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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Aug 14, 2023

Last time we spoke about the road to the Boxer Rebellion. Christians and foreigners were encroaching into China. Boxers and other anti-foreign groups were emerging in places like Shandong and Zhili. Conflicts were growing rapidly as the two forces converged, leaving the Qing government in a terrible situation trying to please both. It seems for a time, they were keeping the hawks of war at bay, but the more incidents flared up the tougher each side became. Then came an evolution to the mayhem, the Yihetuan emerged to the stage, a large scale movement of Boxers seeking to revive the qing and destroy the foreigners. The Qing tried to crack down upon the movement, but it seems all was for nought as they only grew in popularity. Beijing has called upon forces from the northwest to bolster defenses, but can they stop the inevitable clash? 


#61 The Boxer Rebellion part 1: The Boxer’s March on Beijing


Welcome to the Fall and Rise of China Podcast, I am your dutiful host Craig Watson. But, before we start I want to also remind you this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Perhaps you want to learn more about the history of Asia? Kings and Generals have an assortment of episodes on history of asia and much more  so go give them a look over on Youtube. So please subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry for some more history related content, over on my channel, the Pacific War Channel where I cover the history of China and Japan from the 19th century until the end of the Pacific War.

After the battle of Senluo Temple Governor of Shandong province, Yuxiang ordered the boxers caught, but not to be killed. The missionaries and foreigners remarked “it was insane orders not to have the soldiers kill any one”. But Yuxiang sought to not drive a wedge between the state and the people. Zhu Hongdeng fled south joining other boxer leaders to discuss what to do next. Major boxer activity halted, as they watched to see what the Qing government would do. THe magistrate of Pingyuan was removed, there did not seem to be any real hunt after them. After awhile Zhu Hongdenf and the other boxers began raiding christians in Yucheng, Changqing, Chiping and Boping. They burnt homes, stole property, performed violence and even killed a few people. Outside Boping, Christians fought back leading to skirmishes and fatalities. Yuxiang’s lenient policies were failing, the Christian community felt the Qing government could not protect them. Yuxiang began targeting the boxer leaders, as he had done with the Big Sword Society prior. Tactically it went brilliantly, he managed to arrest and execute the main leaders, but these Boxers were nothing like the Big Swords. Following the elimination of the boxer leaders, boxer movements sprang up in new places all over the region, villages were being attacked all over. Whenever one Boxer leader was arrested or killed, another would generate at a moment's notice, it was like a Boxer Hydra. 

Now the Boxers had been targeting small villages with Christian communities, but then on November 15th they attacked the fortified Catholic village of Zhangzhuang. The boxers successfully raided the village and it seems this emboldened them greatly as their next targets became mission stations holding foreigners. As the missionaries and foreign communities felt threatened, they began complaining to remove officials like Yuxiang. On December 5th, the complaints worked, the Qing government replaced Yuxiang with Yuan Shikai.

Although Yuan Shikai was convinced Yuxiangs lenient policies led to the Boxer problem and sought to use military force to quell it, prominent Qing officials advised him to not brutalize the Boxers, as they rightly feared it would spark a large-scale rebellion against their government. Thus Yuan Shikai used his forces defensively to try and protect foreigners and Christians, little actually changed. On December 31st of 1899 the British missionary S.M Brooks was murdered in Feicheng by bandits. The Boxers continued to spread and rumors of what they did were heard everywhere. Mission stations were being attacked everywhere in a wild frenzy of panic field by rumors. The Boxers would claim missionaries were poisoning wells. Boxers would target all things foreign such as railways which they said “had iron centipedes or fire carts which desecrated the land and disturbed the graves of their ancestors” Empress Dowager Cixi would love that one. Likewise telegraph lines were feared. Some thought the rusty water dripping from their wires looked like blood of air spirits. Foreign own mines were seen as disturbing the spirits of China’s earth. Boxer Manifestos began to state “When we have slaughtered them all, we shall tear up the railways, cut down the telegraphs, and then finish off by burning their steamboats.” When rumors emerged of the new Yihetuan slogan “Revive the Qing, remove the foreign”, those in the Qing court like Prince Duan and Empress Dowager Cixi listened with keen interest. For once it seemed the peasants were on their side! The Empress Dowager was also extremely superstitious and seemed to be transfixed on the tales of Boxers practicing ritual exercises to induce gods to possess them. She was also intrigued by tales of the female Boxer group known as “Hong Deng Zhao / the red lanterns”. Yes, female Boxers of this order practiced rituals and healing techniques to aid the male Boxers. They trained in martial arts and were said to carry red lanterns used to burn down missionary buildings. Rumors had it they had magical powers to fly, honestly the tales run the gambit. Now something that interested Cixi and some conservative Qing the most was the prospect a group of warriors were out there that did not require payment to fight.

