The year is 1900, and Western empires—both old and new—are locked in regional entanglements across the globe. The British are losing a bitter war against the Boers while the German kaiser is busy building a vast new navy. The United States is struggling to put down an insurgency in the South Pacific while the upstart imperialist Japan begins to make clear to neighboring Russia its territorial ambition. In China, a perennial pawn in the Great Game, a mysterious group of superstitious peasants is launching attacks on the Western powers they fear are corrupting their country. These ordinary Chinese—called Boxers by the West because of their martial arts showmanship—rise up, seemingly out of nowhere. Foreshadowing the insurgencies of the more recent past, they lack a centralized leadership and instead tap into latent nationalism and deep economic frustration to build their army. Their battle cry: “Support the Qing, exterminate the foreigners.”Many scholars brush off the Boxers as an ill-conceived and easily defeated revolt, but the military historian David J. Silbey shows just how close they came to beating back the combined might of all the imperial powers. Drawing on the diaries and letters of allied soldiers and diplomats, Silbey paints a vivid portrait of the short-lived war. Even though their cause ended just as quickly as it began, the bravery and patriotism of the Boxers would inspire Chinese nationalists—including a young Mao Zedong—for decades to come.
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David J. Silbey teaches at Cornell University’s Washington, D.C., campus. He is the author of A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899–1902.
David J. Silbey