When America Invaded China
The Boxer Rebellion still shapes Beijing’s attitude toward the United States.
The trouble in China began in the summer of 1898. After months of heavy rain, dikes built to contain the Yellow River along the fertile central plains failed. Millions of people were left homeless. In what seemed like mockery from heaven, the floods were followed by an even more devastating drought. “We ate corn cobs to get by. Some people did not even have corn cobs—they ate cotton,” a survivor remembered.
The ruling Qing dynasty, ensconced hundreds of miles away in the Forbidden City of Beijing, seemed indifferent to the farmers’ plight. Christian missionaries—mostly Americans, British, and Germans—opened their doors to starving families. But many of the plainspeople were suspicious of the foreigners. Some thought they might have even caused the flood and famine by offending the gods with their strange religion.
It was in this atmosphere of hunger and suspicion that a new kind of figure appeared on the plains. Some wore red turbans. Others went bare-chested, sporting flowing black scarves around their waists. They traveled from village to village, spreading the word about a way to end the cycles of disaster through a magical style of fighting.
A villager from Shandong province named Wang Qingen remembered his first encounter as a teenager. He trained for weeks, first with wheat stalks, then knives and swords. Finally, the visitors revealed their purpose: They were building a holy army. “We must practice hard,” the fighters told Wang. “Then we can drive the foreign devils back into the ocean and protect our homes.”
As the movement spread, the fighters united under a single name: Yihequan, or “Righteous and Harmonious Fists.” Unfamiliar with Chinese martial arts, English-speaking missionaries described them with the closest word they had: “Boxers.”
By the summer of 1900, the situation was ready to explode. Drought refugees flowed north into Tianjin and Beijing, carrying stories of massacres on the plains. Boxer bands looted foreign shops, burned churches, and destroyed train and telegraph lines.
Many in Washington had been waiting for a moment like this one. Some of the United States’ most powerful families had gotten rich in China. The first U.S. multimillionaire, John Jacob Astor, made part of his fortune smuggling opium into China. The Forbes, Delano, and Cabot families of Massachusetts used their narco-profits to found enduring political dynasties. By 1900 it had become an article of faith that China’s supposedly limitless market was the key to America’s global future. With the Boxer crisis, the opportunity for more assertive intervention was at hand.
On June 5, 1900, the U.S. diplomatic minister in Beijing called for U.S. warships to join the international force massing in Bohai Bay near Tianjin. Knowing the U.S. Congress was unlikely to approve a third overseas war in two years, then-President William McKinley made a fateful decision: He became the first president in U.S. history to order the full-scale invasion of a sovereign country without seeking legislative approval.
Congress did not challenge him.
On June 17, Maj. Littleton Waller’s most promising lieutenant, later to be the most famous general in the history of the Marines, wrote his mother as he sped north aboard the USS Solace through the South China Sea:
There has been a revolution in China as nearly as we can make out and all the European Powers have landed their Marines and Blue Jackets and we are to represent the great “American Republic.” … It is needless to say I am the happiest man alive.
Thy affectionate son,
Smedley D. Butler
One hundred and seventeen years later, another warship was racing in the opposite direction through the South China Sea. After years of preparation, China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was finally combat ready.
On July 7, 2017, the 60,000-ton ship arrived off Hong Kong for its official debut. Chinese President Xi Jinping had timed the showing to take place on the heels of a state celebration: the 20th anniversary of the end of British rule over Hong Kong. For the Chinese Communist Party, the 1997 handover was a signal reversal of what it calls the “Hundred Years of Humiliation”—a period that officially starts with the First Opium War around 1842 and ends with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The invasion of the allies to halt the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 plays a central role in that narrative.
Many Hong Kongers, probably rightly, saw the aircraft carrier’s arrival as a show of force, meant to intimidate the territory’s pro-democracy movement into submission. But the primary audience was the powers across the seas. Xi had spent his first five years in office asserting China’s global might in a way not seen since the Qing dynasty’s height. On the economic end, there was the Belt and Road Initiative—a worldwide development project of pipelines, highways, railroads, “streamlined border crossings,” and ports, with the ultimate goal of putting the Middle Kingdom back at the center of global trade.