On the last day of 1899 in Shandong province the Boxers killed an english reverend named Sidney Brooks. Brooks had been helping his sister defender a mission “about twelve miles from Ping Yin he was attacked by a band of about thirty armed ruffians who after struggling with him and wounding him on his head and arms with their swords bound him and led him away towards Ping Yin. It was an intensely cold day and snow was falling. In spite of this they took from him all his outer garments and led him about for some hours. He endeavored to ransom himself with promises of large sums of silver but they were unwilling. . . . It is said that by some means he managed to escape and fled in the direction of Ping Yin. He was quickly pursued by three horsemen who cut him down when only a mile from our little church at Ta Kuang Chuang and there by the roadside the last act in this terrible crime was committed. His head was taken from his body and both were thrown into a gully.

News of Brooks murder reached Beijing on January the 2nd of 1900. American Minister Edwin Conger, a bearded civil war veteran met with Herbert Squiers, the American first secretary. They talked about Brooks murder and two other incidents that had recently occurred. The first was the imperial decree ordering Qing officials in the coastal and Yantze provinces to be on their guard against foreign aggressors. The second was a complaint given in November of 1899 about how foreigners were carving up China and urged the Chinese to defend their land. Conger was unsure how to react to such rhetoric. The US favored an open China policy, but certainly not a xenophobic and aggressive one. Conger decided to alert Washington, but did not go as far as to state the foreign community was outright in danger. 

Over in the British legation, Sir Claude MacDonald was also reeling over the recent news. MacDonald had been appointed minister to Beijing in 185 and was a soldier who had fought in Egypt. MacDonald had been complaining for awhile to the Qing government about the conflicts brewing in Shandong, Brooks murder seemed to be the latest and worst of them. He often dealt with the head of the Zongli Yamen, Prince Qing, who was a moderate amongst the Qing court, unlike Prince Duan who was adamantly conservative and quite anti-foreign. The Zongli Yamen immediately promised Brooks murderers would be brought to justice. To the foreign community everything looked like the Qing government favored their protection, but it became gradually apparent to them the Qing were not fully suppressing the Boxers. 

On January 27th the Americans, French, Italian and German legations sent a mutual protest demanding the suppression of the Boxers, but they received no reply for over a month. The Qing court was far too busy dealing with the imperial succession since Emperor Guangxu’s health was declining, Cixi nominated Pujun, a son of Guangxu’s cousin, no other than Prince Duan as the presumptive. Pujun was much alike to his father, extremely anti-foreign. The following weeks saw the foreign ministers scrambling with demands to the Zongli Yamen to increase measures against the Boxers. Telegrams were frantically sent back to home nations in March suggesting an international naval show of force was needed. America, Britain and Italy began sending a handful of warships to anchor outside the Taku forts, while Kaiser Wilhelm sent an entire squadron to Jiaozhou. 

