During the 19th century, rapacious colonial powers squeezed China mercilessly, seizing territory and extorting profits while missionaries sought souls. In the late 1890s, a virulently resentful peasant movement spread across northern China; foreigners nicknamed its adherents "Boxers" for the martial-arts exercises they practiced en masse. When the movement erupted into open violence in 1900, the imperial government supported attacks on foreigners that escalated into a siege of the foreign embassies in Peking. Diana Preston's The Boxer Rebellion
is an account of the 55-day confrontation that alarmed the world. When Western and Japanese troops eventually routed the Boxers, soldiers and civilians looted the capital (to the benefit of Western museums) and extracted yet more concessions from China. The events of 1900 showed both sides at their colorful worst, and the author spares neither Chinese cruelty nor colonial pomposity and racism. Though this narrative history is told almost entirely from a Western viewpoint--of the 200 titles in the bibliography, not one is in Chinese--the many diaries and letters that Preston consulted ensure a lively portrayal of personalities and evocation of the times. She enjoys racy rumors, whether substantiated or not, and is so enamored of the charlatan Backhouse's salacious claims that he had an affair with the Dowager Empress that she details them twice. With little analysis but all the pace and immediacy of a popular novel, The Boxer Rebellion
makes for absorbing reading. --John Stevenson
From Publishers Weekly
One hundred years ago, China, led by a shadowy and highly militant sect called the Boxers, rose up in revolt against all manner of foreign presence and influence, forever altering China and its relationship with the outside world. In this vivid and thorough account, Oxford-trained historian and journalist Preston (A First-Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole) examines the Boxer Rebellion primarily from the perspective of the Western diplomats and missionaries who narrowly escaped massacre in Peking (as Beijing was then known), Tientsin and elsewhere in the summer of 1900. Drawing extensively on contemporaneous accounts by English and American defenders, Preston places readers inside Peking's barricaded diplomatic district. Detailing the beginning of the Boxer assault, she charts the reasons for the rebellionAthe xenophobia, superstition, abject poverty and legitimate outrage at foreign attempts at domination that drove the rebels and their sympathizers in the Manchu court. With equal immediacy and concreteness, she describes the rebellion's progress: the brutal conditions confronted by Europeans (and the Chinese converts who were barricaded with them) during the bombardment; the long-delayed arrival of Western reinforcements just in the nick of time. Preston puzzles over why the Chinese besiegers, who outnumbered the defenders by perhaps 500 to 1, did not instantly overwhelm their opponents. Evidently, she concludes, even as fanatical a group as the Boxers did not truly wish a wholesale slaughter; still, tens of thousands died in the Boxer Rebellion, most of them Chinese converts to Western religions. Bringing this ordeal back from historical obscurity, Preston tells a riveting story about ordinary people placed under extreme pressure by events they could neither understand nor control. 10 pages photos not seen by PW. (June)
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