Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Short History of the Boxer Rebellion: China's War on Foreigners, 1900

by Diana Preston
Robinson, 1999. 459 pages including index.

If you love history (like me)  you're always on the hunt for a book that not only expands your knowledge, but is also a really good story. The Boxer Rebellion is both a good historical narrative and a really good read.

The Boxer Rebellion took place at the beginning of the 20th Century and was an uprising by the Chinese people led by a quasi-religious sect known for their martial arts style, and thus dubbed "boxers." The Boxers were quietly encouraged by the Imperial court in their battle against the foreigners who had come to dominate much of China's economy and politics.

The book carefully displays the Chinese xenophobia towards the British, Germans, Americans and others who were busy exploiting China, but focuses on the racist attitudes of the foreigners towards the native Chinese. These people dominating China believed they were superior to the Chinese and thus well within their rights to mold the county into they image that pleased them, whatever the Chinese may have thought of that.

The author attributes the racist attitudes of the foreigners towards the Chinese to Social Darwinism. Applying the Darwinist Theory of Evolution to humanity, it was only reasonable to assume that some cultures and some "races" had evolved further than others, and that the fitter should rule the less fit.

What makes this book a really good read is Preston's abundant use of quotes from the diaries and other writings of the foreigners in China. Her liberal use of quotations really gives a sense of the actions and emotions of those directly involved in the events. It also reveals the callous attitudes of many of the foreigners who were under siege by the Boxers. Though the foreigners had given sanctuary to the Chinese Christian converts who had also been attacked, they seemed unwilling to equally share the food and resources at their disposal. While the whites ate their fill, many of the Chinese Christians, literally across the street, starved to death. The diaries reveal the irony that the foreigners in China were upset by the Christian converts' suffering yet failed to raise a finger to help them.

Cautions: Since this book tells the story of a violent period in Chinese history, violent scenes are often depicted, occasionally with a lot of detail. The detail is not sensationalist but it is sometimes graphic. While it certainly adds to the story, it can be skipped over if you'd rather not know quite so much about the brutality.

Conclusion: Read this book if you want to understand why more than 100 years after the Rebellion the Chinese still seem cautious about embracing Western values and practices. The unChristian attitudes displayed by the many foreigners, who were at least nominally Christian, appear to have set up a barrier between East and West that has yet to be taken down. This book will not only help you understand China and Western culture, but will force you to examine yourself and wonder whether, just maybe, you think yourself a little superior to someone not quite as evolved as you think you are.

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