On April 16 of 1900, Empress Dowager Cixi persuaded MacDonald into believing the Boxer problem was coming to an end and this saw the British warships Brisk and Hermione withdraw from the Daku Fort area. The foreign community began breathing a bit easier, but the reality was the Qing Court was considering incorporating the Boxers into an official militia group. The Qing court was at war with another. Prince Duan, leading the conservatives had purged many progressives, he was married to Cixi’s niece and now his son was the heir apparent. Alike to Prince Duan, Cixi was very anti-foreign, ever since her summer palace was burnt down during the second opium war. She like many of the conservatives blamed the foreigners for all problems facing China, never recognizing the corruption present within. But unlike Duan she was much more cautious, she lent an ear to those around her like Li Hongzhang, Yuan Shikai and Jung Lu, the commander of Beijings local forces. The progressives had prevailed until now, walking a tightrope against fully or partially denouncing the Boxers to please the foreigners. 

The missionaries in the more interior parts of China provided the best source of intelligence to the legations. They were sounding the alarm, but there was little anyone could do but place their faith in the Qing government and wait to see what occurred. In early 1900, a British missionary named Frederick Brown was writing out of Tientsin that it was being overrun with Boxers, endangering the Christians there. The foreign diplomats were failing to appreciate such reports, many believed and quite rightly so, the missionaries were the aggressors, bringing conflict upon themselves. There was quite a belief going around that these reports were cases of “crying wolf” as they say. The foreign community in Beijing were failing to notice, thousands of Boxers were venturing out of places like Shandong and Zhili enroute to the capital. Zhili held nearly 100,000 Christians at this point and large foreign populations at Tientsin and Beijing. The 250 foreign missionaries in Beijing were becoming extremely anxious, though they were certainly better off than their colleagues our in the countryside. 

By late april the Boxers began placing placards in Beijing. One was dated April 29th stating “Disturbances are to be dreaded from the foreign devils; everywhere they are starting missions, erecting telegraphs, and building railways; they do not believe in the sacred doctrine, and they speak evil of the gods. Their sins are numberless as the hairs of the head. . . . The will of heaven is that the telegraph wires be first cut, then the railways torn up, and then shall the foreign devils be decapitated. In that day shall the hour of their calamities come.” By May 1st, Herbert Hoover, yes that Herbert Hoover happened to be in China at the time, he found the situation too dangerous and recalled his geological expeditions from the interior. Hoover and his wife Lou, stayed put in Tientsin.

By mid May, news of Boxer atrocities flooded Beijing. 60 Chinese catholics had been slaughtered in Kaolo a village 90 miles away from Beijing. The bodies had been tossed down a well, the entire village razed. Then just 40 miles outside Beijing a Chinese preacher working for the British was murdered. MacDonald telegraphed Britain and the Zongli Yamen demanding an apology, but was given the usual run around. On May 19th, Bishop Favier sent a letter to the French Minister Stephen Pichon, urging him to send for troops. ““I am well-informed and I do not speak idly. This religious persecution is only a façade; the ultimate aim is the extermination of all Europeans.... The Boxers’ accomplices await them in Peking; they mean to attack the churches first, then the legations. For us, in our Cathedral, the date of the attack has actually been fixed.“pour protéger nos personnes et nos biens”—“to protect our persons and our possessions.” The next day the foreign minister met to discuss Bishop Faviers' warning. MacDonald was skeptical, Pichon conceded Favier was a bit of an alarmist, but could be telling the truth. In the end the ministers agreed not to send to Tientsin a demand for further guards, but instead would ask the Qing government to crack down on the Boxers, or else they would summon troops. Well the Qing did not do so, in fact on May 23rd, George Morrison and Australian journalist wrote in his diary “the Boxers had the cognizance and approval of the Government, as shown by them drilling in the grounds of Imperial barracks and royal princes”. Morrison was one of the most knowledge westerners in China at the time and one of the few who could see the very real looming threat the Boxers were. Meanwhile MacDonald and his wife were preparing a major social event, a party to honor Queen Victories 80th birthday. Most of the foreign community took part and there were some of the conversations that emerged were about the rise of the Boxers. Yet still many waved it all off as nonesense that would soon fade away.

