Event Detail


Boxer Rebellion

Adam Williams
Thursday, 5 Feb 2004
Sports House

2/F Sports House, So Kong Po, Causeway Bay Drinks 6.30 pm; Lecture 7.30 pm

We are delighted to welcome to Hong Kong Adam Williams to speak on the Boxer Rebellion, one of the most xtraordinary events of the colonial history of the Orient.

When China was defeated by Japan in 1895, the European powers and America began to scramble for what were called "spheres of interest." The Russians got Port Arthur, the British got the New Territories around Hong Kong and the Germans got a leasehold in Shantung.

The imperial court responded to this foreign threat by giving aid to various secret societies. Traditionally, secret societies had been formed in opposition to imperial government and as such, they were certainly a threat to the weak Ch'ing government. However, antiforeign sentiment had risen so greatly in China that the Empress Dowager believed that the secret societies could be the vanguard in a military expulsion of Europeans. This policy reached its climax in 1900 with the Boxer Rebellion.

The Boxers, or "The Righteous and Harmonious Fists," were a religious society that had originally rebelled against the imperial government in Shantung in 1898. The Boxers believed that the expulsion of foreign devils would magically renew Chinese society and begin a new golden age.

In the early months of 1900, thousands of Boxers roamed the countryside. They attacked Christian missions, slaughtering foreign missionaries and Chinese converts. Then they moved toward the cities, attracting more and more followers as they came. Nervous foreign ministers insisted that the Chinese government stop the Boxers. From inside the Forbidden City, the Empress told the diplomats that her troops would soon crush the "rebellion." Meanwhile, she did nothing as the Boxers entered the capital.

Foreign diplomats, their families and staff lived in a compound just outside the Forbidden City's walls in the heart of Beijing. Working together, they threw up hasty defenses, and with a small force of military personnel, they faced the Boxer onslaught. Some 20,000 Boxers advanced in a solid mass, carrying standards of red and white cloth, but were repelled by British and other marines, and a siege started. The foreign powers assembled an international relief force of soldiers and sailors from eight countries. After rescuing another besieged delegation in Tientsin, the international force marched to Beijing, fighting Boxers and imperial soldiers along the way to free the foreign legations. Disguised as a peasant, the Empress Dowager escaped the city in a cart. She returned to the Forbidden City a year later, but the power of the Ch'ing dynasty was destroyed forever. Within a couple months, the international force captured and occupied Beijing and forced the imperial government to agree to the Boxer Protocol of 1901.

Naturally, the Chinese and Western view of these events both at the time and now are very varied. For the Chinese, it was seen as another humiliation. For the western powers, there was a sense of having fought with heroism in a siege, avenged the needless massacre of defenseless missionaries, and 14 August was celebrated as by foreigners in China for decades afterwards. The famous bell of the British Embassy, which was rung daily by Sir Claude MacDonald, the leader of the defenders during the siege, as he rallied the faint hearted with encouraging bulletins, came to symbolise the heroism of the siege, as did the stories of the first columns of British Sikh troops marching into Beijing.

In this lecture, Mr. Williams explores from his intimate knowledge of the siege, both the Chinese and Western sides of the events, and the associated paradoxes. Mr. Williams lives in Beijing and is head of Jardine Matheson in China. He has lived in China for the past eighteen years, but his family connections go back much further. His forbears were living in Beijing during the time of the Boxer Rebellion and much of the material for this lecture comes from stories he was told as a child, as well as his own detailed research. Mr. Williams is the author of the bestselling novel The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure, set in the era of the Rebellion.

Members and their guests are most welcome to attend this lecture, which is HK$50 for Members, HK$100 for Members' guests and HK$150 for others.

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