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Chinese Empress Cixi declares war on foreigners

This Day in World History

21 June 1900

Chinese Empress Cixi declares war on foreigners


On 21 June 1900, in the midst of anti-western attacks in China, the Dowager Empress of China, 65-year-old Cixi, tried to seize the chance to restore Chinese authority and declared war on all foreigners.

The conflict had been decades in building. Throughout the nineteenth century, western powers and Japan had carved up China, creating their own zones where they effectively ruled and where their nationals enjoyed privileged status. Weakened by obsolete technology and its own internal problems, China could do little to resist. China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War in the middle 1890s underlined the nation’s weakness.

Thousands of frustrated Chinese joined a secret group called the Yihequan (“Righteous and Harmonious Fists”). The Boxers (as this group was called in the West) became more aggressive against foreigners, attacking westerners. As they abandoned another of their goals (overthrowing the imperial dynasty) and focused on anti-western attacks, the government edged toward accepting them.

Chinese nianhua painting of Eight-Nation Alliance officers being captured by Chinese General Dong Fuxiang during the Battle of Yangcun in the Boxer Rebellion. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In January of 1900, Cixi ended the policy of suppressing the Boxers, an action that drew foreign protests. In June, Boxers and imperial troops began attacking foreign interests in Beijing and elsewhere. On 20 June, Boxers stormed the German embassy and killed the German ambassador. Other western diplomats huddled for safety in their legations in Beijing, besieged by hostile Chinese.

The next day, Cixi issued her declaration of war. Foreigners were not the only target of the Boxers — thousands of Chinese Christians were killed across China. Unfortunately for the imperial family, the effort to expel the foreigners failed as some provincial governors refused to cooperate.

In the middle of August, a foreign military force finally reached Beijing, defeated the Boxers, and liberated the trapped diplomats. The foreign troops then rampaged through the city, seizing valuables and destroying property. Cixi and the imperial court fled for safety. The fighting finally ended and the empress was forced to accept the foreigners’ conditions for peace the following year.

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