The next day the foriegn community saw their Chinese gardners, washermen, house workers all begin leaving their work and going into hiding. It had become unsafe for Chinese, whether they be Christians or not to work for foreigners. At the same time Christian refugees began flooding the Beijings churches and gathering centers. Many of them bore wounds such as burn marks from Boxer attacks. On May 28th a refugee hobbled over to Morrison’s house reporting to him dire news. The Belgian construction staff building at Changsintien had been attacked by Boxers. The Boxers were destroying the railway line linking Beijing and Hankou. Not only that, they were cutting telegraph lines and the stations at Fengtai were razed to the ground. These were the first reports of concentrated mass action against the foreigners. Morrison was so disturbed by the report he went himself with two friends racing over to Fengtai on horseback and what he saw was “black smoke curling ominously into the sky. It was as if the whole countryside was afoot, streaming towards the station. The engine sheds were on fire . . . and the villagers from all around were shouting. We could do nothing, though we should have shot a Chinaman who threatened us with a sword and swore to cut our throats. It will always be a regret to me that I did not kill this man.” A bit hardcore to be honest. 

Herbert Squiers 47 servants, most being Christian Chinese began raising alarm stating “these people are all Boxers, most of them flaunting the red sash, [and] are preparing for a general uprising when the time shall be ripe—an uprising that has for its watchword, ‘Death and destruction to the foreigner and all his works.’” Smoke and flames could be seen rising the locomotive shed that housed Empress Dowager’s railway coach, something she naturally never used, mind you. Boxers blew up the foreign built steel bridge over the Peiho river. When trouble began in Fengtai, the Qing forces withdrew. Morrison went to work going out to the foreign villas to warn those there of the incoming Boxers. Herbert Squiers went to his villa accompanied by a Cossack guard lent to him by the Russian minister, de Giers. Russia had maintained a small armed guard in Beijing for quite some time now. The Chinese servants were saved by the party before the Boxers reached them. However the party now had to travel back to Beijing and could face two possible threats, Boxers or the Kansu. It was a 15 mile journey that took 5 hours, but they made it safely without incident. Meanwhile the Belgian engineers 16 miles from Beijing in Chansintien were stuck. Luckily for them the French dispatched a small force to rescue them before the Boxers struck. As the Belgians made their way to Beijing, they could see their residence up in flames in the distance. They also noticed Qing troops sent to aid them were joining the Boxers in looting their former residences. Another group of foreign engineers at Paotingfu were not as lucky as the rest and were attacked as they fled for Beijing. They were attacked at the same time as the railway line, thus they were unable to flee by train. The telegraph lines went soon after cutting their communication as well. Unable to communicate or know where Boxers may be coming from, they fled east to Tientsin using river boats. 30 Belgian, French and Italians with women in children departed Paotingu on May 31st. When they were boarding boats the Boxers attacked, and some of the families fled in the wrong direction and would be murdered. The majority huddled together and took dangerous routes through swamps to avoid further detection. Two men rushed to Tientsin as fast as they could reaching it on june 3rd to raise an alarm. The rest of the survivors showed up, most semi naked, dehydrated and wounded.

Hearing news of these incidents, the foreign diplomats in Beijing were now beginning to freak out. On may 28th MacDonald formed a meeting with the ministers and argued they had no option left but to request the foreign fleets anchored outside the Taku forts send forces to the legations. There was a very real danger the rail link from Tientsin to Beijing would be severed, if they did not act quickly enough the foreign fleets would be unable to move troops by train. The French and Russians stated they already made their requests, so MacDonald hastily telegraphed Vice Admiral Sir Edward Seymour, yes the veteran of the second opium war who was now the commander of British naval forces in China. Seymour was currently patrolling the coast with his squadron when he received the telegraph. Meanwhile MacDonald lambasted the Zongli Yamen that they were damn fools or liars, before demanding they inform Prince Qing who was at the summer palace with Cixi “that the troops are coming tomorrow, and if [there is] any obstruction, they will come in ten times greater force.” On May 31st the Zongli Yamen gave official permission for the foreign troops to come to Beijing, but imposed a limit of 30 guards per legation, which all the foreign diplomats ignored. The first contingents departed Tientsin that same day for Beijing.