On the military side, Xi’s government was outstripping the defense spending of every other nation, with the glaring exception of the United States. The Chinese defense ministry had announced plans for at least two more aircraft carriers. Part of this new fleet’s job, a ministry spokesman said, was “safeguarding sovereignty” over what China now claims as its “territorial seas”—a large swath of the Western Pacific that includes mostly uninhabited islands and resource-rich sea lanes also claimed by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Japan, as well as Taiwan.
Watching all of this carefully were officials in the United States, who consider most of those lanes neutral territory (in which it, as the world’s largest naval power, enjoys de facto primacy). The U.S. Navy defends that claim through confrontational “freedom of navigation operations”— entering contested spaces and conducting military exercises, in effect daring the Chinese military to respond.
While visitors and the press gathered to gawk at the Liaoning, I was stuck nearby in the Hong Kong International Airport, stranded overnight by the sudden no-fly zone declared for the carrier’s debut. When I finally arrived, bleary-eyed, in Beijing, Chinese state television was filled with images of exuberant visitors lining up to ride the elevator to the Liaoning’s flight deck, gawk at rows of J-15 Flying Shark fighter jets, and strike poses waving the red flags of modern China and Chinese-ruled Hong Kong. Official press restrictions were relaxed, ensuring the images would be transmitted all over the country and the world.
In case any of that was too subtle, an anonymous man visiting the aircraft carrier from nearby Guangdong province spelled out the message for a reporter from the New York Times: “This shows our country is growing up,” he said. “We can compete with the United States now, because you bully us.”
On June 18, 1900, the USS Solace arrived in Bohai Bay. Eight nations’ warships jockeyed for position, more interested in spying on one another than coordinating an invasion or avoiding collisions.
Butler and the rest of Waller’s detachment stumbled into camp beside one of the captured forts at around 3 in the morning, stepping around sleeping bodies and hot piles of manure. They awoke to a cacophony of empires. British officers sat beneath the Union Jack alongside turbaned Sikhs from British India and knife-wielding Gurkhas drafted from Nepal. North African Zouaves and Indochinese tirailleurs downed their morning coffees under the French tricolor.
Then there were the upstarts: Japan, whose European-style whites sparkled with global ambition, and Italy, whose black capercaillie headdresses masked their recent failure at colonizing Ethiopia. Most ostentatious were the Germans, in spiked leather helmets and mustaches styled after those of their emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II. The impetuous 41-year-old German leader wanted the China campaign to announce his Reich’s arrival as a world power; he had ordered his troops to fight in such a way “that no Chinese will ever again dare to look cross-eyed at a German.”
The Marines were dressed in blue campaign coats. Their broad-brimmed felt hats, designed for fighting the Lakota, Cheyenne, and other native peoples on the Great Plains, made them look every bit the cowboys their allies expected them to be. After a late breakfast, Waller ushered the men aboard a commandeered flat-bottom coal train to head toward Tianjin.
The Marines had no maps. There was no briefing. They relied on what they called “Dame Rumor.” Some heard that Boxers had mined the train tracks. Another Marine swore he’d read that white women were being crucified in Tianjin. Every so often the Marines had to jump off to repair the broken tracks in front of them. The grinding, halting ride did nothing to calm their nerves. Somewhere along the way, Butler heard a loud bang from one of the train’s other cars. An 18-year-old Marine had become so overcome with terror that he’d shot himself in the heart.
Ten miles down the line, the train caught up with a column of Russian infantry. Waller flagged down their commander, an officer named Savitsky, and offered to give them a lift to Tianjin. The shared ride didn’t last long. Around 1 a.m. the train reached a bombed-out bridge. They would be continuing on foot from there. As he climbed the other side of the shallow ravine, Butler could see the glow of the fires burning in Tianjin.
