On this date in 1901 the Boxer Protocol was signed between the Qing empire of China and the Eight-Nation Alliance that had provided military forces (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) plus Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands to put down the Boxer Rebellion, a revolt against Western colonial expansion in China. The Protocol was later regarded by China as one of the Unequal Treaties that the nation was forced to sign during the so-called “century of humiliation” when China was increasingly dominated by Western economic and political interests. This is the perfect opportunity to challenge the big lie of 19th century Western imperialism that its primary purpose was to “civilize” barbaric or savage cultures (terms taken from 19th century anthropology). Western colonial expansion was about economic gain, pure and simple.
The heart of the big lie is that Western “civilization” of the time was a vast improvement over the lives of the benighted peoples that the West conquered and colonized, bringing improvement to their lives. It stems from a completely discredited anthropological theory that cultures move/evolve through three stages from savagery through barbarism to civilization. This discredited theory of social evolution is parallel to theories of biological evolution that were gaining ground in the 19th century. The point I want to make is that biological evolution does not posit that species improve over time, only that they change to adapt to environmental conditions. EVOLUTION IS NOT ABOUT PROGRESS. Most people fail to grasp this basic fact. The same is true of cultures. They do not improve over time: they change. Sure, we have some great technologies these days, and some things are better than they were. But these improvements come at a cost. The more sophisticated and complex our technologies, the harder we have to work to pay for them. Richard Lee in the 1960s showed definitively that the people who work least are simple foragers (hunters and gatherers). They don’t have to work at growing crops or tending animals; they simply take from nature’s bounty. Getting food, building shelter etc. takes an hour or two per day on average. Every “improvement” on that way of living takes more labor until you end up where we are today – the people who work, on average, the longest hours in the history of the world with the greatest disparities in the distribution of wealth and resources.
Explorers from Columbus onward had one thing in mind – to get rich by stealing from the people they could subjugate. They did not find savage cultures scrabbling in the dirt for meagre livings; they found both mighty empires and simple cultures content with their lives. The Spanish were astonished by the Inca and Aztec empires they found. They had amazingly built cities that rivalled the ones they left behind in Europe. The various empires that European colonists found in Africa were not as technologically complex, but they were powerful and formidable. The British were almost defeated by the Zulu. Australian aboriginal cultures had no domesticated plants or animals when Europeans arrived, but they were perfectly content with their lives. They were highly skilled in the botany and zoology of the region as well as a profound knowledge of the terrain and the environment. They also had well developed musical and graphic arts. China in the 19th century could in no way be called “backward.” It had thousands of years’ history in medicine, science, architecture, irrigation, mathematics, philosophy, art, music . . . and on and on. One of the great ironies of the Western conquest of China was that the Western powers used weapons for their conquests and subjugation based on gunpowder which the Chinese invented (not to mention printing and the magnetic compass).
Westerners were initially interested in finding sea routes to China (which is what Columbus was up to), because the overland routes (the old Silk Road) involved too many middlemen along the way taking a profit before the goods that originated in China (silk, spices, jade, etc.) wound up in Europe, making them very much more expensive than they need be. Trading directly with Chinese merchants would be a great boon – particularly if the Chinese could be engaged in Free Trade. Unfortunately, the Chinese were not interested and resisted Western colonial expansion at every turn. Nonetheless, with guns and nefarious methods the Europeans got a toe hold. The British, for example, got vast numbers of Chinese addicted to opium (grown in their Indian colonies), and used the profits from the sale of opium to buy tea which they shipped back to Britain and a healthy profit. Naturally there was blowback (see https://www.bookofdaystales.com/first-opium-war/ ). The Boxer Rebellion was one more attempt on the part of the Chinese to rid themselves of foreign merchants and influence.
The Boxer Rebellion was initiated by a group of young men called The Righteous and Harmonious Fists (Yihequan) who arose in Shandong province amidst the poverty and famine there brought on by Western capitalist exploitation. They were martial artists with a spiritual core of values intent on driving Westerners out of China. They were probably first called “Boxers” by US Christian missionaries because that was the closest English word to Chinese martial artist. Now they might be called “Kung Fu Fighters” or some such.
