A popular history of the Boxer Rebellion, which took place a century ago this year, brings its events to life
Preston (A First Rate Tragedy, 1998) draws upon the testimony of primary sources and eyewitnesses to recapitulate the Chinese uprising that caught the world off guard at the turn of the century. Long perceived by Westerners as a plum ripe for the picking, China in the 19th century was the object of much attention from foreigners and foreign powers alike—who introduced railroads, telegraphs, and Christian missionaries into the country. The nativist movement that arose in response was characterized by the practice of martial arts (the “Boxers”) and the employment of arcane rituals meant to make one invulnerable to bullets. The first signs of danger were the murders of Christian missionaries and Chinese converts in rural areas. The Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi backed the insurgents, and Westerners in Peking were rapidly cut off from outside aid. The siege of the European embassies by the Chinese army, the eventual relief of the siege, and the bloody aftermath of the rebellion are the central points of Preston’s narrative. Events became surreal at times: champagne was more plentiful than water inside the embassies, and often the besieged diplomats smoked cigars to drown out the stench of dead bodies just beyond their walls. Still, the social graces were preserved, and the ladies of the embassy eagerly traded recipes for mule meat. The relief expedition was a rare example of cooperation among the Western powers, but rivalries remained fierce and often led to stupid command decisions (which, fortunately for the Europeans, the poorly organized Chinese forces were rarely able to exploit): after Peking fell, the occupying forces probably caused more death and damage than the Boxers themselves. Preston excels at picking out the telling detail or quotation, although at times the larger picture seems a bit foggy. Still, there is plenty of fascinating information here.
A colorful and well-presented treatment of a crucial turning point in history.