The final assault on the Chinese city of Tianjin began on July 13, 1900. To guide Butler’s company, Waller conscripted a 25-year-old engineer from Iowa named Herbert Hoover, who’d come to oversee a coal mining project. The doughy engineer told Waller he knew his way around the city walls from his regular horseback rides with his wife, Lou.
But when young Hoover—who would go on to become U.S. president some three decades later—followed the Marines over an earthen wall and slid onto the battlefield, he froze. The air was choked with smoke. Fat bullets rained down, spitting mud up as they hit the ground below. The Marines were supposed to link up with the 9th Infantry, but they were nowhere to be seen. Hoover had led them to the wrong place—a cemetery, no less.
Butler shouted down the line, asking Hoover where to go next. But the future president was useless. The Marines tried to dig shallow trenches to take refuge, but they kept hitting water. Screams echoed as man after man was struck.
As Butler sloshed through a mud patch to rescue a wounded Marine, he felt a sharp, burning sensation in his right thigh. At first, he thought the wounded man had kicked him. Then he saw the hole, clean through the muscle. Collapsing in pain, he crawled to a nearby grave mound for shelter. His blood pooled in the watery ground.
In the hospital, Butler learned the battle’s toll. The man Butler tried to rescue had died. The 9th Infantry, stuck alone on the extreme right side of the allied line, had taken heavy losses; its commander, Col. Emerson Liscum, was among the 18 killed. Of the 750 coalition soldiers who’d fought in the battle, 1 in 7 died.
That night, a Japanese engineer saved the allies from disaster. Rushing forward under fire, he set off a guncotton grenade beside the city walls, blasting himself and the main gate to pieces. The allies burst into the city and slaughtered everyone they found. An American photographer who entered the next day saw “a holocaust of human life.” Bodies, young and old, littered the stone streets. The stench of rotting flesh wafted through the ruined buildings. The allies estimated that as many as 10,000 Chinese combatants and civilians had died.
Inside the city walls, the allies buried their dead and burned the Chinese. Then they got down to the real pastime of imperial warfare: looting. The British, French, and Germans were most practiced at the craft, but the Great Game’s newest entrants proved quick studies. In an official’s burned-out residence, the Marines found a lode of silver bullion. They estimated its value at $376,000—more than $12 million today. With the authorization of the secretary of the navy, the bullion was packed on barges by the Marines and sold to a J.P. Morgan representative in Shanghai.
The United States returned the money to China two years later as part of the postwar negotiations. But somehow, 95 pounds of Chinese silver ended up back in the hands of the 9th Infantry. It was made into a silver punch bowl, which they named after their slain colonel. Officers of the “Manchu” 9th still drink from the Liscum Bowl in official ceremonies to this day.
On Aug. 13, they finally reached Beijing. The Marines darted between the low-slung houses of the capital’s outer city to avoid sniper fire along the road. Eventually they arrived at the gate called Dongbianmen, where an imposing corner fortress rose to a peaked red-and-green roof. A bugler with the U.S. Army 14th Infantry mountaineered his way to the top. Others followed. They set fire to the 500-year-old corner tower, watching until the flames blasted through its three-century-old ceiling, and opened the gate.
Waller called Butler over. Together they climbed the ramp to see what was on the other side. It was another set of walls. (“Peking was all walls,” Butler later recalled.) Chinese troops were taking potshots at the entering infantry. Waller ordered Butler’s company to take out the snipers. Butler hustled down to the road, shouting for the men to hurry through the gate. As he turned to follow them, a bullet zipped through the air. Pain exploded through his lungs, and the world went black.
The Chinese government restored the burned-out tower at Dongbianmen in the 1980s. When I visited, it housed a modern art gallery run by an Australian. A small sign outside the door pointed to graffiti left by Russian and American soldiers during the Boxer War.
The world’s best repository of Boxer memory lies a few hours south at Shandong University, in the capital of the province where the uprising began. Past the School of Marxism and a statue of the region’s most revered native son, Confucius, I took an elevator to the Center for Boxer Movement Studies. Su Weizhi, a professor at the university, was waiting at a long table with two colleagues.
