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War in China: the Fall of Beijing (1/3)

Click here to access the appendix with handy map and timeline.
Click here to access part 2.

It is the 14th of August 1900, soldiers from all over the world have gathered in front of the City of the Khan. Its walls loom precariously over dry earth. The banners of the Empire wave atop the battlements… but not for much longer.

Muslim Chinese Hui troops of the Kansu braves of the Qing Imperial army, serving under General Dong Fuxiang during the Boxer Rebellion.

The Empress Dowager Cixi, in the most brazen attempt to remove the preying foreigners, declared war on 11 nations simultaneously in a secret missive to the Boxers. In her official Imperial decree, however, she never ordered such a thing and merely stated that the Qing state would not be able to guarantee the safety of any foreigners present in Beijing due to the local unrest. Nevertheless, Europe, the US and Japan answered the call to war and sailed its troops eagerly across the oceans; to punish, to plunder, to pillage.

The Eight Nations Alliance, after stalling for a period, not sure under whose leadership to besiege the city, finally came to a decision on the 14th of August. The armies, each seeking to outdo the others, entered the city in a race to see which army would get to pillaging first. The Russian and Japanese faced fierce resistance, but the British and the Americans nearly got away unscathed, save for one soldier who died of a heatstroke on the British side, one casualty and nine wounded on the American side. The city’s defenses were eventually overrun.

This day marked the beginning of an occupied Beijing. In recent Chinese history, the capital had only been occupied by foreign troops three times:

  • Beijing in 1860, at the end of the Second Opium War, when the political loss was the greatest.
  • Nanjing in 1937-1938, when the loss of human life and human suffering was the greatest. (Known widely as the Rape of Nanking)
  • Beijing in 1900, when the material loss was greatest.

Indeed, the Fall of Beijing marked the beginning of what the Sidney Morning Herald called a “carnival of loot.”

Boxers about to be executed.


This part (1/3):
1. Pretext
2. The Great Raid

Next part (2/3):
3. The Battle for Tianjin
4. The Ravishment of the North
5. The Weakness of China

Final part (3/3):
6. Yihequan Boxers: the Divine Fist
7. By Any Means Necessary
8. Paladins of the Military

1. Pretext

China at the turn of the 19th to 20th century was in chaos. The price for the Empire’s weakness was paid for from the blood and sweat of the people. Discontent was widespread, the unbridled transgressions of the Imperial powers unchecked and unprecedented. The people, in their fury, began a movement. This movement is known in the west as the Boxers, but in China they were known as the Yihequan 义和拳 (Fist of Righteous Harmony). Originally, these Yihequan members wished to expel foreigners such as the Qing government and the various Western hyenas. In 1989, however, the Qing government managed to co-opt the movement, and divert its Anti-Qing intentions wholly on resisting the Western transgressors. They would since also be known by the semi-official sounding Yihetuan 义和团 (Company of Righteous Harmony). It is at this time the slogan of “Support the Qing, eliminate the Foreigners” (fu qing mie yang 扶清灭洋) was born.

Young men and boys of the Yihetuan.

Why was the Yihetuan so angry?

Reason 1: Missionaries

The anger had mainly to do with the Christian missionaries who did not practise what they preached. Their brazen superiority complex and their indiscriminant dismissal of Chinese religions, customs and beliefs angered the people. The Christians attacked Confucian values and condemned the Chinese reverence for our ancestors. For these reasons, the Empire classified Christianity as heterodoxy. The missionaries claimed to bring the truth, but all they brought was insult and depravity, going against the core values of the faith they claim to represent. Generally, there were four kinds of evils wrought by the missionaries that angered the people most:

