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The Boxer Rebellion in China: History and Impacts Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: May 28th, 2020


The boxer rebellion was a nationalist movement by the Righteous Harmony society in China. The uprising took place between 1898 and 1901. The aim of this movement was to oppose foreign imperialism and Christianity in China. The rebellion was against the foreign powers that tried to establish spheres of influence in the region. Other pressures included economic exploitation and political invasion among others. There was fear all over that the missionaries, who were increasing in number, would snatch the land from the Chinese, who refused to cooperate and hand it over to the church. This move led to the revolts against general foreign invasion. The China’s Imperial Army revolts were instituted targeting groups like the soldiers and Christians living in China. Other targeted groups included the civilians and foreign diplomats in China. The war lasted 55 days and ended when the eight nation alliance sent 20,000 troops to China. These defeated the Imperial Army and the boxers and captured Beijing.

The Boxers

The westerners and their influence on China faced a great opposition with the emergence of the Boxers. The boxers included was comprised of religious, social and anti-imperialists groups, which worked together to oppose the westerners who were gaining prominence in the region. In times preceding the boxer rebellion, the group gained support of Chinese Imperial court and Army. Consequently, their activities against the west were considered legitimate.

The boxers were triggered to war by the west’s creation of an informal empire in China. By the early 1890s, the bridgehead along the coast had been held under the foreign powers rule. This was targeted to give avenue to the economic penetration in the area’s mainland. The number of Christian missionaries and the power they wielded over China was increasing. Finally, there were a number of natural disasters that caused great conflicts in the region that translated to real war.

Image Makers

These comprised of a number of groups interlinking China and the West. They were tasked to gather information about the happenings in North China. They would then process and deliver this information to relevant authorities. Image makers from the western side included journalists, cartoonists, photographers and military observers. Those from the Chinese side were a few journalists, who worked for pictorial publications and woodblock artists, who produced pictures depicting scenes of the war.


As a means of communication, cartoons are peculiar in their use. They can easily convey a message without the use of words. They can convey a hard hitting message in a satirical way that does not elicit strong feelings from the readers and those concerned. Most political cartoons are aimed at challenging the status quo, providing a voice for the minority, expressing their indignation and grievances against the ruling elite. In the 19th century, politicians in many countries in Europe revered cartoonists. The influence of cartoons was more than that of the written word. Therefore, a number of cartoonists were jailed and fined for ‘explicit’ drawings and portrayal.

Elliott posits that cartoonists in the boxer war did not obey the rule of ‘betraying soul of the nation’. Rather than depicting the imperial army and the boxers as wild savages harming innocent westerners, they depicted them as heroes fighting for what was rightfully theirs. Of the 340 cartoons examined, only two showed Chinese killing European women and children.

She chose to study cartoons from reputable weeklies and newspapers in China so as to capture a broad readership of all social classes. However, she notes that publications of the higher social classes did not print graphic material throughout the century; therefore, very few of these categories were chosen. Weeklies of Britain, France, Germany and America were also included as a number of cartoonists from Europe went to work in America.

The impact of cartoons can be assessed by the big number of cartoons that were translated and reprinted into foreign languages. European cartoons were translated into Japanese, showing the extent to which Japan was interested in political cartooning of the events of the boxer uprising. Russian cartoons were also reprinted in Europe and Japan, and those of Europe were reprinted in the United States of America. The proliferation of cartoons in the international scene reflects the opinion that foreign cartoons of the boxer uprising triggered such attention that they demanded a reprinting and translation. These images were important as they reflected power struggle between superpowers. Cartoonists paid greater attention to the concept of this rivalry than how the images would affect the country’s future relations with the countries in the struggle.

It is evident that most cartoonists sympathized with China than with the invaders. Harboring sentiments against the invaders, they used the events to spread anti-Russia, anti-Germany and anti-British images. Because of the international attention the cartoons captured, the events of the boxer war and China as a whole claimed recognition in international politics.

The USA adopted the events of China and applied them in their contemporary domestic politics. Images of men with pig tails, wearing Chinese attires, were used by American politicians to depict various characteristics among the public and communicate particular messages.

Cartoonists of the boxer uprising present a similar representation of cultural traditions of Germany, France, Britain, Russia, India, Australia, America and Japan. The cartoons can also be used to indicate how much the public knew about China and its leaders at the time of the uprising. There are a number of cartoons that require the reader to have some knowledge about Chinese history, culture and leadership in order to deduce their meaning. However, many cartoons were just amusing and provoking, exhibiting political satire.

Cartoons as Commentary of Allied Powers

A major theme inherent in the cartoons was that of lack of balance among the allied powers. Some cartoonists portrayed China as an essential power in preserving the balance of power. Therefore, the perception of international relations and balance of power did not only lie on the allied powers but also on the significant position of China.

The first image representing discordance of power appeared in ‘The punch’ in 1900. The image depicted a Chinese soldier in uniform carrying remote weapons. In the same drawing were Russian, French, Germans, American and Japanese soldiers in full military regalia. The dressing was perhaps meant to distinguish between the two sides of the war and not in any way to draw ridicule for the primitively-portrayed Chinese soldier. This is evidenced by the way in which the Chinese soldier was represented in the picture. He was in full figure, stood alone, large and his back against a Chinese wall sketch. The other soldiers, on the other hand, were shown delineated to the foreground of the cartoon.

Another image depicting disunity of the powers appeared in August in 1900. the image showed unskilled soldiers rowing a ‘relief’ boat in murky waters. Other cartoonists portrayed the foreign soldiers as big, but harmless hydra while others portrayed them as Roman warriors riding on a tortoise towards a locked gate in a modern-manned gate.