The meeting opened formally with a recitation of credentials. Then Su leaned forward and spoke. “Professor Su welcomes you,” a junior colleague translated. “The Boxer issue is so big and so complicated. We are glad to hear you want to do research on the Boxer movement.” We would chat for a while in the office, he explained, then continue the conversation over lunch.
Su told me that foreigners make the mistake of looking at the Boxer War through the eyes of their own countries’ missionaries, diplomats, and businessmen, instead of the people whose country they invaded. The junior colleague dutifully translated. Then he paused, and added, carefully: “Their opinions on the Boxer Movement and the Chinese people are not— objective, maybe.”
“Are not objective,” I repeated, making sure I understood.
“Yes,” the junior colleague said, pausing to see if I would respond. I didn’t, and Su went on.
The professor framed the events through a century of Chinese political thought. “Revolutionaries from the capitalist class” initially opposed the Boxers but later came to praise their “heroic spirit,” he explained, channeling Marx and Mao. He added, with a nod to the power-and-wealth-seeking policies of Xi Jinping: “After all, that kind of spirit is necessary for a nation to move toward independence, toward prosperity.”
I asked him if he thought the memory of the Boxer Rebellion influenced modern Chinese policy. Was China less likely to intervene in other countries because of its own relatively recent experiences with imperial invaders?
He bristled. “No, no impact to speak of. The Chinese government knows that if it wants to develop its economy, it has to open it up to the world, and open it permanently.” The interpreter said something to him in Mandarin and laughed nervously.
I decided to push the issue. China’s expansionist designs were hardly a secret. On my trip through Asia, I’d been surrounded by signs of it: Philippine newspapers were filled with reports of the new Chinese military airstrips, radar, and anti-aircraft guns on artificial islands in the South China Sea. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s trolling about his country’s American War was in part a means of pivoting away from the increasingly unreliable United States and toward China—which on the one hand was providing him with massive infrastructure investments and on the other was rattling its saber over Philippine islands it claimed were inside its “territorial seas.”
When I’d landed in Beijing, I had been greeted at customs by a huge Belt and Road banner. At the same time the aircraft carrier Liaoning was leaving Hong Kong a few days later, China inaugurated its first overseas military base in Djibouti, across the Gulf of Aden from the Arabian Peninsula. A U.S. Navy base was positioned just a few miles away. “It’s like having a rival football team using an adjacent practice field,” a U.S. analyst said with alarm.
Given all that, I felt I had to restate the question: “Do you think China can become an imperial power in the world again—in the sense that the members of the ‘Eight Power Allied Force’ were a hundred years ago?”
The interpreter’s eyes widened. Su, apparently understanding enough English to get the gist, laughed. The two went back and forth in muted tones. It seemed the interpreter did not want him to answer.
But Su did anyway. “The ‘China threat’ discourse is absolutely groundless. China will not invade another country. The Chinese government has made this commitment.” You could look to history, he said: The Great Wall of China was built for defense.
I told him the United States usually says the same thing about itself: “When we invaded Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration said that they were doing it for defense.”
Su’s expression hardened. “These are really political issues that are beyond our research,” he said. Then he smiled broadly. “Besides, there are many examples in international history that invading countries don’t come to a good end!”
The interpreter studied my face for a reaction. “Maybe except America,” he added, politely.
As the three professors huddled, I realized I’d overstepped. I resolved to smooth things over at lunch.
Then the third colleague, who had not said anything until then, came over to my side of the table. “I am sorry that Professor Su has another engagement and cannot join for lunch,” he said. Also, the junior colleague couldn’t make it. Neither could he.
I thanked them and went back to the campus hotel to eat alone.
Jonathan M. Katz is a journalist. He is the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire, will be published in January by St. Martin’s Press. His newsletter, The Long Version, can be found at katz.substack.com. Twitter: @KatzOnEarth