  • Atrocious Practises: circumcision (the genital mutilation of newborn boys), cutting open pregnant women and to use the fetuses in medicine, desecrating corpses in autopsies and the extraction of vital organs in surgery.
  • Sorcery: it was believed that the missionaries were using their medication to administer aphrodisiacs to women.
  • Kidnapping: it was believed that the Christians were guilty of kidnapping children.
  • Immoral Licentiousness: private confessions with women, secretive religious ceremonies and the ubiquity of boy’s and girl’s schools and orphanages led to the belief that the Christian missionaries were merely using faith as a facade for debauchery and pedophilia. (Fairbank, 500)
Boxer rebels, 1900 photograph. From Tōgō Shrine and Tōgō Association (東郷神社・東郷会), Togo Heihachiro in images, illustrated Meiji Navy (図説東郷平八郎、目で見る明治の海軍), (Japanese), “Photograph of Boxer rebels” (義和団).

Generally, in legal disputes, these missionaries used their specially gained status (acquired through the unequal treaties) to pressure officials to side with Christian converts, regardless of whether justice would be served. These rights the missionaries had acquired grated the Chinese, for they were exclusive rights normally only reserved for Chinese literati. Here comes a band of haughty foreigners with their incomprehensible doctrine placing unreasonable and unjust demands upon the justice system. They were essentially unwelcome immigrants demanding the local culture to adapt to them, because they deemed their own culture and religion superior.

In May and June of 1870, the Governor-General of Nanjing received constant reports of kidnappings and confessions of kidnappers which all implicated the involvement of the Roman Catholics. A similar story unfolded in June 1870 in Tianjin also. After the Second Opium war, the influence of the French Roman Catholic church grew rapidly in Tianjin. The attitude of the French missionaries was typical of missionaries: snobbish, holier-than-thou and on top of that carried a sense of nationalist vanity which caused them to be disrespectful, dismissive and patronising in their interactions with the people of Tianjin. The educated literati of Tianjin were dismayed, and quickly developed a strong hatred for these up-jumped foreigners, and the common man soon followed suit in their animosity.

the fury of the people reached a boiling point

Rumours about missionary transgressions were quickly spread about. The literati’s hand in incitement of the Tianjin mob can be seen in many places. Rumours of kidnappings were particularly widespread, it was believed that the French missionaries were kidnapping children and then vivisecting them to take out their beating hearts and eyes (the French Sisters of Charity were gathering children in their orphanages; the mortality rate of these children was particularly high). As the fury of the people reached a boiling point, the public frequently gathered in front of the church and demanded the release of missing children. At one point, perhaps panicking, the French Consul Henri Fontanier opened fire on local representatives. The shot missed the District Magistrate, but killed his servant. The already excited mob overwhelmed the Consul and the twenty or so people with him, they were lynched.

The Tianjin Massacre was not an isolated case, yet, it was the most influential, well-known and spectacular case of a long series of attacks on missionaries and other Westerners.

While details of the Missionaries’ worst perceived excesses either derived from misunderstanding or were exaggerated and embellished, there was still truth to the depravity of the Missionaries. Western clergymen have been known to molest children, and not just in Asia. Considering their natural inclination toward morally apprehensible behaviour, it would be a mistake to believe that they suddenly refrained from such practises in China. In fact, it is widely known that to this day many Westerners make their way to Asia to take advantage of minors and vulnerable women. There is little reason to doubt that they did so too in the past.

Motivated by the provocation of the missionaries and angered by their atrocities, the Yihetuan began to kill Chinese Christians and Missionaries on sight. During the infamous Taiyuan Massacre, which can be seen as the spark raging flame that lit the powder keg, a number of European missionaries were rounded up in the local Yamen (Courthouse/municipal building) and killed to the last. Fanciful accounts of their deaths mimicking certain novels of the time made martyrs of these people. The reporting on the incident sparked outrage in Europe and led many to believe that it was high time the “Yellow” barbarians be taught a lesson. Meanwhile in China, churches continued to be attacked and the legations were threatened. As a result, the Western powers sent their relief force from Tianjin to Beijing. The 2000 or so men were blocked by Imperial forces and sent back to Tianjin.

