Kids nowadays…

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:06 pm

Need to read more Marx.

Well, maybe they don’t, but it would make my job easier. I did a lot of Marx in my undergraduate days at Northern Illinois University. It was a pretty Marxist history department, which was great because you got a lot of deeply involved professors. It was quite an eye-opener for a kid from the suburbs of Chicago to meet people who were way more interesting than me, knew all sorts of cool stuff and also saw the world in a totally different way than I did. Plus Eric Hobsbawm came out to talk to us once. He was working on a new project on Nationalism.  Kids nowadays don’t do much Marx, as I found out when I gave them the passage below (way below)  from Jian Bozan, Shao Xunzheng and Hu Hua Zhongguo lishi gaiyao Beijing: Beijing daxue, 2009 on the Boxer event.

What I found interesting is that the most common response to this selection was that it was the “most unbiased” or “most factual” of the textbook selections on the Boxers I gave them.1  A few of them sussed out that it was the most “pro-Chinese” of our texts, but none of them saw it as a Marxist interpretation.

That’s not too surprising, of course, since like all other humans my students only know what they have learned on their own or what someone has tried to teach them. I am old enough that I was T.A.-ing while there was still a Soviet Union, and the origins and nature of Communism were in the category of “Things students have heard of and might like to know more about.” rather that “Esoteric sets of syllables that they have never heard before and are not innately interested in, like the Byzantine Empire, the Song Dynasty or the Great Depression.”2

For a China person this is particularly vexing. When I started grad school (1987) Marxists and marxist and post-marxist interpretations of various sorts were thick(er) on the ground and having some Marx helped me a lot, especially given how little my fellow students had. Back in the day helping your students through a fair amount of Marx helped them a lot in all sorts of contexts. I still do some, of course, since I teach China, but I would guess that they are not going to use it much in anything other than a China or Russia class3 so how much do they really need? In this case, a methods class for majors, I decided not to ‘waste’ an entire day unpacking the Marxist interpretation of Chinese history implicit in this reading.  It would be nice if I did not have to stop my Modern China class dead in 1919 and do some Marxology4 , but it really is becoming a more and more specialized bit of knowledge that young historians can get a long way without. Anyway, here is the selection, and, while I am aware of the bourgouise commodity fetishism of aping the dead aristocracy by tending a plot of grass in front of the building ‘owned’ by me and mortgage-backed security firm.

Hey you kids, get off of my lawn!

The Boxer peasant movement opposes foreign aggression

1-After the failures of the of the popular anti-imperialist movement against foreign missionaries and the Imperial reform movement imperialist aggression against China intensified. The peoples lives became more and more difficult and their burdens grew and grew. In the final years of the 19th century this led to the Boxer Movement, an anti-imperialist mass peasant movement in the North. Since the defeat of the Taiping, capitalism and imperialism had been intensifying their encroachment on China, but the lower classes’ spontaneous anti-imperialist struggle never stopped. This spontaneous movement usually took the form of opposition to foreign missionaries and churches. These missionaries relied on the military power of imperialism to gain special rights and to infiltrate China’s interior. These missionaries, especially the Catholics, established missions, seized land and took advantage of the power of imperialism to threaten local officials and interfere with lawsuits. Many hoodlums “converted” to use religion to oppress the people.

2-The Boxer Movement

The people’s anti-imperialist struggle had been fermenting for many years, but it was in Shandong in 1899 that it erupted as an extensive movement. This movement was led by the “Righteous Harmonious Fists” (Boxer) secret society. This society focused on learning martial arts, and was joined by peasants, handicraft workers and transport workers, as well as a few hoodlums and landlords who had been persecuted by the Christians. This peasant-dominated mass movement also obviously opposed feudalism. But, since at this point Shandong was suffering under the encroachment of Germany the Boxer struggle began as one primarily aimed at foreign invaders, especially the missionaries from various countries who represented foreign imperialism. Officials tried to use military force to put down the Boxers, but this failed and the movement grew even faster.

