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Knocking out the boxers: Mark Bryant looks at the cartoons produced in response to the conflict which followed the Opium Wars between China and the West.

The Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1900 was the fourth conflict involving China and Britain in sixty years and came about when a group of ultra-patriotic Chinese, eager to expel all foreigners from their homeland, attacked and killed a number of British Christian missionaries and other European personnel stationed in the country, including the German ambassador. The uprising followed the three so-called 'Opium Wars' which had been fought to protect Britain's commercial interests, notably the export of opium to China. In all four conflicts the fighting was fierce and bloody and the cartoons produced on both sides during this period reflected the extreme mood of the protagonists.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the British empire was the world's largest producer of what the Chinese called the 'devil drug' and in 1839 the Emperor Tao Kuang (Hsuan Tsung) gave personal orders to ban the import of opium as it was destroying the Chinese people and making vast profits for foreigners. This led to the first Opium War (1839-42) by which Britain gained a 150-year lease on the island of Hong Kong. On the Emperor's death in 1850 the anti-opium policy was continued by his son Hsien Feng (Wen Tsung) and war broke out with the West again the same decade. However, as before, the Imperial Army was no match for the military might of Britain and its allies. In the Second Opium War (1857-58) the main trading port of Canton was shelled and the Chinese viceroy's palace was destroyed. Then in the Third Opium War (1859-60) the magnificent and historic Summer Palace in Peking (Beijing)--one of the wonders of the world--was destroyed by the Allies before the Chinese government sued for peace.

For the next three decades, and throughout the bloody civil war known as the Taiping Rebellion, anti-Western sentiment festered in China. This was encouraged by Emperor Hsien Feng's widow, the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, who from 1861 ruled as regent during the minority of two successive boy emperors. However, all was reasonably quiet until, in May 1891, Chinese mobs destroyed Catholic and Protestant missions in the belief that they were kidnapping children. In December the same year there was an uprising against foreigners and foreign churches led by the Golden Elixir Sect in Manchuria which was eventually put down by the Chinese government.


The Boxer Rebellion, however, was on a much larger scale, and followed China's defeat in the Chinese-Japanese War (1894-95) and the scramble for territorial leases and trading concessions by European countries that ensued. The Rebellion began in May 1899 when 1,500 foreigners and Chinese converts to Christianity were massacred by a group called the 'Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists', which had started as a patriotic society devoted to martial arts, especially boxing. These 'Boxers', as they came to be known in the West, quickly gained popular support and had the tacit backing of the Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi who was strongly against 'Western ideas'. One of the favourite mottoes of the Boxers was 'Protect the country, destroy the foreigners'.

The actions of the Boxers included the burning of Christian churches and foreign embassies, and the destruction of the railway line between Peking and its port at Tientsin. On April 7th, 1900, British, US, German and French ministers sent a joint note to the Chinese government saying that they would land troops to protect their countrymen living in China if the Boxer rebellion was not suppressed within two months.

However, the rebellion continued. Consequently, a detachment of British, US, Russian, Italian and Japanese sailors and marines arrived in Peking on May 31st, 1900 (followed soon after by Austrian and German troops), to help protect the foreign legations there. They soon found themselves under siege. As a result, on June 10th, British Admiral Edward Seymour sailed for Peking with 2,000 international troops but was driven back. Then, after the murder of Baron von Ketteler, the German ambassador, on June 20th, and more reports of the massacre of Europeans, a combined Allied force of 25,000 fought its way 80 miles inland from Tientsin and on August 14th stormed Peking to end the fifty-six-day siege of the city.

The Dowager Empress and the young Emperor Kuang Hsu fled to the former capital of Siking (Sian) on August 15th, 1900, and the Treaty of Peking, negotiated for the Chinese by General Lu Hung Chang (known as the Bismarck of Asia) was signed on September 7th, 1901.

Punch magazine was founded in 1841 in the middle of the First Opium War. Its first ever international war-related political cartoon was 'The Presentation of the Chinese Ambassador' (John Leech, December 17th, 1842) published after diplomatic relations had been restored (though technically it should not be described as a 'cartoon' as this word did not acquire its additional modern sense until the following year). At first most British cartoons about the wars with China depicted Britannia or the British Lion versus the Chinese Dragon or a pig-tailed stereotype of a Chinaman. However, by the time of the Boxer Rebellion the Dowager Empress and Li Hung Chang also began to feature and a wide variety of international publications covered the conflict, from Hindi Punch in India to Simplicissimus in Germany and Le Rire in France.

By 1900 a number of daily newspapers in Britain had begun to use cartoons regularly. Some even had their own cartoonists--notably Francis Carruthers Gould of the Pall Mall Gazette (a forerunner of the Evening Standard)--and by coincidence the first ever political cartoon in the Daily Mail (August 3rd, 1896) was a drawing by Rip (Roland Hill) featuring Li Hung Chang and Prime Minister Lord Salisbury.

Punch's main cartoonist during the Boxer Rebellion was John Tenniel whose powerful drawing, 'The Avenger' (July 25th, 1900)--showing Civilization in the form of St George about to conquer the Chinese Dragon--covered two pages of the magazine. He also drew a prophetic cartoon 'A Legacy of Discord' (June 27th, 1900). In this a Chinese warrior faces the Allies--Russia, France, Japan, Germany, the USA and Britain--and says: 'You allee chop-chop me now, but welly soon forrin devil chop-chop forrin devil!' Fourteen years later the 'forrin devils' would indeed be attacking each other, in the First World War.


Mark Bryant is the author of Dictionary of 20th Century British Cartoonists & Caricaturists, Wars of Empire in Cartoons and other books.
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Title Annotation:CARTOON TIMES
Author:Bryant, Mark
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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