Reason 2: Baron Clemens von Ketteler

Janggin (rank) Enhai, the White Banner Manchu who killed Von Ketteler, captured and soon to be executed. Enhai faced his death with dignity and pride.

One particular case that sparked the ire of the Yihetuan was the German Baron Clemens von Ketteler. Von Ketteler was a bloody butcher whose hands were stained with Chinese blood. A major incident that incited violence against him was his merciless beating of a Chinese boy he suspected of being a member of the Yihetuan. After beating the young boy, he shot the child to death. The Yihetuan and the Muslims troops known as the Kansu Braves under Dong Fuxiang were outraged and responded by rioting and storming into the walled city of Beijing, killing Christians and burning churches. On the 22nd of June, 1900, on his way to the Zongli Yamen 總理衙門 (precursor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to protest the offer Empress Dowager had given and the siege of the foreign legations, he encountered a Qing patrol. For some reason, perhaps thinking the soldiers had come to arrest him, he fired his pistol at the patrol from within his palanquin. Enhai, an officer of the Shenjiying 神機營 (Divine Engine Division, a.k.a. Peking Field Force) returned fire and killed Von Ketteler, avenging the boy.

After beating the young boy, he shot the child to death.

On the 20th of June, 2 days before the death of Von Ketteler, the legation had been besieged by the Yihetuan and the Imperial forces. In response, England, America, Russia, France, Japan, Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary mustered some of their forces to go and lift the siege. This is the story of how Beijing came to be under attack.

Western and Japanese Navy troops during the Boxer Rebellion. 1900, Japan (日本)、Britain (英國), Russia (露國, 俄國), France (佛國, 法國), Germany (獨逸, 德國), Austria-Hungary (墺地利匈牙利, 奧匈帝國), Italy (伊太利, 意大利), USA (米國, 美國).

2. The Great Raid

This chapter will follow the structure of Hevia’s article. I refer you to his article if a more detailed description of events is desired.

Phase 1: A looter’s free-for-all

Immediately after the foreign troops lifted the siege on the legations and saved their countrymen they took to the looting of Beijing. Reports from each country try to diminish their own role in the looting by ascribing the brunt of the looting to other nations, yet the fact is that they all participated fully in the looting. That much was noted by “Gadhadar Singh, a soldier in the 7th Rajputs of the British India Army, whose book on the campaign found little to distinguish one group from another in their lust for plunder” (Hevia, 85). Indeed, the first stage of looting can be described like a pack of hungry dogs let loose in a fully stocked larder. The armies looted, stole and pillaged in a crazed frenzy. They scarce seemed human as they held nothing sacred, they listened to no one, all facades were torn down as they revealed their true shameless nature: thieves and robbers down to the very rotten core. It is an absolute disgrace and blemish upon the uniforms they wore and their self-proclaimed “sophisticated” and “civilised” Western military discipline to call these common thieves soldiers.

… a wild orgy of plunder ensued, one in which few if any could resist temptation.

Dr. James L. Hevia

Indeed, the looters had the gall to justify their barbarity by claiming their looting and stealing was a retribution for the barbarity of the Chinese for killing Christians and burning churches. Their self-righteous attitude was nothing more than a shoddy excuse to do what they really wanted all along. They envied China, they ever eyed it with a jealous eye, and lo, when the Chinese people could no longer abide by their unscrupulous colonial tyranny and lashed out at the vultures, their opportunity to plunder finally came.

The looting took place all across Beijing, and actually, already started in late July when the allied band of thieves occupied Tianjin. The looting continued for months until late October. Even worse, the looting continued outside Beijing for a long time. This is how prestigious Western museums acquire their precious artifacts; by shameless theft. Now, they display their proud, stolen possessions like trophies. We even have to pay entrance fees to enter these places. Isn’t there something profoundly twisted and, dare I say, evil, that these practises are seen as legal and normal in the world?

