Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Name:
Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!

30.1.05

What I've been reading

The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China's War on Foreigners that Shook the World in the Summer of 1900 by Diana Preston
436 pages, Berkley Publishing Group, 2000

One might think all I read is history books, but it ain't true -- I just happen to be the middle of a bunch of them (I read my books in alphabetical order according to author, for reasons that are too weird to get into here). After I finished this book, I started an actual fiction novel, so soon I will tell you all about it.

This book is a straight, popular history book, and it's well done. I knew very little about the Boxers going into it, and I don't know much more about them now. Then how is it well done, you ask? Well, Preston herself admits that the Boxers left very little evidence of why they did what they did -- they were rural peasants, so they weren't big on writing. In fact, the major weakness of this book is the lack of sources from the Chinese side -- even the Imperial Court left little to illuminate their stance. This is not necessarily a book about the Boxers and the Chinese, despite the title.

Where the book succeeds is from the Western viewpoint. For those who don't know, the Boxers were peasants who, in 1900, began killing Christians in China. They had plenty of reasons -- religious, economic, cultural -- and they attacked with savagery. The Dowager Empress, Tzu Hsi, sided with the Boxers, since she was upset about foreign domination of her country and thought she could use the Boxers to drive the foreigners out. The Boxers entered Peking (Preston uses the spelling since everyone in 1900 did) and began killing foreigners. They besieged the foreign legations (embassies) and cut the Europeans inside off from the world, and eventually, the Chinese army took over the siege, which lasted for almost three months. Finally, an international relief force managed to march from the coast to Tientsin and then to Peking, driving the Imperial Court into the countryside and rescuing their ambassadors and the thousands of Chinese Christians trapped in the city. It's a dramatic story, and Preston uses the many primary sources left by the besieged Europeans to tell a gripping story of sacrifice and fear. The siege of the legations is central to the book, and Preston does an excellent job showing how it affected the people and how they dealt with it.

Preston also explains the political situation in China that led to the rebellion. China late in the 19th century was weak yet full of economic potential. The European Powers (and the U.S.), having already forced the Chinese to export opium and give up territory, had established themselves in Peking and brought hundreds of missionaries to the country. Christianity clashed with Chinese local religion, and the Powers clashed with the Chinese political structure. Chinese racism (the Chinese thought they were natural rulers of the world, and everyone else inferior) clashed with European racism (well-documented), and it didn't help that the Chinese began to realize they were being exploited economically. There were two ways to alleviate this problem: change or die. The Chinese Emperor tried changing, but he died young and the Dowager Empress seized power as regent. She was a reactionary, and when the Boxers rebelled, she did little to stop them, as their views coincided with hers. Preston also makes the point that the Boxers were a true nationalistic movement, and the Chinese rulers had been since 1644 Manchus, from Manchuria, and therefore technically not Chinese. The Empress probably feared that if she did not support the Boxers, they might turn their wrath on her. She gambled and lost.

As I mentioned, the siege takes up most of Preston's book. Here the book shines, as several members of the legations kept copious diaries, even through the worst part of the siege. It's fascinating to read the various perspectives, from the cynical reporter who was trapped in Peking, to the many women who helped out wherever possible. Women played an important part of the defense of the legations, and overcame the typical chauvinism of the age to earn respect from several male defenders. When we start to admire the besieged for their staunch resistance, we read that the thousands of Chinese Christians who were trapped in the legations with the Europeans and were the true targets of the Boxers were often denied equal shares of whatever food was left. Despite dying together, the Europeans could not overcome their institutional racism. It's fascinating because it belies a common notion (at least as portrayed in popular entertainment) that differences are put aside when people face a grievous enemy. The Europeans tried to help the Chinese when they were injured and comforted those who lost loved ones, but giving them equal food seems never to have occurred to them.

The relief force that eventually rescued the legations is also given a good deal of space. It's an interesting parallel to today's world, in the days before even the League of Nations, that the Powers were able to work together despite almost insurmountable differences. The British, Americans, French, Russians, and Japanese all contributed mightily to the relief force, and each nation worked together despite not quite trusting each other. When we look back at the Boxer rebellion and its consequences, we might think a little more about what we're doing in today's world. The Powers invaded China for a noble reason -- rescuing their embattled ambassadors -- but did not consider the consequences. The decided to restore the Manchus because a stable China, they felt, was better than anarchy, and this led almost directly to the Revolution of 1911. It's interesting, with elections being held in Iraq, to see once again that we may not have learned much from history (the situations aren't really parallel, I know, but there are similarities).

Ultimately, the Boxer rebellion was far greater in what it meant for China and its relationship with the world than its rather pathetic display for a few months would lead us to believe. China was a vast nation just beginning to wake up to nationalistic yearnings, and the European Powers handled it quite badly. The Boxers were unwitting agents in beginning a century of turmoil, and Preston's book is a good place to get a sense of just how the world was changing during that highly charged summer.