August 14, 1900 – The Eight-Nation Alliance occupies Beijing, effectively bringing an end to the Boxer Rebellion in China, and effectively destroying the Qing Dynasty. China would be plunged into chaos for the next 47 years, and emerge completely dominated by a Communist dictatorship that lasts to this day.
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Beginning with the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 AD), the Chinese began to believe that China not only was the literal center of the world, but also destined to control the world. And why not? China was the most populous country in the world, with 120 million people. While great European capitals like London had just 25,000 residents, Paris had 110,000 residents, Berlin had fewer than 1,000 residents, and Rome had 15,000 residents, Chinese cities like Kaifeng, Chang'an, and Hangzhou had more than a million. Even Jinling (Nanjing) had 475,000 people. The Chinese had gunpowder, rockets, armored cavalry, riverine and coastal navies, insurance, movable type, porcelain, silk. A vast network of canals and river locks created a huge trade network across the nation. The government was one of the most modern in the world, with meritocratic exams to ensure only the brightest and best entered government service; extensive regulation and bureaucracy which standardized and equalized the treatment of the population; and a superbly effective and efficient system of internal taxation.
China dominated southeast and northeast Asia. Tribute from foreign lands poured into the Chinese government's coffers. China was so powerful, so dominant, it didn't have a diplomatic corps: All other nations were expected to send representatives to China, China never sent them to another nation (for that would imply that these other nations were somehow equal to China). China never received ambassadors. Instead, China would only allow "representatives of tributary lands" to appear before its emperors -- representatives who had to acknowledge China's supremacy and pay tribute before speaking.
China was ruthlessly stripped of its illusions during the First Opium War. Britain wanted Chinese silk, tea, and porcelain. The Chinese would accept only pure silver in return. The British were forced to seek immense loans (in silver) from the French and Spanish, and their economy was in dire straits. Britain began to sell opium (which it grew in its Indian colonies) to the Chinese. Addiction exploded in China, and its economy suffered. The Chinese banned opium, and the British went to war in 1840.
China's army and navy collapsed in the face of modern British ships, cannon, and firearms.
China entered its long, slow decline into irrelevancy, and then chaos.
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The Daoguang Emperor not only lost the First Opium War, and his 19-year-old successor, the Xianfeng Emperor, saw the eruption of the Taipeng Rebellion -- an insurrection led by a Christian cult which killed 20 to 30 million Chinese over 14 years. He lost the Second Opium War (1856 to 1860), and the treaty ending the war allowed eight foreign governments (the U.S., England, France, Austria-Hungary, Japan, Russia, Italy, and Germany) to control China's ports and rivers and to establish a "Foreign Quarter" in the capital of Beijing. The Xianfeng Emperor died in 1861. He was succeeded by his six-year-old son, the Tongzhi Emperor. For the next 12 years, China was ruled by co-regents -- the emperor's mother, Empress Dowager Cixi, and the first wife of the emperor's father, Empress Dowager Ci'an. The Tongzhi Emperor died of smallpox at the age of 18, shortly after taking the reigns of government.
He was succeeded by his three-year-old cousin, the Guangxu Emperor. Ci'an died in 1881, leaving Cixi the sole regent. Guangzu came of age in 1889, but was dominated by Cixi -- who had effectively ruled China for the past 28 years. The First Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1894, and China lost Korea to Japan. Bureaucrats and noblemen increasingly turned to Cixi for advice on policy, ignoring the emperor. When the emperor attempted a radical modernization of Chinese law, economics, policy, and technology in the "Hundred Days Reform" in 1898, he was deposed by Cixi for alleged insanity.
In 1895, a cult known as the Righteous and Harmonious Fists (Yihequan) arose in coastal Shandong province. American Christian missionaries referred to them "Boxers" because of the martial arts and calisthenics they practiced. The Boxers believed that through diet, martial arts, and prayer they could become invulnerable to cannon, bullets, and knives. They also believed that if they attained spiritual purity, millions of angles would descend from heaven to assist them in ridding China of foreign oppression.
As the Boxers grew more violent and more powerful, they began to massacre Christian missionaries -- outraging European governments. The Boxers became especially potent after the "Hundred Days Reform". Chinese society was in crisis, and many believed China was in danger of being permanently dismembered and ruled by foreign powers. Cixi now began to see the value of the Boxers, and secretly assisted, financed, and armed them while publicly denouncing them (but taking almost no military or police action against them).
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In the spring of 1900, the Boxer movement spread to Beijing. On May 31, 435 soldiers of the "Eight-Nation Alliance" that occupied the Foreign Quarter of Beijing took up defensive perimeters around their respective legations. The Boxers cut the rail line to the coast five days later, and on June 11 killed the secretary of the Japanese legation. When the Germans captured and executed a Boxer boy that same day in retaliation, thousands of Boxers poured into Beijing and began massacring Europeans.
An Eight-Nation Alliance force of 2,000 sailors and marines began marching from the Tianjin on the coast toward Beijing. Thinking the Chinese were inept, they found themselves pinned down by artillery and rocket fire. A relief force of 1,800 Russian and British troops now marched from Tientsin, and saved them. Luckily, the Europeans had discovered a huge cache of arms, ammunition, medical supplies, and food hidden by the Chinese government. This allowed them to continue their march toward Beijing well-armed and well-provisioned.
Cixi secretly blockaded Beijing with Chinese Army troops, to support the Boxers. On June 20, the Boxers began attacking the Foreign Quarter. The legations, their minimal armed forces, and about 3,000 European refugees set up barricades and blocked the streets leading into the Foreign Quarter. The siege of the Foreign Quarter lasted until August 14. Amazingly, even though a large force could easily have dislodged the foreigners in under an hour, the Chinese Army refused to commit large numbers of troops to the siege.
During the siege, the Eight-Nation Alliance rapidly built up its forces in Tientsin. Now, a 20,000-man force began marching across China. It reached Beijing on August 15, forcing the Chinese Imperial Court to flee to the western capital of Xi'an. Empress Dowager Cixi, dressed in the padded blue cotton tunic and pants of a farm woman, took the bound and gagged Guangxu Emperor and a small retinue, climbed into three ox carts, and escaped from the city covered by rough blankets.
The Boxer Rebellion was over. Foreign troops occupied most of northeastern China for the next year, brutally suppressing the Boxer movement. Cixi and her court would not return to Beijing until 1902.