At any rate, much like a pack of hungry dogs, they were not co-ordinated in their looting. The thieves of the various nations stole loot from each other. Soldiers entered shops, private homes and any other place they could find loot and took it. There were even female thieves: “Lady Claude MacDonald, wife of the British minister, who was reported to have been at the head of one looting expedition, is said to have exclaimed, after having already filled eighty-seven cases with “valuable treasure,” that she “had not begun to pack”” (Hevia, 85).

The German victory parade at the Palace gates.

Phase 2: Regulated theft

Eventually, the British army established a prize commission, thereby regulating the looting of Beijing. The share of the stolen goods was apportioned according to the rank and race of the thieves. White British soldiers would receive one more share than Indian soldiers and all ethnically Chinese officers in the British army could only receive the share of up to a warrant officer, regardless of rank. The army sent out “search parties,” a very misleading and mild term for what should accurately be called “band of plunderers” to bring back stolen goods, which were to be sold at auctions every day from the 22nd of August onward. As is often the case with the fencing of stolen goods, very valuable items were sold for a scrap; fur coats of immense value would go to buyers for a few dollars.

[…] these men were offering for sale hundreds of rolls of splendid silks, which they had gathered on their way through the city. You could get them for nothing.

Putnam Weale, 328

I want you, the reader, to really think about what happened here. Family heirlooms, tokens of love, prized possessions, objects that the average Chinese person would have to work his entire life for, auctioned like so many pieces of garbage to those who could not even appreciate what they had acquired. At least when the Japanese came to loot, they could discern value, and they educated the soldiers to grade the quality of the stolen goods to determine which would go to the Imperial Household, which would go to museums and which would be displayed in schools.

At the time, observers were impressed by the British system, for their organisation and discipline. Yet, what does that really mean? Is a cold, orderly and calculated murderer not that much more threatening than one who murders on impulse? To contrast, Nazi Germany was unprecedented in their orderly extermination of so many “undesirables,” it is precisely this orderly and calculated commitment of crime that makes them all the more terrifying. I’d argue this is the case exactly with the British forces.

The American forces also attempted to regulate the looting, yet, it was to no avail. The inner-thief of the American soldiers, once surfaced, proved impossible to suppress. Only in September did the Americans manage to impose some kind of order, as all the looted property was collected and sold off. The profits were used to pay for the occupation of Beijing. In other words, it’s akin to a thief entering your house, stealing and fencing off your valuables to pay for his stay in your house.

These looted objects stood for many things: among others, they stood for the humiliation of the Chinese empire and the “Yellow” race. Above all, they stood for the victory of the self-proclaimed “civilised” forces over the “barbarians” of China.

The Evil of Missionaries

Christian missionaries appeared to be the greatest hypocrites. While they preached virtue and modesty inside their churches, they participated with glee in the sprawling bazaars of looted goods. One reported method British missionaries used to acquire goods to sell was by seizing homes of Imperial princes and other rich Beijing residents, and then selling off all the contents. American missionaries went about it by organising rural punitive expeditions into the villages near Beijing. They would occupy and loot the homes of those they deemed Yihequan aligned. Needless to say, this actually meant that they just robbed any home they liked the look of. Some American soldiers with a conscience actually refused to obey the commands of the missionaries, as their mission was to root out Yihetuan members, not to rob people blind.

Morally bankrupt men of the cloth, it’s not the first time it has happened and it certainly was not the last. They had become the very evil that Jesus warned against. Here, we can see a discrepancy between what genuine faith entails, and what the church claiming to represent that faith actually does. True religion does not appear to be preached or practised in these corrupt institutions.

