1912, China became a republic. It was proclaimed by Emperor Pu Yi.
Pu Yi retained the emperor’s honorary title, without any power, and allowed the opportunity to continue living in the Forbidden City. In 1931, after various vicissitudes, he was named Emperor of Manchuria by Japanese occupiers. With the advent of Mao Tze Tung’s revolution, he was locked up for a few years in a re-education camp; then, since 1959, he was an employee of the Minister of Cultural Heritage in Beijing. He died in 1967 because of a serious illness.
Paoletti, Ciro (2000). La Marina italiana in Estremo Oriente. Roma, Ufficio Storico della Marina.
Preston, Diana (2000). The Boxer Rebellion. Berkley Books, New York
G. Fattori, La guerra dei boxers, in «Storia illustrata», n. 154/sett. 1970