After several months of growing violence against both the foreign and Christian presence in Shandong and the North China plain in June 1900, Boxer fighters, convinced they were invulnerable to foreign weapons, converged on Beijing with the slogan “Support the Qing government and exterminate the foreigners.” Foreigners and Chinese Christians sought refuge in the Legation Quarter. In response to reports of an armed invasion to lift the siege, the initially hesitant Empress Dowager Cixi supported the Boxers and on June 21 issued an Imperial Decree declaring war on the foreign powers. Diplomats, foreign civilians and soldiers as well as Chinese Christians in the Legation Quarter were placed under siege by the Imperial Army of China and the Boxers for 55 days.
Chinese officialdom was split between those supporting the Boxers and those favoring conciliation, led by Prince Qing. The supreme commander of the Chinese forces, the Manchu General Ronglu (Junglu), later claimed that he acted to protect the besieged foreigners. The Eight-Nation Alliance, after being initially turned back, brought 20,000 armed troops to China, defeated the Imperial Army, and arrived at Peking on August 14, relieving the siege of the Legations. Uncontrolled plunder of the capital and the surrounding countryside ensued, along with the summary execution of those suspected of being Boxers.
The Boxer Protocol, known as the Xinchou Treaty in China, provided for the execution of government officials who had supported the Boxers, provisions for foreign troops to be stationed in Beijing, and 450 million taels of silver—approximately $10 billion at 2017 silver prices and more than the government’s annual tax revenue—to be paid as indemnity over the course of the next 39 years to the eight nations involved. The Empress Dowager then sponsored a set of institutional and fiscal changes in an attempt to save the Dynasty by reforming it.
The Allies had to temper the demands they sent in a message to Xi’an to get the Dowager Empress to agree with them; for instance, China did not have to give up any land. Many of the Dowager Empress’s advisers in the Imperial Court insisted that the war be carried on against the foreigners, arguing that China could defeat the foreigners since it was the disloyal and traitorous people within China who allowed Beijing and Tianjin to be captured by the Allies, and the interior of China was impenetrable. The Dowager was practical, and decided that the terms were generous enough for her to acquiesce and stop the war, when she was assured of her continued reign after the war.
The Chinese paid the indemnity in gold on a rising scale with a 4% interest charge until the debt was amortized on December 31, 1940. After 39 years, the amount was almost 1 billion taels (precisely 982,238,150) or ~1,180,000,000 troy ounces (37,000 tonnes) at 1.2 oz/tael.
The sum was to be distributed as follows: Russia 28.97%, Germany 20.02%, France 15.75%, United Kingdom 11.25%, Japan 7.73%, United States 7.32%, Italy 7.32%, Belgium 1.89%, Austria-Hungary 0.89%, Netherlands 0.17%, Spain 0.03%, Portugal 0.021%, Sweden and Norway 0.014%. Also, an additional 16,886,708 taels was paid at local level in 17 provinces. By 1938, 652.37 million taels had been paid. The interest rate (of 4% per annum) was to be paid semi-annually with the first payment being the July 1, 1902.
The Qing government was also to allow the foreign countries to base their troops in Beijing. In addition, the foreign powers had placed the Empress Dowager Cixi on their list of war criminals, although provincial officers such as Li Hongzhang and Yuan Shikai defended her, claiming that she had no control whatsoever over the whole affair. She was later removed from the list.
The French Catholic vicar apostolic, Msgr. Alfons Bermyn, wanted foreign troops garrisoned in Inner Mongolia, but the Governor refused. Bermyn resorted to lies, and falsely petitioned the Manchu Enming to send troops to Hetao where Prince Duan’s Mongol troops and General Dong Fuxiang’s Muslim troops allegedly threatened Catholics. It turned out that Bermyn had created the incident as a hoax. One of the false reports claimed that Dong Fuxiang wiped out Belgian missionaries in Mongolia and was going to massacre Catholics in Taiyuan.
The Qing did not capitulate to all the foreign demands. The Manchu Governor Yuxian was executed, but the Imperial court refused to execute the Chinese General Dong Fuxiang, although both were anti-foreign and had been accused of encouraging the killing of foreigners during the rebellion. Instead, General Dong Fuxiang lived a life of luxury and power in “exile” in his home province of Gansu.