The foreign diplomats knew having troops come over would bolster the Boxers to attack even more, but it seemed to all that the Qing court had no intention of helping. In fact they did not know it, but the Qing court were in a hell of a mess. On May 22nd, the Boxer attack upon Christians in Kaolo had also seen the death of the Manchu commander, Yang Futong. The Qing did not react to this and the Boxers were greatly emboldened, as they quickly went after the railways. An imperial edict was made on May 30th stating “the really guilty must be distinguished from those merely led by the excitement of the moment.” Sir Robert Hart, working as the inspector general of the Qing maritime customs had been closely observing the Qing response to the Boxers and would remark “The government seemed entirely unable to cope with the movement, even when they were willing; and the Government would, or could, do nothing but issue edicts, many of which were so dubiously worded that they might have been taken as equally favorable to the ‘Boxers,’ or to Christians and foreigners.” The terrible position the Qing government were in was not lost on the foreigners as Sir Robert Hart told his colleagues  “the Court appears to be in a dilemma: if the Boxers are not suppressed, the legations threaten to take action—if the attempt to suppress them is made, this intensely patriotic organization will be converted into an anti-dynastic movement!” Thus the foreign ministers knew they could not depend on the Qing government. They also knew they had inflamed the situation by calling up troops, but what choice did they have?

There were worries the foreign troops would not reach Beijing in time, the ministers began issued protective directives. Women were not to leave the legation compounds, the diplomats and military personnel were to make efforts to investigate the situation at all times. One of the first things they uncovered were placards being places around the legation Quarters giving “helpful tips on how to destroy the foreign buildings”. This prompted MacDonald to telegraph the foreign office in London “The situation is one of extreme gravity, people very excited, troops mutinous; without doubt it is now a question of life and property being in danger here.” Boxers began parading openly in the streets of Beijing. Foreigners if caught walking the streets could expect rocks thrown at them by not just Boxers, but angry locals. French diplomat, Baron D’Anthouard described the scenes as such “handbills, and advocating the massacre of foreigners and the destruction of all religious institutions. They no longer take the trouble to hide, and move about carrying their insignia: a red scarf tied around their heads with the inscription ‘Fu’ [Happiness] on the front of it, a kind of red coat of arms on their chest, and red bands around their wrists and ankles. They also carry flags with the inscription, ‘We fight by order of the Emperor and for the salvation of the Dynasty.’ Their handbills announce the forthcoming massacre of the ‘Western devils.’

