The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China

Interesting book review, succinct bit of history, in today’s WSJ:

At the turn of the last century, with the European “Scramble for Africa,” as it was known, only recently completed, three assertive new major powers were fast emerging: Germany, Japan and the United States. Most of the world had already been claimed by more established actors. But decrepit, late Qing Dynasty China, with its hundreds of millions of people, centuries of accumulated wealth and vast territory, loomed as the final big prize on the imperial frontier. The New York Times at the time called China “the greatest potential market of the world,” and circling foreign powers, old and new, were drawn by its weakness and misrule.

Such is the stage of David J. Silbey’s thoughtful and concisely told “The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China.” The war that gives the book its title was the last of the West’s repeated armed confrontations with the Qing, but compared with other Chinese conflicts of the era, notably the midcentury, overlapping Taiping Rebellion and Second Opium War, it was a far smaller affair, both in duration and scale, essentially lasting through the long summer of 1900…

According to Mr. Silbey, a historian a Cornell University’s Washington, D.C., campus, the Boxers’ problem was not with the Westerners’ religion per se. The rebels were incensed because, in the vacuum left behind by a failing Qing administration, the foreign church-based organizations were becoming local administrators. As such they were direct competition for the Chinese secret societies, like the Boxers, that were also moving to fill the void…

China’s defeat—the country was forced to pay onerous reparations—marked the end of “a disastrous two years, part of a disastrous decade, [and] the end of a disastrous century,” Mr. Silbey writes. But the defeat also marked a turning point. British India, which had sent many troops to suppress the Boxers, was soon gripped by its own revolutionary movement. The Japanese learned from the war that “they held the whip hand in Asia” and would soon defeat Russia and later take over China.


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