What Was the Boxer Rebellion?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Boxer Rebellion was a violent uprising in China which occurred at the turn of the 20th century. Although the rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, it sparked a number of reforms in Chinese society, ultimately paving the way towards the modernization of China. At the time, many people regarded the participants in the Boxer Rebellion as dangerous upstarts, although after the rise of communism in China, the government later praised the orchestrators of the rebellion for their activities.

A map of China.
A map of China.

The roots of the Boxer Rebellion lie in the “carving of the Chinese melon” orchestrated by the Western powers in the late 1800s. After being attacked by the Meiji empire of Japan, China was extremely vulnerable, and it became overrun with representatives of foreign governments, who began building railways, controlling various provinces, and essentially ensuring a strong “sphere of influence” in China, which many nations viewed as a potentially very profitable place to do business.

Several Western navies sent gunboats to secure the Yangtze River, which is China's most important waterway, during the Boxer Rebellion.
Several Western navies sent gunboats to secure the Yangtze River, which is China's most important waterway, during the Boxer Rebellion.

Understandably, the Chinese were less than thrilled with this state of affairs, and numerous anti-foreign organizations arose in China to work against the foreigners in China. One such organization was the Society of Right and Harmonious Fists, an anti-imperialist peasant organization which came to be known as the Boxers by Westerners, because of the extensive martial arts program practiced by its members.

In 1898, the Boxers began revolting in Northern China, attempting to expel foreigners from China. They attacked diplomats, businessmen, and other foreigners, and they also set their sights on Christian missionaries. Chinese Christians were also assaulted by the Boxers, who felt that Christian Chinese had clearly caved to foreign influences. By 1900, the Boxers had invaded Beijing, killing thousands of foreigners and Christians in their campaign to liberate China from Western influences.

The Boxer rebellion was subdued through the cooperation of several Western powers, including Germany, the United States, Japan, Russia, and France. Obviously, many of these nations had a vested personal interest in putting a stop to the Boxer rebellion, and they were undoubtedly pleased by the widespread calls for reform and change in the wake of their successful military action against the Boxers. After the rebellion, reparations to various foreign powers were ordered, along with the execution of top Chinese officials suspected of involvement in the Boxer Rebellion.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


The Boxer Rebellion was a significant crisis, impacting heavily not only on the society of China, but that of the eight nations also involved. Some foreigners during the rebellion were confused, believing they had been helping China by setting up schools and railways, the idea that the Chinese had not asked for them to do so, did not seem to come to their attention. “…but the aliens had jabbed and pricked, inflicting a thousand small wounds until the once-mighty Chinese dragon was bleeding to death…” (The Boxer Rebellion, Irving Werstein.) The rebellion ended with a vast number of 18,000 Chinese Christians, 48 missionaries, 182 protestant missionaries and 500 protestant Chinese murdered.

The Boxer Rebellion was significant as it helped to form China and its people into the country it is today, shaping their beliefs and customs along with it.

Whether China’s last chance attempt to drive out all foreigners could have been avoided is questionable. The rebellion itself however, remains to be one of intense and devastating effects. One that people can only hope will never happen again.


It is difficult to balance the conflicting interests in this conflict. On the one hand you have persecuted European Christians who are being overrun by the Boxers. On the other hand you have thousands of native Chinese who are being exploited for economic benefit via opium trade and rapid industrialization. The Western Powers may have used the excuse that they were busy trying to rescue persecuted Christians in order to raise support for fighting off the vicious Boxers, when in truth, the Western merchants were really just fighting for the sake of their wallets.


An interesting related note: the German Kaiser first used the analogy of "Huns" to tell his troops to inspire the same fear in the hearts of the Chinese Boxers as the Huns would have in their day and age. He said that the Chinese must learn to fear Germans as they feared Huns. This is believed to be the source of the WWI slur against Germans as "Huns."

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