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The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China

A History

David J. Silbey

Hill and Wang

The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China Download image

ISBN10: 0809030756
ISBN13: 9780809030750

Trade Paperback

304 Pages



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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.


Praise for The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China

"It is news even to many informed Americans that the present Chinese government has closely studied a military invasion (involving thousands of U.S. troops) of China more than a century ago. David J. Silbey now tells the story of that historic intervention, complete with the formidable Chinese, European, Japanese, and American characters, and the needed historical contexts. He has accomplished this with a gemlike narrative that is as page-turning as it is succinct."—Walter LaFeber, Tisch University Professor Emeritus, Cornell University

"In this absorbing analysis of the military history of the Boxer conflict, David J. Silbey shows how swiftly the Boxers learned from their foreign enemies, and how close the foreign forces came to catastrophe. The Boxer Rebellion is a valuable addition to our histories of warfare and revolution in China."—Jonathan Spence, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus, Yale University, and author of The Search for Modern China

"David J. Silbey has a remarkable capacity for explaining a war from the perspective of various participants and for presenting in a clear and efficient way the political, cultural, strategic, and military factors that shape the course of a war. Readers of The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China will understand how the joint expedition in 1900 to suppress this popular anti-foreign uprising became a significant turning point in the miserable history of modern imperial expansion into China and Great Power competition over it."—Alan Lessoff , Professor of History, Illinois State University

"David J. Silbey has done students, teachers, and general readers a great service by presenting the Boxer Rebellion in a lucid and compelling narrative. This book helps us to understand not just what happened in China more than a century ago, but what is happening there now."—Michael S. Neiberg, author of Fighting the Great War

"Thoughtful and concisely told . . . Mr. Silbey excels at the military history."—Howard W. French, The Wall Street Journal

"Drawing on the diaries and letters of Allied soldiers and diplomats, Silbey paints a concise, vivid portrait of the short-lived war in which an indigenous people banded together against eight great military powers."—History Book Club

"A succinct revisiting of the turn-of-the-century uprising that pitted Chinese recalcitrance against 'imperial buccaneering.' There are still some important lessons to be learned in studying the Boxer Rebellion, as Silbey clearly points out—certainly as a way of understanding how the Chinese have traditionally met with chaos from outside. By 1900 the incursions of the imperialistic powers Britain, Russia and Germany had forced open China to foreign trade, especially opium, weakening further the Qing dynasty and hastening an internal collapse of a poor, overpopulated country. The catastrophic loss to Japan after the First Sino-Japanese War had shocked the Chinese into a need for reform; however, it was not forthcoming under the rule of Empress Dowager Cixi. Groups of illiterate peasants, unemployed and displaced by the coming of the railroads and resentful of the presence of meddling missionaries, acted out, attacking foreigners. From the secret societies, 'the last refuge of the dispossessed,' emerged the Yi-he-quan, the Boxers, a kind of cult that caught on. They were steeped in martial arts and the role of being Robin Hoods, writes Silbey, and they disrupted society, catching the attention of the foreign press by the fall of 1899, and culminating in the murder of missionary Rev. Sidney Brooks. Drought and famine exacerbated local worries, spreading the movement across northern China, until finally the violence against Chinese Christians, railway workers and merchants exploded in 1900 and a combination of foreign legations fought their way to Beijing, battling for forts and arsenal, ultimately relieving the besieged embassies and breaking the Boxer resistance. Although the uprising ultimately failed, it would forge a generation of peasant resisters, whom Mao Zedong believed 'did the hard and dirty work of preparing China for a true, Marxist revolution.' A fresh, accessible take on a crucial turning point for the modern Chinese state."—Kirkus Reviews

"At the turn of the 20th century, with the Chinese imperial dynasty crumbling as European and American empires were carving out their own imperial territories in China, a mysterious collection of Chinese peasants, called Boxers . . . for their fighting techniques, emerged and won the backing of the empress dowager and her government against foreign intrusions in China. Was the Boxer Rebellion a critical revolutionary movement that inspired later Chinese revolutionaries, or was it merely a peasant rebellion led by a radical faction of anti-foreigners? While much of the popular historical narrative depicts the short-lived rebellion via the thrashing of the peasants by combined Western powers, Silbey counters with a different interpretation. Researched using firsthand written documents from Western participants in the suppression of the rebellion, his book reveals that the Boxer action, far from a disorganized guerrilla effort, was a passionate, well-executed crusade that at one point had successfully repelled the onslaught of the imperial powers and helped sow the seeds of revolution for its republican and communist successors."—Library Journal

"Silbey's concise, lively account of an early experiment in multilateral intervention analyzes the imperialist motivations that led a mixed army of eight Western nations into a brief but bloody military expedition to suppress the Boxer movement . . . lashing out at the foreign powers that had carved the country into spheres of influence as the Qing dynasty wheezed toward its decline. After the Empress Dowager Cixi ended her policy of suppressing the Boxers, they besieged the foreign legation quarter of the capital in June. That in turn triggered a punitive expedition to free the legations, and fierce battles that nearly resulted in Allied Western defeat, which Silbey describes with excellent sourcing and vivid eyewitness accounts. The 'Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists,' as the Boxers were known, arose from a complex response to drought, faltering government, and the incursions of imperial powers that often worked under the aegis of spreading Christianity. Silbey explores the machinations and conflicting motivations of the Russian, Japanese, German, American, British, Italian, Austro-Hungarian, and French troops as byproducts of the 'Great Game,' a competition for colonial influence."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads

About the author

David J. Silbey

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.

Steve Shane for Alvernia College

David J. Silbey