BOOK REVIEW: The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China by David J. Silbey
This treatise on the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 in Shantung Province in northern China and in Peking is exceptionally well researched and told. Silbey has written this book with keen understanding and the perceptive knack to engulf the audience deeply into his chronicle. Of what I know of the Boxer Rebellion, I would suggest that this book is the most comprehensive and accurate of all other popular histories. Of note, he engages us in the big pictures and leads us skillfully into minute details of individual exploits and heroism.
I fault Silbey for not providing custom-designed, detailed maps of the various campaigns and a large-scale map of northern China with key geographic features and city names. This is a serious failure and negates a five-star rating. He does suffer us with six maps from that period that are minuscule and worthless—including one of the innards of Peking. The overall map of northern China that he does provide is small and inefficacious. Accordingly, it is extremely difficult to follow the coalition’s campaign up the Dagu River to relieve the besieged legations in Peking. Included in the coalition army were elements of the armed forces from America, Great Britain, Imperial Germany, France, Austria-Hungry Empire, Imperial Russia, and Japanese Empire.
He opens his book with an overview of western imperialism in China over the past fifty years. He details the negative effects this imperialism engendered on and the general populace’s emotions and on the Imperial government; led by the Dowager Empress Tzu-his (“Cixi” in the current Pinyin spelling) and Prince Duan of the fading Qing Dynasty. Compounding the contempts was the Chinese adversarial perception of the special privileges endowed on Chinese Christians by missionaries and the western powers.
The drought in the spring of 1900 in Shantung Province crippled the breadbasket of northern China. The idle and starving farmers and peasants convinced themselves that the imperial westerners caused the drought to further humiliate and dominate them. Without leadership, the Boxer movement evolved and morphed quickly into a ragtag fighting force throughout the province. Some few of the Boxers were students of the ancient Chinese martial arts collectively dubbed “ch’uan fa.” They slaughtered Christian converts, missionaries and their families, and even important westerners; for example, the Baron August F. von Ketteler, the German minister to the Imperial Throne.
The Boxers moved into Peking and laid siege to the foreign legations—ensconced behind the Tartar wall. The Empress Dowager Cixi made the fateful decision to declare war on “the invaders,” and ordered the imperial army to repel the aggressors. The collation forces fought spirited campaigns at the Chinese’s key forts and strong points along the Dagu River in their difficult campaign to relieve the besieged legations in Peking.
The Chinese, army supported by the irregular Boxers, mounted a spirited defense causing serious causalities among the collation forces. Unfortunately, they could not fight as a unified command because of international rivalries (Japan and Russia, for example), petty jalousies, and failure to develop of a comprehensive operations plan. Of note, credit goes to the Japanese whose bravery and innovative tactics forced the fall of the key city of Tientsin (Tianjin) and they led the way to the capitol.
Nonetheless, after fifty-five days collation forces reached Peking and relieved the legation. The peace treaty, the Boxer Protocol, was harsh and unforgiving to the Chinese—imposing a ₤67 million-indemnity and territorial concessions.
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