Today is the 118th anniversary of the death of a man named Clemens von Ketteler, a minor German diplomat. You probably haven’t heard of him, but his murder, on June 20, 1900, was the opening act in an epic drama that took place in Beijing, China, known as the siege of the Legations. Although this siege was only part of the event called the Boxer Rebellion, in popular memory the terms have come to be conflated. The painting above depicts a climactic moment of the siege.
In 1900 China, then under the rule of the decaying Manchu empress Tzu Xi (the Dowager Empress), had largely been carved up into spheres of influence by European imperialism. A religious sect called the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, nicknamed “the Boxers” by Westerners, had been rampaging through China, harassing and sometimes killing Christian missionaries and Chinese Christians, and calling for the expulsion of all foreigners from China. The foreign diplomats and families were required to live and work in a specific walled-off quarter of Beijing called the Legations. After von Ketteler’s murder by a Manchu army officer, the Chinese government, in desperation, threw its lot in with the Boxers and laid siege to the Legations for 55 days during the sweltering summer of 1900. The siege was finally broken by a coalition of Western forces that fought their way to Beijing from the coast.
The siege of the Legations was a major milestone on China’s descent into revolution. Eleven years later the dynasty was overthrown, initiating a period of unrest that would claim millions of lives and last until the 1940s–or the 1970s, if you count the Cultural Revolution as part of the broader Chinese revolution.
Incidentally, the site of the Legations, which was torn down decades ago, later became one of the main sports complexes for China’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics. The modern Chinese government is not eager to relive this episode in the history of its country.