go to home page
go to home page

1. The Boxer Time

IN January of 1898 I was working at that rapid in Szechuen, and one day an educated Chinese asked had I any knowledge of what was happening in the province. The word had been passed around — but no one seemed to know its origin — that those ancient stocks of arms, which had been hidden since the Taiping days, should now be unearthed, furbished and made ready — and that was being done, though no one seemed to know the purpose.

This purpose was soon made clear, for shortly afterwards a rebellion (1) broke out in the province, and the Imperial troops sent to suppress it suffered disastrous defeats during '98 and '99. The secret societies with which China has always been permeated, had sent out their threads of fermentation and it was spreading in a favourable medium.
1 — Known as the Yü Man-tze rebellion.

There was good reason for it. The humiliation of China's defeat by Japan and the loss of the Liaotung Peninsula and Formosa in '95 had been intensified in '98 by the German occupation of Tsingtau, the Russian of Port Arthur and Talienwan, the French of Kwang-chow-wan, and the British of Weihaiwei and the Kowloon extension. But when in the early months of '99 Italy also demanded a naval station at Sanmen Bay, and the demand was resisted and was withdrawn, a thrill of martial pride was felt throughout the Empire. That emotion was a passing phase, but augmented the increasing anti-foreign feeling of the country. Concurrently there was the sense that for these disastrous blows at China's pride an alien dynasty was responsible; so on the one hand there was the clamour for its downfall and on the other for its reform. Then Kwanghsii, the young Emperor — led by Kang Yu-wei — embraced the latter purpose with the madness of a bull in a china shop; the Manchu nobles and the heads of Government became alarmed; the Empress Dowager resumed the reins of power and commenced her drastic measures for the extermination of reformers.

Yes, there was cause for fermentation; and it spread — just a general fermentation — with many nuclei of different characters and different aims; some anti-dynastic, some anti-Christian, some anti-foreign; so that during the year of 1899 there were open disturbances all over China — brigandage, rebellion, and the slaughter of converts. The old Empress Dowager feared — and with good reason — that it might be the beginning of the end for the Manchu dynasty; sooner or later the streams of disturbance would coalesce in one great torrent, and what channel would it take? It must be one of two — anti-foreign or anti-dynastic. There is some surmise in that, but now for facts.

In May 1899 the Empress Dowager issued an Edict, bellicose in nature, referring to the menacing attitude of Germany.

Tsingtau, which the Germans occupied, was in Shantung, so in that province the anti-foreign feeling was particularly strong. Its Governor was Yii-hsien, a Manchu, an Imperial clansman, a special favourite of the Empress Dowager, a strong opposer of reform and noted for his hatred of the foreigner. In September — in his province — and inspired doubtless by that Edict — a fresh nucleus of disturbance formed; a sect which had the motto on its banners, 'Cherish the Dynasty, exterminate the Foreigners,' and who, owing to a mystic, frenzied gesturing to render them invulnerable, gave themselves the name of Ihochuan or Boxers. And Yii-hsien actively and openly encouraged them in their hostility to missionaries and other foreigners and in their slaughter and pillaging of converts.

It can hardly be doubted that from the beginning of the Boxer movement with its motto so favourable to her cause, the Empress Dowager decided that to back them would result in a lesser evil than opposing them; not that she expected that they would exterminate the foreigners, but just that it was the lesser evil at the moment. As for the rest, she trusted to her skill and luck; and her faith was justified. The dynasty would have fallen had the movement been against it; whereas, when the inevitable occurred and Peking was captured by the Western armies, she fled and left her capital and the neighbouring provinces to their fate; and, in due course, returned in state and was fawned on by the ladies of the legations; and Americans, who had tea with her, mouthed the words 'Her Gracious Majesty ' as if they tasted nice. A very clever woman was Yehonala.

At Shanghai we watched with fear the growing of the situation; for a time the virus of the Boxers infected even servants and our office boys; and when surveying in the neighbourhood I was threatened by a band of soldiers and escaped with difficulty. However, the Viceroys on the Yangtsze kept their heads, ignored the anti-foreign Edict, and executed Boxers in their provinces. But in June we, at Shanghai, could not tell how far this conflagration was going to spread. There were men-of-war in harbour, our volunteers got busy, and later foreign forces came. It was just before the Chinese soldiers joined the Boxers in Peking that we formed our Customs company and added another hundred men — a lusty crowd — to the battalion.

The Chinese fleet was in the north; and my friend Basse was with it as Superintending Engineer. Naturally it was looked upon with some suspicion. Basse was ordered by the German Admiral to leave it, but did not do so and was threatened with arrest. The British seized a torpedo boat and kept it; the Russians threatened to remove the breech blocks from the ships, but did not do so. The fleet, however, was so obviously innocuous, and the expressed intentions of the Admiral and Captains so favourable to law and order, that they were left alone. And Sah, always seeking — as has been said before — for the right thing to do, was protecting missionaries at Tengchowfu.