In expressing deep mistrust among the allied powers, a German cartoonist showed officers around a Chinese map, with a caption that said ‘you can look but do not touch’. The distrust was exhibited as against various countries such as Japan and German against the rest, Italy against German and many others. A Viennese picture showed the allied soldiers against a huge rock with oriental features (probably Chinese). This shows that the disunity among the allied powers caused disunity among them thus, rendering them ineffective.

The great powers held two beliefs about China. One was that the country was weak like turkey. Therefore, it needed the intervention of the powers to be made strong. The other view was that China was a great nation with great potential that needed to be divided up amongst the great powers. There were maps showing how the ‘great’ country would be divided up among the powers upon its conquest. Knowledge of this plot aroused great anger from the imperial army and the boxers, encouraging them to fight on and defeat this strategy.

The other theme portrayed in the cartoons was that of anti-imperialism. The invasion of China was translated as an escalated greed by the European powers’ wishes to conquer and dominate China. This sentiment was not only portrayed by cartoonists from China but also from all other major powers involved in the war. This means that the cartoons represented credible truth of the situation as it was at that moment. It was an unwarranted invasion of China by western powers.

It is generally deduced from commentaries and drawings that German cartoonist did not believe in the spirit of invasion of China. They perceived this as a show of greed by the Europeans. The cartoonists expressed opposition to Kaiser Wilhelm’s views about China. His speech was subject to British, German, French and American press. Cartoonist Thomas Heine’s cartoons strongly expressed the opinion that Europe’s invasion of China was highly unwarranted and uncalled for. Apart from the unwarranted invasion, Heine’s cartoons also showed that Europe’s drive to disseminate Chinese culture was undesirable.

The Audience of the Image Makers

Cartoonists in these contexts are addressing both the allied and Chinese readers and the entire world. There is something that is lacking among all the cartoons. American, French, German, Japanese and Italian cartoons portray similar images that the Chinese, though the weaker power in this sense, was actually the stronger power.

The cartoons were drawn to send messages and communicate with both the Chinese and Europeans. To the Chinese, they encouraged them to fight on as theirs was a true and worthy cause. This is seen from the powerful Chinese figures as portrayed in the drawings. To the great powers of Europe and America, they were meant to ridicule and discourage them from taking part in the war. The disunity among the powers was also satirized through their portrayal as weak and small compared to the Chinese figures. The message sent to them through the cartoons was not to quit the war, as it was not warranted, but a show of European greed.

With time, the images received world-wide attention being translated and reprinted, thereby adapting them to be read and viewed in a number of countries all over the world.

Overall Portrayal of the Boxers

As said earlier, unlike the commonly held beliefs that cartoonists betray the soul of a nation, cartoonists on the boxer uprising refurbished the soul of the nation. Both cartoonists of the allied powers and those of the invaded China portrayed a positive image of the boxers. They were fighting for the things that were rightfully theirs but were being taken away because of greed.

A cartoon of a powerful Chinese dominating figure done by a German cartoonist appeared in the simplicissimus. Below him was a German trader who the Chinese had just evicted from his premises. The trader looks scared and retorts that he will report to his elder brother. The Chinese man rightfully stands where he is since it is his rightful place to be. This drawing, and many others, clearly shows that the boxers were not the ‘bad guys’ in the war but rather the great powers. The great powers are portrayed as having been ruled by greed to take up China and divide it up amongst themselves for their selfish interests. Besides, the intended spread of western civilization over Chinese civilization was perceived as unfair and unnecessary.

Elliott’s Analysis of the Image Makers

Elliott (2002) takes the first step in opening up what had not been done before. Many scholars analyzed the boxer war in its course, but none focused on the significant bits of those involved in other activities apart from the fighting. Her synthesis of image makers is an insightful approach, seeking to establish what went on people’s minds other than the usual chants of victory in war situations.

She analyses depiction of the two sides of the war by such unlikely actors as cartoonists. These are usually regarded lowly compared to mainstream journalists and reporters. Their work is taken as fun and, therefore, no significant importance is attached to cartoons. Through her analysis of such unlikely work, we are able to find out true sentiments as held by nationals of the warring parties. Leaders of these countries may have assumed that the citizens were solidly in support of their invasion of China, but we see that this is not necessarily the case as a number of them did not actually support the venture.

In the beginning, we said that cartoons are used as the minorities’ political mouth piece. As the politicians were busy giving statements in the press, cartoonists were busy spreading the message that Europe and America’s invasion of China was not fully in support. The same cartoonists went ahead to depict their own troops and soldiers as weak, disorganized and divided. They did not share a common agenda and vision. They were driven and governed by greed.

Elliott’s analysis of the image makers, cartoonists in particular, is quite appropriate and accurate. She uses credible sources from newspapers and weekly publications from both sides of the conflict and for all social classes.


Despite a few portrayals by a minority of journalists depicting negative images and myths about the boxers and the army, the soldiers of the imperial army and the boxers were true heroes and nationalists who gave up their lives to fight off western imperialism and invasion and possible conquering of their country.

Although depicted as primitive and remote in their fighting and equipment, they were strong with a unified course, unlike the great powers. They shared a common vision, dream and agenda; that of liberating their country from the belittling hands of the West. With this motivation, they fought hard and became acclaimed as true heroes of the Chinese empire.

Works cited

Elliott, Jane. Some did it for Civilization; some did it for their Country: A Revised View of the Boxer War. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2002. Print.

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