In addition to sparing Dong Fuxiang, the Qing also refused to exile the Boxer supporter Prince Zaiyi to Xinjiang, as the foreigners demanded. Instead, he moved to Alashan, west of Ningxia, and lived in the residence of the local Mongol prince. He then moved to Ningxia during the Xinhai Revolution when the Muslims took control of Ningxia, and finally, moved to Xinjiang with Sheng Yun. Prince Duan went no farther than Manchuria for exile, and was heard of there in 1908.
On December 28, 1908, the United States remitted $11,961,121.76 of its share of the Indemnity to support the education of Chinese students in the United States and the construction of Tsinghua University in Beijing, thanks to the efforts of its ambassador Liang Cheng. When China declared war on Germany and Austria in 1917, it suspended the combined German and Austrian share of the Boxer Indemnity, which totaled 20.91%. At the Paris Peace Conference, Beijing succeeded in completely revoking the German and Austrian shares of the Boxer Indemnity.
The history surrounding Russia’s share of the Boxer Indemnity is the most complex of all the nations involved. On December 2, 1918 the Bolsheviks issued an official decree abolishing Russia’s share of the Indemnity. Upon the arrival of Lev Karakhan in Beijing during the Fall of 1923, however, it became clear that the Soviet Union expected to retain control over how the Russian share was to be spent. Though Karakhan was initially hesitant to follow the United States’ example of directing the funds toward education, he soon insisted in private that the Russian share had to be used for that purpose and during February 1924, presented a proposal stating that the “Soviet portion of the Boxer Indemnity would be allocated to Chinese educational institutions.”
On March 3, 1925, Great Britain completed arrangements to use its share of the Boxer Indemnity to support railway construction in China. On April 12, France asked that its indemnity be used to reopen a defunct Sino-French Bank. Italy signed an agreement on October 1 to spend its share on the construction of steel bridges. The Netherlands’ share paid for harbor and land reclamation, and the Belgian funds were earmarked to be spent on railway material in Belgium. Finally, Japan’s indemnity was transferred to develop aviation in China under Japanese oversight.
Once these countries’ approximately 40 percent of the Boxer Indemnity was added to Germany’s and Austria’s combined 20.91 percent, the United States’ 7.32 percent, and the Soviet Union’s 28.97 percent share, the Beijing government had accounted for over 98% of the entire Boxer Indemnity. Hence, by 1927, Beijing had almost completely revoked Boxer Indemnity payments abroad and had succeeded in redirecting the payments for use within China.
You can see how this continued indemnity to the West was a thorn in the side of the Chinese throughout the first half of the 20th century as China first ramped up revolution against the Qing dynasty and then against the newly formed republic. The Communist revolution of Mao Zedong succeeded for a short while in purging China of old ways and Western influences, but Western capitalism is back with avengeance in rather different form. Now the Chinese are in control.
I’ve talked a great deal about the difficulty of replicating Chinese dishes in the West. Let’s put the shoe on the other foot and consider what Western food is like in China. Nowadays anything and everything can be imported from the West (including chefs), so, for a price, you can replicate European food in a Chinese kitchen. I did it more or less successfully for a couple of years. Right now I’m struggling with something similar in Myanmar where I can’t get many European herbs such as oregano, parsley, thyme, etc. and Western vegetables are in short supply. Cast back to 50 or so years ago when European ingredients were in short supply in China and imagine trying to make your favorite dish. Let’s try something simple like spaghetti with tomato sauce. What you’ll end up with is something akin to what an awful lot of Chinese food was like in the West at the time.
You’ll have to settle for Chinese flour noodles as the base. You could use them to make fettucine carbonara of course and you’d be able to find eggs and cream all right, but you’d have to settle for Chinese ham and forgo the Parmesan or Romano cheese (the Chinese don’t like cheese). For the tomato sauce you’ll have to use regular tomatoes with garlic and onions. You won’t be able to find oregano, basil, or parsley, so it will be very bland. For cheese you might be lucky enough to find a Chinese Muslim who makes a semi-hard cheese that you can grate, but you may not want to bother given that it will be very mild and won’t taste anything like anything you call cheese. Can you imagine the result? That’s precisely what Chinese cooking in the West looked like before the more recent immigration of Chinese chefs to the West and the importation of Chinese ingredients.