The German Minister had been killed, when paying a visit to the Chinese Foreign Office; the soldiers had been unleashed to join the Boxers in their attack on the legations; the Empress Dowager ...
— losing her head for a time in the frenzy of the business — had issued an Edict for the killing of all foreigners within the Empire; Admiral Seymour's first attempt to relieve the legations had failed; things were at their very worst, when the Chinese fleet steamed up the Whangpu river and anchored off Shanghai. There was, of course, excitement and apprehension; but I knew those Captains well: they were as mild as milk and never wished to see a drop of blood again. I heard that they were holding a meeting at the Naval Club in Hongkew and I walked in on them; it was the first time I had met them since the war. Gentlemen, I claim to be one of you and to take part in your discussion.' They were all over me with thanks and requests for guidance; they had been ordered down by Yuan Shih-kai, the Governor of Shantung — who had replaced Yii-hsien and who had done his best, though it was not much, to oppose the Boxer madness; but they had no instructions what to do; the Admiral was not with them and they were eager for advice. So I told them off at once to call in pairs upon the Consuls. I made them learn a little speech: how they had been ordered to Shanghai; their wish to take part in the preservation of law and order; their suggestion that a company of their bluejackets join the military demonstration — naval companies and the volunteer battalion — that was to take place on the morrow. Then I called on the Senior Consul, urged that this be done, and pointed out the wisdom of keeping the Chinese fleet under foreign influence. But it was too late.

The Consuls had held their meeting and had decided to use pressure to get the Chinese ships to go; they had already taken steps and could not retrace them. It was a pity, though as things turned out it did not matter; but it might have done so.(1)

This exchange of letters with the Chinese Commander-in-Chief may be of interest: —

25th June, 1900.
   You know the friendship I have for you and your officers — that I identify myself with you; and you may imagine how anxious I am that in this serious crisis the Chinese fleet should act on lines that will conduce to its honour as well as to the best interests of your country. The seriousness of the situation lies in the fact that the initial successes of a bloodthirsty and ferocious fanaticism will lead not only the common people but also many officials to believe that the Boxer programme will be carried out, and the foreigners driven into the sea. It is only men who know the power of Western nations — like yourself — who will realize the utter futility of the attempt; the whole world is against it.

The Boxers and the officials, officers and soldiers who join them, are greater enemies to their own country than they are to the foreigner. True patriotism lies in putting down this madness and substituting sanity.

I see clearly that your proper course is not merely to look on and be passive, but to take such action as may be possible to combat the spread of the Boxer movement.

You must, however, expect that at Shanghai the collection of your fleet will be looked upon with some suspicion. The Consuls, I am sure, know how you and your Captains are on the side of law and order, but the community generally is liable to be apprehensive; and, when you remember that your Government itself has grossly violated the sacred rights of diplomats, it is not much to be surprised at . . . —


H.I.M.S. Hai Yung,
Off Taku Bar, 4th July,1900.
   Many thanks for your kind and considerate letter.

My duty with this fleet is to maintain friendly relations with all foreign powers and to be on the side of law and order. The Captains under my command know well how to carry out my instructions. The ships which entered Shanghai harbour were for coaling only. They are now distributed along the Yangtsze valley to protect the lives and property of foreigners. The Haichi was at Miautau last week and had all the Tengchow missionaries on board for safety. She towed the American battleship Oregon, which had struck on a pinnacle rock between Howki and Miautau Island, out of danger. The Hai Yung is detained here by the Admirals of the foreign powers, so the situation of myself is most unfortunate. The insane action of our Government is one of a most peculiar character. I hope the final settlement will soon arrive, but the terms will be a very difficult question . . . —


It was June the 4th when the legations appealed for help; Admiral Seymour started on the 10th on the gallant but ineffectual attempt to relieve them. It was not until the 4th August that the allied expedition advanced from Tientsin and entered Peking ten days later. There were no Germans with that expedition. About the middle of September, when all the essentials had been done, the German Field Marshal Count von Waldersee arrived upon the scene and, there being nothing else to do, occupied himself with punitive expeditions involving among other things the senseless destruction or defacement of many ancient monuments.

Now at the time that the German expedition was steaming up the coast, I went out in a Revenue cruiser to see that all was well with a new deep entrance to the Yangtsze, which might be of use to men-of-war in case of trouble up the Yangtsze.

Somewhat to my astonishment I found a large German cruiser, the Brandenburg, had entered by that channel and was at anchor.

As we approached her I could see that my little gunboat — it flew the dragon ensign and a pennant — attracted much attention. Then there fluttered signal flags, and before they could be read a blank charge was fired. The signal read: Anchor instantly, I have something important to communicate.' We did not anchor, but rounded to and stemmed the tide; then came a steam cutter with an officer — his moustaches bristling with the importance of a quasi-act of war. He gave a message from his Captain that we were to stay where we were until his further wishes were conveyed to us. Captain Myhre told him who and what we were and what our immediate purpose was. Then I joined in. I asked him to convey a message to his Captain that I was on board in the execution of my duties, and that I protested against being delayed except for some adequate reason. The officer showed astonished indignation. Protest ! You send the word protest to the Captain of a German man-of-war? Yes, please, and I'll thank you to deliver it.' That boat left, and shortly after another came with a message that we might proceed, but without an explanation. And now the Brandenburg flew a three-hoist signal — ' Pass," Regret," Stop, I wish to communicate '; so once again we stopped, much puzzled by the signal, and once more a boat arrived. The officer explained that the signal was intended to convey regrets that we had been stopped, but the signalman had made an error; he added that the Brandenburg had been instructed to stop all Chinese gunboats and that they did not know we were a Customs cruiser.

That first messenger had been a bumptious fool, but otherwise there was nothing to complain about; and I thought no more about it. But several years later I was talking to a German naval officer, and he told me he was on board the Brandenburg when that episode occurred, and of the cruel sequel to it. It seems that the Kaiser had personally given orders to the Captains of the expeditionary squadron about discretion and behaviour, and that his interest was such that he read copies of their log-books. In that of the Brandenburg he read of the failure to distinguish a Customs cruiser; of the blank charge that had been fired; of the protest I had made, and lastly of the error in the signal; and he dismissed the Captain from the service.