Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Boxer Rebellion Part 3: Pride and Prejudice

Stage Three: Pride and Prejudice
            While the groups were forming it was happening in a greater context of foreign relations.  China had been, as previously stated, moving toward being divided amongst the colonial powers of the world.  In an effort to head off this change an intellectual movement had started to call for drastic reforms in the status quo, and the Emperor seeing this as an opportunity at a legacy that would make him a founding father of China's future put into effect the Hundred Days reform.

            Massive overhauls in schools, military, and government bureaucracy were all planned, decreed, and then killed with the overthrown of the Emperor by the reactionary and corrupt upper levels of the Chinese government, with Empress Dowager being the leader, or at the very least the public face of this movement.

            Oddly the author Preston portrays the Empress Dowager as one part Catharine the Great and another Caligula, one side a cunning politician and capable administrator, having her hands very much on the controls of the whole movement, but she is also portrayed as sort of mad with luxury and privilege, taking her position more as an opportunity of indulgence and allowing those court members around her to control things, and stepping in with her own opinion at different times, though not being the constant master of the whole affair.  I am unsure which interpretation of Dowager was correct, but I prefer the compromise of the two.  That the Empress was the most identifiable entity among many in a larger conspiracy to keep China under their control, and that her collective court had more say and input about policy and that Dowager should not shoulder the bulk of blame for the events of the Boxer Rebellion.

            In the midst of this overthrow perpetrated by Reactionary government elements, foreign presence became more ill at ease.  The Emperor had been amicable with the foreign presence and for the most part I think that his reforms would have been welcomed by the international community in China.  The Boxers gathering and assaulting people were not serving as a calming effect to the tension.

            As I said in stage two, the Boxer movement was ostensibly recruiting from the same groups that the Christians were recruiting from, the poor and disenfranchised who were calling for both a personal direction, and looking for food.  Natural disasters had added considerably to the plight of the Chinese in the North East provinces, Schoppa singles out a flood that destroyed farmland which was quickly followed by drought which unemployed many Chinese as the key issue.  But the Boxer's in addition to using local folklore to speak to the spiritual side of the destitute Chinese, also had food to fill the stomachs of the hungry countrymen.  "An attraction of the Boxers as food became scarce was that they usually had good supplies of grain, gained in their pillaging of Christian households and sometimes their extortion from the wealthy."  (Schoppa, pg120)  Apparently no one in the Boxer Rebellion called the late joiners of the movement 'Rice Christians' when they showed up for the catering.

            The diplomatic friction hit a high note with murder of numerous missionaries and officials, along with several thousand Chinese Christians.  The first missionary victim according to Preston was an Englishman named Brooks, who was captured, stripped, led through the snowy countryside naked, and then while fleeing for his life was ridden down and decapitated.  Brook's murder was a thing of discussion in the capital as various foreign dignitaries sent for naval backup from their homelands and petitioned Dowager for concrete law enforcement action against the Boxer movement.

            A conspiracy took advantage of the Empress' insecurities when dealing with the Foreign demands for protection and their approaching navies, several ultimatums to the Empress Dowager asking for huge numbers of government duties to be handed over to the foreign presence and the Emperor to be restored to power were read at court and it enraged the Empress.  This series of demands was engineered by her own court to spur her into declaring war on the foreign presence.  "The Ultimatum was a forgery by Prince Duan... but it had its intended effect.  The Empress Dowager declared dramatically: 'Today they have opened hostilities, and the extinction of the nation is before us... Rather than wait for death, is it not better to die fighting?'" (Esherick, pg302)

            The Empress had previously been curious about the Boxer movement but now saw it as a set of troops that could be supported and utilized without need for pay.  They were all already fervent and directed at the enemy, and in many causes thought that they were invincible.  She allied her forces with the Boxers and ordered the extermination of the foreign presence in Beijing and then China as a whole.

            Considering the weight of the military forces in question, I have seen various estimates but all were measured in the tens of thousands, the weeks that the diplomatic quarter held out was a miracle.  The place was under siege until the middle of August and I can only imagine that it would not have lasted had it not been for more pragmatic members of the Chinese court blunting their attacks hoping that a more peaceful solution could still be reached.  A number in the court realized how poor their long term prospects of conflict were, "Several ministers... protested that China had been unable to defeat even one Power in past conflicts, and stood little chance of withstanding a united expedition of all the Great Powers now." (Esherick, pg302)  I also think that some more merciful members of the court saw the people in the diplomatic area as having families and would not suffer themselves to killing innocents.  Then there were ministers who simply didn't get the message to wage war, as the decree was not clearly and quickly distributed to the various provincial government heads, and the reaction to the directive was mixed, I imagine more than a few simply 'lost' the order.

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