At the turn of the century a peasant movement in North China known as the Society of the Harmonious Fist—and therefore before long nicknamed the “Boxers” by foreign residents—developed extreme xenophobic attitudes both to foreigners themselves and also to Chinese Christians and others who were deemed to be infected with foreign ways. Attacks upon missionaries and railway engineers—the most easily available foreigners—were followed by more serious onslaughts when the Manchu Court took up the movement and permitted the Boxers to enter Peking and assail the legations of the foreign powers. An international expedition was organised to relieve the besieged legations, and to punish the Chinese Imperial government for violating the laws of nations. Peking was taken, the Boxers dispersed, the Court fled to the interior, humiliating terms were imposed upon China, and within a few years the dynasty, its last shreds of prestige destroyed, fell.

In the confused years of the early republic there were from time to time manifestations of anti-foreign feeling. These were stigmatised by the foreign press in China as revivals of the “spirit of Boxerism”: the Powers, often upbraided for their “soft” policies towards China, were admonished to take heed, to stop making weak concessions to Chinese nationalism, which was only “Boxerism” in disguise, or would quickly degenerate into this form of xenophobia if given its head. So a myth was established; and like most myths partly founded on fact, partly on interpretations of facts which had never been seriously investigated.

Professor Purcell has undertaken such an investigation, not a detailed history of the Boxer Uprising, but a careful and scholarly enquiry into the origins and motivation of the movement and a consideration of its place in the unfolding, complex process of the Chinese Revolution.footnote Only a very few previous scholars have even considered whether the Boxers had any part in this process; more usually they have been been treated as savage reactionaries who represented the more atavistic aspects of Chinese society. But Professor Purcell has observed the importance of two vital novelties in the Boxer Movement. Here was a peasant rebellion which was primarily anti-foreign, not anti-dynastic; and such anti-dynastic tendencies as first appeared were quickly overcome and the whole movement lined up behind the Court reactionaries in a furious, and final, attempt to repel the West and all its works.

Peasant rebellions stimulated by some esoteric sect of Buddhism 1963. or Taoism, relying on magical formulae, believing in the invulnerability of the adepts, were very ancient phenomena in China. Such movements are recorded at least as early as the first century B.C. There have been many since, and in some aspects the Boxer movement was a direct descendant of these. All of them owed their origin and strength to the distress of the peasantry, the consequences of long neglect, increasing bad government, sparked off by a run of bad years or some violent natural calamity such as a famine or a flood. They were always anti-dynastic, seeking to overthrow the existing regime and substitute their own leadership for the fallen imperial family. They very rarely succeeded in this aim; more often they were suppressed after a long destructive war, whereupon the weakened and discredited dynasty fell at the hands of some military leader drawn from its own forces.

Superficially the Boxer Movement ran this course. It was suppressed, and the dynasty soon fell, its departure speeded by the defection of the very general, Yuan Shih-k’ai, who had most wholeheartedly opposed the Boxers—and was therefore most favoured by the foreign powers. But Yuan failed to found a new dynasty, and in many other ways the old pattern of dynastic collapse and restoration gave way to a far more profound disturbance, the Chinese Revolution, ending in the Peoples’ Republic.

The point which most contemporaries missed, or rather failed to interpret correctly, was the new fact that the Boxer movement although brought into existence by the misery of the Shantung peasantry, did not attribute these evils primarily to the misgovernment of the Imperial regime, but to the activity of the foreign residents and the nations to which they belonged. Professor Purcell shows with a number of clear proofs that the anti-Christian character of the movement was both more prominent and more basic than any early tendency to anti-dynastic sentiment, and it was this fact which permitted the Court to enlist the Boxers on their side and direct the movement wholly against the foreigner. So far from, as contemporary Europeans believed, the Manchu Court perverting an anti-Manchu movement into an anti-foreign one, the truth is that they took over the leadership of an anti-foreign movement and endeavoured in this way to regain an identification with the mass of the people, which had long eluded them.

Primitive nationalism was the mainspring of the Boxer movement, and the later Westerners in China who interpreted all Chinese Nationalism as “the spirit of Boxerism” were indeed wrong, but were distorting fact rather than inventing a fiction. The Western World in the early 20th century, in so far as it took notice of China at all, regarded the country as archaic, picturesque, decadent and a suitable field for investment, development and ultimately, colonial acquisition. After the defeat of China by Japan in 1895 no one doubted that the Chinese Empire was ripe for partition. The preliminary moves, the “scramble for concessions”, the demands for leased ports, railway building rights, and mining concessions already indicated very clearly where the principal foreign powers proposed to stake their claims. It is true that some of them who had already very large colonial empires on their hands (such as Britain) genuinely would have preferred exploitation of a nominally independent China to the stress and strife of a grand partition.