Wu Yung on the unfolding Boxer Rebellion (1936)


Writing in The Flight of an Empress (published 1936), Wu Yung describes the unfolding Boxer Rebellion and the attack on foreign legations in 1900:


“In the beginning of the fifth moon [late May 1900] the Boxers appeared also in the districts around the capital. Whenever there were three or five together they would run down the village streets with swords, yelling and shouting, ‘Kill! Kill!’ As yet they had not gathered in large crowds, and did not dare to make open disturbance in the ‘smoky places’, that is, the cities.

On the 15th of the fifth moon [June 11th 1900] a Japanese secretary named Sugiyama was killed… When the people in Peking [Beijing] heard this they were frightened and knew that the misfortunes had come to a head. Then the foreigners in the legations became both frightened and angry. They went to the Foreign Office to ask if, after all, the government of China had the power to protect foreigners or not. The officials answered with indefinite words because they had no plan of action.

So the Boxers despised the officials and became bolder than ever. They formed companies and entered the city, and in a few days there were tens of thousands of Boxers in Peking. The princes, dukes and high officials all vied with each other to invite their leaders to their houses and treated them with great courtesy. Many of the palace eunuchs joined them. The places where the chariot wheels of emperors had passed became the world of the Boxer bandits.

On the 17th of the fifth moon [June 14th] the Boxers rioted, and, with the excuse of burning the churches, set fire to many places and looted… All the churches and the homes of the missionaries were burned. The missionaries and their converts were killed, men, women and children, old and young. Dead bodies filled the streets. The Boxer bandits called the foreigners Old Hairy Ones… At first they slew only the converts but afterwards they killed anyone who had foreign things in his house or had anything to do with foreigners. They gave them all the name of Secondary Hairy Ones. They murdered and looted at will. Later it did not matter whether there was proof or not, they killed and looted. The cry of distress from the people of the city shook the earth…

The Court, realising that the Boxers were unreasonable and cruel, sent out proclamations to the magistrates in the provinces to suppress them with vigour, but this was without effect. The bandits announced their decision to burn the legations. Then the Court sent messages to the representatives of the countries across the eastern and western seas to go back to their own countries… The foreign representatives went in a body to the Foreign Office to say farewell, and on the way the German Chief Secretary Von Ketteler was suddenly shot by a soldier.

This roused the legations. They accused the Qing dynasty of not meaning to protect them, and said, ‘To go is to die and to stay is to die. It will be death in either case. We might as well gather together and think out some place to face the difficulty. In this way we may have a 10,000th chance to survive.’ They decided after conference not to leave Peking. The legation district was fortified…

When all this was done a memorandum was sent [by the foreign legations] to the Foreign Office… The tone of the letter was very strong and bold. It angered the Empress Dowager, and the princes and dukes near her said many words to increase her wrath. She changed her plans. She went to the temple of her ancestors and took an oath to give the order to fight. Then she recalled the proclamation suppressing the Boxers, and instructed the governors of the provinces to bring the Boxers together and give them money; and soldiers and Boxers together became the enemies of the foreigners…

The sound of bullets resembled strings of beads dropping, one on the other; noises entered the ears like fierce demons. But the imperial soldiers had not used guns for so long that they could not hit the mark with a hundred shots. And the Boxers were stupid and had no discipline; they were like blind men rushing forward to death. The foreign soldiers hid inside the walls and were not excited. They took aim and waited until the front ranks had crossed the Jade River Bridge. Then at the signal a hundred shots were fired and not a single bullet would be wasted. The Chinese would shout and fall back, and their dead fell into the Jade River. They were like the waves of the sea advancing and retreating. Hearing no sound from the wall, they would come on again, but when they reached the same place the guns behind the walls would shoot again.

Advancing and retreating, they fought many battles in a day. The dead in the Jade River filled it level, but few foreigners were wounded, and so they were confirmed in their plan. But the families who lived near the legations were as though washed away by the waves.”