The Qing court was utterly panicked by the growth of the Boxer movement as at this point they had no capability to deal with this “armed rebellion” near the capital. The Tongzhi emperor decided to use the Boxer movement against the foreign missionaries, and seized the leadership of the movement. He announced that the Boxers were recognized as a legal organization, and sent officials to join it. This caused the Boxers to change their slogan to “Protect the Qing, destroy the foreigners”, but it also made the leadership of the Boxers more complex. Legalization led the movement to spread rapidly to other provinces and cities like Beijing and Tianjin. By the Summer of 1900 all of Beijing was under Boxer control and the Boxers openly attacked foreign embassies and churches.

3. 1900 The imperialist bandits’ united military advance

Under these circumstances, each of the imperialist countries decided to send troops to suppress the Chinese people’s revolutionary movement. An eight-nation force from England, America, Russia, France, Germany, Japan, Italy and Austria attacked Beijing via Dagu and Tianjin. Everywhere the Boxers resisted, using primitive weapons and methods as barbarous as those of the invaders. Some Qing troops also spontaneously participated in the fighting. Relying on their superior firepower, the foreign troops entered Beijing in August and plundered all the valuables in the city. In Beijing, Tianjin, Baoding and elsewhere the invading army burned villages, looted, murdered and raped in a way rarely seen in history. They were worse than wild beasts.

As the allied forces entered Beijing the Qing government, led by the Empress Dowager, fled to Xian. They declared the Boxers to be “rebels”. The imperialists claimed that they only wanted to help put down the rebellion and help the Chinese government restore order. In this way, the Boxers having first been deceived by the feudal rulers, imperialism and feudalism combined forces to bloodily slaughter and defeat them.

The defeat of the Boxer movement showed clearly that without leadership from an advanced class the peasant struggle could not be successful. At that point an independent proletariat had yet to take shape in China. The rising bourgeoisie was also weak, to the point where even the bourgeois revolutionary faction saw the Boxers as a barbarous insurrection. The peasant masses’ isolated battle lacked the ability to cope with the cunning and cruel imperialists and feudal ruling class. Despite this, the Boxer movement did show that the Chinese peasant masses contained boundless anti-imperialist and anti-feudal power. This power was something the imperialist bandits could not ignore in their policies towards China. The imperialists discovered that if they divided up China and controlled it directly they could not avoid endless struggle. Because of this, in 1900 they decided to give Beijing back to the Qing government and protect the appearance of Chinese “independence” and carry out indirect rule.

4. The 1901 treaty

While the Boxers and the imperialists were struggling in North China, the governors of the southern provinces adapted an attitude of “friendly cooperation.” With the help of the foreigners they kept down the popular anti-imperialist movement in Central and South China. After the eight-nation army entered Beijing, the Qing government ordered the leader of the southern governors, Li Hongzhang, to come north and negotiate peace. In 1901 Li and England, America, Russia, Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Japan, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands agreed to the <Xinchou Treaty>. China was to pay an indemnity of 450 million taels over 39 years, which with interest became 980,000 million taels. The Chinese government took responsibility for suppressing the Chinese people’s anti-imperialist movement. Imperialist troops were stationed in Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanhaiguan and the Chinese fortifications at Dagu were demolished.

After the 1901 treaty was signed the Empress Dowager returned to Beijing from Xian. She loyally served foreign imperialism, and relied on imperialism to preserve the feudal government. The imperialists knew that this government was deeply corrupt, but they thought that imperialist military power could keep it from falling and use it as a servant of imperialism. Not long after, this plan would be shattered.



  1. The others were standard English-language China or East Asia texts. []
  2. O.K. they have mostly heard of the Great Depression, but they have not spent much time having their grandparents talk about ‘back during the Depression’ and it is not on the list of things they tend to bring to class wanting to learn about. []
  3. I don’t teach grad students, obviously []
  4. which I always like. From time to time I still curl up and read some of the Selected Works or Lenin for the nostalgia of it. []

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