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Customer Review

on July 16, 2005
Whether you enjoy this book or not will depend almost entirely on what your expectations for the work are. If you are looking for a history of how the western missions in Beijing held out and were eventually relieved during the summer of 1900, this is the work for you. Diana Preston has mined a significant amount of the available literature on the days leading up to Boxer rebellion as well as many of the diaries and journals from inside the missions during the rebellion itself. She seamlessly weaves these disperate sources into a coherent and easily readable narrative of survival in extreme conditions.

However, 'Survival in Extreme Conditions' is not the title of this book, and at a fundamental level it does a poor job of explaining the causes of the Boxer Rebellion and the inner workings of the Imperial Court during the crisis. In Preston's book the main figures are acted upon instead of being actors, with the who, what, where, when, and why of the Chinese side left basically uncovered. This is largely a result of a lack of Chinese sources on the rebellion, though even the available sources are barely used in this narrative.

This is a shame, because The Boxer Rebellion starts with one of the best Prologues I have ever read in a popular history work. Preston excellently guides the reader through the main points in global history in 1900 as well as showing how those were impacting China. This context, which is so often missing from other works of the same genre, is useful but sadly unexploited for the remainder of the book, which focuses not on the Emperess and how she was making decisions but on the drama unfolding at the foreign consulates in Beijing.

This is an extremely readable work and Preston is clearly a good author. However, the Boxer rebellion was one of the most spectacular events of anti-Western violence of the last 125 years, and a better discussion of the causes and effects would be particularly useful in the modern context. If you are a non-China expert like myself who wants to know more about the rebellion itself, you will be disappointed by this book.
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