Punitive Expeditions

Akin to the rural expeditions of the American missionaries, the military itself had punitive expeditions that ran parallel to their plundering raids. Armies swept through villages under the pretense of punishing anyone involved with the Yihequan. As you might imagine, this raiding was paired with the usual horrors of military invasion. More information on the aspect of abject human suffering will come in the next part. In terms of material loss, the goods looted and and stolen as well as the devastation of material heritage were literally immeasurable due to the difficulty of determining where the stolen goods finally ended up. There were many cases where the plunderers circumvented army regulation by conducting private expeditions into the countryside. For example:

“[…] a story circulated about the theft of two golden bells from the Temple of Heaven by officers of the 16th Bengal Lancers. Claiming them as “trophy,” the officers had spirited them off with other items ostensibly destined for the officers’ mess. Sometime around 1905, they decided to melt down one of the bells and divide the spoils […]” (Hevia, 89)

The Second Burning of the Summer Palace

In 1860, Lord Elgin famously ordered the burning of the Imperial Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing. The palace was looted and what was left behind was burnt, with intent to completely reduce the palace to plain grass fields. However, the Summer Palace was a large complex, so large, that it took the Franco-British forces several days to burn the buildings, and even then, they weren’t successful in destroying everything. Between the end of the Second Opium war in 1860 and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 the Qing court had plans to restore the Summer Palace to its former glory. Alas, in the summer of 1900, the Eight Nation Alliance of thieving arsonists came to finish the job the British had started. All the efforts made to restore the palace were once again made equal to the ground. This time, the pillagers made off with the 12 bronze heads of the Chinese zodiac animals.

The ruins of Summer Palace in 1900 photographed by Alfons Mumm von Schwarzenstein, Clemens von Ketteler’s succesor as German ambassador in Beijing.

Concluding Word

Evidently, the material loss of the war was enormous. The events that transpired tell us clearly that not all demons come with coiled horns and cloven hoofs. The more dangerous devil comes to you in modest guise, representing the divine and all that is good. He turns brother against brother, husband against wife and subject against ruler. The words he whispers poison and hymns he sings death. He lures you with food, then lulls you with salvation… Ah, the devils are disingenuous, for their true gods, all along, are Dionysus and Plutus.

There have been several succesful attempts retaking the stolen artifacts. Some people see the injustice of the theft, and have bought artifacts to return them from the land whence these objects came. The road, however, is long and difficult. The damage has been done and the recovery of these artifacts is but a tiny, tiny fraction of what was stolen. The best way to go forward is to learn from this piece of history. Not to harbour hatred, but to know the facts. History is not only the story of the past viewed through our lense, it is quite literally a guidebook for the future.

Some estimate that it would take modern China 3 years of its entire GDP to cover all the wealth that was stolen in 1900, that excludes everything that was burnt, broken and… of course, killed. Earlier in this post I mentioned that the loss of material heritage was greatest in of the three times the Chinese capital city had been captured in recent history. Yet, one should not be misled into thinking that human suffering and loss of life did not occur. On the contrary, it happened on a large scale. It would be remiss of me to ignore this topic, and therefore, the second part to this three-part post shall cover the topic of rape and mass-murder.


  • “Boxer Rebellion.” Britannica Online Academic Edition, 2019, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
  • Putnam Weale, B. L. Indiscreet Letters from Peking; Being the Notes of an Eyewitness, Which Set Forth in Some Detail, from Day to Day, the Real Story of the Siege and Sack of a Distressed Capital in 1900–the Year of Great Tribulation. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1908.
  • “Tianjin Massacre.” Britannica Online Academic Edition, 2019, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
  • Fairbank, J. “Patterns behind the Tientsin Massacre.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 20 (1957): 480-511.
  • Hevia, James L. “Looting and its Discontents: Moral Discourse and the Plunder of Beijing” in Bickers, Robert A., and R. G. Tiedemann. The Boxers, China, and the World. 2007.
  • 露梅. “两度焚烧加抢劫,圆明园变成废墟 八国联军如何抢走12生肖兽首的.” 报刊荟萃, no. 5 (2009): 71.
  • 董丛林. ““迷拐”、“折割”传闻与天津教案.” 近代史研究, no. 2 (2003): 204-26.
  • 宁刚. ““克林德牌坊”铭文考.” 北京社会科学, no. 03 (1997): 99.

Published by Afakv

Keeping the memories of those who went before us.

3 thoughts on “War in China: the Fall of Beijing (1/3)

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