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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 March 1999

Ross G. Forman
Kingston University


“A handful of foreigners have shown China what they can do against murderous thousands, and it only remains for the Powers to stamp the lesson deeper, and exact punishment for the guilty and full compensation for losses sustained.”

— W. Murray Graydon, The Perils of Pekin (1904)

“To find something akin in its savage barbarity you must go back to Lucknow, where a mixed multitude shut up in the Residency were holding out against fearful odds in expectation of relief by Havelock’s Highlanders, resolved to perish of starvation rather than surrender, for the fate of Cawnpore stared them in the face. “It adds point to this parallel to remember that the Tartar rulers of China are cousin german to the Great Moghul who headed the Sepoy Mutiny. “It was some excuse for the King of Delhi that he was seeking to regain his throne. No such apology can be offered for the Empress Dowager of China. She has made war not without provocation, but wholly unjustifiable, on all nations of the civilized world.”

— W. A. P. Martin, The Siege in Peking (1900)

THIS ESSAY REVIEWS THE LITERARY PRODUCTION — primarily adventure novels, and several of them bestsellers — centered around the events of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, in which a Chinese “secret society,” with the collusion of certain Manchu authorities, carried out a systematic attempt to annihilate all Westerners and “native Christians” living in China.1 The Boxers, so-called because their “superstitious” practices looked like magic boxing, swept across North China from the spring of 1900, eventually throwing much of the imperial capital of Peking (Beijing) into confusion.2 Forced to hole up in the Legations and other barricaded areas, the Westerners of the region joined forces under largely British leadership and fought against incredible odds to protect themselves, holding out until an international resistance force, led by the British, rescued them fifty-five days later, and the Rebellion subsided.3 Important as a turning point in Chinese international relations and as a mark of the increasing weakness of the central authority of the Middle Kingdom, the Boxer Rebellion served an even more important function with regard to British conceptualizations of the empire in its formal and informal forms. It threw into question non-interventionist trade strategies and underscored the tenuous nature of imperial authority both in formal colonies such as India (where fledgling nationalist movements were evolving) and in areas bordering on these formal colonies and largely dominated through foreign authority. (The central Chinese government, for instance, though not dependent on imports and loans to any great degree, at this point gathered all of its significant income from the British-led Imperial Maritime Customs Service.)

Research Article
© 1999 Cambridge University Press

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