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.
The Empress Dowager Cixi, in her most brazen attempt to remove the preying foreigners, declared war on eleven 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 owing to the local unrest. Nevertheless, Europe, the United States, and Japan answered the call to war and sailed their troops eagerly across the oceans to punish, to plunder, and to pillage.
The Eight Nation Alliance, after stalling for a period, not sure under whose leadership they should 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 Russians and Japanese faced fierce resistance, but the British and Americans nearly got away unscathed, save for one soldier who died of a heatstroke on the British side, along with one killed 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 has only been occupied by foreign troops three times:
Beijing was occupied in 1860. On this occasion, the political loss was the greatest.
Beijing was occupied in 1900. On this occasion, the material loss was the greatest.
Nanjing was occupied in 1937. On this occasion, the loss of human life was the greatest.
Indeed, the fall of Beijing in 1900 marked the beginning of what the Sydney Morning Herald called a "carnival of loot."
China at the turn of the 20th century was in chaos. The price of the Empire's weakness was paid from the blood and sweat of the people. Discontent was widespread. The unbridled transgressions of the Imperial powers were 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 (Fist of Righteous Harmony). Originally, these Yihequan members wished to expel foreigners including the Qing government and the various Western hyenas. In 1889, however, the Qing government managed to co-opt the movement, and to divert its anti-Qing intentions toward resisting the Western transgressors. The movement would henceforth be known by the somewhat official-sounding name of Yihetuan (Company of Righteous Harmony). It was at this time that the slogan of "Support the Qing, Eliminate the Foreigners" was born.
The anger of the Yihetuan had mainly to do with the Christian missionaries who did not practise what they preached. Their brazen superiority complex and their indiscriminate dismissal of Chinese religions, customs, and beliefs angered the people. The Christians attacked Confucian values and condemned the reverence of the Chinese for their ancestors. For these reasons, the Empire classified Christianity as a heterodox religion. The missionaries claimed to bring the truth, but all they brought were insult and depravity, going against the core values of the faith they claimed to represent. Generally, there were four kinds of evils wrought by the missionaries that angered people the most:
Atrocious practices. Circumcision (the genital mutilation of newborn boys). Cutting open pregnant women and using fetuses in medicine. Desecrating corpses in autopsies and extracting the vital organs during surgery.
Sorcery. It was believed that the missionaries were using their medicines 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. The ubiquity of boys' and girls' schools and orphanages. These things led to the belief that the Christian missionaries were merely using faith as a facade for debauchery and pedophilia.
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 which the missionaries had acquired grated the Chinese, for they were exclusive rights normally reserved for Chinese literati. Here comes a band of haughty foreigners with their incomprehensible doctrines placing unreasonable and unjust demands upon the justice system. They were essentially unwelcome immigrants demanding that the local culture should 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, all of which implicated the Roman Catholics. A similar story unfolded in June of 1870 in Tianjin also. After the Second Opium War, the influence of the French, and of the 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 laden with 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. The common man soon followed suit in his animosity.
Rumours about missionary transgressions were quickly spread about. The hand of the literati in inciting 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 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, and 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 reprehensible behaviour, it would be a mistake to believe that they suddenly refrained from such practices 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 provocations 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 raging flame that lit the powder keg, a number of European missionaries were rounded up in the local Yamen (courthouse or 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 for the "yellow" barbarians to 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 2,000 or so men were blocked by Imperial forces and sent back to Tianjin.
One particular case that sparked the ire of the Yihetuan was that of a German man, 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 (precursor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to protest 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 (Divine Engine Division aka. Peking Field Force) returned fire and killed Von Ketteler, avenging the boy.
On the 20th of June, two days before the death of Von Ketteler, the legation had been besieged by the Yihetuan and the Imperial forces. In response, the United Kingdom, the United States, 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 under attack.
Immediately after the foreign troops lifted the siege of the legations and saved their countrymen, they took to the looting of Beijing. Reports from each nation tried to diminish their own role in the looting by ascribing the brunt of the looting to other nations, yet the fact is that they had all participated fully. 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. Indeed, the first stage of looting can be likened to a pack of hungry dogs let loose in a fully stocked larder. The armies looted, stole, and pillaged in a crazed frenzy. They scarcely 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 their 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."
Indeed, the looters had the gall to justify their barbarity by claiming their looting and stealing was retribution for the barbarity of the Chinese for having killed Christians and burnt churches. Their self-righteous attitude was nothing more than a shoddy excuse to do what they really wanted all along. They envied China, having ever eyed it with jealousy, 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, had 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 was how prestigious Western museums acquired 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 practices 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 where 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..."
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 have accurately been called "bands 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 scrap; fur coats of immense value would go to buyers for a few dollars.
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 had to work his entire life for, were 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 educated the soldiers in grading 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? Nazi Germany was, in fact, unprecedented in its orderly extermination of so many "undesirables." It was precisely this orderly and calculated way of committing crime which made the perpetrators all the more terrifying. I would argue this was 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 was akin to a thief entering your house, stealing your valuables, and then fencing them off to pay for his stay in your house.
These looted objects stood for many things, among them the humiliation of the Chinese empire and of the "yellow" race. Above all, they stood for the victory of the self-proclaimed "civilised" forces over the "barbarians" of China.
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. 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.
It was not the first time that morally bankrupt men of the cloth were seen, 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 entailed, and what the church claiming to represent that faith actually did. True religion did not appear to be preached or practised in these corrupt institutions.
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 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.
In 1860, Lord Elgin had 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 the intention of completely reducing the palace to a plain grass field. However, the Summer Palace was a large complex, so large that it took the Franco–British forces several days to burn the buildings. 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 twelve bronze heads of the Chinese zodiac animals.
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 hooves. 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 are poison, and the hymns he sings are 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 at retaking the stolen artifacts. Some people have seen the injustice of the theft, and have bought artifacts to return them to the land whence the 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 lens, but also quite literally a guidebook for the future.