The foreigners in the legations began to plan defenses against possible attacks. I really recommend at this point checking out maps of the legation quarters 1900, there are excellent maps, photo’s and renderings. The British legation was quite strong, had high walls, held the Jade river to one side and the Imperial Carriage park on the other, it was by far the strongest position. MacDonald knew it was their greatest stronghold and he immediately offered sanctuary to any and all British residents seeking refuge. There was news, 6000 Kansu soldiers had been deployed to the railway terminus at Machiapu just outside the city walls. The foreigners wondered if they would join in attacks against them. Machiapu also happened to be the railway station the foreign troops would be arriving at, was it going to be a battle when they did? The foreign diplomats bit their nails waiting for the trains to arrive and at long last they did bearing 350 men from Britain, Russia, America, France, Japan and Italy. Another group of Germans and Austrians were coming in the next few days. There were curses and screams thrown at the foreign troops, but no violence as they entered the city gates. The foreign community came rushing out to see the various soldiers march into Beijing. Captain Francis Poole of the East Yorkshire regiment acting as a guard at the British Legation had this to say of the sight “the British fighters were naturally the smartest, that the Americans were “a serviceable-looking lot,” but that the French, Russians, and Italians were “very dirty.” All the guards were ill-equipped for what was going to go down. The admirals who sent them did not anticipate how long they would be stationed there. Most had rifles with a few hundred rounds per man, but there was no reserve ammunition, no heavy weapons, aside from 3 machine guns. The British carried the Nordenfelt .45 which was prone to jamming; the Austrains had a Maxim gun; the Americans carried light Colt 236’s. For artillery there was a single one pounder the Italians had brought with 120 shells. The Russians intended to bring a 12 pounder but left it behind at Tientsin because of space issues, though they did bring shells for it. Despite the small size, the diplomats were extremely grateful to see their new guards. MacDonald expressed his relief stating “the Empress Dowager would see the error of her ways. The crisis I think is past as far as Peking is concerned.


On June 3rd MacDonald sent word to Vice Admiral Seymour stating their situation had calmed down. The remaining German and Austrians arrived turning their guard force of 350 to 435. All seemed quiet at the legations, but outside Christian attacks were becoming more violent and systematic. News began to emerge that the Boxers were now targeting the railway line  and stations to Tientsin. The foreign ministers met to discuss things going forward and it was argued immediately, the Boxers would most likely cut the telegraph lines to Beijing next. This of course met they would be unable to cable their governments to request more aid if it came to that. On June 4th, MacDonald requested the Zongli Yamen to publicly denounce the recent murder of two missionaries, but was ignored. The next day another meeting was made with Prince Qing, leading MacDonald to conclude the Zongli Yamen were powerless to do anything. His conclusion was bolstered by recent imperial edicts that exonerated the Boxers and instead began placing blame on Christians for violence. The atmosphere in Beijing was one of foreboding again. 

On June 9th a mob of Boxers burned down the grandstand the Beijing Race Course near the southern city gates. The news drew an excited young student interpreter to gallop over to take a look and he was confronted with a violent crowd. A Chinese civilian was shot during this process, the first to be killed by a foreigner. MacDonald was livid at the news and ordered no other foreigners to ride out of the city again. The ministers yet again met and debated if they should request further troops from the navy outside the Taku forts. MacDonald told everyone he already requested such from Vice Admiral Seymour as they expected the telegraph lines to be cut any day. Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi had also returned that day to the forbidden city from the summer palace. This would have brought relief to everyone if it was not also reported, General Dong Fuxiang and his entire Kansu army had escorted the royal party into the city. 

MacDonald sent word again to Seymour that he should send all available troops at once. He received a confirmation of the order on June 10th, help was on the way, just before the telegraph line to Tientsin was cut. The only line left was one running north to the Russians. The Kansu troops began massing around the Machiapu railway station clearly looking for a fight with the incoming relief force. Hours passed with no trains. Meanwhile Prince Qing was replaced as president by Prince Duan. Then the chancellor of the Japanese legation, Mr. Sugiyama, neatly dressed in a tailcoat and bowler hat went to the Muchiapu station to check out the situation. As he got outside the city gate, Kansu troops grabbed him out of his cart and according to Morisson “disemboweled and cut him to pieces. It is said his heart was ripped out and sent as a gift to General Dong Fuxiang”. There was zero attempt to recover his body. The remaining telegraph line to Russia was cut. The normally bustling streets of the legation Quarter were emptied of servants and shopkeepers who vanished. The situation had escalated beyond control now.

I would like to take this time to remind you all that this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Please go subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry after that, give my personal channel a look over at The Pacific War Channel at Youtube, it would mean a lot to me.

The foreign community in Beijing managed to gain some extra guards for their legations, but what were a few hundred against tens of thousands? Mr. Sugiyama was murdered in cold blood and now the violence would hit the legations.