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The Origins, Aims and Membership of the Boxers in China Essay

The ʻRighteous and Harmonious Fistsʼ or the ʻBoxersʼ were a society that formed out of the humiliation China felt that was caused by foreigners. Four main factors influenced their formation, the humiliation they felt due to foreign presence in China, the antipathy towards the Christian missionaries who were a part of this group of foreigners, China was also experiencing economic hardship around the time of the formation of the ʻBoxersʼ and the Northern area of China in which they were formed was also experiencing many natural disasters. The theories of Purcell and Esherick debate whether or not the ʻBoxersʼ were formed to retaliate against the Qing dynasty and the foreigners or if the ʻBoxersʼ aims had nothing to do with the dynasty and in fact the dynasty even supported the ʻBoxersʼ. The members of the ʻBoxersʼ predominantly came from Northern China and were also predominantly of adolescent age. The ʻBoxersʼ were formed out of the feeling of foreign humiliation and were formed with pro-dynastic and anti-foreign aims.

The ʻBoxersʼ formed around the beginning of the nineteenth century due to four main reasons, foreign humiliation, antipathy towards Christians, economic hardship and natural disasters. The term ʻBoxersʼ was given to the society by foreigners because of the way that the group would perform public boxing matches. The first official mention of the ʻBoxersʼ was from court officials in 1808. Foreign humiliation was a big factor in the formation of the ʻBoxersʼ. The ʻBoxersʼ felt embarrassment after the opium wars and the unequal treaties was mostly due to their nationalistic pride, China was worried that the foreigners were going to break their country up into a colonial state and the ʻBoxersʼ were angry that China had been taken to that point of fear by the foreigners.

It is clear that when the ʻBoxersʼ were formed their main foreign target was missionaries. In the Shandong Boxer attacks the number of attacks by the ʻBoxersʼ on missionaries is generally much higher than the number of attacks inflicted upon non-Christians.1 Foreign missionaries had been allowed by the unequal treaties to set up churches in China. Many Chinese people converted to Christianity for different reasons, some converted so that they may be exempt from Chinese law as the unequal treaties declared that all Christians, including converts, are not subject to Chinese law. This made the ʻBoxersʼ hate Christians, including converts, they saw converts as if they were now foreigners. Manufactured goods from outside of China were causing much economic hardship and famine coincided with rebellions like the rebellion of Taiping from 1850-1864.

The population of China was unruly and this was blamed on the foreigners. Natural disasters were occurring particularly in Northern China around the area that the ʻBoxersʼ were formed in. The flooding of the Yellow River in late 19th century destroyed many crops, the rebellions that happened around this time meant that there were food shortages in China. All of these issues linked together to attribute to the formation of the ʻBoxersʼ. The ʻBoxersʼ were undoubtedly anti-foreign but whether or not they were pro or anti dynastic is a debated topic.

Two sides have been put forward for this debate, the view that was put forward traditionally was the view of Victor Purcell, this view is that when the ʻBoxersʼ formed they were formed with both an anti-foreign and anti-dynastic views but around the 1880ʼs the ʻBoxersʼ became pro-dynastic and the dynasty supported the society. This view was put forward in his book The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study, Purcell based his views on the evidence he found in Chinese imperial records.2 This evidence can be seen as both reliable and unreliabe. It may be seen as reliable as it is a government source but in that it could also be seen as unreliable because it may be bias in that the records may have been written with the idea that China did not have any faults.

Ssu-yü Teng and John K. Fairbank, Chinaʼs Response to the West, Massachusetts, 1954, p.191 Victor Purcell, The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study, Cambridge, 1963, p.194.

Purcellʼs idea connects with the confucian principles that the ʻBoxersʼ abided by. He believed that the ʻBoxersʼ were anti-dynastic due to the economic, social and political issues that were happening within China at the time of their formation. Although this was the widely accepted view for a long time before the emergence another view, the view of Purcell has been scrutinised as ill-founded and incoherent.3 This contrasts with the view of Joseph Esherick who believed that the ʻBoxersʼ were formed with anti-foreign and prodynastic views.4 Esherick presented his view in the book The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. He developed his idea after examining oral histories within China. Esherick presents a consistent view that is backed up by strong evidence taken from the areas in which the ʻBoxersʼ were formed.

Esherickʼs idea was formed on the basis of peopleʼs opinions. From the consistency and source of evidence the theory put forward by Joseph Esherick is the source that makes more sense. Esherickʼs theory fits in with the idea that the ʻBoxersʼ were always anti-foreign and believed that foreigners presence in China was the cause of economic hardship and natural disasters, in this idea the ʻBoxersʼ are working to create a harmonious China for the dynasty rather than against it. The ʻBoxerʼ societies members were mostly made up of peasants from Northern areas of China. Members of the ʻBoxerʼ society especially came from the areas of Shandong and Zhili in Northern China. These regions were very poor especially agriculturally, this was a large attribute to the formation of the ʻBoxersʼ, the fact that most of the members of the ʻBoxersʼ came from poor beginnings.

These areas in which the ʻBoxerʼ members came from also experienced many natural disasters, this was also a large factor in the formation of the ʻBoxersʼ. Primarily the ʻBoxersʼ were made up of adolescents that followed very closely to the principles of Confucianism. Many members of the ʻBoxersʼ had led early uprisings prior to the formation of the ʻBoxerʼ society. The ʻBoxerʼ society was not completely a male society. It did include female members that were known as ʻLanternsʼ. The members of the ʻBoxerʼ society came from areas experiencing much hardship, this is a big attribute to the formation of their society.

The ʻBoxersʼ hoped to get rid of what they thought was causing all the issues within China, the foreigners. The ʻBoxersʼ were formed out of the feeling of humiliation that China felt due to the foreigners within China. Other attributes to their formation was the presence of missionaries within China, the economic hardship that China was facing and the natural disasters that occurred in the areas in which members of the ʻBoxerʼ society lived. The ʻBoxersʼ wished to exterminate all foreigners within China so that China may become a better place, the dynasty supported the ʻBoxersʼ in this aim. The members of the ʻBoxerʼ society came from Northern China and were predominantly adolescents who had led or taken part in previous uprisings. The ʻBoxersʼ were formed with anti-foreign and prodynastic sentiments.

ʻWhat effect has the passage of time had on Western interpretations of the Boxer Uprising?ʼ, , accessed on 29/07/12. 4

Joseph Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, Los Angeles, 1987.

Bibliography: Esherick, Joseph, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1987.

Purcell, Victor, The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study, Cambridge, The Syndics Of The Cambridge University Press, 1963.

Teng, Ssu-yü and Fairbank, John K., Chinaʼs Response to the West, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1954. ʻWhat effect has the passage of time had on Western interpretations of the Boxer Uprising?ʼ, , accessed on 29/07/12.


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